We’ve done a fair bit of criticising contemporary capitalism in this blog. One of the follow-up questions we have been asking ourselves all along is: “if not capitalism, then what?’
Well yes. If not life as we know it, with all its enormous ‘reality’, complexity, and slow-turning, apparently unstoppable power and momentum – then what? And how do we get from here to there? It’s quite a topic for a couple of part-time bloggers to tackle. The hubris! But then we’re not tackling it on our own – human society is always and inescapably a collaborative venture – we’re hitching a ride with the thinkers whose work we’ve commented on, hopefully in return bringing it to some who would not otherwise have met it.
So where have we got to so far, in our hitching, in our answer to this big question?
In an interview broadcast on TVNZ’s One News a couple of days ago, the renowned naturalist David Attenborough was asked about the politics of climate change. He answered by remarking that when he started making tv programmes, the global human population was only one-third what it is now. The clear suggestion is that the growth in greenhouse gas emissions is caused by the growth in numbers of humans.
On the One News report, as usual, the Overseas Expert’s viewpoint went entirely unquestioned; to the casual observer it would seem the issue is simple and clearly understood. And so it follows that the solution to climate change is population reduction.
This idea could not be more wrong.
The collective wisdom of capital markets is probably still ‘in some doubt’ in many peoples’ minds at the moment. Interestingly though, from a green perspective, capital markets appear to have been estimating the likely costs of climate change to be higher than those predicted by cost-benefit analyses (such as the Stern Report) that have been much maligned by some industry lobby groups. And, of course, this implies that – even from a purely economic point of view – there is a case for stronger climate change mitigation policies than have been suggested by the cost-benefit analyses.
In his groundbreaking and highly influential book first published in 1983, Benedict Anderson suggests that nations are socially constructed and imagined into existence. The title of the book is now just about a cliché: Imagined Communities.
One of the major contributing factors in the emergence of nations and nationalism in the era of the industrial revolution, Anderson argues, was the development of mass communication – books and newspapers – which he refers to as “print capitalism”. It was this new means of regular communication among and between people who had never met each other which was critical to the development of the imagined community of an entire nation.
The continuing power of communication media to determine how we understand ourselves and engage with each other in both the public and private sphere is well recognised. But degree of this power is difficult to assess accurately. In particular, we might ask – to what extent does the media report political events and to what extent does it control and shape them?
‘Decoupling’ is green capitalism’s cunning plan: break the link between ecological degradation and economic growth, and voila! The ecological crisis of capitalism is overcome.
If decoupling is achieved, growth can continue, profits can be taken, standards of living can be raised, and there will be no discernable ecological consequences.
In their recently published article “The emperor’s green clothes”, urban planning academics Petter Naess and Karl Georg Hoyer have reported on their search for signs of decoupling. Their conclusion is that the possibility of decoupling is “not valid.”
Like many another cunning plan, decoupling is simply an empty promise.
Jonathan Harris, “Ecological macroeconomics: consumption, investment, and climate change”, real-world economics review, issue no. 50, 1 September 2009, pp. 34-48,
Harris (Tufts University) begins his discussion by using the charmingly mild phrase “cognitive disconnect” to decribe the yawning great chasm between “scientists’ warnings of potential catastrophe if carbon emissions continue unchecked on the one hand and the political and economic realities of steadily increasing emissions on the other” (p.34)
It is, as he says, “the outstanding economic problem of the twenty-first century. Can economic growth continue while carbon emissions are drastically reduced?” (p.34) And asking that question makes us look more closely at what, in fact, economic growth is and how we might make a successful economic and social transition to sustainability.