How we might survive the climate crisis
This piece was originally written for and submitted to The Economist’s essay contest, which asked the question: What fundamental economic and political change, if any, is needed for an effective response to climate change?
“In the decade that ran from 1979 to 1989, we had an excellent opportunity to solve the climate crisis,” Nathaniel Rich wrote in the New York Times Magazine.
“During those years, the conditions for success could not have been more favorable. The obstacles we blame for our current inaction had yet to emerge,” Rich explained, writing on early climate politics in the U.S. “Almost nothing stood in our way — nothing except ourselves.”
Concrete solutions to climate change — whether it’s a carbon-fee or cap-and-trade — have existed for about five decades. The solution is clear and it always has been: human civilization needs to drastically reduce its greenhouse gas emissions.
Rich’s narrative essay would make a thrilling addition to a realistic fiction shelf. It’s a rollercoaster of hope and despair, detailing how a corrupt political system responds to existential crisis. But living in 2019 makes it different. I know where it ends: that its characters are unsuccessful — no international agreement is signed in 1989, and 30 years in the future, we’re further back than where we started.
I could write an essay about the merits of cap-and-trade. Perhaps more direct regulation. Maybe the need for international unity in the face of a global extinction threat. But conversations about specific policy proposals are trivial and meaningless until we confront the underlying cause of the destruction of the earth.
This is not a conversation about what reforms we need to implement. This is a conversation about capitalism and our relationship with the natural world, and it ventures into questions of our species-essence and purpose.
Our mode of production — that is, the method we use to decide which commodities are produced and when — has no capacity to handle externalities. The market system hyper-focuses on profits and, through competition, ever-increasing production, backed by governments dedicated to promoting GDP “growth.”
Carbon pricing attempts to assess the cost of climate change — a negative externality — hoping the market adjusts to the increased prices of carbon. But proposing a political solution without seeing the industry’s massive effect on our government is just as naive as it is futile.
There’s a reason why nothing serious has happened for 50 years. Our mode of production defines us. It controls our political system as well as the way we conceive of our lives and the world around us. Rich’s essay, for example, details how the system chewed up and spit out any semblance of a climate solution in the name of free markets.
How do we get around this? It’s impossible to separate our economic system, or mode of production, from our politics. The only way to resolve the contradiction between profit and climate change is to expropriate capital and production from a system fixated on profit and appropriate that production according to a system that can account for the externalities of climate change.
It’s hard to imagine what this system could be, but that’s a reflection of our own shortsightedness and the muzzling effect of capitalism on political imagination. Something like an international Green New Deal would place control of energy production and regulation in common instead of in the hands of a blind authority like the market. The market cannot account for externalities whereas human civilization can.
Even this is just a baby step in a process that will inevitably need to transform production and consumption on a global scale. The destruction of our environment goes much further than climate change. The market’s tendency to overproduce can be seen in the ocean’s garbage patches, our naturally and artificially burning rainforests, and receding glaciers.
Most of all, this approach includes a radical shift of consciousness. It involves a fundamental reconception of our economy’s presupposition that “growth is good” and our place within the natural world: a reconception that accepts and embraces the dynamic between us and our environment.
Our current relationship with our environment is best characterized as domination. Once human beings internalized hierarchy and domination within their societies, their attitude toward the natural world reflected these social relations.
It’s understandable why this happened. Even activities as simple as farming or building small structures seemed incredible, even supernatural. All around the world, culture formed around an idea of dominating the natural world: we even conjured personal gods that controlled nature and strove to emulate them. Murray Bookchin, an ecologist and philosopher, noted that our oldest and most epic legends, like Gilgamesh, Odysseus, and Brahma, tell stories of humanesque characters conquering or suppressing a dangerous world.
In the Abrahamic tradition, God created mankind in his image “so that they may rule over” creation. “Fill the earth and subdue it,” he commanded. “Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground” (Genesis 1:26-28).
We learn, through cultural conditioning, to treat nature as an “object of domination” rather than a habitat for coexistence. This is the essence of our problem, and it will take a radical shift of consciousness to change it.
Bookchin wrote that humans need to recreate our relationship with the environment from a “complementary” standpoint. He spoke of a mentality in which we “see our role in the natural world as creative, supportive, and deeply appreciative of the needs of nonhuman life” rather than one that prioritizes conquest and exploitation.
Production, distribution, and consumption will need to reorient, on an international scale, to focus on mutual aid and use value rather than abstract notions of “growth” if we’re going to come out of this alive.
In his epilogue, Rich wrote how he thinks we might avoid disaster: “It will take more than good works and voluntary commitments,” he said. “It will take a revolution. But in order to become a revolutionary, you need first to suffer.”
It’s a grim prognosis. I won’t pretend to be overly hopeful; the forces of production we need to overcome are tremendous and influential. But Rich sees it differently: “Human nature has brought us to this place; perhaps human nature will one day bring us through,” he wrote. “Let irrational optimism have a turn. It is also human nature, after all, to hope.”