27. October 2014 · Comments Off on This changes everything, but how is the question · Categories: Climate Policy, Economic Policy, Jason MacLean, Transformative Ideas

With condolences to climate change deniers and other card-carrying members of the Flat Earth Society (yes, it’s a thing), the troubling reality of climate change has arrived (again).

Exhibit A is the U.S. Pentagon’s recent report asserting with Pentagon-like assertiveness that climate change poses a real and present danger to national security.

What’s at stake? For starters, climate change increases the risks associated with terrorism, infectious disease, global poverty and food shortages.

The Pentagon’s report proceeds to map out how the U.S. military will adapt to rising sea levels, violent storms and widespread and protracted droughts.

Perhaps most significantly, the U.S. Defence Department will begin integrating plans for climate change risks across all of its operations. Check it out for yourself, it’s a fascinating — if deeply disturbing — read http://www.acq.osd.mil/ie/download/CCARprint_wForeword_c.pdf.

Exhibit B is an even more surprising piece of evidence: a best-selling book about climate change by Naomi Klein entitled This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate.

Klein’s argument in a nutshell is this: Capitalism is a battered brand. It’s failing the vast majority of people in the world. Think mortgage foreclosures, rising student debt and more and more people leading increasingly precarious lives.

PS. Capitalism is also destroying the climate, life’s support system. But more on that in a moment.

Klein’s economic argument is hardly new, and by now, in the ongoing aftermath of the 2008 financial meltdown, it’s hardly controversial.

Consider an equally unlikely bestseller: Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Piketty’s book has nothing to do with climate change, and, at the same time, everything to do with climate change.

Capital in the Twenty-First Century asks economically complex and politically urgent questions like: How unequal is the division of wealth and income in capitalist societies? How did it get that way, and what direction is it going in? And most urgent of all: are capitalism and democracy incompatible?

Piketty’s argument in a nutshell is this: r > g. In English, this means that the rate of return on capital (r) is greater than the overall growth rate of the economy (g). In other words, over the past 200 years or so, capital’s share of the overall pie of wealth has been growing at a rate faster than the economy as a whole, leaving less and less for everyone else.

Based on Piketty’s extensive data analysis, it turns out that the Occupy Wall Street Movement had it basically right. Western capitalist economies are becoming increasingly unequal. At the top of the pile is a small class of the super-wealthy, and that class — and the corporate interests that it embodies and represents — has an outsized influence over the political process.

So what does Piketty propose? His recommendation is for a small, progressive global tax on capital to try to even out the gaping inequality represented by r > g. But in the very same breath, he concedes that his idea is a political non-starter, for the very same reasons that give rise to the problem in the first place.

This is a problem. As one reviewer of Capital in the Twenty-First Century argued, r > g isn’t a theory of capitalism; it’s simply a time-lapsed picture of it. Alone it tells us nothing about why capitalism regresses toward economic and political inequality.

So what does this have to do with climate change? In a word: everything.

As Klein observes in This Changes Everything, not only is capitalism failing almost everyone but the super-elite, it’s also failing the planet. Hence, to combat climate change and environmental ruination, we have to combat capitalism. More to the point, we have to transform capitalism.

OK, but how? This is the critical question, and it’s here that Klein’s book — which is essentially a book of synthesized reportage, not original analysis — falls down. It’s true, she doesn’t have the answer to the 400 parts per million question: If not capitalism, then what, exactly?

But this is too heavy a charge to lay on any one book. Capital in the Twenty-First Century — authored by a prominent professor at the Paris School of Economics — has been hailed as “a magisterial treatise on capitalism’s inherent dynamics” — doesn’t even pretend to have the answer. No one book ever will.

What we desperately need instead is a movement that’s at once intellectual and political, a movement that draws on and integrates the broadest range of ideas and initiatives available in order to reimagine our way of life. In future columns, I’m going to modestly try to begin to sketch out what that movement might look like. But suffice it to say that it’s going to take almost all of us to make it work.

Jason MacLean

Published in the bi-weekly column, Sustainability Matters, The Chronicle-Journal, Thunder Bay, Monday, October 27, 2014

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