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Dead Zones, Carbon Taxes and Plutocratic Shell Games

Hank Paulson Does Global Warming

by ROB URIE

A recent editorial by former Goldman Sachs CEO and (George W.) Bush administration Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson in the New York Times called attention to the issue of global warming. In the piece Mr. Paulson related global warming to the ‘global financial crisis’ for which he bears some personal responsibility from his role at GS. He also called on an amorphous ‘we’ to take concerted action to avert climate catastrophe. While the issue is real and in dire need of rectification it is part of a larger set of social and environmental ills that need to be addressed in integrated fashion for solutions to be effective. And left largely unexplored in the back-and-forth press account of Mr. Paulson’s thesis is the causal link between the twin ‘crises’ he identifies and global capitalism run amok.

The piece was met with pragmatic ‘strategizing’ over the political feasibility of a tax on carbon emissions— Mr. Paulson’s call to arms, versus ‘cap and trade,’ the George H.W. Bush era ‘market based’ plan to trade these emissions as a commodity under the premise that giving pollution rights a price would limit pollution. The limited number of ‘politically feasible’ solutions put forward— two, is a dead giveaway that the fix is in. And the near avalanche of global warming denialism unleashed by the piece yet again called into question the ability of climate science to possess the historical understanding needed to correctly deduce ‘our’ place in millions of years of climate fact, as if related evidence of broad environmental catastrophe weren’t in such presence that all who have eyes can see it. Together this strongly suggests that the ‘pragmatic’ strategy of viewing global warming in isolation serves to preclude effective solutions.

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Chart (1) above: Capitalist ‘reformers’ and global warming skeptics both depend on limiting the scope of available evidence to eternally debatable climate ‘science.’ What isn’t debatable is the cumulative environmental impact of capitalist production more broadly considered. Illustrated above by the black dots are the oceanic ‘dead zones’ surrounding the older industrial capitalist nations. Simply put, industrial capitalism has used rivers, streams and oceans as industrial toilets in the same way it has used the atmosphere. Climate change is but one aspect of already existing environmental catastrophe. Given the integrated nature of the biosphere environmental resolution must likewise be integrated. Source: Scientific American.

The use of the analogy of global warming to the ‘financial crisis’ is instructive on a number of levels. Major Wall Street banks behind the ‘crisis’ directly owned or had captive or near captive relations with the mortgage ‘lenders’ that acted as middlepersons to funnel overwhelmingly predatory loans to Wall Street’s ‘securitization’ machine. This system of finance made hundreds of billions of dollars for connected insiders while effectively destroying Western economies for a decade or more. The myth of resolution, of august white guys feverishly meeting to decide ‘the fate of the world,’ was in fact the same connected insiders who created the mess reviving the system of predatory finance that produced the looting in the first place. With history as a guide, the times between the last three crises caused by finance run amok have each been put forward as resolution when the trajectory of catastrophe is ever larger and more economically destructive. With broad evidence of environmental catastrophe in hand ‘we’ are out of time for plutocratic shell games.

To the uninitiated, cap-and-trade has been in place in Europe for fifteen years and it is a demonstrated scam. It is easy to game, has perverse incentives and has no global enforcement mechanism. In short, neo-liberal free marketers had their chance with cap-and-trade and time is up. Mr. Paulson’s solution of a carbon tax likewise depends on disincentives rather than proscription— on economic cat-and-mouse games rather than simply forcing polluters to stop polluting. The theoretical frame of the tax is that ‘we,’ the world broadly considered, created the social and environmental catastrophes of global capitalism and that raising the market price through a tax will lead ‘us’ to pollute less. The problem with this frame is that it is a self-serving misdirection from the capitalist West, that it isolates global warming from the broad range of related environmental consequences of capitalist production and that it makes no direct relation between the creation of environmental catastrophe and those who bear its consequences.

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Chart (2) above: In addition to the oceanic dead zones surrounding capitalist countries where all life has been extinguished the great oceans of the world are becoming so clogged with garbage that their navigation is being impacted. A ‘vortex’ of garbage ‘the size of Texas’ contains ‘patches’ so large that it takes ships days to get around them. Given the role that oceans play in the integrated biosphere these ‘patches’ of garbage are more than simply a nuisance— they reduce the capacity for ‘natural’ restoration of the broader environment including global warming. Source NOAA.

