Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Musing about the Future, Part I

I have been doing a lot of thinking and writing about the future. Between lectures for my on-line environmental sociology class, and comments to various blogs (including my own) I've been developing some thoughts about where we are heading, and what we might do about it.

I got started down this road by a post by "Progressive" Forwardly Thinking: New Progressive Politics got me to thinking about the future. The essence of the Forward Thinking post and the document "The Death of Environmentalism" by Shellenberger and Nordhaus, that it links to, is that the political techniques and strategies that produced the environmental legislation of the past in the U.S. are not working, and will not work, to deal with the environmental crisis of global warming. This is a very thoughtful document and provides a good overview of environmental politics for the last 50 years, and some good thoughts on why the political techniques that were so successful in the 1960's and 1970's fail when confronted by climate change issues. ideas presented for future political action are well thought out, and have potential. Shellenberger and Nordhaus argue that environmentalists have to stop being a "special interest" and "start framing our proposals around core American values and start seeing our own values as central to what motivates and guides our politics."
It is hard not to agree with everything Shellenberger and Nordhaus have to say. Environmentalists do need to do some visioning for the future. We do need to clarify our values, and work consistently from those values, tying our political efforts to those values. We do need to have a proactive approach, talking about the positives (what are the new industries and new jobs that will be created), rather than the negatives (what jobs and industries will decline). However, even if environmentalists were successful in doing all these things, we would not have the same kinds of success that conservative "values" voters have, for one very simple reason. The value issues of conservatives (pro-family--traditional two parent, husband headed families, anti-abortion, anti-homosexual, prayer in school, Ten Commandments in the Courthouse, smaller government, lower taxes agendas) either have no impact or a positive impact on the profit margin of corporations. These values and the policies they spawn either are irrelevant the operation of a capitalist economy or they support the accumulation of capital. While there are some economic activities that would benefit from an environmental values agenda, environmental values (and other liberal values such as national health care) run strongly counter to the profit interests of the vast majority of existing capitalist businesses that currently exist in this country. One can argue all one wishes that new investment and profit making opportunities will be created (which of course they will be), but those don't exist yet. Those opportunities haven't made anyone any money yet, and the things that are making people money now, are threatened by the changes for which environmentalists are asking. One can also argue that failure to change will cost business more later on than change now will cost, but as I will discuss below that is not convincing argument.

It is too late to prevent climate change. Climate change has already happened, and because the effect of human additions to the atmosphere are cumulative even if we were able to make immediate changes climate change would continue to occur as the result of our past activities. Several experts in the field of climatology have argued that we have about a ten year window (see interview with James Hansen) during which we could limit how much change, and therefore how much damage, occurs, but making significant changes in human affects on the atmosphere. While there is certainly debate over the correctness of this ten year estimate, there is little question that the time to make changes is fairly short. Moreover the changes required are large -- significant reductions in our CO2, methane and nitrous oxide emissions. Reductions of this magnitude will require: significant changes in the way we do business, live, work, and travel; political action to change laws and government policies; organizational change; and change in attitudes and values of ordinary people.

Compared to other industrialized nations, the economy of the United States falls to the most extreme end of the capitalist continuum, with the greatest amount of private ownership. Capitalist considerations of profit dominate all sectors of the American economy, including transportation, electricity generation, and other energy areas, while in Europe many of these key sectors have substantial government ownership.

The U. S. political system also differs substantially for other democracies. Most other world democracies have parliamentary systems. G. William Domhoff in his classic Who Rules America? has made a cogent argument for why the American "winner take all" electoral process creates large brokerage political parties that must attempt to appeal to the broadest segment of the population. It is this structure, Domhoff argues that makes the "special interest" process flourish through lobbying and campaign contributions, and makes it difficult (but not impossible as the religious right has demonstrated, see "The Death of Environmentalism" referenced above) for broader values agendas for change to take root.

Parliamentary systems, compared to the U.S. system, are less dependent upon financial contributions to elections, and are less susceptible to the influence of lobbying. In the U. S. monetary contributions are a huge consideration in elections, and even more important in funding permanent lobbying activities. The entrenched power of the businesses, industries and groups with a lot of money at stake: they are willing to spend a lot to avoid change. Groups opposing the concept of anthropogenic global warming (AGW) are often funded heavily by energy industries (oil, coal) and transportation industry (automotive).

