ACT has decided they’re environmentalists. Which, great! I suppose. (This feels very research-group driven, doesn’t it. Like, ACT paid someone to find out which demographics liked David Seymour, and it turned out to be younger voters, who also care about the environment, and so ACT now cares about the environment.) But, anyway, I wanted to make one point:
“The worst environmental disasters occurred in the Soviet Union, basically because there is nobody who owns property saying, ‘Hey, if you pollute this you are going to devalue my property,'” Mr Seymour told the Herald.
The worst environmental disaster – by an incomprehensible magnitude – is climate change, which is mostly coming from the large capitalist economies and intensifies as developing countries adopt industrial capitalism. But if you look at this list of historical environmental disasters you see a bunch of them happened in socialist or communist economies -Chernobyl, the Aral sea, etc – but also a bunch of them happened in capitalist economies. And, if the Cold War turned out differently there would still be socialised coal power stations and countless socialised cars spewing out carbon and heating the planet. Neither system deals well with environmental externalities.
One of the biggest political and environmental books of the last few years has been Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything, in which Klein argues that the main driver of climate change is free market capitalism, and the solution to the problem of how to stop climate change is that we get rid of capitalism. (She is super-vague about what we should replace it with: ‘creative communities’ is about as specific as it gets). The core of her argument is that capitalism is a system that is based on the premise of infinite growth, but we live on a planet of finite resources. This rapidly increasing growth is consuming those resources, and, she says, climate change is the most catastrophic symptom of this phenomenon.
It’s a very popular argument among environmental circles, but I have huge problems with Klein’s hypothesis. Firstly, if we wave a wand and get rid of capitalism overnight we still have a planet with seven billion people on it, almost all of whom want to live lives made easier by technologies which are fueled by the consumption/emission of carbon. But, I think Klein would reply, at least we wouldn’t have a system that kept driving all those people to more and more growth and consumption.
That’s where she really loses me. If we no longer had free markets we’d still have the basic economic problems of scarcity and allocation. We’d need to figure out who got what, and why. That’s a political problem and, presuming that Klein’s creative communities have democracy, its leaders or communal decision making process or whatever would need to find political solutions to it, or get replaced by other leaders who could. And the most peaceful, politically palatable solution to that problem is always going to be economic growth. Everyone gets a little bit more! Obviously in late capitalism this solution is horribly broken – but if Klein has figured out a way for democracies to peacefully resolve demand and allocation without growth then she forgets to mention it. Otherwise we’d just have ‘creative communities’ chasing growth instead of corporations and, if they couldn’t deliver it, their polities demanding political economies that could. Like, say, free market capitalism.
I sometimes wonder if Thatcher’s mantra ‘There Is No Alternative’ has been too successful, and that people think the current, very dysfunctional form of capitalism is the only model available. But there’s nothing inevitable or even logical about the current settings of capitalism as its practiced in the anglosphere, or anywhere else. There’s no reason we tax income rather than carbon, say; or make it illegal to pour poison in the water supply but legal and even profitable to operate a coal power plant. They’re arbitrary political settings which can be changed. It is going to be really tough to change capitalism so that it is compatible with the environment. But that challenge is nothing compared to the task of overthrowing capitalism, which, even if it was somehow achieved, wouldn’t actually solve the original problem.