The issue of ‘incentives’ needs to be addressed because it is the fundamental canon of Western economics. With minimal digression, the frame of capitalist economics is of localized ‘choice’ in the context of a global ‘state of nature.’ Incentives are theorized to direct choice in one direction or another. Without ‘incentives’ the choice might be between a Ford and a Chevrolet. With incentives the choice might be re-directed to be between a hybrid car and a gas guzzling SUV. In the first place, the ‘state of nature’ that is global political economy is anything but ‘natural’— it has taken three centuries of imperial relations to engineer the dependencies at work in modern political economy. Secondly, the implied premise that under any configuration of the world seven billion people could drive hybrid cars is a Western bourgeois hallucination. If the notion is extended that ‘the world’ can live Western ‘lifestyles’ and still have an environment hospitable to life its implausibility is made evident. Finally, the fact of these engineered dependencies explained from the bottom up, as the result of choosing Coke over Pepsi a very large number of times, leaves the insipid cadavers responsible for the mess they’ve created to determine the solutions.

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Graph (1) above: The U.S., industrial Europe (Germany, France), Britain and Japan are the capitalist countries surrounded by oceanic dead zones in Chart (1) above. These are also collectively the largest emitters of greenhouse gases over the twentieth century. Far and away the U.S. bears the most responsibility for global warming. When Hank Paulson or Barack Obama speak of a collective global ‘we’ responsible for creating and resolving global warming this deflects culpability from the conspicuous culprits. The U.S. has spent the last century and a half engineering dependence to industrial production. There is no resolution of global warming and its related environmental dysfunction possible without radically restructuring Western capitalist production beginning with the U.S. Sources: The World Bank and the World Resources Institute.

The issue of engineered dependencies is real and must be addressed as part of any integrated solution to environmental catastrophe. Fossil fuel is an engineered dependence— American industrialists, militarists, merchants and their lobbyists have participated in decisions like zoning for low and mid-density suburbs versus high density cities, building roads and highways versus mass transit, industrial agriculture versus sustainable local production, to create a world where ‘we’ are dependent on cars, fossil fuels and highways to work, travel and buy goods and services largely produced by others. Without restructuring political economy away from these engineered dependencies any efforts toward environmental resolution will create instant social catastrophes like widespread unemployment and crippling poverty. But the fitting analogy is of the person who set the house on fire offering to put it out for a price. The Western economist’s ‘choice’ between a Ford and a Chevrolet, or even between a hybrid car and an SUV, is not the collective choice between more highways and mass transit.

Conversely, the ‘pragmatic’ choice of local solutions—a tax on carbon emissions that will raise the price, proceeds from the premise that steps in the direction of environmental resolution are sufficient without outlining what is in fact necessary to be effective. Spraying water from a garden hose onto a forest fire may be a step in the right direction without having a material impact on the spread of the fire. Global warming is but one aspect of an approach to the world— capitalist production, that is increasingly unsustainable. Global warming didn’t ‘cause’ the oceanic dead zones surrounding capitalist countries nor did it produce the vortices of garbage now clogging oceans only a generation ago considered unfathomably large and un-destroyable. Genetically modified foods— another roll-of-the-dice by monopoly capitalists to gain control over global food production, has created all new engineered dependencies for the sake of corporate profits with no consideration given to the potentially catastrophic consequences being unleashed.

If a carbon tax were tied to concrete actions to restructure global political economy for true environmental resolution there would be no issue taken with it here. But these are the facts— catastrophic environmental degradation is inexorably tied to capitalist production. Efforts to incrementally ‘reform’ this production have a century or more of demonstrated failure behind them and the eternal solution of more capitalism, e.g. cap-and-trade, is at this point so demonstrably ineffective that it can rightly be considered a cynical diversion. Engineered dependencies are the levers used to maintain the status quo— the old industrialist practice of regularly firing workers to keep the work force pliable has been reproduced on a global level to assure that challenges to this status quo are met with the infliction of maximum economic pain. If the carbon tax crowd is sincere let them tie the tax to a holistic approach to environmental resolution.

Rob Urie is an artist and political economist. His Book Zen Economics is forthcoming.