CORPORATE RESPONSE TO CLIMATE CRISIS.
Al Gore has put forward a radical proposal to save the world from heat death. In an eloquent speech given in Washington DC on July 16th/08 he suggested that the USA adopt a plan to convert its entire economy from a fossil fuel base to a sustainable one arriving at a zero emissions state by 2018. Phased conversion to solar, wind and geothermal would not only allow this to happen but would simultaneously revive the economy, provide a whole new sector of green collar jobs and eliminate dependence on foreign oil along with any further need to deploy military power to control it. The net result would be a stabilization of the climate, rising prosperity and a safer world.
Sounds terrific. Just what we need. Especially coming form a big name that active politicians cannot ignore. Especially after one of the best informed climate scientists, James Hansen, has pronounced that in order to forestall an irreversible rise in average temperatures to life destroying extremes, the world must begin such a conversion process by 2009 and no later. Especially also, at a time when market forces themselves have attracted the attention of an oil mogul like T.Boone Pickens who has not only spoken up, publicly, in a massive TV advertising campaign but has already put some of his private billions where his public mouth is. He has invested in wind power in Texas as part of a first stage in what he hopes will be a massive array of the same, straddling the central planes from the Mexican to the Canadian borders.
There is no doubt that stabilizing the CO2 content of the atmosphere at around its present 350 ppm is an essential first step towards curing the world’s ills. It represents a huge leap forward from the position of those who have of late been selling us ‘snake oil’: the false prophets who have advocated, variously, more drilling for oil, ‘clean coal’, ‘safe nuclear power’, various forms of bio-fuel, this last of which, if fully exploited, would lead directly to mass starvation of poor people and the final erasure of the world’s last acre of wilderness.
Gore states the degree of urgency accurately, and the direction of ecologically sound alternative energy research correctly. The fact that the ‘movers and shakers’ have actually taken on board the all but unanimous warnings of the scientists should be welcomed by humanity. We should heave a great global sigh of relief. We are not going over a cliff…hopefully.
A little sober analysis is in order. First let us look at Gore’s proposal through the eyes of that segment of the establishment lying as far to the left as it gets, for which he is the spokesperson. These are firm believers in the capitalist system and see nothing wrong with the globally integrated form it has taken. If an unintended consequence of corporate economic functioning is discovered to be potentially runaway global warming, then it must be reformed so that this side effect is eliminated. Then it can be restored to its natural, unrestricted activity of robust and profitable growth. Such a philosophy can be compared to FDR’s New Deal. The idea was then, as now, to stave off revolution so that capitalism can survive, albeit under some new irksome constraints.
As a thought experiment let’s assume that Gore’s gambit pays off. Ten years of upheaval leads to a new world in which the corporate landscape has been transformed. Mansanto, Exxon-Mobil, General Motors, Raytheon, etc. etc. have either been supplanted by other new corporate giants with different names or radically transformed from within. They are all now producing ‘green’ products based on solar/hydrogen energy inputs. What then?
Can we imagine, for instance, many more people racing around the highway system in zero emissions vehicles on tires and road beds made of something other than petrochemicals? Corporate executives jetting round the world in planes powered by something other than aviation fuel? Half the world’s food supplies continuing to be shipped from continent to continent – in sailing ships? The genetic contamination of global crops and cropland suddenly stopped, because of the end of cheap petro- chemical byproducts? Pretty hard, I would say.
It is a vision based on a world view that is still driven by Francis Bacon’s 17th century
dream not only to enslave nature, but ‘to conquer and subdue her, to shake her to her foundations’. This attitude has infiltrated every aspect of modern culture, not just the violation of Mother Earth revealed in our current obsession to extract every last morsel of fossil fuels from her bowels.
The science of ecology was a late arrival on the scene of our science based industrial culture. This is unfortunate because if it had arrived at the beginning it would have provided a vital framework within which the assault of the human species on all others, which is an unintended consequence of the kind of ‘development’ prevailing,
would never have had the life threatening consequences we are faced with.
Ecology recognizes the complex web of relationships that binds the myriad forms of life together in a single complex where even small changes of behavior in one species can have large effects throughout. It also recognizes that the varying state of the environment; the atmosphere, earth and oceans interacts with life, adding a further layer of complexity. The comprehensive nature of ecology also introduces another dimension completely ignored by the establishment from right to left, namely the fact that the most important aspect of the environment of any species, humanity not excepted, is its social environment. This is the face to face interaction between humans fully diversified with respect to gender, age, income level and ethnicity in the communities where they all live in close association. If these are poisoned by unequal power relations or made almost impossible by constraints of time and space that a military/industrial system brings in its wake, then we will not have a healthy community and this will be reflected in the health, particularly the psychological health of some or all of its individual members.
