Neoliberalism Drives Climate Breakdown, Not Human Nature

By Alex Randall, who coordinates the Climate and Migration Coalition – a network of refugee and migration NGOs working together on climate-linked migration and displacement. Originally published at

Many zoos have an exhibit like this: a wall with a hatch, and under the hatch words like “Do you want to see the most dangerous animal in the world?”. Of course everyone does, and before they open the hatch they speculate as to what the animal behind the hatch will be. A lion? A crocodile? However, when you open the hatch there is a mirror, and you see yourself staring back. You are the most dangerous animal in the world.

Of course this is nonsense. Not everyone who opens that hatch and sees themselves looking back is equally dangerous. We are not all equally responsible for destruction of the world’s ecosystems. Some humans who open the hatch probably are responsible for a great deal of destruction. Other are not. Many people bear the brunt of someone else’s destruction.

The idea that all humanity is equally and collectively responsible for climate change – or any other environmental or social problem – is extremely weak. In a basic and easily calculable way, not everyone is responsible for the same quantity of greenhouse gasses. People in the world’s poorest countries produce roughly one hundredth of the emissions of the richest people in the richest countries. Through the chance of our births, and the lifestyle we choose we are not all equally responsible for climate change.

But we are not all equally responsible in a more fundamental way. Some people through the power they wield, have stood in the way of halting climate change. Not because they were stubborn or incompetent or failed to understand the seriousness. But because they acted in pursuit of a fundamental re-organising of our economies during the 1970s and 80s. And this shake-up militated against the kinds of policies and government intervention that might have halted – or at least slowed – climate change.

This is the point that is missed in ‘’, the New York Times’ 30,000 word feature on climate change. The piece charts the failure of the US government to act on climate change between 1979 and 1989. During this period we knew enough about the issue to act, but didn’t. The piece sets out to explain this failure.

‘Losing Earth’ presents the failure as one of political tragedy. Politicians and policy makers simply couldn’t agree. Not because of the undue influence of lobbyists, but because – as humans and politicians – they could not look far enough into the future. They could not take political risks now, in return for the long term safety of the planet.

As humans we cannot engage with complex long term problems. We favour short term comfort over long term safety, even when this is illogical. Our political systems are set up to favour short term political wins. Our politicians think only as far ahead as the next election. This failure to stop climate change was no one’s fault, ‘Losing Earth’ argues. It happened because we’re human, and because our electoral systems aren’t geared up for this kind of problem.

But is this really why the US didn’t act on climate change during the 1980s?

The late 70s and 80s were also a time when the economies of most developed countries underwent a fundamental restructuring.

Since the end of the Second World War the economies of Europe and the US had been growing steadily. Ordinary people had been taking home and ever growing slice of this new economic growth. In the US, unionised workforces were consistently negotiating better pay and conditions. In Europe people also began to see the benefits of nationalised healthcare and house building.

 

The very richest people in society had also been getting richer as developed economies grew. But the slice of the pie they were keeping was shrinking. In 1940 the wealthiest 0.1% kept about 20% of all the money earned. While the poorest 90% (almost everyone) kept about the same. By the mid 70s the slice kept by the 0.1% had dipped to around 7%, while the slice kept by the 90% had climbed to over 30%. The US economy was still vastly unequal, but it was becoming more equal. Many working people were gaining, at the expense of very rich.

US wealth inequality over time. Data from Saez and Zucman, Quarterly Journal of Economics, 2016, 131(2): 519-578. Adapted from Business Insider.

We should not pretend that the gains of working people were evenly shared. These figures disguise cruel inequalities amongst the 90% shaped by race, religion, gender and geography.

By the middle of the 1970s it was clear to the wealthiest in society that something had to change. More and more of the spoils of economic growth were going into the pockets of ordinary people. Across the Western world, governments were taxing growing profits and spending them on housing, healthcare and education – mainly for the benefit or ordinary people.

The economy, and people’s expectations of it, needed a shake up. Crucially, a shake up that reversed the growing trend of economic equality. A shake up which would return the 0.1% to the position they had been in during the 1930s and 40s when they were keeping a much greater cut of the all the money that was earned.

To do this they turned to a collection of political ideas that had been largely ignored since their formation in the 1920s. These ideas and the economies shaped by them have come known as neoliberalism.

These ideas held that the role of the state should shrink. Government – neoliberals believed – stood in the way of prosperity. The size of the state should be reduced, the number of people on the public payroll should go down. Areas that had been the domain of government – healthcare, house building, transport, energy – should no longer be. Instead these should become the domain of private enterprise.

Markets should decide what receives investment and what does not. If there is demand (say) for new energy generation then the price of electricity should provide the signal for power companies to build it and profit from doing so. The government should step back and let the market decide what happens.

In addition, regulation and corporate taxes of all kinds should be stripped back. This – they argued – would drive more investment. Environmental regulation controlling pollution simply prevented businesses providing energy to people cheaply, they argued. Taxes on polluting substances did the same. Stripping these away – they argued – would give people what they wanted. In place of regulation the proposed consumer choice. If people wanted non-polluting products – if that mattered to them – they would pay extra for them. And businesses would respond to this demand by providing them.

The ideology and the practice of neoliberalism were not always consistent. While the ideology demanded the withdrawal of the state, many private businesses continued to demand (and receive) vast government subsidies. In the US during the 1980s the government continued to sponsor billions of dollars worth of research into fossil fuel extraction.

For an introduction to the rise of neoliberalism these

The impact of these changes on the overall economy was also well understood by those who proposed them. As responsibility for infrastructure, energy, housing and the other usual domains of the state – moved to the private sector so did the money. These became new areas in which to make profit. The lack of regulation, lower taxes and subsidies meant making these profits was easier.

The wealthiest 0.1% began to see their share of the society’s wealth increasing. Starting around 1974 the economy swung around in favour of the richest. Their slice of all the money earned began to climb, while the slice taken home by the 90% began to fall. This trend has continued until now. In the US levels of income inequality have returned to where they were before the Second World War. This was the drive behind this vast shake up, and it worked.

The reshaping of the US economy took place during the period covered by ‘Losing Earth’. It was during the decade – 1979 to 1989 – that neoliberalism truly entered the political mainstream.

In order to address climate change the US (and other nations) needed to do things that were no longer politically possible. Fossil fuels needed to be taxed in order to reduce their consumption. Carbon emissions needed to be taxed, or capped. The government needed to invest heavily in renewable energy. Or it needed to force energy companies to do so through legislation.

These things might have been possible in previous decades, when governments saw this kind of investment and legislation as their job. But in this new neoliberal era, these kind of interventions were impossible – especially for the US.

So the US government’s failure to act was not a political or human accident as ‘Losing Earth’ holds. Rather, the economy of the US had very deliberately been re-shaped. It had been re-shaped in order to return economic advantage to the very wealthiest people, who had been losing that advantage over several decades. However in doing this, the US government had stripped itself of the tools it needed to address climate change – regulation of polluting businesses, taxation of carbon emissions and state investment in energy alternatives.

We did not lose the earth in the 1980s. Rather, the tools governments needed to act had be taken from them.

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97 comments

    1. Jason Boxman

      Thanks for posting that. I avoided reading the Times piece, assuming it would simply be running interference for someone or other. Looks like I was correct. I expect nothing less from the paper that gleefully brought us the Iraq slaughter and fans the flames of Russia hysteria.

