Efforts to find a viable path to mitigating climate chaos and forging an ecologically viable economy are just not moving fast enough. They seem bogged down in struggles over old ideas and inadequate actions. Even some of the most esteemed liberal economists who are not on the corporate bandwagon have failed to escape this trap.
Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz, both highly respected liberal economists, oppose the crass neo-conservative economic ideology of corporate imperialism. Yet, in his own way each remains trapped in the general economic ideology of extractive capitalism as the only way forward. Krugman imagines robust restrictions on carbon emissions without curtailing economic growth. Stiglitz imagines a ‘reformed’ capitalism where healthy competition can be restored. The imaginary and the possible are not necessarily the same.
French economist Thomas Piketty’s recent book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, has received vastly more attention and sales than ever expected of a heavy economic tome. Piketty seems to expect inequality to be reduced by expanding economic growth. A simpler version of the myth of sharing a “bigger economic pie” or the “rising tide lifts all boats” story is available in any Econ. 101 class. Unfortunately for these fables, inequality is a positive feedback loop – greater power begets greater power.
Meanwhile, Krugman argued in his September 18, 2014 New York Times column, that carbon emissions can be reduced cheaply amidst strong economic growth. He does not mention the skyrocketing depletion rates of many important industrial materials – including petroleum – upon which continued economic growth depends. The connection between economic growth, growing poverty, and climate disruption is nowhere to be found.
Stiglitz writes in last September’s Harper’s Magazine, that Piketty is wrong in concluding that inequality is an inevitable outcome of capitalism. Instead, he says, ‘capitalism as we know it’ isn’t truly competitive like a capitalist system should be. Our system’s growing extreme disparities in income and wealth have been engineered by the wealthy. Stiglitz would reform capitalism.
Ending Economic Ideology
Stiglitz and Krugman are stalwart and articulate critics of the neoliberal economic ideology that attempts to justify corporate dominion over economic and political policy. However, despite their rather sophisticated economic analyses, our present economic system is what it is because it is not allowed to be reformed. The concentration of both wealth and income in the hands of a small elite is inherent in any economy in which excessive political power accrues to the financial elite. Inequality is becoming extreme, extractive demands of industrial production grow ever stronger as resources are depleted, and the devastation of the planet continues. Reform? You can’t get there from here.
As the international death dance continues around failed commitments to reduce carbon emissions, sufficient national and international actions to curtail climate chaos seem ever more unlikely. We know a lot about carbon emissions and the most important sources. Technically, the necessary reduction of greenhouse gas emissions could be planned as effectively as the U.S. mobilized the entire economy upon entering World War II. But execution is a political matter and therein lays the collective failure. Another way is needed and not even the most sincere and smart conventional economists seem able to help.
Increasing poverty, massive concentration of income and wealth, and accelerating climate disruption all have the same cause. The economy of endless growth required by the debt-driven imperatives of extractive capital is not susceptible to political reform. The very financial and corporate elites that drive the economy have captured and completely control the key players in the political process. We must look elsewhere for solutions. And elsewhere we will find them.
Resistance and Replacement: Actions Reforming Ideas
The people and the planet desperately need resistance to and replacement of the very institutions that even the most liberal critics of economic and environmental failure cannot give up. As neo-conservative economic policies still seek to solidify the empire of growth, progressive leaning conventional economists seek to reform what needs to be replaced. Powerful financial and corporate elites do not give up easily. Consider Jamie Diamond’s arrogant dismissal of Elisabeth Warren’s desire to regulate Wall Street’s excesses. The conversation in which it occurred is noted in the Afterward to the paperback re-issue of her book, A Fighting Chance.
Neither resistance nor replacement will be easy. But both will be nurtured by the growing sense among more and more people that we are on a path to catastrophe and need an immediate course correction. There is much to learn from non-violent movements of resistance that have succeeded, as reported in Peter Ackerman and Jack Duvall’s A Force More Powerful: A Century of Nonviolent Conflict. Even so, new models of resistance must involve accelerated withdrawal from the consumerist complex – no easy task. There is still a place for the forms of resistance seen in the Occupy and Arab Spring movements. But Gene Sharp, whose From Dictatorship to Democracy: A Conceptual Framework for Liberation, inspired those movements’ strategies, urged practical agility and creativity in fighting oppressive forces.
Today’s forces of oppression, especially in the ‘industrially advanced’ nations, are of a different order than the old dictatorships. The “inverted totalitarianism” with a façade of democratic formalism, as Sheldon Wolin describes in Democracy Incorporated, calls for new creative forms of resistance. Naomi Kline argues for ideologically driven forms of resistance in This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate. However, new ideologies of humane social and economic relations, economic justice, and ecological society must be shaped by resistance that has direct and meaningful relationships to the immediate crises we face.
Replacement of the failed perpetual-growth political economy and its extractive energy-production and consumption practices requires even more creativity and organization. Various books, magazines, and Web sites, such as John Brown Childs, Trans-Communality, David Korten, Change the Story, Change the Future, Yes! Magazine, and Resilience.org – to name just a few – seek alternative cultural and political as well as economic paths. Works like that of Juliet B. Schor, author of True Wealth: How and Why Millions of Americans Are Creating a Time-Rich, Ecologically Light, Small-Scale, High-Satisfaction Economy, point to the formation of a new society grounded in humanity’s relationship to the earth and all its inhabitants. The idea of the good life is captured in that title. Many families and communities are experimenting with new ways of living outside of institutional entanglements. But much more is needed and on a much larger scale.
The hard part, of course, is getting it done, especially with so little time before catastrophic consequences of our current path become unavoidable. Some argue that it is too late. But that claim is pointless. We fight not because we will win; we fight because we must win.