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To Slow Down Climate Change, We Need To Take On Capitalism

As we head for the edge of a climate change cliff, neoliberal market capitalism is chewing up the biosphere and the lives of everyone in it. But it’s not too late to act.

Posted on November 16, 2018, at 12:21 p.m. ET

Adam Maida for BuzzFeed News

A recent report released by the International Panel on Climate Change reaffirmed what everyone already knows: We are in big trouble. The billions of tons of greenhouse gases produced by burning fossil fuels have put us on pace for a 1.5-degree Celsius rise in global average temperatures within the next two decades, which would move us beyond humanity’s ability to claw back to any kind of normalcy without extraordinary measures. It’s quite possible we could trigger the sixth great mass extinction event in Earth’s history, a catastrophe that would inevitably hammer human civilization and endanger billions of lives. Even rich people will be affected — there’ll be no escaping, not even in New Zealand, not even to Mars.

I first became aware of all this when I visited Antarctica in 1995. There was still plenty of ice down there, of course. But all the scientists there were already talking about climate change, describing to each other and to me the growing body of evidence that the world was warming as a result of our dumping of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. I realized that even I had witnessed some of this evidence; the little glaciers I had been visiting in California’s Sierra Nevada were all about half the size they had been when I first saw them in the early 1970s. That was a small part of something much larger. Climate change was really happening, the scientists told me, but the news wasn’t spreading or having an effect.

In truth, it was a hard story to tell, and I struggled to find a way to express it all in a novel, until the findings from the Greenland ice core studies gave me the material for a trilogy of books informally called Science in the Capital (now in one volume as Green Earth). More recently, the real possibility of rapid sea level rise inspired me to write New York 2140; and really, all of my work over the last 20 years has been influenced by the coming reality of climate change. If you write the kind of science fiction I do, the topic can’t be avoided — and it’s the kind of story that science fiction is uniquely positioned to tell.

The future has crashed into the present, and everyone who’s willing to look can see what we’re headed for.

Now it no longer seems like science fiction; the future has crashed into the present, and everyone who’s willing to look can see what we’re headed for. But what can we do about it? And is it too late for us to act?

It’s late, yes, but not too late. There are actions we can take now that will help the situation immensely. Because the other vast, undeniable truth that goes hand in hand with the reality of our changing climate — the crux and cause of the problem — is that we live under a global capitalist system, in which the market rules. And that system’s oversimple algorithm, which measures priceless things in terms of quarterly profit and shareholder value, is mindlessly chewing up the biosphere and the lives of everyone in it. It’s like the hypothetical superintelligent AI portrayed in certain science fiction stories, which, in trying to maximize something like strawberry production, turns the whole world into a strawberry patch — thereby killing off all humans in the process as impediments to the stated goal.

This market that rules the world also systematically underprices things. Sellers compete to charge less than each other, eventually lowering their prices below what they paid to make their products in the first place. Those costs are ignored or hidden in various ways, but they are never unpaid; they are merely translated into other, more dangerous currencies. Cutting labor costs? That means hurting workers. Externalizing environmental costs? That means pollution damaging the biosphere, which ultimately is our extended body and our life-support system. The upshot is this: Neoliberal market capitalism, an experiment in power that since 1980 has been doubling down on the previous forms of capitalism, is wrecking people’s lives and creating a climate catastrophe.

Only the richest people on Earth defend this system, perhaps because they benefit enough in the present, and are still insulated enough from the impacts, to outweigh in their minds the obvious costs to others and our future. They nervously assure each other that things are okay, at Davos and elsewhere, but they can only hope things will hold together through their lifetimes. Everyone else feels precarious, or is already in a world of hurt.

So climate change and capitalism are two parts of the same problem; they are effect and cause. And capitalism is not only driving climate change, but also our response to it — by influencing government policy, and the development of new technology, and our basic understanding of the options open to us as we fight for a planet that can sustain life. We need to fix our economic systems, meaning our political systems, in order to fix climate change.

But no! It can’t be done!

We are often urged to believe this. Changing the system is impossible, power is massively entrenched, we should just give up. Maybe hold a final party, as in “The Masque of the Red Death,” or just blow everything up, as in Götterdämmerung. Thus also all the zombie stories we see these days; we feel like the walking dead, or we fight off that dismal fate if we can. It’s the story of our time, and it can feel overwhelming. Given the intense factionalism breaking out everywhere, the power and stubborn greed of the fossil fuel owners, and the way the internet connects much of the world in a massive incoherent roar, it can feel like an impossible problem — like we are all locked in a juggernaut headed off a cliff. It’s easy, when you’re caught in that feeling, to give in to despair.

It can feel like an impossible problem — like we are all locked in a juggernaut headed off a cliff.

But the fight to stay alive rather than join the undead, there in the exposed, bloody heart of all our zombie narratives, is also a story of group solidarity in a life-threatening situation. That stubborn hope, that we might come together under duress, is what motivates the decisions we make about how to lead our private lives, and all the political resistance we can band together and make.