      Reply
    2. Gary Wenk

      It is more than a little evident that if we are to survive as a civilization, we are going to have to coordinate ALL human activities to be in harmony with the basic ecological systems we have inherited: If an activity isn’t good for the planet, and by inclusion, humanity, then we shouldn’t pursue it. This means we are going to have to give up our worship of never-ending growth (and this includes population). The bio-sphere is finite, and it is incredibly naive to think we can expand indefinitely without consequence. Isn’t this how a Ponzi scheme works?

      Reply
  1. kimyo

    if we HAD acted in the 80’s, which solutions would have delivered the biggest ‘bang for the buck’?

    for instance, let’s say we DID act and decided to put 1% of annual gdp into ‘climate change mitigation’. what would be different today? by what amount would we have reduced carbon emissions?

    Reply
    1. vidimi

      just guessing here, but it would have been a combination of heavy investment in green energy, divestment from fossil fuels, stricter regulation and punishment for pollution, a policy of reforestation and rewilding, greater food diversification including de-emphasis of meat, better investment in infrastructure especially in public transport, massive budget cuts for the military – the world’s greatest consumer of oil, etc..

      admittedly, it’s very hard to imagine the US ever having done the last.

      one need only look at some of the things other countries are doing, albeit belatedly.

      Reply
      1. kimyo

        one need only look at some of the things other countries are doing, albeit belatedly

        in your opinion, which countries have most successfully addressed global warming?

        what is the best/’most successful’ example of a city/county/state/country addressing global warming?

        Reply
        1. Mark Pontin

          in your opinion, which countries have most successfully addressed global warming?

          what is the best/’most successful’ example of a city/county/state/country addressing global warming?

          France.

          France’s carbon emissions per kWh are less than 1/10th that of Germany and the UK, and 1/13th that of Denmark (apropos of fajensen’s remarks below).

          Its emissions of nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide have come down by 70% over the last 20 years, even though its total power output has tripled in that time.

          Anybody who’s triggered into knee-jerk denial of that reality — because France has done it through nuclear — is not intellectually honest — just another kind of climate change denialist, really.

          Reply
          1. Carolinian

            Anybody who’s triggered into knee-jerk denial of that reality — because France has done it through nuclear — is not intellectually honest — just another kind of climate change denialist, really.

            What does that even mean? And nuclear is not carbon free because of the large amount of energy needed to process the fuel, particularly certain grades of ore. Add in the horror show of nuclear accidents–particularly should the world adopt nuclear at the level France has–and this is not the solution.

            Reply
            1. Grumpy Engineer

              If nuclear isn’t the solution, then what is?

              Coal? Nope. Mining it is too destructive, and it releases tons of CO2 and other pollutants.

              Natural gas? Nope. A lot of it is fracked these days, and it still releases too much CO2 (and methane, as an added “bonus”).

              Oil? Nope. Also fracked these days, and it releases too much CO2 and other pollutants just like coal and natural gas.

              Hydro? Nope. The number of suitable sites on rivers is too limited, and do we really want to alter that many river ecosystems anyway? Many environmentalists argue that we should be tearing dams down to restore rivers to a more natural state, and in my opinion, their arguments have some merit. Hydro production is also susceptible to droughts.

              Solar and Wind? Nope. Their intermittent nature makes them unsuitable for powering the grid on a continuous basis. Theoretically this could be overcome with energy storage, but if you do the math and realize just how huge those energy storage systems would have to be (hundreds of TWh, with a price tag easily exceeding $50 trillion), you’ll realize that this isn’t viable either. [And the damage from lithium and cobalt mining would be tremendous.]

              The only solution left that can fully power the grid in a low-carbon manner is nuclear. The potential for accidents and the seemingly intractable politics of waste disposal are definitely undesirable, but I can’t think of any other low-carbon solution that will actually keep the lights on. Can you?

              [You are correct in stating that nuclear isn’t zero carbon because of emissions during construction and uranium mining and processing, but the same can be said of hydro, wind, and solar as well. Nuclear is still much less carbon-intensive than coal, oil, or natural gas.]

              Reply
              1. Jason Boxman

                If that’s the case, we need a strong focus on reducing power consumption. I certainly don’t trust the intersection of human nature and nuclear energy.

                Reply
              2. Irrational

                Thanks GE.
                We need 4th generation reactors in my view – much less radioactive waste.
                But no one is doing the necessary research/prototyping as far as I know.

                Reply
              3. Carolinian

                See the New Left Review link offered above for a viable and entirely natural (but certainly society changing) alternative to nuclear and explanation of all the reasons why nuclear is a bad idea. Among other tidbits: if they weren’t pouring tons of seawater every day over the melted Fukishima core then 50 million people would have to be evacuated including all of Tokyo. The problem with nuclear is that it assumes human perfection in design and execution in order to make it safe. As the popular meme around here goes, hubris leads to nemesis.

                Reply
                1. Grumpy Engineer

                  The “plan” offered by Troy Vettese in the New Left Review is a pipe dream. It is fatally flawed in two regards:

                  First, there is no mention of the energy storage systems that would be needed to ensure that the preferred wind- and solar-based power generation systems could actually provide power 24/7. Even on a grid reduced in size by 83%, the amount of storage required would be far too massive to ever implement. [That’s a clue when assessing plans to use predominantly renewable power. If the energy storage requirements and systems aren’t described, the author hasn’t done his homework and is almost certainly underestimating the total cost and environmental disruption required.]

                  Second, the plan calls for people to reduce their average energy consumption from 12kWh per day to 2 kWh without describing HOW. If your New England home requires 1000 gallons of fuel oil to heat over the winter, how will you get by on only 167 gallons without running out in late November? If your 40 mpg car requires 250 gallons to carry you for 10000 miles of commuting per year, how will it do so on only 42 gallons? How will airplanes fly or ships cruise on only 1/6th of their current fuel usage?

                  The reality is that they can’t. Troy Vettese may argue that we “must” do otherwise, but people simply cannot. They don’t have a way to do it. They need to heat their homes and fuel their cars and live their lives.

                  The only way to meet Troy Vittese’s “plan” is for literally millions of people to abandon their homes and vehicles and move into much smaller homes in more temperate climates within walking distance of public transportation systems. And that’s key to note. They must not sell these energy-intensive resources to other people who might use them and thereby continue consuming lots of energy. They must be abandoned. It would be the greatest migration in human history.

                  People wouldn’t stand for it. Politically, it’s completely non-viable. Only with dictatorship could we force such a solution, and we’d probably experience a deeply destructive (and carbon-spewing) civil war along the way. I’d rather take my chances with nuclear.

                  Reply
                  1. Carolinian

                    As the author of the article points out Europe, hardly the tropics, already gets by on 6 kilowatts, not kwh, or half the amount per day as Americans do and that’s with widespread use of gasoline vehicles. The truth is that Americans are hugely wasteful of energy and could easily drive smaller vehicles and live in more efficient houses but they are under little social pressure to do so–indeed quite the opposite. And you ignore a major part of this proposal which is to turn large tracts of land back into forest as this will be the best way to also limit species extinction. It’s not just global warming but also loss of habitat that is the threat. Here the US with its National Forests and wealth of government land is probably doing better. This part is called natural geo-engineering and is the idea of legendary Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson.

                    And no there’s no silver bullet–at least not yet–that will solve AGW and we are already on a course toward considerable warming. If the people of the world want to tackle the problem with existing technology then huge changes will be necessary, particularly in this country. This why trying to blame it all on domestic politics is somewhat silly. Those who insist “Reagan did it” should examine their own carbon budgets first.

