Green capitalism may yet undo itself. Unfortunately it’s likely to take the rest of planetary civilization down with it. The worsening disaster in the Gulf Coast following the Deepwater Horizon explosion and spill is underlining the massive cost of the U.S.’s addiction to fossil fuels.
A recent event underlined to me the difficulty of imagining alternatives to the present unsustainable situation. On Wednesday I was invited to Fordham University to give a report back from the World People’s Conference on Climate Change in Bolivia. Since I’m used to speaking freely in university settings, I didn’t pull any punches. I quoted sections of the People’s Agreement that was issued based on conference proceedings. In this document there is a clear statement that the root cause of the ecological crisis of our times is the capitalist system. Here are some quotations from the People’s Agreement:
- The capitalist system has imposed upon us a logic of competition, progress, and unlimited growth. This mode of production and consumption seeks profit without limits, separating human beings from nature, establishing a logic of domination over her, turning everything into a commodity: water, land, the human genome, ancestral cultures, biodiversity, justice, ethics, peoples’ rights, death, and life itself.
- Under capitalism, Mother Earth in converted into merely a source of raw materials and human beings into merely the means of production and consumers, into people who are valued by what they have and not by what they are.
- Capitalism requires a strong military industry for its process of accumulation and control of territories and natural resources, thus suppressing people’s resistance. It is an imperialist system colonizing the planet. Humanity is facing a great dilemma: continue on the path of capitalism, predation and death, or the path of harmony with nature and respect for life. We need to build a new system to restore harmony with nature and among humans. There can only be balance with nature if there is equity among human beings.
These points seem pretty elementary to me. An economic system predicated on ceaselessly expanding growth cannot last for long on a finite planet. Developed countries like the U.S. and U.K. in fact now go into “ecological debt” by around the beginning of April – the rest of the year is spent living off resources of poorer people in the global South (for more on this, see work done by the New Economics Foundation on ecological debt). Things are, in my opinion, going to get exceedingly ugly as other nations like China and India try to follow the unsustainable hyper-consumerist capitalist model of the U.S. and E.U.
I was genuinely surprised by the degree of outrage that my comments generated at Fordham. Students brought up specific scientific/capitalist innovations such as Green Revolution seed varieties in order to suggest that capitalism really does hold solutions to the environmental problems of the planet. This was, though, one of the more moderate responses. I was also pretty stridently attacked me for being anti-American, anti-Enlightenment, and anti-democratic. It was rather like being back in the Cold War, where any criticism of specific U.S. policies was equated with being against the American people in general. But I guess if one equates capitalism with the U.S., this is the only inference to draw. I would quarrel with such an equation, of course.
I was also surprised by the reaction of the prof who invited me to do this report back. He said he disagreed with the theory of eco-imperialism that I advanced in my talk (which I’m putting up online in the “Talks” section of this website). In addition, he said that he thought I need to frame my comments in a way that would not alienate people in the U.S. Now of course I know that one has to be savvy rhetorically and try to communicate in a way that will not make people’s eyes glaze over. But I suppose that I felt that an academic environment meant that I could be forthright about what the language employed at the People’s Conference on Climate Change was, and that I could state unequivocally that I agreed with this language. The idea that I should censor the conference proceedings or my own ideas in order to coddle some potentially offended audience strikes me as anathema to academic freedom and to what should be happening in the university. All in all, although I enjoyed the opportunity to respond strongly to the criticisms articulated by the audience at Fordham, this was a pretty disturbing encounter.
Am I being too harsh? Unrealistically idealistic?
The issue of how to frame climate justice is certainly a burning one. How can we get away from the ubiquitous ideology of TINA (There Is No Alternative)?