Capitalism v. environmentalism: a poll
Don Boudreaux, an economist, argues that doing nothing is the best policy for global warming.
As David, biodiversivist, Tim Lambert, and ThinkProgress point out, this argument has a lot of screws loose. (ThinkProgress also has a picture of Boudreaux, who looks slightly insane. He is also, by sheerest chance, with the Cato Institute, which according to a book by two University of Colorado law school scholars, “receives most of its financial support from entrepreneurs, securities and commodities traders, and corporations such as oil and gas companies, Federal Express, and Philip Morris that abhor government regulation.”)
Just for a moment, let’s ignore the whiff of prostitution. Let’s ignore the alarming changes that global warming is expected to bring to climate, and the worsening of drought, floods, forest insect pests, hurricanes, species extinctions, among other aspects of life on earth.
Let’s focus instead on the politics of the claim.
Because it’s not just Boudreaux saying that we must choose between capitalism and reduced greenhouse gas emissions. Listen to many a prominent speaker on the right on this subject, and before long you will hear some version of the claim that global warming is a plot to “take down capitalism,” as a writer for the National Review recently put it.
Rush Limbaugh says it virtually every time he bellows on the topic. (In January of this year, I heard Limbaugh reveal that believers in global warming were not just “anti-capitalists” but “Communists.” But I can’t prove it, because although he boasts incessantly about his show’s success, Limbaugh doesn’t offer any sort of transcript without a subscription.)
Conversely, many moderates and even conservatives think capitalism can survive — with a few changes. The Economist has been calling for a carbon tax for years. Moderates such as Thomas Friedman and conservatives such as Andrew Sullivan have also spoken up for an energy tax. These prominent voices, along with big corporations like GE and investment firms like Goldman Sachs, don’t think tackling global warming means an end to capitalism.
In the words of playwright Sherry Kramer, they seem to think: “Greed got us into this mess; greed will get us out.”
Complicating matters is the fact that many environmentalists agree with the capitalists that global warming challenges our economic system on a fundamental level.
Environmentalism’s method of handling global warming is flawed.
The old paradigm works like this: We judge just about every issue by asking the question, Will this make the economy larger? If the answer is yes, then we embrace whatever is in question –globalization, factory farming, suburban sprawl. In this paradigm, the job of environmentalism is to cure the worst effects, and endless economic growth makes that job easier. If you’re rich, you can more easily afford the catalytic converter for the end of the tailpipe that magically scrubs the sky above your city.
But it turns out that, above all else, endless economic growth is built on the use of cheap fossil fuel. The industrial revolution began the day in 1712 that Thomas Newcomen figured out how to use a steam engine to pump water out of a coal mine, so that it could be mined more cheaply and easily, thus allowing more steam engines. Coal, oil, and natural gas were, and are, miraculous — compact, easily transportable, crammed with Btu, and cheap. Dig a hole in the ground, stick a pipe in the right place, and you get all the energy you could ever need.
Precisely the same fuels that gave us our growth now threaten our civilization. Burn a gallon of gas and you release five pounds of carbon into the atmosphere. And as China demonstrates every day, the cheapest way to spur growth is by burning more fossil fuel. Even Benjamin Friedman, the Harvard economist who wrote a brilliant book last year defending the morality of economic growth, conceded that carbon dioxide is the one major environmental contaminant for which no study has ever found any indication of improvement as living standards rise.
Which means we might need a new idea. We need to stop asking, Will this make the economy larger? Instead, we need to start asking, Will this pour more carbon into the atmosphere?
But would a carbon tax, the most obvious such “new idea,” end capitalism? Probably not. And what about using the power of technology to save the world, as Al Gore is advocating?
The point is that despite big claims from both sides, this is a big question with remarkably little consensus, not just between environmentalists and capitalists, but within those alignments.
The enviros — roughly speaking — divide between those who think capitalism can change and those who doubt it will (such as James Howard Kunstler, who offers the geopolitical version of a Hunter S. Thompson rant).
The capitalists — roughly speaking — divide between those who think capitalism can adjust to global warming and advocate some form of carbon tax, and far-right Bush administration and National Review types who look for any and all reasons, even farcical ones, to ignore our changing climate.
So, we’re curious: what you think?
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