The Greens understand all this. They have solidified their policies under the rubric of ‘bioregionalism’. There is no doubt that the revolution that is called for to make Gore’s program realistic must include widespread changes in patterns of land use and the re-ordering of the relationship of habitation (human) to habitat (other animals). The whole economic structure needs to be turned on its head. It must operate now to cater to the fundamental needs of all people first and eschew the further enrichment of the wealthy. Furthermore it must do so far more efficiently, using far fewer inputs and little if any non-renewable resources. Growth of the economy in its present form would have disastrous consequences for ecosystems already stressed to the max. Yet growth is the only mode of operation that a capitalist system can permit. In our laissez faire arena, a corporate entity that does not grow, will die, sooner or later.
So the direction the world has taken, towards a single integrated global economy over-riding all regional variations from climatic to cultural, must now start to rapidly re-differentiate itself. To restore health to our planetary ecosystem, each bioregion must now consciously identify itself as a unique place with its own balanced system of plant and animal communities including the human, all acting to mutual benefit.
And the global economy must follow suit. Not only should each bioregion aim to support a stable population with most of its own locally grown organic food but the new generation of eco-manufactured products must also be largely regionally based. It is imperative we understand this, that however green we may wish to be we are still an industrial civilization. We may wish to embrace other nature but we are no more equipped to ‘go native’ than our beloved house pet would survive for long if dropped in the middle of the Amazon rain forest. Actually our chances of survival would be far less. Watch us go camping. Most of us do so only when clothed and surrounded by high tech gear of one sort or another.
If the single global economy is to transform into a cooperative network of largely autonomous bioregions, each cultivating its own unique culture then surely the internal social structure of each bioregion will likely organize itself around the same set of principles, as democracy develops naturally its ‘grass roots’. Particularly in the large urban aggregates where more and more the global population is concentrating, we will see strong, place-based communities forming and taking control over, in large measure, their own food and energy supplies and providing for their own primary health, education and welfare needs. And these communities will tend to house people at higher densities than of yore. Why? Because eco-communities cannot be car dependent. There is a certain level of housing density at which efficient public transportation becomes viable. Housing at suburban densities can never support it. Besides strong community formation depends upon almost immediate access to the commons. Face to face democracy only works well within the orbit of a walk-able environment.
I take issue with US Greens on the subject of decentralization. They advocate it as a principle but it is a misleading term to use without some prior analysis of what is meant. For example, at the national and international level, it is true that there needs to be a decentralization of power from the state to the bioregion and from the hegemony of the multi national corporations to, again, the bioregions. But at the sub-regional level what is really needed is the opposite, a re-concentration of human habitat in the cities and a corresponding re-establishment of bio-diversity in the land so vacated. The restoration of wilderness to something at least resembling its extent of 100 years ago would seem to be not merely desirable, but essential. Human populations are growing, but their rate of growth is, mercifully slowing. If we prohibit all new development on agricultural land and only permit it in center cities
in the many areas of same that are at present wasted we will come closer to thrivability. We should further mandate that all development is to be multi-use in character, including, not only housing and the social services that support it, but work places, food and recreation space and local alternative energy systems sufficient to drive all the domestic and industrial systems housed. The day-lit areas of such development should also be car free, and largely, machine free.
The dream of urban dwellers moving to Arcadia and settling in peaceful little eco-villages is not a model that civilization can implement as a whole and therefore if pursued it will inevitably be socially divisive, exacerbating the problems of social alienation we already face in the mono-sub-cultures spawned by suburban sprawl.
We cannot disperse ourselves in rural areas without depriving ourselves of the cultural resources that only big cities can provide. The countryside should primarily be settled by those immediately involved in the process of growing and transporting food to the cities, and those people will likely choose to live in compact high density multi-use entities with fast rail connection to the city. What can be done is to re-design the city so that it exists under a continuous blanket of trees and other vegetation. We should forego the dream of living in the wilderness but we can bring an artificial simulacrum of the wilderness to the city. The abolition of the distinction between town and country done correctly is not by smearing the city out into the landscape but bringing the landscape back into the city. It can be done. I have tried to suggest how, in my book: “The End of the Street; Sustainable Growth within Natural Limits”.
But the global economy needs to contract. It is the global ecosystem that needs to be allowed to recover, and then to grow, to its terrestrial limit.