February 2008: Time For Environmental Keynesianism

Planet Earth can be saved. Susan George tells us how.
February 1, 2008

Over the past four or five years, as the CCPA’s senior editor, I’ve probably read at least 500 articles and essays on climate change and its threat to life on this planet. Many of the articles were written by eminent climatologists, ecologists, and other scientists, sometimes jointly by large groups of them. Others were written by economists, journalists, activists, a few even by politicians and actors.

They all sounded the alarm about what they rightly perceived as a looming catastrophe. They all warned of the horrific consequences of failing to take prompt steps to halt and reverse global warming.

Their warnings and pleas have so far gone largely unheeded. Yes, a few ineffectual efforts have been made to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. People have been urged to cut back on their oil and electricity consumption, switch to ethanol or other non-fossil fuels, drive hybrid cars. More trees have been planted. Eloquent speeches have been made, stirring documentary films produced. But these are little more than token gestures—well-meaning, but futile. What’s called for is a colossal worldwide save-the-planet crusade, something that still is not even in the early planning stage.

The appalling magnitude of this inertia was on shameful display in December at the international climate change conference at Bali. Here we saw the worst Western polluter, the United States, and its compliant junior partner, Canada, refusing to get serious about CO2 reductions unless China, India, and other developing countries made similar commitments. China, the worst non-Western polluter, argued that global warming had been caused mainly by the U.S. and other Western nations, so it was up to them, not China, to take remedial measures. The final compromise “solution” was farcical.

An intelligent alien, looking down at this spectacle from his visiting spaceship, would throw up his tentacles in shock and disgust. He’d report back to his civilized home planet that humans were collectively and suicidally insane and would soon—in a hundred years or less—succeed in making Earth uninhabitable. (Except maybe for ants, cockroaches, and other hardy insects.)

Not all humans, however, are insane. Stupid, yes--after all, we elected the pro-pollution politicians and keep the polluting corporate CEOs in business by buying their products—but we really do want to clean up the environment. For us, self-preservation remains a powerful motivator. We want to give our children and future generations a chance to create a better world. It’s getting more and more difficult, however, to muster hope that a rescue effort will be started before time runs out.

The scientists and activists who wrote the exhortatory articles I mentioned above are doubtless speaking for the majority of humankind. Unfortunately, they’re not the ones making the crucial decisions in the world’s legislatures and boardrooms. That’s where the power lies to mobilize the resources needed to pull back from the climate-change brink.

How can these political and corporate decision-makers be converted from planet-destroyers to planet-savers?

I think Susan George has come up with the answer to this critical question. Of all the hundreds who have written about the overriding ecological threat, she strikes me as the one who has thought it through most thoroughly. I would go so far as to say that her proposed solution is the only one that stands any chance of being adopted and implemented on the necessary scale and urgency.

If you’ve read her proposal—which we published in the last issue of The Monitor—you may share my laudatory assessment of it and the renewed optimism it inspires. If you haven’t yet read it, please dig out your December-January copy and do so. Or you can access it on our website. (Go to http://www.policyalternatives.ca/MonitorIssues/2007/12/EnviroAlternative/.)

What George did was to devise a way of surmounting the biggest obstacle to confronting the climate change challenge. That obstacle, of course, is capitalism. As the prevailing dominant global economic system, it has caused almost all the global warming that is now rising to such disastrous levels. Industrial contamination of our air and water, uncontrolled oil and gas burning, excessive use of pesticides and other chemicals, exhaustion of natural resources, overconsumption of commercial goods, the enormous financial waste on war and conflict—all these and other environmentally destructive activities flow directly from the global “free” market and the ideological imperatives of capitalism.

So the first question Susan George asked herself was: “Can we save the planet while international capitalism remains the dominant system?”

The answer had to be “yes,” because—in her view and she’s probably right—the prospects of overthrowing capitalism and replacing it with an ecologically-friendly system (and doing it in time) are just about zero. She quite bluntly calls capitalism insane, in the sense that it operates “in the eternal present, cannot even entertain the notion of a future, and therefore excludes safeguards against future destruction—unless these safeguards are imposed upon it by law.”

George’s prescription is not to lobby governments to impose sane and planet-saving reforms on corporations; that’s not likely to happen when most politicians (in the developed nations, at least) are fervently and blindly pro-laissez-faire-capitalism themselves. Nor does she have any faith that business leaders can be persuaded to abandon their global warming ways voluntarily.

Her solution is to replicate for a “war” against climate change the same large-scale political-business collaboration that was mounted to fight the war against Nazi Germany. In that historic campaign, both politicians and CEOs saw not only the urgent need to join forces to win the Second World War—but the profit to be made as well. The politicians increased their popularity with the voters, and the CEOs increased their revenues by manufacturing guns, tanks, bombers, warships, and submarines.

The same electoral and financial benefits can be derived from a “Third World War”—this time a war to save the world itself. Any political leader who truly and actively took this initiative would surely win enormous voter support. Any CEO who committed to massive investment in eco-friendly industry, in alternative energy, in public transport, organic farming, and other “green” activities would almost surely reap large profits, as well. (Maybe not as much, initially, as making weapons, but enough to placate the shareholders.)

Susan George reminds the activists and their organizations that none of them, on their own, can solve the problems that concern them most. “Alone, ecologists can’t save the environment; alone, farmers can’t save family farms; or trade unions save good jobs; or public service workers public services. Broad alliances are the only way to go.”

Such broad alliances, however, will only be effective if they all have the same focus and aim. For George, that pressing immediate objective is to join in “generating citizen enthusiasm, involvement, and the qualitative and quantitative leap in scale that is now required.” Once mustered, this huge populist movement should be able to concentrate enormous and irresistible pressure on both governments and corporations—pressure to launch the kind of World-War-II-style collaboration to save the planet that George so persuasively proposes.

Environmental Keynesianism on this scale will not be easy to achieve. Much will depend on how many civil society groups embrace and run with the idea, how many citizens come to see the logic and merit of it, how many politicians perceive the electoral benefits to be gained from it, how many CEOs have the courage (and ultimately good sense) to put global survival ahead of short-term shareholder value.

One thing is certain: if Susan George’s strategy is not quickly and widely put into effect, the still-flickering flame of hope and optimism will die. Then will come the sad, belated, brutal struggle to be among the few (if any) survivors of our “civilization’s” collapse.

We are facing the ultimate test of our collective sanity as a species. Susan George tells us how we can pass the test. We’d be crazy to ignore her advice.

(Ed Finn is the CCPA's Senior Editor.)