by Jerome a Paris
Thu Dec 20th, 2007 at 10:56:46 AM EST
This is why climate change and energy security are such geopolitically significant issues. For if there are limits to emissions, there may also be limits to growth. But if there are indeed limits to growth, the political underpinnings of our world fall apart. Intense distributional conflicts must then re-emerge - indeed, they are already emerging - within and among countries.
The optimists believe that economic growth can and will continue. The pessimists believe either that it will not do so or that it must not if we are to avoid the destruction of the environment. I think we have to try to marry what makes sense in these opposing visions.
The above quote, from this article by Martin Wolf, recently described as the "conservative doyen of British economic commentators", exemplifies the problems we are facing:
- peak oil, climate change, or a combination of both is going to force us to limit our energy consumption one way or another;
- our current economic model is predicated on growth, which itself cannot, in the framework of our existing institutions and mindset, happen without a plentiful, and itself growing, supply of cheap energy in the form of hydrocarbons.
Martin Wolf, to his credit, realizes that these two realities are incompatible, and is looking for compromise. But he is not quite looking in the right place yet:
The response of many, notably environmentalists and people with socialist leanings, is to welcome such conflicts. These, they believe, are the birth-pangs of a just global society. I strongly disagree. It is far more likely to be a step towards a world characterised by catastrophic conflict and brutal repression. This is why I sympathise with the hostile response of classical liberals and libertarians to the very notion of such limits, since they view them as the death-knell of any hopes for domestic freedom and peaceful foreign relations.
Acknowledging reality (and the likelihood of conflict) and trying to prepare for it is not "welcoming conflict." The meme that environmentalists and socialists are those looking for conflict, even after 6 years (and counting) of pointless but massively destructive and destabilising wars of occupation in Afghanistan and Iraq, which were encouraged and cheered on by all "serious" people is, quite frankly, pathetic.
A note to serious people: we are NOT LIKE YOU. We are not scared of others, and we are not selfish, petty, vicious-minded, cowardly looters trying to get away with it on someone else's dime. YOU are the problem, not us.
The reality of resource depletion and climate change is not going to go away. What CAN change is the following:
- the link between well-being and growth. Growth is convenient in that it helps hide inequality and paper over social ills. But money does not bring happiness, once basic needs are fulfilled. We have to stop trying to value everything in monetary terms and end the dominance of (often short-termist) financial analysis of everything - which just also happens to help concentrate incomes in a staggering fashion in a small number of (investor class) hands;
- as a first step towards that, a reassessment of how value-added and growth are counted. Burning the roof to get heat should not be counted as creating value, but with today's GDP accounting, it is. As long as the destruction of assets (scarce resources, public goods like the environment, etc) is not counted against the creation of income, things like digging and buring coal will look to be "cheap" and we'll continue to do them, even as they kill us;
- war and conflict will not make us more prosperous nor safer. We have to get rid of politicians who think these are natural solutions to scarcity (I'll take mine and fuck the others), and who use demagogic arguments and fearmongering to get elected. Selfishness is the default mode for societies only when politicians tolerate it or encourage it, as they have in particular in the past 35 years. The discourse that national security comes through military action, macho posturing, bluster and the "might is right" mindset, which has been thoroughly proven by Bush's grand Iraqi Adventure to be catastrophic, needs to be labelled as such by the opposition, loudly and repeatedly. If the case against it is not made, the mindset will not change - or will be forced about by catastrophic change at some undefined point in the future). Taking a stand now can and must be done, to undercut the monopoly of "serious" people on geopolitical discourse.
Reality is creeping in the minds of the saner members of the punditocracy, but has not yet driven them to abandon their existing prejudices, fed by 25 years of propaganda and the virtual prosperity of ever larger financial bubbles. We have to shout louder to help them get it before it's too late.