                    If you think nuclear is so easy then please take a poll of the people in your neighborhood and see how many of them want a nuclear plant nearby. It’s a discredited technology, and with good reason.

                    Reply
                    1. drumlin woodchuckles

                      A few months ago I skim-read James Hansen’s book Storms Of My Grandchildren. Right about in the middle of that book Hansen writes several pages about an approach to nuclear power whose existence was supposedly known but then suppressed. It is supposed to be some kind of Full Fast Breeder-Eater reactor which kept neutron-injecting and destabilization-fissionable-izing a descending series of heavy nuclei within the fuel-material to the point where most of the potential fissible material was fissionized and fissed for heat and only a smallish amount of low level radwaste left over to deal with.

                      I can’t remember the name of it. Its in the book for people to go find. It perhaps bears discussion.

                    2. Grumpy Engineer

                      @Carolinian: I would agree that Americans are rather energy inefficient, but a lot of that inefficiency is baked into their current lives. To meet a European equivalent, they would have to abandon their current house and move into something smaller and better insulated closer to town. And that tremendous disruption would only improve things by a factor of TWO. Vettese’s plan calls for a factor of SIX.

                      And what would the Europeans do? They already live in smaller, better insulated homes and drive smaller, more efficient cars and use public transportation more. According to Vettese, they’re still short by a factor of THREE.

                      This isn’t viable plan. Even if people truly want to do better, very few will be willing to endure that much sacrifice.

                      And on the subject of reforestation, wouldn’t it be nice if we quit farming 30 million acres of land for biofuels and chopping down forest in hundred-thousands acre lots for wood pellets? This is what a push for renewable energy has brought us. [Google “wood pellet environmental impact” for some terrifying reads.]

                      And if nuclear power is discredited, why are there still 450 operational stations out there, with another 58 under construction?

                1. Mark Pontin

                  In the near term — the next couple of decades — ‘fewer people’ only means one thing.

                  Mass murder by the millions.

                  Is that what you advocate? Is that who you are?

                  Reply
              4. animalogic

                I maybe wrong but I heard (a while ago) that Australia has sufficient existing river system to obtain much of its power from hydro.
                How ? I believe the idea is: use solar wind to pump water up the water way in daylight & at night you let the water run back down to generate power. Rinse & repeat.
                Not a scientist so can’t vouch for the idea, but if possible certainly better than nuclear (how many Chernobyl’s, how many Fukushima’s does it take to kill off the nuclear idea ?

                Reply
          2. Grumpy Engineer

            Yep. France’s decision to embrace nuclear back in the 80s and 90s put them far ahead of the rest of the planet when it came to generating power with limited CO2 emissions. The countries that have embraced renewables haven’t come even close to catching up.

            And even worse, those countries that have decided to phase out nuclear simultaneously with a ramp-up of renewables (like Germany and South Korea) have actually lost ground.

            German emissions have actually risen by 1.7% since 2009.

            And the numbers from South Korea are even worse. They’ve seen at least a 15% rise over the same time period. . South Korean coal consumption hit an all-time high last year: .

            Reply
              1. Grumpy Engineer

                Well, if the French reprocess their fuel (to extract usable uranium and thereby reduce their need to mine fresh uranium) and then vitrify/sinter the rest into ceramics and bury it a couple of miles underground, then the state of France’s nuclear waste should be “meh”.

                If they keep it unprocessed and poorly secured in a flimsy building next to the ocean or a river… Well, they could have a mess on their hands. The answer greatly depends on what they do with the waste.

                As for your question about South Korea below, I don’t know why they turned away from nuclear. Perhaps fear from Fukushima, even though their own reactors had neither that old design flaw nor the tsunami-vulnerable location. Given that their CO2 emissions are rising sharply, do you think they make a wise decision?

                And let me ask you this: If you don’t like nuclear as a low-carbon source of energy, what’s your alternative? What other low-carbon power technology would you recommend to fully energize our electrical grid? Keep in mind articles like this:

                Reply
                1. workingclasshero

                  I agre grumpy.the anglo world anti-nuclear power chorus does’nt like to look at the french model of utilizing nuclear power to much.from the sampling of what i’ve read it can get into hysterics quickly.

                  Reply
                  1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

                    Haven’t seen you in a while (though, some letters were capitalized, WorkingClassNero, I think, hopefully the same person).

                    Good to see you again.

                    Reply
              2. Mark Pontin

                a different chris wrote: And a millennia hence, what will be the state of France’s nuclear waste?

                It’ll be reprocessed and recycled into more nuclear fuel, if France still exists and follows its current practice. France reprocesses and, not incidentally, has defied the US government and MIC to do that.

                The current ‘once-through cycle’ of uranium use dominant in the US and most of the rest of the world only uses at best, IIRC, 7 percent of the energy contained in that fissile material.

                Then, instead of reprocessing it — and an estimated 20,000 years of global energy supply is contained in currently existing fissile material resources if we worked the nuclear fuel cycle — we pile up that discarded ‘waste’ around nuclear plants so that in 2018 it’s one of the gravest threats to global humanity that exists. Fukushima is a perfect illustration of this.

                Why have we adopted this incredibly wasteful, dangerous ‘once-through cycle’? Essentially, for two reasons: –

                [1] The US energy industry finds the ‘once-through cycle’ far more profitable. It’s true that reprocessing is technically demanding.

                [2] The US government/MIC waged a global campaign starting in the 1970s to stop nuclear reprocessing anywhere by any means possible (including funding Greenpeace in some countries). Reprocessing capability is synonymous with nuclear weapons capability, after all. That is nervous-making and definitely threatens US hegemony via US military aggression which, as Chomsky points out, is ultimately backed up by the US ‘nuclear umbrella.’

                Reply
                1. JBird

                  Well, yes the design for the early nuclear power plants were done in a way that would ensure the production of nuclear bombs and not optimized for safe power generation.

                  Reply
                2. drumlin woodchuckles

                  What I read in Hansen’s book is the claim that the method of nuclear power discussed didn’t even need re-processing. That the pieces of nuclear fuel were just kept in place to keep degrading all the way down to mostly non-radioactive stable nucleii and some low-radioactive low-energy unstable nucleii.

                  This somehow got confused with the cleverly mis-nomered ” Fast Breeder Reactor” which should actually be called the ” Half-Fast Breeder Reactor” . . . whose sole and only purpose was to turn U-238 into Plutonium for the sole and only purpose of making bomb-cores. The “reprocessing” for the Plutonium-ized fuel from out of the “Half-Fast Breeder Reactor” was never intended for any purpose other than Plutonium harvesting. This cynical mis-nomering and misdirection gave ” Fast Breeder Reacting” a bad name and helped lead to its never being pursued.

                  That’s part of what I remember reading in Hansen’s book. Of course Hansen was not a nuclear engineer. He only ever presents himself as an intelligent layman doing his best, as are most of usl, on the subject of nuclear power.

                  Reply
                  1. Grumpy Engineer

                    “Storms of My Grandchildren”? I’ll have to give it a read.

                    I personally consider Hansen somewhat of an alarmist when it comes to climate predictions, but to his considerable credit, he has studied how energy systems function and is trying to advocate solutions that are actually viable.

                    Notably, he barfed all over the “100% renewable” solution in a recent commentary in the , calling it a “grotesque fantasy”. Though he didn’t do so in this particular article, he has advocated nuclear elsewhere. I’m firmly convinced that he’s correct.