Any such resistance will have to emerge in forms borrowed from the system we have now, in a stepwise process using the political tools already at hand. This is a depressing thought, but as methods go, it’s the lesser of many evils. The other options include things like world revolution (messy, murderous, prone to failure or blowback); or a fall into a new Dark Age, followed by a renaissance some centuries later; or — well, what else is there? Alien or divine intervention I leave to others to imagine. In our timeline, it seems to me the only real option is politics. Or to be more specific, political economy.

Political economy is not the same as economics. Right now, economics is the study of capitalism as such. There are many university departments and think tanks and hedge funds that study and practice economics in meticulous detail, and they give themselves tenure and awards and huge bonuses for doing that work, but they do not try to imagine a different, better economic system. Tweaks are often suggested, but new systems, no. It’s political economy that did that kind of imaginative work, back in the 19th century, when it was still possible to imagine that a different economic system might be enacted in the world. Now, as Margaret Thatcher famously declared, “there is no alternative.” So why bother to think about it?

Well, because we have to; because our current system is wrecking the world. And because there is an alternative. In a renewed effort to imagine a different way, we should recall that there are already existing communal systems, like the one in Mondragón, Spain, where worker-owned co-ops interact to create an economy in which one-third of profits go to workers, one-third to capital improvements, and one-third to charities of the workers’ choosing. There are also all the various kinds of social democracy now extant to give us models.

There are even some earlier forms of capitalism that might provide tools we can repurpose. In the system of neoliberal capitalism, as theorized by Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek, and legislated in the US and UK during the Reagan/Thatcher years, the market makes our policy decisions. This 40-year experiment in political economy has been a disaster. But before the neoliberal turn, there was Keynesian economics, the theoretical basis for the United States’ recovery from the Great Depression, and for the prosperity of the post–World War II years. In this system, government and business engaged in a dynamic balance, such that when one part of the system failed, the other gave more. Government was seen as not just necessary, but good.

Doing all these good things costs money, but it’s a cost that we — as a political collective — can agree to pay ourselves to do the work necessary for survival.

That Keynesian toolkit forms a tested methodology for coping with a world crisis, and given the stakes involved in climate change, proven methods are probably our best first move. Right now, this would mean legislating sharply progressive taxes on carbon, so that businesses would be pushed to shift more quickly to clean technologies. Another Keynesian move would be governments paying people (not banks) to take carbon out of the atmosphere, using methods like regenerative agriculture, conservation, and technology swap-outs. Doing all these good things costs money, but it’s a cost that we — as a political collective — can agree to pay ourselves to do the work necessary for survival.

The clean, renewable tech that we already have would, if installed, make a huge upgrade in our situation. And the immense amounts of labor and capital required to make that switch would constitute a giant public works project, giving millions of people a livelihood doing meaningful work. Analyses suggest that if every nation-state devoted 2% of its GDP to installing clean energy, that would pay for doing it at the necessary speed, meaning within the next 20 years. This plan is sometimes called the Green New Deal; pass it along, and support it.

If this sounds like a vast project to implement in the US — especially when the Trump administration is now rolling back climate protection policies — it might be even harder to imagine it on a global scale. But remember: The Paris Agreement already exists, and even though Trump has threatened to withdraw the US from the agreement, the rulebook for its implementation is being written right now. In December, negotiators will meet in a coal-mining town in Poland, one of the many ironies that will proliferate in the years to come. But ironic or not, there’s now an international agreement signed by almost every nation in the world to reduce our carbon burn as fast as possible, with the goal of keeping the global temperature rise through this century “well below 2 degrees Celsius,” and ideally below 1.5 degrees. This in itself is a development of world-historical importance; if there is anyone around to write a history of the world five or ten thousand years from now, the Paris Agreement will get a mention in it, as a watershed event in the human story. Think about it — faced with a global emergency, people from all the governments of the world gathered and did the right thing.

After these first steps — carbon taxes, the Green New Deal, carbon burn reductions based on the Paris Agreement — things get murkier, but the trajectory of improvement would make the next steps clearer. And the measures needed to stabilize our climate and avoid a mass extinction event (regenerative agriculture, carbon capture, wildlife stewardship, Mondragón-style co-ops) could lead to — and would require — changes that would create a more sustainable and just civilization: equal rights for women, progressive taxes, universal basic incomes and health care, public education for all, and the return of real political representation.

A political economy like this would be a “post-capitalism” one in which everyone could live at adequacy, including wild and domestic mammals, birds, fish, insects, plants, bacteria, and all the other parts of Earth’s living symbiosis. What we’re doing now makes it harder to get to that good future, but the goal is still physically possible to attain. This is the project that human civilization has to take on to survive, and one that will provide not just employment, but purpose. We all crave meaning in our lives, and by a strange twist of fate, a very meaningful project has been given to us: Prevent a mass extinction event, and build a better world for the generations to come. ●


Kim Stanley Robinson is a New York Times bestseller and winner of the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards. He is the author of more than 20 books, including the bestselling Mars trilogy and the critically acclaimed The Years of Rice and Salt, New York 2140, and 2312. His most recent novel is Red Moon (Orbit; October 2018). In 2008, he was named a “Hero of the Environment” by Time magazine, and he works with the Sierra Nevada Research Institute. He lives in Davis, California.


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