Earth Day this year is supposed to be the day the world finally does something about climate change. The nations of the world met at the United Nations today to agree to make good on the climate amelioration plans they presented at the Climate Change Conference in Paris at the end of last year.
Will it be enough? Some are doubtful. The plan is based on setting emissions to a level that would keep global warming to 3 degrees, a level much higher than scientists say is prudent. There is a long term goal of keeping global temperature rise below 1.5 degrees, a much better level but still hotter than life on the planet is used to.
The consequences of not taking serious action are dire. Rising temperatures could cause the seas to rise and, if that happens, 33% of Earth could go under water. Those same sizzling temperatures could make half the Earth uninhabitable by 2300. Add this to all the others sorts of damage we inflict on the planet daily- chopping down forests; poisoning soil, air, and water; killing bugs because EEK or ripping out native plants because UGLY; heaping mountains of trash out into the oceans- and we are jeopardizing the very biodiversity that we and every other organism depend on for life. If nothing changes, anywhere from one-half to two-thirds of existing species could go poof by 2100.
The writer Richard Smith says the only hope for getting out of this doomsday is getting out of capitalism. He wrote a book (I haven’t yet read it) as well as a Truthout article (I have read it) that is thought provoking, to say the least.
His basic argument is this. Efforts to green capitalism (like cap and trade, carbon taxes, consumer labeling, sustainable extraction, green technology, green manufacturing) have all failed. Any resulting efficiency gains have been eaten entirely by growth in consumption, and this is because the profit motive is premised on perpetual, never-ending wealth increases for owners and investors. To get to planetary health, Smith says, we need to tackle that. What the planet needs, in fact, is a severe contraction of the economy with some industries eliminated altogether. Businesses are not going to commit suicide, however. The only chance is “bottom up democratic control over the entire world economy,” he says, a sort of ecologically- motivated worldwide economic planning.
The conversation Smith started he aborts with global economic planning being the solution, I’m afraid. Regardless of how right he is about the profit motive, a global move to socialism is a nonstarter. Part of this, of course, is ideological. With the fall of the Soviet Union, the entire world has been organized to promote liberalism (procedural democracy and capitalism). For better or for worse, liberalism enjoys very wide legitimacy at the top but also in the middle and even at the bottom. Dismantling both this ideology and just about all of the world’s politico-economic systems are surely as big a conundrum as solving climate change.
But, there may also be a faulty logic in the contention that “bottom up democratic control over the entire world economy” would be the shining knight for Mother Earth. It is certainly unclear that most ordinary people (and not just business elites or owners) are on the side of true sacrifice for the environment. What Smith asks of people- significant economic contraction and the elimination of certain industries- would not only be sacrifice but would mean ending livelihoods, occupational sectors, incomes, and certain items for which people have come to depend all at the same time.This loss might not be so bad if adequate social protections existed to ease the transition or even if there was collective know-how in the West on surviving in the wild, but that is not the case. I presume Smith would say public control of the economy would also transfer wealth to the government that could then create social programs, income guarantees, and new industries to maintain modern life and the financial basis people need to survive in a monetized economy. Yet, economic contraction is economic contraction, and the question voters would need to confront is whether the available funds and know-how would be enough to stomach an accelerated dismantling of life as we know it.
While Smith is right that getting to an Earth-compatible economy can’t wait for capitalism to adjust, it can’t wait for global socialism either. The answer needs to lie somewhere between left and right and work with what we have available to work with, in this moment.
What are the resources available to us today that improve upon the tried and true ideas like carbon taxes, emissions trading, limits and caps that add up to toxicity, easily undermined product labeling, and such? The answer to that, of course, is not easy and is a matter for the public to debate and decide. But, one thing that Smith gives short shrift that might offer more hope than he gives credit is innovative technology backed by government policies to push the economy in the direction of those technologies.
Right now, there is a burgeoning “green capitalism” movement taking shape in the United States and worldwide (including China) that has produced a conceptual framework for moving virtually all industrial sectors toward zero or regenerative waste, ecosystem function, and local attunement. It is called biomimicry and suggests looking to nature for guidance on how to make ecologically- sensitive products to enhance human life. (As an aside, the Imagined Economy Project has a report on biomimicry under review right now, so check back in about two weeks for a lot more description about what biomimicry is and what a zero-waste, ecosystem functional, and locally attuned economy means in practical terms!)
Of course, biomimicry is very new and dependent on advances in science, but certain nature-inspired products have already come to market that save on energy, eliminate the need to burn fossil fuels, put water and carbon back into the ecosystem, reduce toxicities from chemicals, and sequester carbon. At this point in time, we cannot know if biomimicry can spare enough and reduce enough in enough time to get us to the climate change and conservation targets healthful for life on the planet. However, it is an idea- an important idea- that is comprehensive and just might mean a way to start on change without having to first change everything about politics, the economy, and culture.
On this Earth Day, it would be encouraging for the U.S. government to sign the Paris Agreement but also acknowledge stopping with energy is not enough. There is a technological solution worth investing in but, if it is to work, it can only work if breakthrough technologies (such as a fully biodegradable plastic for instance) get to commercial viability. The economist Mariana Mazzucato wrote in her book The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public Vs. Private Sector Myths that the U.S. government has been instrumental in numerous instances of world-changing disruptive innovations like the cell phone, the Internet, and numerous pharmaceuticals. The U.S. government could lighten (if not fully resolve) the unbearable human toll on the planet by incentivizing environmentally-focused biomimicry and thinking strategically about how biomimicry could lead to creative destruction across economic sectors, not just energy.