A wake-up call

The books calls for a new economic model and a new way of sharing the planet.

Published : Feb 18, 2015 12:30 IST

While the earth is poisoned, everything it supports is poisoned. While the earth is enslaved, none of us is free… while it is treated like dirt, so are we.

—Alice Walker

WE cannot live any longer in denial. The neoliberal system is at loggerheads with the earth and environmental responsibility. Any summit on climate change must deeply realise this. As Naomi Klein argues in a recent interview: “We have not done the things that are necessary to lower emissions because those things fundamentally conflict with deregulated capitalism, the reigning ideology for the entire period we have been struggling to find a way out of this crisis. We are stuck because the actions that would give us the best chance of averting catastrophe—and would benefit the vast majority—are extremely threatening to an elite minority that has a stranglehold over our economy, our political process, and most of our major media outlets.”

In such a world full of ruthless economics, fanaticism, dogmatism, aggressive sectarianism and most of all terrorism and violence, our survival depends on how effectively we can resist the onslaught. It depends on the degree to which we accept responsibility for ourselves and the world, and face the seen and unseen threats that abound in our times.

Climate change

We had temperatures soaring all over the world last summer. The floods in Kashmir last year were the worst in this century. Central America has experienced an unprecedented drought, leaving millions without food. In the Philippines, over four million people were displaced by typhoons. It is a panic situation, almost a “banging-down-the-door” problem. Our eyes are “glued to the smart phones”. We are indeed the products of our age, caught as we are in the hubris of the capitalist project to dominate nature. No wonder hundreds of activists with banners screaming “Flood Wall Street” collected in New York recently to step outside the capitalist culture and alter public opinion.

Climate change indeed changes everything. However, Naomi Klein offers some hope of an “opportunity to get off that road… to change pretty much everything, or some really fundamental things, about our economic system…. We can’t fight climate change without dealing with inequality in our countries and between our countries.

So the argument I’m making is really quite a hopeful one. I think if we do respond to climate change with the decisiveness that the scientists are telling us we do, if we respond in line with science, we have a chance to remake our economy, the global economy, for the better. But this is not going to be the kind of change that comes from above; it’s going to be the kind of change that is demanded by mass movements from below.” There is a need for game-changing policies that alter not the laws but ideologies that show that humanity is not necessarily greedy. As is clear to a layperson, the inability to lower carbon emissions is largely owing to the workings of a deregulated economic system.

It was in the late 1990s that governments began to think seriously about reducing global warming. But statistics show that global warming has increased by 61 per cent since. This means we have failed, and the measures we jointly agreed upon are inadequate. Alarming reports confirm that the drive for fossil fuel, shale gas, tar sands, and coal is unscrupulously reckless. Sadly, it is felt by many that owing to the crisis being far into the future, there is no need to take radical and immediate steps. Or is it that politicians are prone to taking short-term measures and are least concerned with what lies in the future?

Naomi Klein’s book takes us back to the era of the end of ideology and history, a time when Francis Fukuyama and his cronies triumphed in the success of market fundamentalism and Thacherite economics, a period of a dominant belief that we had reached a stage of no viable alternatives to the rule of neoliberals.

The end of history meant only one thing: the suppression of political opposition and the supremacy of systems over individuals. It was argued that liberal democracy was the final form of human government that stood for justice and human rights. Such a thesis tries to ensure homogenisation in cultures and world economics. If you abolish history, you abolish change and life moves on in the ultimate bliss of the status quo and the “New World Order”. This was the grand narrative to end all grand narratives.

But curtailing of antagonisms is against the nature of history laden with ideological conflict between different world systems. The end-of-history debate and the triumph of the master narrative of capitalism had its own shortcomings as seen in the rampant mass unemployment, homelessness, violence, inequality, famine and economic oppression. The conservative Right cannot, therefore, occupy the moral high ground. The question for today is to interrogate this and look for a more equitable economic system which is possible only if, like the civil rights movement or the women’s movement, the world begins to realise that in this do-or-die situation, success lies only in a worldwide mass movement for altering the public opinion on nature and capital.