                    Reply
                    1. drumlin woodchuckles

                      I am just a layman, but I think it is important to focus on what KIND of nuclear that Mr. Hansen is talking about. He makes his arguments based on the adoption of the particular kind of “totally fast and all-consuming breeder-cascade-decay” reactor process that he says was being studied till it was abandoned and suppressed. ( that paraphrasing was my own. I’m sure Hansen said it better).

      2. KYrocky

        vidimi,
        Nothing was ever going to happen in the United States in the 80’s, for obvious Reagan/Conservative Movement reasons. Bringing about the most meaningful change would have required a vast societal change: transportation, land use, property rights, vast public investments, mandated conservation measures. You know, losing our freedom. The other piece of the puzzle would have been to circumvent the growth of emissions occurring in the developing nations that were ramping up at that time: India, China, planetary deforestation, etc., and the changes in those societies that would have been necessary to bring that about.

        Had there been a world-wide commitment akin to the space race of the 60’s, then a significant dent could have been made. Would it have been enough? With what we are still learning with respect to back loops and other non-fossil fuel related contributors it is hard to say what reduction might have been achieved, or if it could have prevented or only delayed where we are headed.

        But looking back to the realities of that time it is evident that mankind was never going to change to the degree necessary.

        Reply
    2. fajensen

      About 50%. Based on Denmark. Which acted in 1972 for entirely different reasons.

      The oil crisis was a huge scare here and it simply became a political imperative to protect the nation against the whims and random craziness of “The Arabs” (the majority still think exactly like this to this very day). The government responded by taxing oil more harshly, they incentivised the installation of modern thermostats, furnaces and insulation.

      The oil-burning power plants pretty much closed down immediately and they retro-fitted condensating heat exchangers to the existing (very modern at the time) Coal-fired plants to extract as much heat as possible which was used for district heating. In addition there was a huge buildout of district heating to use all of the “waste heat” available.

      Energy Efficiency became important, “Danish Industry” figured that they could gain a export advantage here. Danfoss (heating, thermostats), Grundfoss (pumps), Lögstör Rör (insulated pipes) and Maersk (Shipping) really began building their dominance (Maersk on more efficient two-stroke engines than the completion and denser packing of containers).

      There was much research and efficiency drives in electronic power supplies and electric motors. I became a specialist in power electronics because it was an intriguing and “hot” subject at the 1980’s. Sadly, then, the oil scare passed (we found oil in the North Sea) and China came on-line and began selling inefficient tat so cheaply that the market for highly efficient equipment shrunk to wherever air-conditioning was applied – Telecom.

      I have been to the US and noticed that the US has a huge potential for energy savings pretty much everywhere. There are almost only low-hanging fruits as far as the eye will see.

      I just also think that the US culture and value system will seek to prevent it from ever happening until the USA ends up cornered and there are no wiggle space left at all except the nuclear/military one.

      In my highly biased opinion, Americans very aggressively does not agree on *anything*. The different interests in society are all aligned along agressive competition rather than collaboration, compromising is seen as “losing”, everyone knows that only corporations are capable of innovation and driving change, and everybody knows that The Government is Evil and Incompetent so nothing “common” can easily be organised on the required scale.

      OTOH – It was possible for America to push through the Apollo Project.

      So maybe it works like; when the threat is perceived to be large enough, the squabbling stops, most of the gang-bangers .. err .. interests align their forces, and then the beautiful side of America is shown.

      Reply
      1. fajensen

        I forgot to say that back in the day, most of the energy systems were public-owned utilities so the government could more or less directly decide what should be done and invest public money in it. That was a big advantage that is not easily available through “The Market”.

        Reply
      2. kimyo

        Danish electricity generation has become increasingly decentralised with a move away from production in the large central power stations to many smaller, locally based and mostly CHP stations. Many of these smaller stations use locally sourced bio energy sources including straw and wood pellets.

        de-centralizing the grid is a huge step forward. a decentralized grid is more resilient and more efficient.

        unfortunately, it is almost impossible to find a climate warrior who advocates for decentralization.

        Reply
        1. lyman alpha blob

          You are being pretty defeatist. There are plenty of environmentalists who have been calling for decentralized power, either solar or wind, for years. In AZ people were installing solar panels and selling the excess power they produced. That wasn’t good for the fossil fuel companies who lobbied until they managed to stop the quite beneficial rise in decentralized solar.

          Claiming there aren’t ‘climate warriors’ in favor of decentralization is the same argument the NYT is trying to make – that people just don’t want to change bad enough. No, the few at the top who make billions polluting the planet don’t want to change.

          The rest of us are quite literally dying to.

          Reply
          1. kimyo

            if there are ‘plenty’, then it should be no problem to identify them. got any? who are the top three climate warriors who argue for decentralization?

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            1. lyman alpha blob

              You created the category of ‘climate warrior’, not me.

              Is it OK if a large number of relatively unknown people purchase solar panels in order to produce power for themselves and sell the excess and have society agree that it’s a beneficial to do?

              Or must there be some cult of personality in charge for it to count?

              Reply
              1. kimyo

                as we employ it now, solar is most certainly not decentralized.

                ‘sell the excess’ = tied to the grid.

                progress would be thousands of mini-grids instead of the 3 the u.s. now has. some would be solar, some, like in norway, might burn wood pellets.

                the people i refer to as ‘climate warriors’ all embrace nuclear as the ‘answer’ (ex: michael mann, james hansen, george monbiot).

                nuclear is as far from decentralization as you can get, would you agree?

                it kills people.

                Over a decade after serving as John Kerry’s running mate in the 2004 presidential election, Edwards now represents hundreds of Navy sailors who were aboard the USS Ronald Reagan as part of a humanitarian mission trip to Fukushima, Japan — bringing food and supplies to the city in March 2011 after it was devastated by an earthquake and ensuing tsunami.

                “We have all these sailors whose case is now five years old, who have died or are in the process of dying right now,” said Edwards, whose firm Edwards Kirby is based in North Carolina.

                Edwards noted that some of his other clients have seen their children born with birth defects. He said he made the trip from Raleigh to San Diego to “try to get this thing moving.”

                Reply
            1. lyman alpha blob

              Good to know, thanks Slim. I remember the fossil fuel industry coming out against rooftop solar a couple years ago, specifically in AZ, but couldn;t remember the details.

              Reply
        2. Aleric

          Considering Decentralization is literally one of the four founding principles of the Green Party. I don’t think you have looked very hard for an answer yourself.

          Reply
          1. a different chris

            Yes I think even if you give specific instances Kimyo will just pretend that you didn’t.

            Anyway, ignoring him, the beauty of decentralization is that you can bring in the – it’s stupid to put people along one axis, so this is hard to describe – the people considered on the right but who are best described as super-isolationist. Not “we aren’t going to talk to other countries” isolationist but “don’t even think about stepping on *my* property” isolationist.

            And almost every American has a little of that, in fact. If I can sell you a device that satisfies your energy needs for something close to eternity, a lot of people all over the political spectrum will evaluate it in ways far beyond price per kilowatt-hour.

            Reply
  2. JamieGriff

    OTOH, by focusing on redistribution of wealth (to the 0.1%) rather than overall prosperity, neoliberalism did manage to put the brakes on economic growth. At least, this chart seems to suggest so:

    How much more fossil fuel would we have burned with global GDP growth in the 6-7% range for the last 50 years? Or am I missing something? Will comparing one group of managers obeying capitalist logic with another group of managers obeying capitalist logic get us very far when it comes to dealing with climate change? Doesn’t the solution reside at a higher level of abstraction?

