Thursday, April 25, 2019

Monbiot Sees Mankind in a Fight for Life with Capitalism

You might not like his ideas but they're well worth airing.

Guardian enviro-scribe, George Monbiot, writes that it's time to ditch capitalism before it puts us in the grave.
Capitalism’s failures arise from two of its defining elements. The first is perpetual growth. Economic growth is the aggregate effect of the quest to accumulate capital and extract profit. Capitalism collapses without growth, yet perpetual growth on a finite planet leads inexorably to environmental calamity. 
Those who defend capitalism argue that, as consumption switches from goods to services, economic growth can be decoupled from the use of material resources. Last week a paper in the journal New Political Economy, by Jason Hickel and Giorgos Kallis, examined this premise. They found that while some relative decoupling took place in the 20th century (material resource consumption grew, but not as quickly as economic growth), in the 21st century there has been a recoupling: rising resource consumption has so far matched or exceeded the rate of economic growth. The absolute decoupling needed to avert environmental catastrophe (a reduction in material resource use) has never been achieved, and appears impossible while economic growth continues. Green growth is an illusion.
A system based on perpetual growth cannot function without peripheries and externalities. There must always be an extraction zone – from which materials are taken without full payment – and a disposal zone, where costs are dumped in the form of waste and pollution. As the scale of economic activity increases until capitalism affects everything, from the atmosphere to the deep ocean floor, the entire planet becomes a sacrifice zone: we all inhabit the periphery of the profit-making machine. 
This drives us towards cataclysm on such a scale that most people have no means of imagining it. The threatened collapse of our life-support systems is bigger by far than war, famine, pestilence or economic crisis, though it is likely to incorporate all four. Societies can recover from these apocalyptic events, but not from the loss of soil, an abundant biosphere and a habitable climate.
The second defining element is the bizarre assumption that a person is entitled to as great a share of the world’s natural wealth as their money can buy. This seizure of common goods causes three further dislocations. First, the scramble for exclusive control of non-reproducible assets, which implies either violence or legislative truncations of other people’s rights. Second, the immiseration of other people by an economy based on looting across both space and time. Third, the translation of economic power into political power, as control over essential resources leads to control over the social relations that surround them.
Monbiot has no "magic bullet" prescription. At best he tries to winkle out answers from the writings of others:
So what does a better system look like? I don’t have a complete answer, and I don’t believe any one person does. But I think I see a rough framework emerging. Part of it is provided by the ecological civilisation proposed by Jeremy Lent, one of the greatest thinkers of our age. Other elements come from Kate Raworth’s doughnut economics and the environmental thinking of Naomi Klein, Amitav Ghosh, Angaangaq Angakkorsuaq, Raj Patel and Bill McKibben. Part of the answer lies in the notion of “private sufficiency, public luxury”. Another part arises from the creation of a new conception of justice based on this simple principle: every generation, everywhere, shall have an equal right to the enjoyment of natural wealth.
One word in Monbiot's essay stuck with me - "decoupling."  Isn't that how we live today, decoupled? Have our politics not become decoupled from reality?

Is the modern petro-state not a decoupling from the reality of climate change? Is the neoliberal quest for perpetual exponential growth in a very finite planet already overburdened with rapid depletion and exhaustion of its resources not a decoupling from reality?

Very soon we'll be barraged by hollow promises of a better future from the very people bent on wrecking the future. Isn't voting for that sort of nonsense itself a decoupling from reality?

"...every generation, everywhere, shall have an equal right to the enjoyment of natural wealth." Can you even imagine something so audacious? Equal right to the enjoyment of natural wealth? The neoliberal order, our current malignancy, didn't get where it is by entertaining consideration of future generations or people who can't afford to compete with us for their own resources.


Hugh said...

"Those who defend capitalism argue that, as consumption switches from goods to services, economic growth can be decoupled from the use of material resources."

This doesn't make sense. We'll always consume goods: food, beverages, clothing, fuel, paper, housing, furniture etc.

Reducing the consumption of these goods would shrink the economy. Govt wouldn't like that.

The Mound of Sound said...

We're in for a rude awakening, Hugh. Perhaps several of them. This morning on NPR radio there was a story about yet another series of severe storms about to sweep the southern States.

Severe storms are becoming the new normal in parts of America and, with their newfound commonality, comes a phenomenon known as "creeping normalcy." Eventually a populace can adopt a sort of fatalism to these recurrent events.

While people can tolerate deprivation and loss, even living in caves if necessary, the economy won't help them. The great re-insurer, Munich Re, issued a report last month that warned insurance is going to be priced out of reach of many homeowners.

Governments, meanwhile, are being defunded by tax cuts and reckless spending, especially America's military.

I give Monbiot credit for moving beyond climate change to recognize our dependency on consuming resources the planet can no longer sustainably provide. That's two out of three. The final one that most refuse to acknowledge is overpopulation.

Anonymous said...

If, in the year 0, you put all your wealth (e.g. gold) into a container of size 0.13 cubic meters (about 5 cubic feet) and compounded your wealth annually at 3.25%, your wealth in 2019 would occupy a volume equal to our sun.

The Mound of Sound said...

I'm sure you're right, Anon. What I can't get is why so few understand this for it directly impacts themselves and their families especially going into the next two decades.

Anonymous said...

There are two degrees of law in this country. One for the middle class and below and one for the Capitalists. That needs to change. There is not any recourse for working people when hired by corporations.....democracy does not exist with in this structure. Anyong.

The Mound of Sound said...

There is inequality in justice, Anyong. If hiring a thousand dollar an hour lawyer is no object then you can expect a much greater prospect of prevailing.

The very rich, some corporations and the banks all know that and they spend accordingly. Lawyers at the peak of their game see the high retainers as a just reward for years of hard work to achieve their standing. I expect this has been the case since we established courts of law.

At the shitty end of the stick are those who can't afford a lawyer and are denied access to legal aid. Then you're really on your own and good luck to you.

In fairness the law societies have been fighting to overcome this unfairness for decades with only minimal success.

Trailblazer said...

In his book Heat, Monbiot suggested that we all have equal energy credits to help curb the use of carbon fuels.
Be you Bill gates or a disaffected Lib everyone gets the same.
Without such measures the world we live in will not exist , we have difficult decisions.
Rationing would seem to be the only ,honest , way out of this mess.


The Mound of Sound said...

TB, your remark brings up the "carbon budget" issue. That's the fairly precise, multi-sourced, calculation of just how much more atmospheric greenhouse gas loading we have remaining before we trigger truly cataclysmic global warming.

Once we know that figure, and we've got a pretty good estimate, the question becomes how that is turned into quotas, nation by nation.

The catch is that the developed world might collapse if that quota was allocated equitably. It would require us to decarbonize our societies and our economies almost overnight and we'll not have it.

We're dependent on high-emission economies and we're not about to hand what we need to little brown people in the Third World.

This illustrates why we'll never act on the IPCC's dire warning that we must cut our emissions by fully half by 2030 and entirely by 2050.