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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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