David Trubridge on free trade, the battle lines drawn between environmentalism and capitalism, and the elephant in the room.
A lecture and an interview set out the two opposing camps. The lecture was the keynote address at the Dwell on Design show in Los Angeles by William MacDonagh, co-author of the seminal book Cradle to Cradle. This vital book elevated MacDonagh to guru status, so I eagerly looked forward to hearing his current thinking. The audience gave him a standing ovation, but I remained seated on the side feeling confused and disappointed. His overlong account of the unfolding of his cradle-to-cradle philosophy was laced with beautiful anecdotes. He related the things everyone wanted to hear about the better world we believe we are building. He suggested how we can solve this crisis by doing sensible things like installing turf roofs on factories and redesigning drink bottles without toxins (why do we even need drink bottles?) But there was nothing new, and worse he adroitly slipped round the giant elephant in the room no-one wanted to acknowledge: capitalism and the giant corporates pursuing profit, who have their own quite different agenda.
That elephant was uncomfortably exposed in an interview with Naomi Klein in magazine The Nation. She pointed to a recent Harris poll in the USA, which revealed those who believe we are causing climate change has dropped in the last two years from 71 percent to 50 percent. New Zealand is similar. This is despite increasingly scary warnings from scientists about the deepening crisis, and despite glaring evidence of ever more volatile weather patterns producing record extremes.
So why are people in denial? They have polarised along party lines: even though the split used to be fairly bipartisan, the deniers are now almost entirely on the right. So it is no longer about truth: it is about ideology, about what you want to believe. To substantiate their denial they create a preposterous conspiracy theory of a socialist plot to steal their wealth.
If you think about it, the reason is obvious: everything that environmentalism stands for is opposed to their beliefs. Free trade is an environmental disaster, shipping cheap consumer goods back and forth across oceans and forcing the dumping of subsidised produce onto third world countries, which destroys local farming and manufacturing. As we saw at Copenhagen, no serious carbon emission reductions will be made without strict globally enforced treaties. But such outside interference is anathema to the USA, which won't even sign the UN declaration on the rights of the child! And as increasingly drastic effects of climate change are experienced in third world countries, there will be big compensation payouts. But wealth redistribution is only on the rights agenda if it is upward not downward.
Free trade, the right to exploit and accumulate profit are all the basic tenets of capitalism. Corporations are driven only by short-term profit. This is just about greed, and it is unbelievably enshrined in law. These corporations are the brat kids I wrote about previously who are hand-in-glove with weak, compliant governments that have no incentive or ability to stand up to bullying. The corporations make all the profit, but when disaster happens (like the banking crisis, or the BP disaster), the tax-payer pays. What kind of deal is that? The governments are not governing for us but for their mates in the corporations.
The environmental movement has been at great pains to keep the issue apolitical, presumably from fear of alienating supporters on the right. But that has blatently failed. Like MacDonagh, they are blind to the corporate elephant. Until they face up to this uncomfortable fact we will get nowhere.
The International Energy Authority recently announced that global carbon emissions are back on the increase. Countries like Britain can say theirs have dropped only because they export manufacturing. In other words, all the well-meaning efforts of light greens like MacDonagh are getting nowhere. It appears to be business as usual, but actually, as Klein points out, it is worse. We have extracted all the easy fuel, and now we are going after the hard stuff, the deep off-shore wells, the tar sands, gas fracking and the Arctic. ‘Drill baby, drill’.
Ironically, the right's conspiracy theories are actually correct. This is political. This is a direct head-on confrontation between environmentalism and capitalism. Everything each stands for is bitterly opposed by the other. I do sincerely believe that humans have the capability for us all to live a reasonably balanced and just life. We have the know-how to give everyone on this planet enough food, shelter and well-being. But it will not happen under current capitalism. The business moguls and super-rich are extremely powerful and will fight every inch of the way to retain their right to exploit and accumulate more wealth. It is war between the brat kids and the environment/future/humanity. Do we come down to their level and take them on, or do we remain pure and ineffectual? I wish I knew.
(A longer form of this piece originally appeared in BayBuzz)