Environmentalists Must Go Deep

By John Buell

In a recent New York Times op ed, David Hansen reminded us of a horrifying truth. If the XL pipeline is approved and the Canadian tarsands fully developed, “concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere eventually would reach levels higher than in the Pliocene era, more than 2.5 million years ago, when sea level was at least 50 feet higher than it is now. That level of heat-trapping gases would assure that the disintegration of the ice sheets would accelerate out of control. Sea levels would rise and destroy coastal cities. Global temperatures would become intolerable. Twenty to 50 percent of the planet’s species would be driven to extinction. Civilization would be at risk.” Hansen’s brave work on this topic has played a key role in the emergence of a near unanimous scientific consensus on the severity of the greenhouse problem. Nonetheless, scientific projections and warnings of environmental apocalypse, however well founded and carefully articulated, are unlikely to alter public policy in this area. Hansen and others have advocated market-friendly approaches that would let the US economy continue along. His solutions, however, show a naïveté about the ways our current corporate markets operate and the fantasies that sustain them.

Consider Hansen’s recent proposal: “We should impose a gradually rising carbon fee, collected from fossil fuel companies, then distribute 100% of the collections to all Americans on a per-capita basis every month. The government would not get a penny. This market-based approach would stimulate innovation; jobs and economic growth avoid enlarging government or having it pick winners or losers. Most Americans, except the heaviest energy users, would get more back than they paid in increased prices. Not only that, the reduction in oil use resulting from the carbon price would be nearly six times as great as the oil supply from the proposed pipeline from Canada, rendering the pipeline superfluous …”

Aside from the reference to climate, Hansen could just as easily be writing for the Heritage Foundation or the American Enterprise institute. His bogyman appears to be government, industrial policy, and wealth redistribution. Yet at the same time Hansen was writing for the Times, Exxon Mobil reported quarterly profits of $10 billion. And more importantly, much of the risks associated by some with government, including secrecy and manipulation, could be at least as easily attributed to Exxon/Mobil. In a recent appearance on Democracy Now!, Steve Coll said, “I came to think as I worked on this [Exxon/Mobil] sees itself as an independent sovereign in the world, and one that is almost the equivalent of a state. And it makes sense, when you look at their revenue of just under $500 billion a year. That’s actually more than the size of the economies of most of the countries in the world. It’s about the same as the economy of Norway.

“And then the private part is that they really are one of the most closed corporations headquartered in the United States. They work on a closed system, and they don’t invite scrutiny … I really was struck by how — for myself as a journalist … I had spent so much time focusing on governments, trying to understand how they exercise power, and I came to realize that right in our midst are these very large and important institutions that are hardly ever scrutinized in the way—in the ways that journalists try to do.”

Coll went on to point out how much of Exxon/Mobil’s profits are channeled back into the political system. The conclusion I reach is that market friendly, distributionally neutral solutions to environmental issues are unlikely to be enacted precisely because they do not attack the very power imbalances that sustain the current pro-oil tax and subsidy policies.

In a more long-term sense, a market society with massive inequality in power and wealth shapes our interaction with the environment in dangerous ways. Its very instability — especially during the era of finance capitalism — leads to a concern for today at the expense of tomorrow. Ideologically it is often sustained by the promise that everyone can become rich. And because the rich and most powerful can escape many environmental problems and the poor who are most burdened by them have too little influence, it is hard to build support for collective ecological approaches to recreation, energy, and transportation. And where corporate CEOs control the workplace, workers have seldom had the chance to opt for leisure over more pay as productivity increases. Hence alternatives to consumption are less likely to emerge.

Historically many environmentalists have assumed that the route to success was to steer clear of more controversial concerns about economic inequality or corporate structure. This has, however, been a losing strategy. Even such paragons of market – friendly environmental policy as cap and trade are portrayed as radical, watered down, and eventually defeated. Yet because these policies do not address inequalities, they are unlikely to build any bridges to working class citizens.

It is probably not accidental that the industrial democracy in which environmental issues now seem to have the least traction is also the one in which the distribution of wealth and income is the most unequal and voter participation the least. Yet if these factors have been barriers, they also present opportunities. The ongoing financial crisis and the tepid recovery along with the brave actions of OWS have opened up concerns about political and economic inequality — if climate change activists best go big and consider the ways a more egalitarian economy and polity could serve and be served by attention to a range of environmental issues.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine, and writes on labor and environmental issues. Email jbuell@acadia.net.

From The Progressive Populist, August 1, 2012


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