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Our Economic System is Driving Climate Change

The Tornado and Other Man-Made Disasters

by KEN KLIPPENSTEIN

The ancient Greeks attributed weather to the god Zeus; today we can safely attribute it to industrial capitalism and its voracious consumption of fossil fuels. The carnage left by a tornado in Oklahoma yesterday is just the latest in our economic system’s daunting body count. Other recent examples include the mass suicides of farmers in India, who because of drought are losing their crops and therefore their livelihoods (a foreshadowing of climate change’s impact on global agriculture); the deadly garment factory collapse in Bangladesh, about which fellow CounterPuncher Vijay Prashad wrote a fine piece; and the explosion of a fertilizer plant in West, Texas, due to lax regulatory agencies. Zeus’ lightning bolts seem quaint by comparison.

The mainstream media’s coverage of the tornado in Moore, Oklahoma will be predictable. Politicians will recite their liturgy of solemn condolences and deepest gratitudes. The more ostentatious ones will flatter the community of Moore with condescending talk about how tough they are and how they’ll move past this—as Obama did to Boston following the Marathon bombing. Amidst all these helpful remarks, no politician will discuss how to prevent future natural disasters.

At best there will be a critique of FEMA’s response to the tragedy. To be fair, critiques of this sort are not totally insignificant. Rigid, hierarchical relief organizations like FEMA perform far worse in crises compared with less authoritarian, horizontal approaches, like that of Occupy to Hurricane Sandy. In a recent book titled “Managing Crises: Responses to Large-Scale Emergencies,” two establishment Harvard professors concede that FEMA’s bureaucratic (i.e. hierarchical) structure was an important flaw causing its failed response to Hurricane Katrina.

Though disaster response may be discussed, disaster prevention will not. For the only known way to prevent extreme weather events is to prevent climate change, which is a taboo subject in mainstream media. I do not mean to say that these media forbid discussion of climate change, or even proposals of solutions. What are instead forbidden are serious solutions. One example of this would be reducing consumption, which is, of course, blasphemous to the establishment, because it’s incompatible with capitalism. Given our present system, growth (and hence consumption) is necessary for prosperity, or even subsistence. This would seem to be self-evidently problematic. To mainstream economists, however, it is the bedrock of their profession. It is all well and good to bombard ordinary Americans with tiresome iterations of how we must ‘live within our means’; the managers of the economy, on the other hand, are free to believe in the magic of infinite growth. Establishment economists essentially believe that they have discovered the first perpetual motion machine: the global economy.

The impact of increasing growth is remarkably evident, even by the crudest measures. Consider the EPA’s graph of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions. From 1990 onward it increases with almost zero deviation—until 2007-8. The reason that emissions drop off so sharply here is because that was when the global financial crisis occurred. And the decline in carbon emissions was not limited to the U.S.: according to the European Union’s Emissions Trading Scheme, emissions from heavy industry they analyzed fell 3.1 percent in 2008 compared with 2007. Their view, paraphrased by Reuters, is that “This was due to falling industrial output from the global economic slowdown.” Therefore, given the present configuration of the economy, what is good for the economy is bad for the environment.

Another example of a serious solution to climate change is installing a high-speed transit system, which did in fact exist in the U.S. for some time. The only reason it doesn’t exist in any serious measure today is because a bunch of corporations like GM, Firestone, Standard Oil Of California, and others got together and bought the existing streetcars and electric train systems, and junked them all. This monopolistic move was so flagrant that the corporations responsible were tried and sentenced for conspiracy. (Incidentally the paltry fine was not great enough to seriously hamper their efforts.) Now we have the interstate highway system, the construction and maintenance of which is extremely oil intensive. The much-romanticized ‘freeway’ (a nice Orwellian term) does leave those of us who can afford cars to drive however we please—well, within a few yards or so of the vehicles in front of and behind us.

Solutions like reducing consumption and installing high-speed transit systems would not only prevent extreme weather events like the tornado in Oklahoma, it would also diminish their severity. This was the conclusion of climate scientist Kevin Trenberth of the National Center for Atmospheric Research. In a recent interview with Scientific American about the tornado in Moore, he states that, while “the climate change effect is probably only a 5 to 10 percent effect in terms of the instability…it translates into up to a 33 percent effect in terms of damage.” In other words, under conditions of less carbon emissions, even if the tornado had still occurred, it would have been less likely to cause as much damage as it did. But don’t expect to hear that in the mainstream media: they are too busy emphasizing our helplessness in the face of such ‘acts of god’—a god whose supremacy was usurped by industrial capitalism years ago.

Ken Klippenstein lives in Madison, Wisconsin, where he edits the left issues website whiterosereader.org He can be reached at reader246@gmail.com