    Reply
    1. vidimi

      One of the problems is the inefficiency of energy use. Having a car for each adult in a household is insane but, because of the way cities are laid out, a necessity. Another is that GDP is a horrible measure of economic progress. One doesn’t need 6-7% GDP increases in order to have an improving quality of life. We should be focusing more on improving efficiency, like Sweden is doing now with their emphasis on repairing old things instead of buying new ones. Paying for a repair will be much cheaper than replacing an object altogether and, hence, add much less to the GDP. But GDP doesn’t take into account externalities such as waste where, with a repair, there is none.

      Reply
      1. JamieGriff

        I agree that GDP growth shouldn’t be used as an indicator of progress. But I guess my point was that, for the post-war social democrats, GDP growth was very much a target, around which industrial strategies were built. And, regardless of how bad a metric it is for measuring quality of life, greater GDP growth corresponds to more carbon emissions.

        To suggest that the good Keynesians would have averted climate disaster (if it weren’t for those pesky neoliberals) seems like a case of looking back at the 60s through rose-tinted specs.

        Reply
        1. SimonGirty

          Well: streetcar suburbs (coal), suburban sprawl, malls, parking, Interstates (concrete), red-lining & “urban renewal,” Sounds like White Flight™ promulgated by the New Deal, got a tiny bit outa hand… what with Ozzie & Harriet, the Cleavers et al, barbecuing corn-fed ruminants they’d each drive two ton cars to fetch, cranking up the AC to watch funny, sweet white folks on the TV?

          Reply
      2. HotFlash

        Having a car for each adult in a household is insane but, because of the way cities are laid out, a necessity.

        It’s not just the layout, which is built-in, but the zoning, which is mutable. Suburbs have *YOOJ* residential areas where no commercial can be, serviced by plazas that must be driven to. I am in an old part of the city, corner stores were on *every* corner, sometimes two or three, for the little green grocer, the little butcher, the little cleaner, and the little shoemaker, and the little barbershop. Milk was delivered, my BFF remembers the horse-drawn milk wagon, and even thee streetcars in my ‘hood were horse-drawn.

        The little shops are pretty well all residential now, or yoga spas, dog groomers, art galleries and artisanal coffee shops, but they could be reclaimed to serve more basic needs. Perhaps they will, if the collapse is slow enough. But we will have to attack the zoning.

        Reply
    2. a different chris

      You’re not “missing something” per se, it is impossible to re-work history. We don’t have a second globe as a test subject.

      I would say maybe it is possible that allowing government, which is capable of understanding and reacting to “externalized costs”, to continue with it’s hand on the tiller could have given us similar growth (rather than “groaf”) with a good eye on CO2. And now we quite likely would be up to our family-blogs in nuclear waste is my guess, so oh well.

      But hindsight is maybe not that useful. More importantly, the people who don’t want to change things are happy to stall us out in an argument about how we got here.

      Reply
  3. PlutoniumKun

    While I agree with the broad thrust of the article, that its incorrect to say that ‘everyone’ is responsible, I think its a bit too glib to ascribe it to neoliberalism. I recall back around 1990 there was a big special supplement in The Economist magazine about climate change. It set out the standard free market solutions – carbon taxes, credits for green energy and so on. At the time I felt very optimistic reading it – I felt that if the mainstream business right (assuming the Economist is a fair reflection of this thinking) got it, and were thinking through solutions, then things might get done. And had those market solutions been applied earlier, for all their limitations we’d undoubtedly be in a better position now. Of course, it didn’t happen.

    There is no doubt that major elements of neoliberal thinking created huge problems for dealing with climate change – for example, the deregulation and marketisation of electricity and waste markets undoubtedly made it much harder to coherently plan for carbon renewal. However, there are plenty of examples of non-neoliberal thought having equally if not more damaging implications. One example is in agriculture in Europe, which has always been largely shielded from competition – but pressure to promote high value outputs has led to disastrous state led policies that have promoted intensive beef and dairying over the type of mixed use agriculture that arguably would have developed without State intervention.

    Likewise, while you can point to neoliberal countries has having had a negative impact, you can just as well look at other examples, from China to Venezuela, from Poland to Indonesia, to see other governmental models haven’t exactly been helpful.

    If there is an ideology that can be ‘blamed’, the main one is the libertarianism so beloved of the Koch Brothers and Murdochs and all their pet politicians, mostly in the Anglosphere, but there are plenty of other examples elsewhere. Its rarely neoliberals who deny climate change, its usually the libertarian, quasi nationalist types who are most wedded to denial.

    Of course, these ideologies would not have gained traction if they didn’t have vast amount of money behind them, and here we can blame capitalism. But its also worth pointing out that some Unions in the US and Australia and Germany and elsewhere have had a pretty negative impact. The fossil fuel industry is immensely wealthy and powerful and this makes a difference, a very big one.

    Reply
    1. EoH

      Neoliberalism is less an ideology than it is a tool for those who sponsor it. It is the knife – and the eye – they use to cut the cake, while arrogating to themselves the right to take the first piece, and the second. Everyone else can fight for what’s left, as long as they are civil about it.

      That description does collapse the mechanisms and the detail. I would argue it does it in the same way a smooth curve follows individual data points.

      Reply
    2. Robert Valiant

      Any economic, social, or philosophical framework that holds GDP growth to be the most important goal of human activity will eventually drive humanity to ruin in a closed ecosystem. We can hope to colonize other worlds, or we can hope that Buckminster Fuller’s ideas about “ephemeralization” will prove to be true, but that’s just magical thinking. – god from the machine.

      Reply
    3. HotFlash

      People who are doing really, really well from a system are not hot for change. People who are doing really, really well from a system have the money to enforce their preferences. People who were doing really, really well from the system .

      Reply
  4. salvo

    I agree that while capitalism and especially neoliberalism have historically been the ‘social-economic systems’ in which the material conditions leading to climate change were created, I do think that their ideological roots run deeper. I recently read an excellent article about ‘our’ relation to what is regarded as an animal and how it changed during the rise in the so-called enlightenment era. I suppose that the process by which animals came to be viewed as mindless commodities is the same by which our planet itself came to be viewed as just an infinite source of raw materials to be endlessely exploited:

    “How did animals come to be viewed as mindless commodities? One explanation is that modernity rudely intruded in the rather frail form of Renè Descartes. The great Cartesian disconnect not only cleaved mind from body, but also severed humans from the natural world. Descartes postulated that animals were mere physical automatons. They were biological machines whose actions were driven solely by bio-physical instincts. Animals lacked the power of cognition, the ability to think and reason. They had a brain but no mind……
    Thus did the great sages of the Enlightenment assert humanity’s ruthless primacy over the Animal Kingdom. The materialistic view of history, and the fearsome economic and technological pistons driving it, left no room for either the souls or consciousness of animals. They were no longer our fellow beings. They had been rendered philosophically and literally in resources for guiltless exploitation, turned into objects of commerce, labor, entertainment and food……
    Descartes was backed up the grim John Calvin, who proclaimed that the natural world was a merely a material resource to be exploited for the benefit of humanity, “True it is that God hath given us the birds for our food,” Calvin declared. “We know he hath made the whole world for us.”

