Monthly Archives: April 2009

Getting a handle on the relationship between capitalism and ecological degradation

If we pay even the most casual attention to what is happening around us, we observe enormous ecological destruction. Recent events in the ‘100% pure’ ‘clean and green’ tourist paradise of Aotearoa New Zealand reveal industrial pollution dumped on marginalised urban communities, wetlands drained and forests logged to make way for dairy farming, rare species killed by introduced predators, rural river courses reduced to stinking drains by dairy farming run-off, and well-advanced plans for remote valleys to be mined for coal or dammed for hydropower … I could go on.

Should we consider each one of these incidents in isolation? They are very often treated this way, both in their reporting and in the responses to them – isolated and independent events that vividly demonstrate the ignorance, greed and stupidity of certain individuals or corporations. However, much of the writing on wellsharp has aimed to move beyond this sort of interpretation, to show that individual acts of ecological destruction are far from disconnected. They are intimately connected through an underlying systemic cause – capitalism and its pathological growth obsession.

But how is one to prove this? Getting a handle on the relationship between environmental performance and capitalism as a system is far from easy, but doing so in a way that moves beyond theorising is essential if the argument is to convince a wider audience. Ilgu Ozler and Brian Obach of the State University of New York at have taken up this challenge.

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Can financial regime change deliver a more equitable world?

The New Zealand Herald has published a brief but fascinating analysis of the current economic crisis by Robert Wade, New Zealand born professor of political economy and development at the London School of Economics. In the article, Wade sketches the outlines of the crisis and examines its origins, and in so doing clearly identifies the guilty party: the neoliberal ‘Washington consensus’ of the past 30 years.

In the course of the article Wade indicates how the distribution of wealth has changed in that 30 years. In 1980 the highest earning 1% of the US population earned just under one-tenth of disposable income; by 2007 the highest earning 1% had cornered almost one-quarter of disposable income. Such shocking inequity, Wade suggests, might have led to popular unrest but for the easy availability of credit to allow increased household consumption.

Now the credibility of the global Ponzi scheme is in tatters, many governments have suddenly rediscovered intervention, not only to prevent the complete collapse of the financial system but also to maintain their own legitimacy in the face of recession and rapidly climbing unemployment.

Robert Wade has presented his analysis of the crisis in lengthier and more detailed form in the New Left Review. This article, Financial regime change?, is well worth a read. Here’s just a flavour:

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“If it makes you happy, it can’t be that bad” – intrinsic values as drivers for social change and tools to escape consumerism

One of the debates that has regularly reared its head in the environmental movement is how best to achieve change to more environmentally friendly behaviour. Small specific steps often seem the most direct and effective way to achieve practical change now, and yet there is intuitively a disquieting gap between the scale of social change needed and such small, non-challenging steps as changing to more efficient light-bulbs.

About a year ago, WWF-UK came out with a report, titled Weathercocks & Signposts, that addresses this precisely question.

After examining a wide range of evidence, they conclude that we need a “radically different approach” to product-marketing style campaigns that begin with the assumption of the sovereignty of consumer choice. Instead, they say, “any adequate strategy for tackling environmental challenges will demand engagement with the values that underlie the decisions we make – and, indeed, with our sense of who we are” (p.5)

Marketing style campaigns usually seek to “go with what works”, which may well result in campaigns based on appeals to status and self-interest rather than environmental values. They may seem to be the most effective way of achieving change in the short-run.

“But the evidence presented in this report suggests that such approaches may actually serve to defer, or even undermine, prospects for the more far-reaching and systemic behavioural changes that are needed.” (p.5)

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Should greens care about social justice issues? Lessons from social research

The Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand has now contested four elections independently under the mixed-member proportional (MMP) system. These elections have delivered votes of 5.2% (1999), 7.0% (2002), 5.3% (2005) and 6.7% (2008). The failure to even come close to the hoped-for 10% poll result at the last two elections has created a certain amount of dismay in the party, and endless commentary beyond the party.

So why can the Greens not raise their share of the poll above the 5-7% it has achieved under MMP thus far? Barry has already provided an excellent answer to that question – of the various broad groupings in New Zealand society, only one or two suggest themselves as intrinsically pro-Green. One of the findings of the New Zealand Values Survey 2005 backs up this view: The survey found that 60% of respondents feel that people are poor because of laziness and lack of will-power. People holding such an attitude could hardly consider voting Green, given the party’s social justice orientation; thus around 60% of the voting population is utterly inaccessible to the Greens.

However, one strand of thought frequently expressed – inside and outside the Green Party – suggests that it is just this left-liberal orientation and concern for left-of-centre social justice issues that undermines the party’s attractiveness. It is suggested that a green party should be an ‘environmental party’, pure and simple, and as such would be able to draw greater support from across the political spectrum.

This proposition has been tested in an interesting analysis of further data obtained from the New Zealand Values Survey 2005.

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Escaping the growth imperative

A friend recently expressed to me one of the essential conundrums of contemporary  capitalist society: “I can see growth can’t continue, [because of the environmental impacts] but I can’t see how we can stop it without the whole system falling over like a stack of cards.”

One good answer can be found in the recent report of the U.K Sustainability Commission, titled Prosperity Without Growth.  But I thought I might also give a much shorter answer that comes at it from a slightly different angle, in the hope my friend and others might find it helpful.

Let’s look at why economies grow, and why capitalism (as we know it) depends on growth, because then we will quickly discover our answer as to how – in principle – we might create a no/low growth economy that doesn’t collapse and doesn’t produce social disaster.

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Fiddling while the hydrocarbons burn

The National Government has shown a disdain for environmental concerns and sustainability initiatives (even when those initiatives save money and make good fiscal sense). In fact, they seem to be gleefully heading in the opposite direction –  favouring road-building and allowing the construction of a new gas-fired power-plant, while dithering and delaying about the ETS (admittedly deeply flawed, but so far New Zealand’s centrepiece policy aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions).

John Key & Bill English are obviously not going to listen to an obscure greenish blogger.  Perhaps they might listen to a relatively conservative Professor of Economics?

Prof. James Hamilton’s latest research paper “Causes and Consequences of the Oil Shock of 2007-08” (summary available at his blog here) has this conclusion about what drove the spectacular rise in oil prices through 07-08 and the subsequent and equally dramatic fall:

But while the question of the possible contribution of speculators and the Fed is a very interesting one, it should not distract us from the broader fact: some degree of significant oil price appreciation during 2007-08 was an inevitable consequence of booming demand and stagnant production. It is worth emphasizing that this is fundamentally a long-run problem, which has been resolved rather spectacularly for the time being by a collapse in the world economy. However, the economic collapse will hopefully prove to be a short-run cure for the problem of excess energy demand. If growth in the newly industrialized countries resumes at its former pace, it would not be too many more years before we find ourselves back in the kind of calculus that was the driving factor behind the problem in the first place. Policy-makers would be wise to focus on real options for addressing those long-run challenges, rather than blame what happened last year entirely on a market aberration. (empahsis added)

We have a window of opportunity – let’s use it.

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