Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Paying India and China to do what, exactly?

Anyone with a sense of decency and proportion about humanity’s current environmental predicament understands and sympathises with the claim by developing countries that the developed countries should actively support their contribution to controlling global warming by technology transfers, improved terms of trade and direct funding. Conversely, as India and China’s own governments have pointed out, the attitude of the governments of developed countries to their position is hypocritical at best and shameless at worst.

But at the same time, is it really clear exactly what would be accomplished by such support? Just as the justice of their cause is clear to anyone with half an eye, so the doubtfulness of their chosen route to development is clear to anyone with half an ear for the brilliant but discordant disharmonies of emerging capitalism. For both India and China (and most other developing countries) have certainly set themselves on a strictly capitalist road to industrialisation, and it is exactly this that undermines their claims to the sympathy and assistance of developed countries.

Not that the latter are any less culpable – after all, we invented capitalism, we made sure that most developing countries (with the notable exception of China itself) would adopt a capitalist strategy for economic development, and we have wilfully turned a blind eye to the environmental (not to mention social, cultural, political and psychological) consequences of our own road to wealth. But to support the industrialisation of any country on the same basis would only be more of the same problem we already have. Indeed, capitalism’s incessant demand for growth and more growth, coupled with the lower ‘carbon efficiency’ of less developed countries’ industries, would actually make the problem disproportionately worse. So even if the global environment could countenance the rapid doubling and trebling of the global economy, the environmental impact is actually likely to be much worse than that.

So what is the answer? Beats me. But it isn’t capitalist development, because that can only lock us – and in this case it really is us all – into a worse problem. Nor will it solve developing countries’ developmental problems, given that they are far more likely to suffer from the resulting climate chaos, resource depletion and ecosystems damage than their more developed neighbours.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Should We Seek to Save Industrial Civilisation?

Yeasterday George Monbiot's website published a debate between George and Paul Kingsnorth on the question Should We Seek to Save Industrial Civilisation?

I commented on this rather abstract discussion, and here is what I said:

I find myself bemused by this debate. On the other hand, after reading
George’s Captive State, I would have expected a more specific focus on exactly
what it is about our economic system that drives its relentless growth, and on
the other I am sure I can’t be alone in finding any dispute that lays the blame
for environmental disaster at the door or either ‘founding myths’ or ‘humanity’
a bit abstract, to say the least.

Industry does not lead to environmental collapse. Firstly, any machine or
factory or oil well or fishing fleet can be shut down or made more
environmentally friendly any time its controllers want to do so, and secondly I
see no reason to believe that those who control these things are inherently
blind to the facts of climate chaos, peak oil and all the rest. Rather, the
issues are what it is that motivates whether or not we turn down industry and
who realistically exercises enough control to do so. These are matters of
society’s political and economic structure, not abstract speculation.

As far as motivation is concerned, our economic system is driven by profit,
and practically every sector of our global economy is committed to investments
that demand a return for decades to come. So although there is no technical
reason why the factories and power stations cannot be switched off, the economic
consequences would be disastrous. So cars keep roaring off the production lines
and the oil keeps gushing not because of Judaeo-Christian foundation myths about
control over nature or because we are too weak to give up foreign holidays, but
because if stopped buying, there would be no revenues to repay the bank loans
that fund all those hotels, aircraft, oil wells, and all the rest.

The same can be said of industry as a whole – the issue is not one of
industry as such but of the economic motivation that determines how industry is
used and developed. There the answer is simple: it is run and developed for
profit, and unless the state intervenes to impose specific environmental and
social obligations, nothing else. Nor, while those who control this whole cycle
limit their perspective to profitability, can things be otherwise. But at the
same time, they could not change this perspective to something more socially and
environmentally responsible even if they wanted too without markets and
investors simply demolishing them. That is only likely to change if there is a
truly vast realignment of our economic system, such that social and
environmental sustainability became our ultimate criterion for economic success
and profitability, if it remained at all, would become a secondary accounting
issue, not the be-all and end-all of industrial civilisation.

In short, it is capitalism that is the ‘fifth horseman’ who drives the four
horsemen of our impending environmental apocalypse – global warming, ecosystems
collapse, resource depletion and (the disastrously adverse effects of)
population growth. Conversely, it is wholly implausible that the motivation for
and control over our industrial civilisation will shift away from profitability
and radical unsustainability without equally radical political

All in all, I don’t know how far capitalism can be adapted to social and
environmental sustainability – given its inherent drive for economic growth,
either it or civilisation itself will have to give – but I am quite certain that
capitalism is a much more realistic answer than Paul and George’s rather
speculative abstractions.