FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

The Climate Crisis and the Crisis in Western Economics

It is tempting to view resolution of environmental crises as a technocratic exercise: if global warming is an isolated problem that may some day in the distant future have ambiguous consequences then this might call for incremental adjustments to greenhouse gas emissions. If it is one of a related series of environmental problems that is already having profound effects with potentially dire consequences more immediate and drastic action might need to be taken. And if some of the evidence is ambiguous but the consequences of being wrong are potentially catastrophic then more weight might be given to the potential catastrophe than to the ambiguity of the evidence.

However, in whose economic calculus are the lives of those affected by environmental destruction comparable to its causes? What might be the basis of this equating? Here is the practical problem: the likely technocrats to be charged with these calculations, Western economists, count the flooding of New Orleans as economically ‘neutral’ but its rebuilding as an economic windfall in their economic ‘growth’ calculations. This is neither an accident nor an oversight. It is the ‘logical’ result of a framework that counts direct economic production as economic ‘goods’ but that doesn’t deduct indirect economic production (‘externalities’) like CO2 emissions from it.

Screen Shot 2014-10-10 at 10.06.15 AM

Chart (1) above: the fundamental problem economic views of the world is that Western (capitalist) economics only ‘sees’ that which has a market price. Oil that finds its way to market is an economic ‘good’ but oil that finds its way into the Gulf of Mexico isn’t counted as an economic ‘bad.’ The operative term here is ‘counted.’ Of course it is recognized as an economic ‘bad.’ But it isn’t deducted from the calculation of capitalist production. This renders environmental catastrophe invisible in the Western technocratic frame. The capitalist ‘solution’ of putting a price on CO2 emissions, ‘cap-and-trade,’ leaves capitalists to determine the price and leaves the rest of the world necessary to existence ‘un-priced.’

Technocratic questions are embedded with the answer to whose interests they serve. The starting frame is that both problems and potential solutions are technocratic in nature. However, a ‘system’ of political economy that concentrates its benefits in the hands of a few but distributes its harms broadly suggests that its problems are social in nature. Environmental destruction is this exact type of mal-distribution. In what view of the world is it possible to ‘equate’ the lives of the people in Bangladesh or New Orleans who are currently, in the present, being impacted by environmental destruction through increased flooding, risk of flooding, and with it death, with a ‘unit’ of economic growth?

The Climate Crisis and the Crisis in Western Economics_html_m503076f

Graph (1) above: as global warming skeptics sometimes put it, the world is a large, complex and mysterious place. This granted; a significant effort has been put into relating ‘greenhouse effect’ theory to actual outcomes in the world. NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) related the theory, that high atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases, in this case CO2, would lead to a rising global temperature, to subsequent outcomes. Of consequence is that the theory appears to match actual outcomes and that global warming is already well underway. Source: NOAA.

This same embedding of interests can be seen in how the technocratic realm of concern is drawn: is global warming an isolated environmental problem or is it related to others with potentially serious or catastrophic outcomes? The term ‘dead and dying oceans’ refers to the dead zones surrounding the major industrial economies of the world, over-fishing that has radically altered oceanic ecosystems, the vortex of garbage twice the size of Texas now floating in the Pacific ocean and the twenty-five percent increase in ocean acidity over the last century due to CO2 emissions. Melting ice due to global warming has caused sea levels to rise eight inches and is threatening low-lying cities around the globe. Increasing droughts and floods from global warming are already occurring and are predicted to be both more frequent and more severe. Limiting the realm of concern to global warming is a political act that serves specific interests.

The Climate Crisis and the Crisis in Western Economics_html_5871d87f

Graph (2) above: to limit the realm of environmental concern, and with it potential resolution, to global warming is to assume that we, people broadly considered, can live without oceans, arable land and drinkable water. Already the combination of oceanic dead zones caused by industrial agricultural run-off and over fishing have radically depleted and reconfigured oceanic ecosystems. People who depend on living oceans, arable land and drinkable water are conspicuously not those deciding which environmental problems are in need of resolution and which are not. Source: http://collapseofindustrialcivilization.com/tag/ocean-dead-zones/

What ties all of these environmental outcomes together is the last one and one-half centuries of Western consumption that is now spreading around the world. The obverse of Western consumption is capitalist production. The oceanic dead zones are by-and-large caused by the agricultural run-off from industrial agriculture. Over-fishing is the result of capitalist ‘efficiency’ in net trawling of which half or more of the fish caught are dumped back into the ocean dead. The vortex of garbage is consumer and industrial garbage dumped into the oceans under the premise that the world is a garbage dump. The rise in ocean acidity is from CO2 emissions caused by industrial production and Western consumption.

The Climate Crisis and the Crisis in Western Economics_html_56c30b09

Graph (2) above: the question of whether it is capitalist production or consumption to blame for environmental crises is red (dead?) herring. Over the last century and one half the U.S., Europe and Japan put about sixty-percent of global CO2 emissions into the atmosphere as they developed modern consumer cultures. This same pattern still exists with per capita consumption in these countries being between 5X and 8X that of the world as a whole. And to state the obvious, there is no consumption without economic production. Source: World Bank.

On the technocratic front there is a cautionary tale being put forward that needs to be addressed. The basic argument is that economic growth is the way to lift those now living in poverty out of it. Economist Paul Krugman has made the related argument that incremental efficiencies can maintain the economic status quo. The basic frame of the ‘lifting people out of poverty’ argument is that a state of nature has placed large numbers of people in poverty, that the capitalist West found ‘our’ way out of poverty through industrialization and that the rest of the world can do so as well. Featured prominently in this argument are China, India and the continent of Africa.