    John Locke, the father of modern liberal thinking, described animals as “perfect machines” available for unregulated use by man. The animals could be sent to the slaughterhouse with no right of appeal. In Locke’s coldly utilitarian view, cows, goats, chickens and sheep were simply meat on feet.”

    Reply
    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      No one ever killed and ate animals, or made them pull heavy weights, until the time of Locke and Descartes?

      Reply
      1. salvo

        you should read the linked article, it’s not about whether humans started to exploit animals and nature only with the advent of Descartes and Locke, the matter in question is that with the advent of the ideology called liberalism human was conceived as separated from the natural world, human became kind of an alien to it and was thought as to have no responsibility at all towards it: The natural world as such, and the creatures within it, became just commodities, objects to be exploited as will. Climate change, the destruction of this planet, the annihilation of life, becomes so a consequence of such self-alienation: In this line of thought humans become in respect to the natural world much like the creature in the alien films.
        If you had read the linked article you would know that prior to liberalism, though human exploited the natural world, killed and ate animals, they did not see themselves as totally separated from the natural world, as exemplified by the justice cases involving animals.

        Reply
  5. Ignacio

    One migth the also consider that NYT was (and is) also a tragedy of human failure in news coverage. What a stupid excuse.

    Reply
  6. SimonGirty

    Surviving Reagan’s Miracle, I’d been happy to take crews of more or less terminal UT inspectors into Keystone & Homer City’s YOOJ Foster-Wheeler bituminous fired 250′ boilers. These power stations built atop coal mines, along once lovely Appalachian streams, dammed just above, to ensure water, mitigate floods due to erosion from strip mining, deforestation, industrial agriculture and urban sprawl. Lots of my coworkers were basically indentured by medical bills from mesothelioma, COPD, etc, from the mills. So, it was win, win for our utility company clients?

    Reply
    1. a different chris

      Homer City? Yeah that’s a hulking horror isn’t it? And now the coal has run out so they are closing it… oh, wait, nevermind they are just bringing in coal from elsewhere.

      Bad decisions just lead on and on and on thru more bad decisions. The problem with coal, as opposed to nuke, plants is that it doesn’t cost that much to refurbish them for another 30 years of smoke-belching.

      Reply
      1. SimonGirty

        Aside from my former Babcock & Wilcox NDT (now Rooski oligarch owned, right?) crew; I was sharing a F100 Custom capped loadbed & used 3 person tent with one guy. The campground had hot showers. We’d save $40 a day on motels. We’d start on swing-picks, 140′ up amidst the superheater tubes. There’d be crews of Mohawk guys, erecting the scaffolding up to us, as we checked the monel alloy water walls. Other folks torching out the thin ones. So, if someone yelled “heads up,” red hot sections of 4-5 tubes would drop unceremoniously, where your hands… ah, nevermind. It’s deplorable just to mention. We got into a fight, simply by staggering into a bar in Black Creek, smelling of sweat, arsenic, wearing metatarsal guard boots and speaking with the women. These folks were all unemployed, since the mines closed. Charles Bronson, Al Freed were from there, but these “Justified” extras were lots bigger, meaner and crank didn’t do their teeth much good? We were up top, doing welds, when Hugo nearly blew us off. Young “workfare” mothers from Philly & Pittsburgh were removing asbestos in totally insufficient PPE! In winter, it was nasty!

        Reply
  7. Boomka

    I highly recommend the movie “All the money in the world”. I am convinced it was made to help us understand why society continues to perpetuate self destructive behaviors.

    The problem with any “human nature” argument is that humans are so varied, you cannot ascribe a single “nature” to us. Good social order should foster those elements of human nature that help the society thrive.

    Capitalist mantra is that free market economy leads to the selection (via survival) of the companies providing best products in the most efficient manner. Whereas what we are discovering (should have seen it coming?) is that an environment based on survival actually selects the companies willing to go the furthest in pursuit of money. So we are selecting for behaviors rather than products, and namely the behaviors that require discarding absolutely every other value for the single minded pursuit of profits. Among the billions of humans alive, of course there are bound to be some whose “human nature” aligns with such behaviors, and the so called “free market” system empowers these people and then gives them a vastly disproportionate control over the society.

    So the current climate crisis is not caused by the “human nature” of your average person, but by the “human nature” of the types that we implicitly put in charge by tolerating a system that empowers sociopaths.

    Reply
  8. Trout Creek

    “Capitalism is the astounding belief that the most wickedest of men will do the most wickedest of things for the greatest good of everyone.”  
    John Maynard Keynes 

    Capitalism is unable to price the future, I expect no attempt to limit carbon until it’s too late.

    Reply
    1. John Wright

      Perhaps Russell Long’s quote can be re-written as “”Don’t carbon tax you, don’t carbon tax me, carbon tax that fellow behind the tree!”

      If the USA, with a considerable number of the world’s physical scientists, cannot come to grips with the climate change issue in a meaningful way, there is little cause for hope.

      Here is a link to USA energy consumption by type, and one can see that coal has been substituted for by natural gas, but the big three (petroleum, coal and natural gas) account for the bulk of energy production.

      There is an ever present optimism that some technological miracle (hydrogen fusion, extremely inexpensive solar cells) will ride to the rescue, but if so, will it come in time or at all?

      Nuclear fission (as in France) is promoted, but does this scale up given that France is 67.2 million people or about 0.88% of the earth’s population. (100 x 67.2E6/7.6E9).

      If one were to attempt to grow the WW fission nuclear industry by, say 5 times, what material supply issues/shortages would surface (chrome/nickel for stainless steel) and how much petroleum would be expended to locate more uranium?

      Nuclear produces 14% of the world’s electricity, but provides only 4% of the worlds energy budget per

      Other species may be indicating the path for humans.

      See

      This has “They blame human overpopulation and overconsumption for the crisis and warn that it threatens the survival of human civilisation, with just a short window of time in which to act.”

      One might expect one immediate response would be to not grow, or even shrink, the human population, but that is seldom mentioned in climate change commentary.

      Reply
      1. pretzelattack

        not most of them, paul erlich blames overpopulation, but that is disputed by other scientists in the article, and it’s not the number of people, it’s fossil fuels that cause it. with the same population using renewable energy we would have a good chance to mitigate climate change even now.

        Reply
  9. Louis Fyne

    >2% annual real growth is to blame. so is >2 fertility rates. both go hand in hand.

    The US, Germany, UK, Italy would be mimicking Japan/South Korea/Taiwan in zero, negative population growth, but for immigration and higher fertility rates of immigrants.

    Don’t flame the messenger.

    Reply
  10. Brooklin Bridge

    While this doesn’t contradict and may well be beside the point of the article, isn’t it true that human nature or a negative part of it – greed, hunger for power – is at the origin of neo-liberalism specifically and capitalism more generally? Granted that a blanket accusation that everyone in the abstract is equally responsible for dropping the ball on climate change is the usual bobble headed nonsense for re-directing the blame away from a small group of the powerfully rich, that group nevertheless acted on (or succumbed to) very human impulses even if very negative ones and they succeeded in their pathological takeover due to the very human nature with which our political, economic and judicial systems are imbued, no? There seems to be no way to eliminate gameable flaws in systems of human governance without also eliminating the humans.

    Reply
    1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

      Human Nature.

      What is it? Are we predisposed to violence, for example? Can we overcome it?

      That seems to be one of never ending debates.

      Before capitalism, before neoliberalism, before the Fall, if humans were all good, where did evil come from?

