Eco-Strategic Review| Part 1.
With all the weather calamities happening this summer, and the arctic death spiral continuing to spiral towards death, I return to an old question of mine: what went wrong?
I am not a fatalist or a determinist. Choices have consequences. It’s clear to me my next choices will have consequences that I should take seriously, and, a consequence of this view is that my choices in the past were not somehow “unavoidable” or “meant to be”. My own personal life could be radically different if I made different choices. So too for humanity.
So too, the environmental movement. It’s easy to blame “the others” for the failure of the environmental movement, and the denialist industry, the apathetic, and even people who want a climate crisis as “worth it” for keeping the party going while they’re alive, are definitely there, and it’s reasonable to place the moral blame primarily on them.
However, placing moral blame does not actually remove one’s own responsibility to make the best decisions we can. Although theoretically useful in some sense — we can’t make any decisions at all without a moral theory, and, if our theory has any meaningful content, then we can indeed evaluate other’s decisions as “good or bad” with the same standard we apply to ourselves — the only really practical affect of focusing on blame is to justify apathy because other’s are to blame, why try … which, as we just saw, are people we just put in the “people to blame camp”; therefore, to simply join them for the simple fact they exist in the first place, is completely nonsensical.
So, if we don’t want to be hypocrites by joining the people we blame due to the fact that they are blamable, what is of practical use is focusing on our own decisions and if they are the best or not.
The environmental movement was not fated to fail this round (of avoiding mass species extinction for plenty of non-climate related damages, and also already passing 1C warming which will result in more species extinction … and haven’t yet even peaked emissions). Better decisions could have been made.
This is the first article in a series trying to go as deep into this topic as possible.
After careful thought, the first contender for the biggest strategic blunder of the environmental movement was trying to embrace capitalism in the 90s.
Prior to the 90s, the environmental movement was fairly clearly a critique of capitalism, a critique of consumerism and a critique of car culture.
Back then, we were not so dulled to species extinction and climate change; these were the “big topics”. The Soviet Union had fallen, the world was at “peace”, democracy had won, China was far from being a super power. Crucially, terrorism, which was never a existential threat to our civilization remotely close to climate change, had not yet been sold to people as the actual “big issue” that should take center stage, both as “the big” problem in itself as well as discussing policy responses of mass surveillance, torture, depleted uranium, multi-decade wars, and so on.
The environmental movement really had momentum back then; issues that competed for the “big issue” were clearly smaller things in themselves, such as the Israeli occupation of Palestinian (which, under Bill Clinton, seemed to be going in a positive direction). An environmentalist was Vice President of the USA, the undisputed super power and essentially unilateral setter of global policy: victorious against the Soviet Union, which the opening of archives started to reveal far worse crimes than the USA in Vietnam or random bombings (so point there), leader or legitimate democracies, creator of the highest quality of life ever seen on earth by nearly every metric, a strong press (not yet destroyed by the internet) that engaged in serious debate and held politicians to rational arguments of at least some form.
The fly in the ointment was the environmental cost. But, the Soviet Union was clearly much worse, Chernobyl was the poster boy for that, all production had yet to be transferred to communist China to take advantage rolling environmental regulation back to the 19th century London, and so, in the context of the 90s, Western capitalism actually boasted of being relatively environmentally friendly; lot’s of messes and processes had really been cleaned up, thanks to democracy, serious policy discussion and that “can-do” capitalist innovation spirit.
All this to say, the environmental movement “cutting a deal” with capitalism seemed very attractive at the time. Western Capitalism had made a strong deal of ozone depleting CFC’s, had cleaned up the air a lot (in Western countries), and the worst of individual poisons could be checked through the court system. A key prediction, the collapse of the cod fisheries, had come true; this single, now forgotten, experience had a big impact on people, who not only liked eating cheap cod before, but empathized with the fisher-people losing their employment, and so it was a big wake-up call to not take things for granted and that whole industries ignored environmental problems at their own peril. Things were taking time, but there were plenty of environmental results, both big and small.
All this momentum was supposed to lead to the crowning achievement: the Kyoto Protocol. A complete disaster.
There’s a lot of analysis of why Kyoto failed and what went wrong in the negotiations.
What I’d like to focus on here is the core idea that lead to environmental groups backing Kyoto, moving from critique of capitalism, consumerism and cars, to essentially embracing these concepts.
After lot’s of reflection on the movement back then and what’s happened since, there is one poison seed that got planted at the heart of environmentalism that day.
That is the: market mechanism. That’s what Kyoto ultimately was: we will solve things through the market. There was of course lot’s of criticism of this idea, starting with the obvious reason that it’s proposing that more or the problem will somehow create a solution, but these voices were sidelined then and since, as the main environmental groups bent the knee to the market and simultaneously declared victory.
