“Past performance is no guarantee of future results.” If you’ve ever seen an ad from a brokerage firm, you know the disclaimer. That’s the story of the global environmental crisis and the approaching economic recession. Technological fixes for climate change, such as geo-engineering, are prescriptions for even greater disaster. And tried and tested, anti-recession formulas will in the future only make global warming and the economic crisis worse. What’s needed now is what’s so far been untried: real democracy, an economy based upon genuine human need, and an ethic of responsibility to the non-human world: in short, ecological democracy.
The Climate Crisis
Let’s start with global warming. The climate record, found in ice cores, tree rings and written documents, is of little use in modeling the future. The current concentration of climate warming carbon dioxide in the atmosphere – about 420 parts per million – is higher than it has been in the last 800,000 years, and possibly the last 20 million. And the current rate of animal extinction is equally unprecedented, if you exclude the catastrophic Cretaceous period, 65 million years ago. Species are now disappearing at a rate 2,000 times faster than normal. That’s the difference between the speed of a tortoise and an F-15 fighter jet.
An unprecedented present means an uncertain future. Nevertheless, scientists have made some powerful forecasts, and here’s the bad news: Even if we immediately reduce the emission of greenhouse gases, global temperatures will continue to rise above already historic levels, triggering larger hurricanes, longer droughts, and more destructive fires. In other words, even if the current, climate-change denying White House occupant is defeated in 2020, the Democrats keep the House and sweep the Senate, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal becomes law, we’d still be screwed.
That’s the current best-case scenario when it comes to climate change; here’s the more likely worst case – the one that follows if don’t quickly cut emissions, according to a recent study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, authored by climate scientist Will Steffen and others: The equatorial and boreal forests will die, the oceans will continue to acidify, and the Arctic permafrost will thaw. That last will release a vast amount of stored CO2, heating up the planet still more, further melting the diminishing Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets, ensuring a devastating sea-level rise of dozens, or even hundreds of feet. And if all this came to pass, human civilization
itself could disappear – probably within 100 years. While some may take solace at the prospect (there’s a growing Voluntary Human Extinction Movement), even non-human survivors – the wily cockroaches, rats, squirrels, and pigeons – will struggle to survive the onslaught of floods, droughts, and fires.
The Next Recession
Then there is looming a second crisis, the solution to which will need to be unprecedented, unless we want to make the climate crisis even worse. The global, capitalist powers are slouching toward recession. Current levels of U.S. corporate and household debt are sky high. Personal savings rates (as a percentage of income) are dangerously low: about 2.5% — the same as they were at the start of the Great Recession in 2008. Combined with elevated debt, low savings tend to contract consumer spending. In addition to debt and saving rates, several other economic factors portend recession: salary levels, the employment rate (not as favorable as it seems), union membership, corporate profits, and rising inequality.
Salaries for non-management workers have not increased in more than 40 years, while wages for the top tenth of earners have increased 15%. Since these income gains go mostly into savings, they don’t stimulate nearly as much economic activity as if they went to lower-income workers. Though the official rate of unemployment is just 3.8%, the “real rate,” including short-term discouraged workers and the under-employed is 7.6%. If you count long-term discouraged workers, the rate rises to 21.3%, meaning that there is little pressure on employers to raise salaries. In addition, union membership in down to about 10 % nationwide, and in the private sector just 7%, the lowest level since the Great Depression. The consequence of these numbers is a deeply disempowered working class, unable for the first time in modern history to demand wages increase even as their productivity rises. Inequality has thus grown to levels unseen since the time of the 18th C French Queen (“Let them eat cake!) Marie Antoinette.
The consequence of this income and wealth inequality is an empowered capitalist class and a deeply disempowered working class. The overwhelming political and ideological dominance of
capital in the current class struggle enabled congressional Republicans and the president to pass a tax cut in 2017 which further enriched the wealthy, while reducing incomes for the poor. And whatever modest economic stimulus the tax cut may initially have had, it’s now clearly worn off, and the resulting budget deficit become a damper on the economy and a threat to the modest, social welfare net. To be sure, cuts to government social programs are driven most of all by neoliberal ideology not by deficit levels or interest rates, but the deficit numbers make the politics of investment more difficult.
When the next recession finally arrives, it will, like all previous ones, be caused by capital underutilization, meaning the generation of profits (surplus) alongside diminished opportunities for investment. That repeated circumstance – from the U.S. depression of 1839 to the Great Recession of 2008 – has typically resulted in bank failures, evaporating credit, the tanking of equity markets, and high unemployment. In every historical case, the crisis was overcome by the creation or discovery of massive new investment opportunities such as railroads, electrification, automobilization, and the interstate highway system, or other means of capital absorption, such as war and militarism. In addition to that, as the economists Paul Sweezy and Paul Baran showed, the sales and marketing effort, financialization, and sheer waste have been fruitful ways to generate demand and absorb surplus capital.
The Escape Hatch is Blocked, so a New Way Out is Needed
But these very solutions to the chronic, capitalist problem of the absorption of surplus have in fact led us to the current, environmental impasse, or “ecological rift,” to cite the title of sociologists John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark and Richard York’s influential book. The use and abuse of natural resources and the logic of capitalist growth, has broken the essential balance between Earth and human society, and brought about a planetary emergency. The continued extraction and use of fossil fuels, and the mass manufacture and sale of finished goods and high-value agricultural commodities (particularly meat) is hastening the coming catastrophe. And any potential acceleration of that exploitation, for example by means of massive spending to increase growth to avert recession, will only bring the climate and environmental disaster closer.