      The serpent?

      Reply
      1. Anarcissie

        It is kind of odd to ascribe powerful agency to an ideology, which is after all just a set of ideas. They could be sitting in a book doing nothing. People take them up and use them as tools for a reason: they provide something people want and choose. Human beings, by and large, seem to want power over one another, and stuff, lots of stuff, and to blow up their egos with reproduction. They can’t have as much as they want, so they fight and scheme. Not all humans, but enough to ensure that they will destroy their homes in the world. It is true human nature is varied, and some humans may survive somewhere out of sight because they are not as aggressive, not as self-serving, not as clever perhaps as most — but it seems like a long shot. To blame our predicament on neoliberalism is to ignore the mad, ever-growing elephant, here long before anyone thought of liberalism, stamping about and tearing up the room.

        Reply
          1. Brooklin Bridge

            How about, Homo-avaritia? Not sure of how that should be constructed in Latin.

            There is Homo sapiens, and even Homo ludens, but we need a Homo greedens

            Reply
  11. Heidi’s master

    The 1980 presidential election was pivotal for the oil industry. Most of Reagan’s campaign funds came from oil producing states. Just as soon as Reagan was elected he began dismantling Carter’s solar and renewable initiatives.

    Reply
    1. Arizona Slim

      I’ll never forget what I read about Reagan’s inauguration. DC National airport was shut down for several days afterward. Reason: All of the private jets that were leaving. They crowded out the commercial flights that were normally scheduled.

      Reply
    2. Off The Street

      Reagan famously dismantled those Carter solar panels on the White House. On a related note, his oil industry benefactors insisted on the sanctity of the oil depletion allowance. There was too much at stake for them and theirs to worry about consumers, and the latter would just have to pay up anyway.

      Reply
  12. David in Santa Cruz

    I believe that this critique of the NYT is generally correct, but it confuses causes with effects. I did a word search of the NYT piece, and nowhere is over-population even discussed, let alone considered as the driver of climate change.

    The explosive quadrupling of global population from 2 billion to 7.6 billion in the last 75 years has created a “Lifeboats on the Titanic mentality among elites. Perceptions of impending scarcity drive the hoarding mania at the dark heart of neoliberalism and it’s evil political twin libertarianism.

    I conclude that it is this elite resource hoarding that has killed the “political will” to fight climate change. However, it is not ideology but over-population that is driving our over-consumption of resources and the irreversible degradation of the atmosphere, the terrestrial environment, and the oceans. Good luck finding the “political will” to cull the human herd…

    Reply
    1. Louis Fyne

      GMO crops, pesticides and herbicides have kept pulling rabbits out of hats since the 60’s—-producing a global glut of carbs. Will the streak continue for another 30 years?

      Things will get scary if it doesn’t. Humans will do crazy things when scared. Humans will do even worse things when hungry and scared.

      Reply
      1. SimonGirty

        Wow, over here, we didn’t even get to try FlavrSavr delayed ripening tomatoes, herbicide resistant & BT maize until Seinfeld, Beavis & Butthead and The Simpsons sucked, already! Resorting to mass cannibalism WAS fun though. GE bunnies do kinda sound yummy?

        Reply
      2. Yves Smith Post author

        GMOs only produce a 13-20% increase in yields, no where near in line with population increase. And that’s due to killing bugs, not the plants become more productive in the normal sense.

        Reply
    2. Arizona Slim

      When I was in grade school, I got myself into big trouble during a class discussion on pollution. I suggested that there was something called people pollution. And that Bad Thought was reported to my parents. To their everlasting credit, Mom and Dad agreed with me.

      Reply
    3. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

      We don’t want the Stalin/Mao/Pol Pot kind of ‘political will’ to cull the human herd.

      On the other hand, in neoliberal capitialist* Japan, we see population decline.

      *No one country is, as far as I know, 100% capitialist/neoliberal.

      Reply
    4. Mitchell McBride

      Now you can take it another level deeper from there. What is it that enabled the huge increase in population? I would argue that it was fossil fuels. They power the machinery of modern agriculture, power the mining of phosphate, and are used to generate the nitrogen for fertilizer.

      Reply
  13. Wyoming

    I completely disagree with the argument in this article. Its basic assumption, that our economic system sits outside of the dictates of our human nature, is patently false.

    We (humanity) are not capable of thinking and acting outside of our natures except in some theoretical sense and that seems to only happen on an individual basis (and those who do behave this way are frequently ridiculed or sidelined in public life). Everything we collectively do is significantly effected if not frequently almost totally driven by our basic subconscious drives.

    Yes, I know that that is not the only way people act and many can be very selfless. But when you are talking about a large mass of people we always tend towards standard ways of behaving. Neoliberalism is so effective as an approach to running civilization because it very effectively matches what our most basic instincts urge us to do. Many of the things we need to do to deal with climate change run counter to what our basic instincts tell us to do. If we thought and behaved rationally we would have never gotten ourselves into this mess.

    I sympathize with the author’s desire to have us act a different way but it is mostly wishful thinking and other methods of approaching these issues would likely be more productive. How could one look at global economic, political and military actions over the last few years and come to any other conclusion. We are not on an upward trajectory here.

    Any solution to climate change and collapsing carrying capacity requires a drastic reduction in global population and a wholesale reduction in the lifestyles of the entire developed world. You are not going to rationally and logically talk people into this. Is there any doubt in anyone’s mind that the wealthy and powerful of the world will not sacrifice untold numbers of poor and powerless people before they give up their advantages?

    Reply
    1. Yves Smith Post author

      The Japanese prior to the black ships and native cultures weren’t growth oriented. The Egyptians for 3000 years under the Pharaohs weren’t either. It’s false to attribute this obsession to human nature.

      Reply
  14. Newton Finn

    The discovery of climate change (and other severe environmental damage) and the failure to address it, the embrace of cutthroat global neoliberalism and the dehumanization and degradation of the American economy and culture, occurred on my generation’s watch. And the tragic irony is that a lot of us knew better before these things happened, had become well aware of the evil machinations of “The System” and “The Man” while in college, had initially jumped in as young idealists to fight for civil rights, social justice, and the environment. We were the ones, for God’s sake, who drove the corporate (and military) recruiters off the campus…only to wind up, in so many cases, eventually climbing the lucrative corporate and professional ladders seductively extended to us after graduation. So many of us thereby devoted the rest of our lives to strengthening the corrupt and corrosive power structures we had so clearly seen through and vociferously condemned. No, I’m sorry. I can’t blame the whole pathetic story since the late 70s/early 80s on a small group of malevolent, greed-driven people in positions of power, nor can I blame generic human nature either, for that matter, if there is such a thing. The terrible truth is that my generation had the bastards on the run, could well have stopped them or at least taken them down with us. But we didn’t. In fact, just the opposite occurred–many of us joined them, became them. Those are the cards of history my generation not merely played with but dealt to themselves–and to their children and grandchildren. Read ’em and weep.

    Reply
  15. Synoia

    We did not lose the earth in the 1980s. Rather, the tools governments needed to act had be taken from them.

    No. not at all.

    We did not lose the earth in the 1980s. Rather, the governments were bought by the highest bidders.