Profit motive is a major cause of opposition to the idea of anthropogenic global warming (AGW). major industries, as energy, transportation, chemical industries benefit from existing arrangements – there is a lot of profit to be made from continuing business as usual. Costs of
change are very high in some industries and businesses. Some would have to disappear entirely or be scaled back dramatically (e.g. coal mining). Workers in these industries, and their unions when the exist, also join in the opposition to making changes to combat global warming. Proponents for significant change to address AGW correctly point out that many new industries
and new jobs will be created in "green" industries. However, our national experience with
transformation of our economy from industrial sector to service sector over the past 35 years has shown us that any kind of significant change in the economy always result in economic hardship for some and economic opportunity for others. Thus change is understandably feared by many whose livelihood depends upon carbon intensive activities.

Taking the sociological approach which looks at issues of the environment and society holistically, leads us to the awareness that our entire culture and patterns of social life, have been shaped by an economy dependent upon growth and consumption. Our communities, our homes, how we connect to school, work, home, recreation and worship are all shaped to some extent by our capitalistic industrial economy. Moreover the existing structure of inequality and economic opportunity makes it more difficult for some people to change. The location of work places in relationship to housing that working and middle class people can afford, and the lack of public transportation system often leave these classes with few options to reduce the use of private vehicles. Among affluent upper middle class families who could afford $300,000 and up urban condos near their places of work, considerations of the present conditions in central city school systems often inhibit them from moving their families out of the suburbs.

To simply label those who resist dramatic and potentially painful changes in their life style as lazy or ignorant is overly simplistic. To prevent the most extreme climate change, requires changes that are likely to have far reaching, disruptive effects on citizens and businesses of our advanced capitalist countries. Resistance to such change is to be expected. However, if "business as usual" continues, the long term disruptive effects of unabated climate change will be far greater,with more suffering. Getting this message across is hampered by several things.

First, the most devastating effects of climate change will not occur for another 50 to 100 years. Human beings as a species are not long term planners. We do fairly well in planning a year in advance (save those seeds for next spring's planting, put aside those skins for next winter's cold weather). Certainly we have evidence in existing buildings and archaeological finds that shows planning for construction projects that last a lifetime (from pyramids to Gothic cathedrals). There have been many individuals with long range vision, but collectively, human societies have not done well with long range planning. Those human societies that manage to continue to exist for thousands of years in balance with their environment (foragers and horticulturalists) do not engage in long run planning, but rather focus on yearly cycles in ways that have long run benefits.

Our modern society is not organized around long term planning. Capitalist businesses are geared towards the profit of the current or next quarter. Most business plans one year ahead. While farsighted individuals and companies do exist they are not the norm. This is not a failure of individuals, but a failure of structure. Businesses must be concerned about investors. Investors who are constantly making decisions about buying and selling based on current levels of profit and near term returns, not what might be promised for twenty or thirty years down the road.

Political decision-makers also, have a short horizon. Most are geared towards winning the next election. Again, this is not a failure of individuals so much as a structural defect in the political process. Even when a given negative future outcome is well established and relative near term (the disappearance of the social security surplus by 2035) legislators find it difficult to make decisions that will benefit people 30 years in the future, but will cost people in the next year -- especially that will cost people who might well vote against them for the decision.

Second, the uncertainty of predictions for specific consequences in specific places(where will there be more rain and where will there be less rain) have made it easier for people to resist acting. Moreover, there is no question that some regions and some countries may benefit from global warming. During September when the extent of Arctic ice was at its all time measured minimum, the fabled "northwest passage" or water way along the northern coast of Canada was ice free and readily navigable. Both the Canadian government and the Russian government see potential gain in a permanent reduction of Arctic Sea ice. It opens up the possibility of cheaper ocean transport that is far shorter than a trip through the Panama Canal, and it opens up the Arctic Ocean to oil and gas exploitation. Russian submarines have taken advantage of the declining and thinning ice to plant a Russian "flag" beneath the ice at the North Pole, hoping to stake a claim to the rich energy resources that lie beneath the ocean surface. Lack of certainty about who will suffer and who will benefit increases resistance to change.

Third climate change is an international problem. All nations must participate. While the United States is currently the largest producer of greenhouse gases, developing nations like China and India are increasing their emissions contribution at a much faster rate and will soon over take the U.S. in absolute terms. Cooperation between nations is required. Developed nations need to help underdeveloped nations jump to cleaner technologies .Developing nations need to protect forests and they need financial assistance to find economic alternatives. So far international cooperation has been negligible.

This does not mean that we should give up and wash our hands of the whole affair. As I will discuss in another post, another day, even small changes can be important for our future.

Please see Forwardly Thinking for a very thoughtful response to this essay!

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