A lecture and an interview set the two opposing camps against each other.
The lecture I attended was the keynote address at this year’s Dwell on Design show in Los Angeles by William MacDonagh, co-author of the seminal book Cradle to Cradle. This vitally important book elevated MacDonagh
to almost guru status in the sustainable design world, so I eagerly looked forward to hearing how he has developed his thinking more recently.
The audience loved him and gave him a standing ovation, but I remained seated on the edge feeling confused and disappointed. His account of the unfolding of his Cradle to Cradle philosophy was laced with beautiful
anecdotes and illustrative stories. He told everyone the things they wanted to hear about the better world we desire and believe we are building. He suggested we can solve this crisis by being sensible, doing the obvious things like installing turf roofs on factories and redesigning drink bottles without toxins (why do we even need drink bottles?).
But there was nothing new. And worse, he adroitly slipped round the giant elephant in the room no-one wanted to acknowledge: capitalism and the giant corporates pursuing profit, who have their own quite different agenda.
Elephant in the room
That elephant was uncomfortably exposed in the interview, which was with Naomi Klein in The Nation magazine. I had been deeply moved by her very important book — Shock Doctrine; the Rise of Disaster Capitalism – and see her as one of the most acute, accurate and honest observers of the world we live in. She
pointed to a recent Harris poll in the USA which revealed that the numbers of those who believe we are causing climate change has dropped in the last two years from 71% to 50%. Similar countries such as Britain and Australia, and probably New Zealand, are the same. This is despite more and more scary warnings from
scientists about how much worse it is getting, and despite the glaring evidence all around us of increasingly volatile weather patterns that are producing record numbers of extremes.
So why are people in denial? The answer lies in politics: those who are in denial are now almost entirely on the right. Even though the split used to be fairly bipartisan, it has now polarised into left and right. So it is no longer about truth, it is about ideology, about what you want to believe. To substantiate their denial they create preposterous conspiracy theories about climate change being a fabricated socialist plot to steal their wealth and standard of living.
If you think about it, the reason is obvious: everything that environmentalism stands for is opposed to their beliefs. Free trade is an environmental disaster, shipping cheap consumer goods back and forth across
oceans and forcing the dumping of subsidised produce onto third world countries which destroys local farming and manufacturing. As we have seen at Copenhagen, no serious advances will be made against carbon emissions without strict global treaties that are enforced by a global body. But such outside interference is anathema to most of the USA, which won’t even sign the the UN declaration on the rights of the child!
And as increasingly drastic effects of climate change are experienced in poor, third world countries, there will have to be big compensation payouts. But wealth redistribution is only on the right’s agenda if it is upward, not downward.
Free trade, the right to exploit and accumulate profit are all the basic tenets of capitalism. Corporations are driven only by short-term profit. This is just about greed, but unbelievably it is enshrined in law. These corporations are the brat kids I wrote about previously who are hand-in-glove with weak, compliant
governments who have no incentive or ability to stand up to their bullying. The corporations make all the profit, but when disaster happens (like the banking crisis, or the BP disaster) the tax-payer or the third world pays. What kind of deal is that? The governments are not governing for us but for their mates
in the corporations. And even if any government wanted to stand up to them, what chance would it have when half the population are on the side of the status quo anyway?!
What about the environmentalists?
The environmental movement has been at great pains to keep the issue apolitical, presumably from fear of alienating supporters on the right. But that has patently failed. Like MacDonagh, they are blind to the corporate elephant. Until they face up to this uncomfortable fact we will get nowhere.
The International Energy Authority recently announced that global carbon emissions are back on the increase. Countries like Britain can say theirs have dropped only because they have exported manufacturing and so don’t count those emissions as theirs! In other words, all the well-meaning efforts of MacDonagh and
other light greens, are getting nowhere.
It appears to be business as usual, but actually, as Klein points out, it is worse. We have extracted all the easy fuel, and now we are going after the hard stuff, the deep off-shore wells, the tar sands, gas fracking and the Arctic – “drill baby drill”. So look forward to more serious environmental disasters. And guess who will pay for them?
Ironically, the right’s conspiracy theories are actually correct. This is political. This is a direct head-on confrontation between environmentalism and capitalism. Everything each stands for is bitterly opposed by the other. I do sincerely believe that humans have the capability for us all to live a reasonably balanced and just life. We have the know-how to give everyone on this planet enough food, shelter and well-being.
But it will not happen under capitalism. The business moguls and super-rich are extremely powerful and will fight every inch of the way to retain their right to exploit and accumulate more wealth. It is war between the brat kids and the environment/future/humanity… Do we come down to their level and take them on, or do we remain pure and ineffectual? I wish I knew.