Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Climate Disaster and Economic Justice

A note: I have just read an important piece by Bill McKibben which is an update on the global warming picture. The news: it's happening faster than expected, and many of our standard ideas about the subject are limited. If you do nothing but read that piece, called Think Again, Climate Change, I will be pleased. My blog entry below is in direct response to it. Also note that I'm trying to write shorter entries now. This one is around 900 words. No more seven thousand words. That was an exception. But I do hope you get through the previous post on Civil Endowment Theory at some point, because it's a distillation of the last 10 or more years of my work.

This post just makes one simple point, which is this: Humanity is not going to get motivated enough, inspired enough, and unified enough to stave off climate disaster – which in simplest terms means phasing out fossil fuels – unless we do it in a way that brings economic justice and opportunity for all.

Typically when we think about the struggle against global warming, we think about governmental action, international treaties, and the like. It is true that governments have a huge role to play, of course, but they show no signs of moving away from policies that perpetuate the grotesque inequalities of wealth that exist in our world. Their leadership is inherently suspect, not to mention the fact that many governments are actually fossil fuel producers (Russia, the Arab states, Venezuela, Mexico). Their solutions will fall short because they are fundamentally beholden to conventional thinking of the same sort that got us in this mess. The recent U.S. financial sector bailout is a case in point. Outrageously, much of the money that was given to banks (about $350 billion so far) went to executive bonuses, dividends, and buying weaker banks. Reptilian capitalism at its best.

Nor do the very rich have a handle on this. T. Boone Pickens, the oil tycoon of Swift Boat fame, who recently got renewable energy religion and blanketed the airwaves with ads about wind power, has fallen silent. I heard he lost $300 million in the recent market meltdown, and financing for his wind projects is in question. That's a snapshot of course, and the rich have a huge potential role to play. They need leadership, though (something they don't want to hear) and they are fundamentally disinclined, despite genuine altruism and generosity, to do anything to change the system as it exists, which is indeed the system that made them rich.

Let's see, what else might do it? Oh, yes, “market forces.” But, as we have seen in recent months, when the price of oil collapsed much of the momentum for renewable projects was lost. Sales of SUVs rebounded. Oil prices are again inching up, and certainly smart folks know that the long term trend is going to be up. But putting our hopes on a price-based transition is too little, too late. Prices fluctuate, as we've seen recently, but CO2 emissions don't depend on the price of fossil fuels. And there's a huge amount of them left in the ground. There's no indication they won't be extracted and burned at whatever price. And then there are those lovely subsidies that governments pay for fossil fuels, subsidies that distort the market. It seems that the real market is about how much it costs to buy favorable legislation and lax regulation, and the marketing costs of manipulating public opinion, such as in the recent “Clean Coal” propaganda campaign.

Let me say this again: We need a solution for energy transition that simultaneously brings economic justice for all. There are two reasons for this. First of all, economic justice is justified! We as a human race deserve – and we will all benefit greatly from – a civilization in which everyone has basic sufficiency, basic economic security, and basic opportunity. That is what economic justice means to me. It does not mean forced egalitarianism, forced collectivization, forced conformity, government control, or any of that. It means universal freedom, the actual freedom that economic well being brings, and the civil freedoms that empowered individuals demand.

The second reason is the simple pragmatic fact mentioned at the beginning. The epochal economic transformations needed in the coming decades can only take place in the spirit of a unified humanity – unified against the threats of planetary eco-disaster, but equally unified in the inspiration of a new planetary economic paradigm. The vast masses of ordinary human beings are simply not going to make the sacrifices, the wrenching changes, and go the extra mile – in short, we are not going to do the work – simply to make the fat cats richer. We are not going to do it to perpetuate the injustice that now exists. There simply isn't enough motivation in the human spirit to do something that stupid. Neither will nationalistic competitiveness do the trick (“Let's stop global warming to show the Chinese just how superior we are . . .”). Global climate change is a problem for all humanity. We need a solution for all humanity.

The civil endowment system as expressed in The Special Proposal has the potential to make such a solution possible. What is needed is the mobilization of generosity on a planetary scale. That generosity comes from human beings, not a theory, a system, or a proposal. Nevertheless, by providing a vehicle for the expression of planetary generosity and its utilization, the implementation of civil endowment theory can become the definitive new economic paradigm of the future, a paradigm that we have always deserved, and one that is desperately needed as we move closer to irreversible climate catastrophe.

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