Modest efficiencies won’t help. In 2018, U.S. carbon emissions surged by 3.4% despite a large reduction in coal use, due to strong growth in the manufacturing and transport sectors. Global emissions rose about 2.7%. Part of the reason for these increases, paradoxically, may be better
fuel efficiency. As heating costs decline, people heat their homes and businesses to a higher temperature. And as the price per mile of transportation decreases, people drive more, negating any decrease in CO2 emissions due to fuel efficiency. The name for this phenomenon is Jevon’s Paradox, named for the mid 19th C. English economist who discovered that efficiencies in coal use actually led to increased consumption of the fuel. Better home insulation and higher fuel economy standards, along with taxes on carbon, could reduce carbon emissions somewhat, but these measures wouldn’t come close to averting climate disaster.
Nor will geo-engineering provide the fix that will allow us in the future to continue to use fossil fuels – and invest in the economy — as we have in the past. Carbon capture (excepting the planting of trees!) has never been shown to work at the necessary scale. And solar, geo-engineering, using stratospheric sulfate aerosols, is equally fanciful despite recent hype. For example, at the December 2018 meeting of the AGU (American Geophysical Union), a stellar panel of experts argued that the technology had arrived and implementation merely a matter of will. The uncertainties, one speaker argued, were no greater than those surrounding global warming itself.
The technology involves releasing from airplanes or balloons tens of millions of tons of aerosols in order to increase the earth’s reflectivity, thereby preventing sunlight from reaching the atmosphere. The aerosols would obviously need to be released at the correct altitudes and latitudes to ensure that the areas of the earth that most needed shade would receive it, while those that don’t, wouldn’t. For example, while Sub-Saharan Africa and the U.S. south and southwest would clearly benefit from the cooler temperature, parts of Canada, Russia, the northern U.S., England, Scandanavia and other northern or polar regions might welcome the higher temperatures and longer growing seasons.
The AGU presentations led one critical observer to pose a general question to the speakers: “Doesn’t this scheme demand a degree of political consensus presently unimaginable? Which nations would control the aerosols? Would the desire for profit – for example larger crop yields in some places — outweigh the protection of habitat and endangered species, or for that matter at-risk communities? Moreover, solar geo-engineering wouldn’t reduce the level of CO2 in the atmosphere, so the acidification of the seas would rapidly increase, leading to vast, oceanic dead zones. And finally, what about ‘the termination effect’? If the aerosol release were to stop suddenly – for example because of a political dispute – temperatures would suddenly spike to the levels that would have existed had there been no geoengineering. The consequence would be cataclysmic.”
The panel speakers looked at each other and hesitated. Finally, one said: “We work on the science of solar geo-engineering. You’d have to ask that question of our colleagues in the political and social sciences. Many of them are thinking hard about those issues.” The questioner then added: “If global politics could manage a more or less eternal project of solar geo-engineering, surely it can handle a short-term transition from the use of fossil fuels to renewables!”
require attention, once again, to the global disclaimer that “past performance is no guarantee of future results.” While there is currently no shortage of good ideas, all of them involve what Steffen and his colleagues describe as “a deep transformation based on a fundamental reorientation of human values, equity, behavior, institutions, economies, and technologies.” What that means, is that there exists no reliable road map for the path to a livable and sustainable planet, and that everything most people formerly believed about capitalism, politics, power and the global economy is no longer operative. If we wish to survive and thrive, we’ll have to enter uncharted territory.
Survival entails the inauguration of ecological democracy. Our current democracy is a monopolist oligarchy: rule by a few, governing in collaboration with (and occasional minor roadblocks from) elected officials. A handful of large corporations run by some very rich men and a few women – including Amazon, Walmart, Berkshire Hathaway, Apple, and Exxon-Mobile – together determine what is made and sold in the U.S., and our relations with other nations. Unhindered by trade unions and facilitated by congress and government regulators, they determine conditions of employment (wages, workplace safety, health insurance, and retirement benefits), global trade relations, and environmental protection, or what passes for it. And because the purpose of these oligarchs is the immediate generation of profit and the continual increase of corporate share-price value, they pursue their ends with little regard for the long-term well-being of their customers or the planet itself. It must be remembered that the goal of capitalist production is not food, clothing, housing, health or entertainment – these are simply byproducts — but the generation of profit. At the same time, the toxic leftovers from production – heavy metals, radioactive isotopes, agricultural and chemical runoff, poisonous gasses, and climate warming CO2 and Methane – are simply released into the environment with little regard for their impact on the health and safety of humans or animals. The cost of cleaning up these “negative externalities” – if they are cleaned up at all – is born mostly by taxpayers, the same people who suffered from the pollution to begin with! (The least affluent taxpayers generally suffer the most; they are forced by economic necessity to live in greatest proximity to the worst sources of pollution.)
Ecological democracy on the other hand, would take as its end the satisfaction of real human needs and the preservation of the non-human world for generations to come. That means the achievement of substantive equality through democratic means: regular discussion and debate within and between communities; elimination of racial, gender and other forms of bias in education, housing and employment; widespread sharing of power and leadership; worker ownership and control of productive enterprises (factories, businesses, schools, and laboratories); and sound, environmental stewardship. The latter entails learning and practicing the best means to protect air, soil and water, in order to ensure that natural resources are always replenished, and that waste products are recycled and re-used.
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