The market will be “efficient”, consumerism will no longer be questioned, cars would be powered by “renewable” bio-fuels.
How this disastrously poisonous idea, or more market worship, took hold is very simple.
The fantasy based economic theories of the “pure capitalists” are not actually incompatible with environmentalism. Milton Friedman himself had zero problem admitting that the polluter should indeed pay. And, if the polluter did actually pay for the damages, then not only would those damages be repaired through the payment, but the internalization of the true environmental cost would motivate cleaner solutions to win out over dirtier ones.
If we stay in this fantasy world of an efficient market with internalized costs, it really does work. Maybe there’s a lot of poor people in libertarian paradise who can’t afford education for their children, but, at at least there’s a functioning ecosystem around for those children to be uneducated about.
And indeed, if this deal was actually on offer, I would take it. If the “free market” does indeed result in a lot of poverty, which I believe, I’d still choose a sustainable economy with a lot of poverty over a unsustainable economy with better economic equality (since, that system, being unsustainable, would end, resulting in far worse poverty).
This was the Faustian bargain the most influential environmentalists leading up to, at, and since the Kyoto Protocol; libertarian environmentalism has subtly dominated the debate since.
The clue that what was promised in this bargain would never be delivered, is evident in Friedman’s followup sentences to accepting the polluter pays principle, which is simply denying all the major environmental problems exist and the EPA, and any environmental department, should be disbanded, along with basically everything except the courts, the police and the army.
It is a fantastical promise that only makes sense in the fantastical economic world view of fiction writers like Friedman.
Now, market transaction are indeed necessary in any realistically feasible economic system for any society remotely similar to human societies.
There is no denying some sort of market mechanism is needed. However, jumping from the obvious fact that for certain some “free” transactions between individuals are not only beneficial but essential impossible to avoid in any realistically functioning economy, the idea that market transactions should dominate the organization of society, is as absurd as starting with the obvious fact that some sort of centrally planned, hierarchical and bureaucratic justice system is required for any social organization to be possible and coherent — splitting the justice system results in different countries, not a better single country, and for countries to cooperate closer they need to create and accept a centrally planned justice system governing the extent of the cooperation; that an economic treaty between different polities requires arbitration to function, was already evident to the ancient Greeks — that, therefore, all social organization should be centrally planned.
And the issue is not simply the concept of regulation, which even the most extreme laissez-faire economist still employs in regulating contracts (so few venture forth from there to a “true” free market that includes private and competing justice systems, where the justice consumer has a choice of which system provides the best justice in the same jurisdiction, that I won’t bother explaining here how even more fantastical such a notion is compared with judicial unity and coherence in a single jurisdiction).
The question is as follows:
Who makes the regulations?
Western capitalism tells a story that “people make regulations”, but, the reality is that the money you have, the more you can de facto affect regulations. Too much money therefore results in the rich effectively making the regulations.
It is tempting to try to decouple environmental economics from social issues; the environment is the existential threat, so let’s just focus on that and ignore these other social issues. It’s tempting; for it’s easy to say to yourself “as long as we solve these environmental issues, then future generations have plenty of time to work out these other tricky, less important, social justice issues”.
But they cannot be decoupled.
In Friedman’s fantasy world of free-market education, the poor have poor educations and so will be easy to manipulate by the have’s to ensure market regulations serve the interests of the have’s.
Enter the moving goal posts of this delusion: The rich need the environment too! Lot’s of rich environmentalists scuba diving and shit!
The rich don’t need the environment. As our environmental problems become worse, the rich have done two things as a class:
1. Bought yahts, islands and bunkers; usually yahts that can take them to their private islands to enjoy their bunkers (and, yes, New Zealand is basically one big private island in this way of dealing with things).
2. Obsessed about going to space in a noble quest to diversify existential risk to “save humanity”.
3. Continued to finance environmental denialism which is, nearly universally, the source of their wealth.
The signs were on the wall
For there to be a real mistake, in a meaningful sense, there must be, at the time, both the information, intuition and analysis available to have avoided the mistake. If, given the same context, the same decision would be made, a bad result is simply bad luck and only a mistake from a hindsight viewpoint. If the conclusions and decisions were reasonable and sane and you’d do them again in the same situation, it’s not those decisions that are regrettable but only information one did not have, and could not obtain, or then later chance events turning out wrong. A “mistake” that one doesn’t regret and would do again, is a sort of oxymoron. Of course, it’s a question of nomenclature whether to call non-regretted unfortunate in hindsight decisions mistakes or not; it’s simply awkward to maintain that if the analysis of correct it’s a sort of “correct mistake”. However, whatever we call them, it’s not really useful to analyze, as we’re not changing the analysis and exploring potentially better decisions.
It’s much more fruitful to analyses regrettable mistake where we did have information and analysis that we could have put more effort to understand was correct at the time, or, indeed, knew at the time it was correct but ignored it for temporary convenience, such as money, career stability, saying nothing too controversial (all the same thing when it comes to environmentalism).
The writing needs to be on the wall, so to speak, even at the time but we ignored it in some sort of irrational process.
Of course, there’s always some reasons for that irrational denialism, what I explain above, but the writing was clearly on the wall, that there was some slight-of-hand “trick” being played by the capitalists was clear, and the decision to believe in the top-hat magic was due to wanting to believe.
For, at the same time as there was an environmentalist vice president in office, there was also a president leading the charge on deregulation.
How is an ideology trying to deregulate as much as possible going to somehow deliver on coherent environmental regulation?
Answer is obviously magic, there was zero reason to believe this.
“Green consumerism” is a contradiction in terms; protecting the environment is not a matter of consumer choice. If some choose to consumer the environment, in the name of freedom through their purchasing decisions, I am not equally free to consume environmental preservation somehow through my purchasing decisions.
Society must, in a general sense of through the result of some political process, choose to preserve the environment or not. It is simply complete magical thinking that it’s a personal choice for some people to preserve the environment which shouldn’t interfere with other people’s equally legitimate choice to consume the environment.
The “sustainability officer” corporate posts, sucked up the next generation of environmentalists like some sort of capitalist rapture, high up into another world of ecological buzz words, mystical sounding corporate missions and vaguely defined values. The only difference in this rapture scenario is the capitalist did not also want to go to this paradise, but the prize was staying on the ground and determining what happens there in reality and not conceptually in an alternate world the marketing gods created for the common folk, needing the best and brightest of the eco-speakers to sing out the good word from high above.
The market does not somehow produce social justice as a whimsical inevitable side-affect of less regulation, but only socially just and non-corrupt institutions can regulate the market in a just way and reasonable way (starting with judiciation and enforcement of those precious contracts that are at the basis of the so-called free market). Turns out, democracy has both strong theoretical reasons as well as empirical evidence in creating and maintaining non-corrupt institutions that can feasibly regulate markets in a reasonable way, and it turns out that, at minimum, people need a minimum to effectively participate in democracy: letting the market create poor people, results in poor voting decisions and corrupted institutions (which isn’t good for the “market” in some fantastical sense, but capitalists aren’t, even according to the libertarian’s own ideology, out to “do good for the market” they are out to profit and stay on top, and corrupting institutions is both the theoretical and practically proven best way to ensure achieving that goal).
The car powered by 10% bio-fuels is not suddenly sustainable and making that 10% bio-fuel on even a remotely close scale as the personal vehicle, trucks and planes requires, is not a remotely renewable energy source.
The electric car doesn’t actually now represent the market realizing biofuels was a total lure and now the market has discovered that’s the case and biofuels are not “efficient” and the market correcting this mistake and discovering the electric car actually are. The electric care is also a lure. The personal vehicle as a primary mode of transportation, simply does not make any ecological sense, however it’s powered. Local growing of plants, local crafts and cottage industries, powered by solar energy, minimizing transportation volumes (but maintaining mobility with bikes, trains and group owned and shared vehicles when required — remember the “sharing economy” and how great it is … well, at least for renting out your apartment for money).
After review, I conclude the above analysis is essentially correct and you should believe it too, if and until better comes along.
In the next article I will go deeper into why environmental justice and social justice cannot be separated, as was attempted in the 90s, the key “proximate cause” to the current situation of Kyoto completely failing and us now living the consequence of that. Of course, there is the context to the 90s, of previous environmental movement failures, but I feel the science is quite clear that the 90s was the “big chance” to avoid true climate calamity, and the small victories of previous generations in setting up “wild life reserves” would have been far more meaningful if we did stabilize the climate, and so lot’s of species would have really been protected, rather than just survive to die another day due to changing climate. Likewise, truly preposterous actions like actively destroying the Amazon rain forest had not happened yet. And indeed, the fact that environmental discussion, awareness and motivation (people were really shocked about species extinction back then, lot’s of campaigns about it) reached a peak in the 90s is due to the successes of the previous generations of the environmental movement. The participants in the movement in the 90s, definitely “blew it”; i.e. sucked the cocked gun of capitalism expecting to eat flowers. A whimsical dream, but only a quaint gesture radically missing the point of that symbolism the first time.