Can Progressives, Enviros, And Scientists Save Capitalism From The Pro-Collapse Polluters?


“Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.” — Edward Abbey

FDR famously saved capitalism from itself, from its worst excesses and most venal practitioners.

 Now eight decades later, scientists, environmentalists, and progressives are in a similar position. Unchecked capitalism is a Ponzi scheme that must collapse. We are living unsustainably off the wealth of our children — their livable climate, their soil and arable land, their fisheries and oceans, their groundwater, their life-sustaining forests, and so on.

Does our generation have the moral or even legal right to use up this vital natural capital so it is unavailable for future generations? As Thomas Jefferson wrote in his famous September 6, 1789 letter to James Madison, “Every one will say no; that the soil is the gift of God to the living, as much as it had been to the deceased generation.”

Unfortunately, this self-evident truth — we must stop destroying the carrying capacity of an already over-extended planet even as we add another 3 billion people — has gotten muddied by some people on both sides.

Climate hawks should focus on the pro-collapse polluters who are too-eagerly pushing homo sapiens toward a 10°F warmer world that would render large parts of the world’s currently habitable and arable land unfit for humans.

But instead of explaining why they are anti-collapse, some have decided to frame their position — or have allowed others to frame their position — as being anti-growth. This includes many people I generally agree with on climate change, including Kevin Anderson, the deputy director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, and Richard Heinberg of the Post-Carbon Institute, and even the nonpareil Dave Roberts of Grist.

To repeat, it’s not environmentalists who are anti-growth, it’s polluters and their enablers who are pro-collapse. And it is our prolonged inaction in the face of the growing threat of collapse that has limited out choices, forcing drastic action now.

We have not been growing in any meaningful sense of the word for a while now — certainly not the kind of growth that matters to our children and grandchildren and countless future generations encompassing billions and billions of people. It really is a purely semantic argument to claim that aggressive climate action — even of the 350 ppm kind — would be anything but a massive net positive by any measure of economic health and well-being that could possibly matter to our children and future generation.

Can catastrophe and collapse be avoided if we keep doing what we’re doing? No. As the Guardian reported this month, eleven “Nobel laureates call for a revolutionary shift in how humans use resources” based on “new figures highlighting that humanity is living absurdly beyond its means.” Duh.

Yet, it still bears repeating that every major independent analysis of aggressive climate action to shift resource use and keep total warming below 2°C (3.6°F) has found it has very low cost, with virtually no impact on growth. Also, it reduces fuel consumption “resulting in net savings of $71 trillion” by 2050, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA).

Strong climate action has several valuable co-benefits: The health and productivity benefit alone of just the efficiency strategies “has the potential to boost cumulative economic output through 2035 by USD 18 trillion,” according to the IEA!

And one more tiny thing — it avoids climate impacts so catastrophic their costs are almost incalculable, a staggering $1240 trillion, by one analysis.

So I don’t agree with Anderson, nor those who quote him, as for instance Naomi Klein does in her new book, “This Changes Everything: Capitalism Vs. The Climate,” asserting that the 2°C warming limit requires “radical and immediate de-growth strategies in the U.S., E.U. and other wealthy nations.” Again, our current do-nothing policy is de-growth in that it must lead to catastrophe and collapse.

At the same time, framing the anti-collapse strategy as “de-growth” simply allows the pro-collapse side to pigeon-hole enviros and others, discrediting them with opinion-makers. Now if, for another decade or so, we keep adopting the do-little strategy of the pro-collapse polluters — and thus keep ignoring climate scientists and enviros and progressives — then the polluters will certainly have sharply narrowed down our options for avoiding collapse, leaving only the much more radical ones.

Even so, I think that our continued dawdling means ultimately we will need a World War II style (and scale) effort to avert catastrophe. Then again, I don’t think many folks would describe the extreme measures that individuals, corporations, and governments took to win World War II as “de-growth.” Inaction was simply seen as leading to intolerable outcomes. So it is today.

Again, I am not defending our Ponzi scheme pursuit of growth for growth’s sake, especially as defined through the indefensibly myopic lens of GDP. I have long embracedSenator Robert F. Kennedy’s amazing words from over a half century ago, when he said “that Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage…”:

Nor do I think that being against collapse requires one to be in favor of unchecked capitalism. Again, as I’ve written, I agree with the three essential points Klein makes in her book:

  1. Because we have ignored the increasingly urgent warnings and pleas for action from climate scientists for a quarter century (!) now, the incremental or evolutionary paths to avert catastrophic global warming that we might have been able to take in the past are closed to us.
  2. Humanity faces a stark choice as a result: The end of civilization as we know it or the end of capitalism as we know it.
  3. Choosing “unregulated capitalism” over human civilization would be a “morally monstrous” choice — and so the winning message for the climate movement is a moral one.

Finally, you may be wondering if we can actually build enough carbon-free energy fast enough to avert catastrophe without having to power that energy transition with fossil fuels that would undermine the whole transition. The answer is yes, as I’ll discuss in a forthcoming post.