Left conveniently out of this account is the century or two that much of Southeastern China, India and some African nations were raped, pillaged and plundered by their imperial British overlords. Also left out are the arbitrary national boundaries that were imposed, the residuals of imperial pillage left behind and the shift from state- imperialism to corporate-state imperialism that miraculously converted formerly coerced relations to the hypothesized coercion-free ‘market’ relations of neo-liberalism. Also prominently not featured is the imperial wealth relocated by the British, various and sundry European nations and the Americans into their very own pockets now being put forward as economic ‘production.’

The ‘state of nature’ canard features prominently in Mr. Krugman’s worldview as well. The basic frame is that economic growth benefits us all, that draconian measures to solve global warming will cause more harm than good and that simple technical solutions like higher fuel efficiency standards and slowing transport ships down to boost their fuel efficiency will solve the problem. To the first, that economic growth benefits us all, once the canard that global poverty is a ‘state of nature’ finds more probable explanation in imperial history the approximate metric of who benefits from economic growth can be found in Graph (2) above. To the second, was global warming an isolated problem far off in time incremental solutions might be workable, but it is neither. To the third, the U.S. passed fuel efficiency standards in 1975 and since then global CO2 emissions have more than doubled.

To be clear, there is no objection found here to raising fuel efficiency standards and other incremental moves toward environmental resolution. Good luck getting around the trade agreements long supported by Western economists that are designed to thwart such efforts. But the problems are monumental, in the present and urgent. Appointing a ‘blue ribbon panel’ of bankers and oil and gas industry hacks to ‘study the issue’ is a cynical dodge, not an honest effort at resolution. And any useful economics would step outside of the Western frame to consider the idea of commensurability. Were it the families, neighbors and communities of the economists doing the calculating that were at risk the idea of trading their lives for someone else’s unit of economic growth might have different meaning.

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

More articles by:

Rob Urie is an artist and political economist. His book Zen Economics is published by CounterPunch Books.

Weekend Edition
December 07, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Steve Hendricks
What If We Just Buy Off Big Fossil Fuel? A Novel Plan to Mitigate the Climate Calamity
Jeffrey St. Clair
Cancer as Weapon: Poppy Bush’s Radioactive War on Iraq
Paul Street
The McCain and Bush Death Tours: Establishment Rituals in How to be a Proper Ruler
Jason Hirthler
Laws of the Jungle: The Free Market and the Continuity of Change
Ajamu Baraka
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights at 70: Time to De-Colonize Human Rights!
Andrew Levine
Thoughts on Strategy for a Left Opposition
Jennifer Matsui
Dead of Night Redux: A Zombie Rises, A Spook Falls
Rob Urie
Degrowth: Toward a Green Revolution
Binoy Kampmark
The Bomb that Did Not Detonate: Julian Assange, Manafort and The Guardian
Robert Hunziker
The Deathly Insect Dilemma
Robert Fisk
Spare Me the American Tears for the Murder of Jamal Khashoggi
Joseph Natoli
Tribal Justice
Ron Jacobs
Getting Pushed Off the Capitalist Cliff
Macdonald Stainsby
Unist’ot’en Camp is Under Threat in Northern Canada
Senator Tom Harkin
Questions for Vice-President Bush on Posada Carriles
W. T. Whitney
Two Years and Colombia’s Peace Agreement is in Shreds
Ron Jacobs
Getting Pushed Off the Capitalist Cliff
Ramzy Baroud
The Conspiracy Against Refugees
David Rosen
The Swamp Stinks: Trump & Washington’s Rot
Raouf Halaby
Wall-to-Wall Whitewashing
Daniel Falcone
Noam Chomsky Turns 90
Dean Baker
An Inverted Bond Yield Curve: Is a Recession Coming?
Nick Pemberton
The Case For Chuck Mertz (Not Noam Chomsky) as America’s Leading Intellectual
Ralph Nader
New Book about Ethics and Whistleblowing for Engineers Affects Us All!
Dan Kovalik
The Return of the Nicaraguan Contras, and the Rise of the Pro-Contra Left
Jeremy Kuzmarov
Exposing the Crimes of the CIAs Fair-Haired Boy, Paul Kagame, and the Rwandan Patriotic Front
Jasmine Aguilera
Lessons From South of the Border
Manuel García, Jr.
A Formula for U.S. Election Outcomes
Sam Pizzigati
Drug Company Execs Make Millions Misleading Cancer Patients. Here’s One Way to Stop Them
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
Agriculture as Wrong Turn
James McEnteer
And That’s The Way It Is: Essential Journalism Books of 2018
Chris Gilbert
Biplav’s Communist Party of Nepal on the Move: Dispatch by a Far-Flung Bolivarian
Judith Deutsch
Siloed Thinking, Climate, and Disposable People: COP 24 and Our Discontent
Jill Richardson
Republicans Don’t Want Your Vote to Count
John Feffer
‘Get Me Outta Here’: Trump Turns the G20 into the G19
Domenica Ghanem
Is Bush’s Legacy Really Much Different Than Trump’s?
Peter Certo
Let Us Argue Over Dead Presidents
Christopher Brauchli
Concentration Camps From Here to China
ANIS SHIVANI
The Progress of Fascism Over the Last Twenty Years
Steve Klinger
A Requiem for Donald Trump
Al Ronzoni
New Deals, From FDR’s to the Greens’
Gerald Scorse
America’s Rigged Tax Collection System
Louis Proyect
Praying the Gay Away
Rev. Theodore H. Lockhart
A Homily: the Lord Has a Controversy With His People?
David Yearsley
Bush Obsequies
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail