You’d Have to be Stupid

July 10, 2009 12:00 am Published by Leave your thoughts

I have just watched the new film The Age Of Stupid, a terrifying wake-up call to the entire human race. A quick glance at the neoliberal magazine The Economist will give you an indication of how bad things have become.

Despite its pro-business orientation, it’s worried that business as usual is environmentally unsustainable.

Science is a complex thing and the science of climate change is particularly difficult to understand, but it is fair to say that increasing CO2 in the atmosphere makes our planet warmer. A few decades of high-growth industrialisation has thrown huge quantities of CO2 into the atmosphere. Sea levels are rising, forest fires increasing and nature is being degraded.

I am pleased that more people will learn of the potential threat posed by climate change from The Age Of Stupid. But at the risk of sounding like a grumpy person, are we sure that our responses to climate change are not stupid?

The great socialist writer Raymond Williams, who started his career as a tank commander fighting the nazis and became one of Britain’s key literary theorists, argued that utopian thought – the construction of beautiful visions of the future – was a way of compensating for our perceived inability to change and reduce injustice in the immediate world around us.

My worry is that environmentalists sometimes feel that the crisis we face today is so urgent that we should not waste time thinking about how we actually halt environmental destruction.

Environmentalists are often poor at thinking about change, strategy and effectiveness. The danger is that concern over the environment leads us to take action that makes us feel better but is entirely ineffective.

Environmentalism based on lobbying ministers is not going to work. The powers that be are in the pockets of the corporations that have largely created the environmental problems we now face. These corporations should not be the main agents of climate policy.

The global framework developed at conferences like Kyoto and agreed by most of the world’s countries is based on carbon trading.

The idea is that carbon is given a nominal value so that market mechanisms can be used to reduce CO2 production. It has one major drawback – it doesn’t work.

Motorways can be constructed, 4×4 cars built and more planes flown as long as the company or government responsible possesses a licence based on carbon reductions elsewhere.

Britain’s Carbon Act will progressively reduce CO2 emissions. However, the carbon trading scheme means that we can go on producing just as much CO2 and trade our “excess” abroad.

It’s a little like trying to cut back on cigarettes by buying a certificate that says someone else will stop smoking instead.

‘Very few environmentalists are prepared to say that the emperor has no clothes.’
The Stern report on climate change praised carbon trading as a means of generating billions for the City of London. The European carbon market has perversely paid out billions to corporations which have failed to cut pollution.

The CO2 cuts actually rarely take place, fraud is rife and many of the ways of reducing CO2 via carbon trading actually increase it. It is a global form of madness but very few environmentalists are prepared to say the emperor has no clothes. They have largely bought into what amounts to a giant pyramid selling scheme.

To really deal with climate change, we need to use less CO2 and less of the other greenhouse gases. In the words of US Green Party presidential candidate Cynthia McKinney, “we need to keep the oil in the soil.”

There are ways of massively cutting CO2 that would benefit people and increase prosperity. We could fund affordable public transport and cycling facilities, localise economies and use the internet instead of commuting to work.

The changes needed, some of which are part of the Green Party Green New Deal, involve putting structures into place so we can all use less CO2 and even enjoy the experience. Yet governments continue building motorways, allowing airports to expand and ignoring real green policies.

Only one country in the world has achieved sustainable development and achieved higher living standards with lower emissions – Cuba.

Cuba is not perfect, but it has introduced non-polluting organic agriculture, renewable energy and installed low-energy appliances. It is even rolling out its low-energy light bulb scheme to neighbouring Jamaica.

We would be particularly stupid to ignore its environmental achievements. But has Gordon Brown gone to Cuba? No. He is the world’s most enthusiastic supporter of keeping bankers in charge of climate change.

We would also be stupid to ignore trade unions. In the 1970s, Australian building workers under union leader Jack Mundy used green strikes to aid conservation. In the 1980s, Britain’s National Union of Seamen used industrial action to stop the dumping of low-level nuclear waste and shop steward Mike Cooly developed workers’ plans to transform production in a socially useful way.

How can we have serious action on the climate if it does not centrally involve workers? We can’t.

Ecological problems directly relate to methods of production. But green production plans could be introduced to shift our failing car industry into building buses, trains and other green products, for example.

Capitalism, based on ever-increasing waste, is simply no way to run a planet.

We must struggle to change structures and challenge the prevailing “logic” of the market. The alternative would be… well, stupid.

This article first appeared in the Morning Star newspaper.
Derek Wall is an economics lecturer and founder of the Ecosocialist International and Green Left.

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