    Reply
  16. Unfettered Fire

    Pressed by public demand, Nixon (of all people) passed environmental legislation that placed strict regulations on top polluters. He also was pressed to end an illegal war in Vietnam. That’s when the oil magnates said, “Okay, that’s enough of this little democracy experiment!” so they kicked him out of the WH, too soon for another assassination, I imagine, faked an oil crisis in order to seize control of government and shoved the perfectly running no-boom-no-bust economy into an ill-fitting ideological glass slipper of libertarian lies, obfuscation and bribery. It not only put a halt to people-driven policies and legislation, but cut off the circulation of fiscal policy for public purpose in general.

    Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, a book about the dangers of pesticide use, sparked the environmental revolution of the 60’s and the oil industry has been railing full guns against it for 50 years now. The Koch-created ALEC is the real legislative arm of this privatized government and operates far from public scrutiny.

    “The result has been an erosion of responsibility and accountability, an epidemic of shortsightedness, an increasingly hollow economic and political center, and millions of Americans gripped by apathy and hopelessness. By examining the people and forces behind the rise of big-money lobbying, legal and financial engineering, the demise of private-sector unions, and a hamstrung bureaucracy, Brill answers the question on everyone’s mind: How did we end up this way? Finally, he introduces us to those working quietly and effectively to repair the damages. At once a diagnosis of our national ills, a history of their development, and a prescription for a brighter future, Tailspin is a work of riveting journalism–and a welcome antidote to political despair.”

    As similar books are published like Steven Brill’s, author of : The People and Forces Behind America’s Fifty-Year Fall–and Those Fighting to Reverse It, neoliberalism’s undeniable defeat as a Randian ideology that should never have been imposed on a “pragmatic instrument to improve human welfare” has become self-evident… yet again.

    “To allow the market mechanism to be the sole director of the fate of human beings and their natural environment …would result in the demolition of society.” ~ Karl Polanyi, 1944

    “The [West’s] first error was to regard capitalism as an ideological good, not as a pragmatic instrument to improve human welfare. Alan Greenspan was probably the greatest victim of this ideological conviction that markets always knew best … As Mr Greenspan … believed that market traders were smarter than government regulation, and he failed to regulate them vigorously … . Instead, Asians believe that no society can prosper without good governance … For capitalism to work well, governments have to play an essential regulatory and supervisory role.”

    Obscene wealth must lead to Alzheimer’s disease because this lesson never seems to stick.

    Reply
  17. McWatt

    Some one above said fewer people. That I think is the best plan. Funny, this was a much better country
    with 150 million than it is now with 330 million. I know my community was much more livable 10 years ago
    than today with 2,000 more multi family units that have ruined our town center. Property taxes driving people away, 22 story monster multi-family buildings dwarfing what was once the finest historic district in the midwest, traffic gridlock on Main st. etc. etc.

    Reply
    1. Whiskey Bob

      There’s quite a lot of room in the US for further expansion yet somehow people flock to the same old urban centers.

      I think partly related is the problem of consolidation that occurs in capitalism. The system of capitalism favors creating jobs in the same old urban centers instead of creating new urban centers that could instead have the new jobs. It’s costly to create new networks in the system so existing ones can be utilized instead.

      An exception could be certain industries creating new networks like Amazon and their distribution centers, but this is mainly predicated on exploiting decaying areas that were abandoned by old industries and squeezing their desperation for profit.

      As a side note, fascism (the Nazis specifically) probably did take note of the further “efficiency” of capitalism with a reduction in population, hence an economic aspect to their genocidal policies. Of course there are more humane solutions, but fascism can be described succinctly as capitalism in decay.

      I then want to end on the example of the USSR where during their rapid industrialization, they invested heavily into more equal distribution of industrial centers throughout the country when they could have easily consolidated them all in the Western areas of Russia that were more developed, for example. They went through the extra effort of reaching the remote places of Russia and creating new factories with supporting industries. Perhaps a similar mentality could be adopted by the West by a government that is willing to invest into people rather than businesses. Then again, that was back during their industrialization period and the US was already so at that point.

      Reply
      1. Unfettered Fire

        Well said. The knee-jerk population reduction solution always reminds me of Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol and Scrooge wanting to “decrease the sur population” because apparently it was a crisis a century ago as well! It’s never been the issue of too many mouths to , just a much needed adjustment in distribution, preservation of healthy soil and continued development in hydroponic research. Always comes back to the need for cleaning up the ecosystem and .

        Reply
  18. eogen

    Here’s a thought experiment about an alternative history. Imagine there had been no Iranian hostage crisis. Jimmy Carter would almost assuredly been re-elected and the findings of Gus Speth’s special commission on climate change would have moved towards policy, rather than the waste basket as they did under Reagan. The discovery of the ozone hole would have added to the urgency, and the U.S. would have provided leadership in the 1980s rather than being the skunk at the garden party on international agreements. There probably would have been a push towards renewables and the technological advances that make them economically viable would have come sooner. And maybe China and India would have committed less to coal as they electrified and industrialized. Assuredly though we wouldn’t have been throwing gasoline on a bonfire as we’ve been doing during GOP administrations. I’m not letting capitalism off the hook, just saying that who’s in charge has mattered deeply in the unfolding climate change tragedy.

    Reply
  19. Whiskey Bob

    I often find that “human nature” is a poorly conceived way to convince people that capitalism and its faults are intrinsic to humans. That is, humans create the system of capitalism and its problems because they somehow are predisposed to it and humans are flawed. This is of course in opposition to that it is the system of capitalism that indoctrinates humans to behave accordingly and that capitalism itself is prone to crises.

    Reply
  20. bruce wilder

    from the article:

    In order to address climate change the US (and other nations) needed to do things that were no longer politically possible. Fossil fuels needed to be taxed in order to reduce their consumption. Carbon emissions needed to be taxed, or capped.

    The quoted passage is a demonstration of neoliberalism’s power. Taxes or Emission Caps is neoliberalism’s version of Morton’s Fork: a policy dilemma that keeps anything from happening. That people think “there is no alternative” to these market-centric policy approaches, when, in fact, neither approach is politically practical is a tribute to neoliberalism’s ability to dominate policy thinking.

    Killing fossil fuels without killing the modern economy requires far more commitment to planning and designing an economy and economic infrastructure that does not need fossil fuels. The idea that there is enough information in the market price of fuels to drive such planning without . . . you know . . . actual planning is a bizarre delusion.

    And, neither approach does anything about the political problem of large sunk-cost investments in the infrastructure of fossil fuel use and distribution, which motivate the vested interests that own those sunk-cost investments and want to see them put to use at scale to earn a return to exercise political power to continue the use of fossil fuels.

    Reply
    1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

      We still have to look beyond fossil fuel, I think.

      1. deforestation – in ancient China, Mesopotamia, the Easter Island, etc.

      2. many animals we have hunted to extinction.

      Both had occurred before fossil fuel (there used to be bears, elephants and rhinos in northern China, as shown on ancient Chinese bronzes).

      And you have also

      3. overpopulation in ancient Greece, leading to colonies overseas, and in ancient China as well, as they marched south of the Yangtze, and subsequently you seeThais, who originally lived as far as Shandong, in Thailand today.

      Reply
  21. Alex Cox

    It’s all down to overpopulation.
    As predicted by Paul Erlich et al back in the sixties. The culprit is organized religion, first & foremost. But wait! That might be considered ‘hate speech’. So better prevaricate and blame neolibs/cons instead.

    Reply
  22. Luke

    News item detailing how wind and solar power actually produce less than half the electricity their advocates claim, with 75% shortfalls common for solar and wind functioning for half or less the predicted duration:

    Reply

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