Law in Contemporary Society

A Wrench in the System

-- By LeslieHannay - 27 Feb 2009

Society is like a stew. If you don't stir it up every once in a while then a layer of scum floats to the top.

-Edward Abbey

What's Going On

There has been much hand-wringing (and not a little finger-pointing) of late over the nasty turn of events in our global financial markets. Business is not good: hard times lay ahead. While I recognize that I am no less bound to the fate of these sliding fortunes than the next debt-saddled American, I cannot deny that I feel, for the first time in a long while, a glimmer of hope that we might somehow use this opportunity to reform our abusive relationship with the planet. Capitalism itself, it would seem, has provided the monkey wrench for us.

A Case Study in Hope: Climate Change

Over the past decade, science has reached a broad consensus as to the seriousness of anthropogenic climate change. The connections between human activity and changes in our atmosphere, and their potentially calamitous effects on the natural world and human societies, have been somewhat slower to appear in our national dialogue. This is due in no small part to the persistent and vociferous campaigns in the media, the Bush Administration, and other organs of propaganda for the interests of business as usual. This is, of course, not a new role for the news media, which has a stake in maintaining a healthy buffer between reality and its popular apprehension. Whether this is the result of the healthy functioning of media corporations operating in a competitive market, or a more self-conscious effort by the media monopoly to relegate unsympathetic science to the fringe so as to encourage business as usual is of course debatable.

This denial was greatly aided by a popular resistance to embracing the implications and form of such large-scale ecological harm. This lackluster global catastrophe offends the aesthetics of our expectant viewing audience, which has been primed to recognize the End of Days as a cataclysmic tumult of wind, hellfire and catastrophic floods. (Unfortunately, these expectations may not be disappointed.)

  • This is artfully indistinct. If you mean to assert that the peculiar attraction of pre-millennial eschatology in American Protestantism makes environmentalism a tough sell in Christian America, where the idea of cataclysmic ruination of the climate seems to many a necessary event in sacred history leading to a welcome conclusion for the faithful, just come out and remind people that James Watt was an early example of the political use that the extractive industries made of the Christian Republican Right in the part of America where the federal empire is the overwhelming landowner.

Climate Change: a Preview

Admittedly, the problem of fully understanding what is at stake when we’re talking about climate change is a natural result of the complexity of its contributing factors and the catastrophic consequences that are projected from deceptively small changes in temperature. A recent report by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projects with over 90% certainty that most of the warming observed over the past 50 years is caused by man-made greenhouse gas emissions. The projected changes in weather that will result include melting of sea ice, sea level rise and higher temperatures, greater frequency of extreme temperature and weather events, and higher incidence of drought. Other reports also show that these processes are progressing at a much more rapid rate than initially predicted. [View short film].

The immediate effects of climate change are already being seen, and have far-reaching implications for the availability of food and water worldwide, and, especially in the warmer, most populous developing regions. Rising temperatures will diminish the viability of some of the world’s currently most productive agricultural regions. India will lose up to 1/3 of its agricultural capacity by 2050, while more arid countries such as Chad will be unable to support agriculture at all. Rising tensions over scarce resources will be accompanied by an increase in conflict. Indeed, conflict related to economic scarcity is already being seen across the developed and developing world.

  • What would your policy recommendation be if the soberest view of the evidence suggested that irreversible processes of change were already in place, and that further emissions would hasten and make more severe what no mere remission of pollution could prevent? Is it always true that when in a hole, the first thing to do is stop digging?

Why I am Hopeful

Nothing seems clearer than that the attitudes of any given ruling class are so set that all the argument in the world will not change them.

As in Arnold’s description of resistance to adopting practical solutions to the waste of precious soil and other resources, the process of enacting workable solutions to address modern environmental issues has been at an impasse for years. At least for the present moment, the fear of total financial collapse has muted the entrenched partisanship and reflexive rejection of anything with the flavor of socialism that has hindered progress on environmental issues. Because of this, President Obama has been able to put forward an energy plan that will have potentially significant effects on global warming, and will be (if it makes it through Congress) a strong step in the direction toward dealing with the problem in a way that will actually make a difference.

  • Any President can put forward. The Clinton Administration talked about carbon taxes in its first budget, and they continued to advocate the "BTU tax" it turned into before it died altogether, as pretty much everyone knew it would. Mr Clinton had pretty much the same daring agenda as Mr Obama: health care, energy, education and deficit reduction. Mr Clinton was also going to end welfare as we knew it. Mr Obama still has nobody to work night and day to put his health care deal through. Mr Clinton had Mrs Clinton. Mr Obama, by contrast, has given her a job in which she can be a success.

Will It Be Enough?

Unfortunately, the executive plan on its own will not be enough.

  • Unfortunately the executive plan will not be. Mr Obama has already made clear that he's willing to trade his cap and trade away, and boy will he ever have to. If he can't do it in year one, conventional wisdom would say, he can't do it.

The proposed solution does not reach the root causes of our global predicament: it’s just an effort to save the sinking ship. The talisman that we have waved around to fend off the demons of doubt is that capitalism, if left alone, will right itself, because self-interested rational agents will not choose to self-destruct. (That these so-called rational agents are most often corporations is not deemed relevant. Yet what is the corporation if not “an externalizing machine - moving its operating costs to external organizations and people”). This blind faith in the system ignores the evidence that our addled consumer society, broken education system, soaring global poverty, cities of garbage, and now crumbling financial systems present. The system works as a way to convert resources on a large scale. We, as a society, cannot rely on this same system to ameliorate the problems that it has created.

  • You might want to point out that history is littered with civilizations that suffered obliterating man-made ecological disasters, which were also full of self-interested rational agents, and didn't even have any corporations. One has to believe that we are the only effectively rational people who ever existed to believe that our system cannot accumulate risks of ecological catastrophe against which it does not provide.

Dénouement: Business As Usual?

Once the economic system is set aright (assuming that it can be saved), the system’s gears will recommence their grinding out the “great blaze of heaven into animal shapes and kitchen tools,” the window of opportunity will close, and the system will not change.

If our religion continues to be the religion of buying and selling, it doesn’t matter whether we use clean energy or low-grade coal to produce our iPods and designer shoes. Without a corresponding revolution in our way of thinking about what it is, exactly, that we’re supposed to be doing here, our cheap fixes will merely serve to forestall the inevitable, ultimate collapse of the natural world, and the society that it supports.

  • You haven't explained why economic hard times, which necessarily introduce new subsistence crises for individuals, communities and nations, are going to produce a renewed focus on long-term sustainability problems. Subsistence crises usually deflect attention from long-term to immediate concerns. Extractive industries aren't counter-cyclical, but their reserve assets don't depreciate in deflationary conditions: they simply remain unextracted until it becomes profitable to exploit them. So they may have to shift political programs somewhat, but they tend not to lose but rather to gain power in straitened economic conditions. As global manufacturing slows drastically, emissions will slow too. Agricultural prices too will fall, reducing some ecological pressures created by too rapid expansion of farmland. But human deprivation will also immediately increase in some societies threatened by eventual suffering from ecological change. Existing global threats to public health will increase as economic damage worsens. Immediate problems will be more urgent, and distant problems will accordingly seem less crucial. Compromises at the expense of the future are more justifiable when the present exigency is great. And so on. No doubt there's another side. But, aside from the discrediting of financial operators and the presence of an incoming Democratic Administration with the usual set of program priorities to try for, you haven't explained that other side in detail, or explained why you are hopeful that it will have more success than it usually has in hard times.


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r4 - 08 Jan 2010 - 22:10:44 - IanSullivan
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