Naomi Klein is of the opinion that such corporate victory and thinking need to be countered at a collective level and that “we cannot solve this crisis without a profound ideological shift”. This shift has to be in opposition to globalisation and the forces of unbridled free market economics to finally bring down the so-called logic behind systems of thought as well as political structures and social institutions. Her ideological stance of dissent is subversive in nature with a new intellectual base for radicalism, a reminder of the Derridian castigation of the victory of free market economics, which is “so critical, fragile, threatened, even in certain regards catastrophic, and in some bereaved”.

Opposing the conservative Right, Naomi Klein argues: “But I think what the Right understands, and it’s important to understand, that the climate change denier movement in the United States is entirely a product of the right-wing think tank infrastructure, the groups like Heritage Foundation, Cato Institute, American Enterprise Institute. The Heartland Institute, which people mostly only know in terms of the fact that it hosts these annual conferences of climate change sceptics or deniers, it’s important to know… is first and foremost a free market think tank. It’s not a scientific organisation. It is—just like the other ones I listed, it exists to push the ideology, the familiar ideology, of deregulation, privatisation, cuts to government spending, and sort of triumphant free market, you know, backed with enormous corporate funding, because that’s a very, very profitable ideology.”

It stands to reason then that if we regard the alarming reports about climate change as being true, the whole enterprise of free market economy based on the blatant use of fossil fuels will fall apart and there will be no rationale to continue it. The rich economies understandably depend on the burning of fossil fuel. To the apologists of neoliberalism, any transformative change “is abhorrent… They see it as the end of the world. It’s not the end of the world, but it is the end of their world. It’s the end of their ideological project.”

Thus, the denial of scientific truth is their form of rationality. However, Naomi Klein gives the examples of Germany and some Scandinavian countries that have not converted fully to neoliberal policies. Renewable energies, such as wind and solar, are significantly favoured in Germany, which has the most robust environmental and anti-nuclear movement in the world. Twenty-five per cent of the country’s energy comes from natural resources. Naomi Klein’s theory in the book is that only those countries that have a strong tradition of social democracy refrain from following deregulated capitalism. Denmark is another example of a state taking full measures to protect the public through policies that respect nature. She sites one odd case of Norway that has now become a “petro-state”. However, she is perturbed over the rise of toxic waste contamination in Germany owing to a powerful coal mafia, a strong political lobby that favours the excavation of lignite.

Naomi Klein is also derisively critical of President Barack Obama who has allowed the Keystone XL pipeline, with all its harmful consequences to the public and which will be unhelpful for any economic recovery. She says such world leaders “who are products, really, of this deregulatory age” do not have the power or the will to say “no”. Indeed, there is currently “a fossil fuel frenzy [raging] in North America”.

Interestingly, Obama underlined the scramble for oil as his chief achievement: “Over the last three years, I’ve directed my administration to open up millions of acres for gas and oil exploration across 23 different States. We’re opening up more than 75 per cent of our potential oil resources offshore. We’ve quadrupled the number of operating rigs to a record high. We’ve added enough new oil and gas pipeline to encircle the earth and then some. So, we are drilling all over the place, right now. That’s not the challenge. That’s not the problem. In fact, the problem in a place like Cushing is that we’re actually producing so much oil and gas in places like North Dakota and Colorado, that we don’t have enough pipeline capacity to transport all of it to where it needs to go.”

This is indeed insane apathy to climate change, a dream of elevating the limp economy at the cost of irreversible loss of biodiversity. Interestingly, not a word about investing in renewable energy, which, scientists tell us, the U.S. has the enormous capability to develop. But the fossil fuel companies with their power to bribe will never support such ecological egalitarianism.

A decentralised renewable energy programme in the hands of the common public is anathema to the rich barons. By allowing the production of renewable energy “you’re fighting austerity, you’re fighting inequality, and you’re fighting climate change at the same time”.

Apparently, business interests and the struggle for ecological balance work at cross purposes. The scourge of neoliberalism and the hunger of carbon giants such as Exxon stand in antagonism to the forces fighting for justice for the deprived.

Naomi Klein’s book is of great service to humanity. She explains her thesis: “…our economy is at war with many forms of life on earth, including human life. What the climate needs to avoid collapse is a contraction in humanity's use of resources; what our economic model demands to avoid collapse are unfettered expansion…. Climate change isn’t an ‘issue’ to add to the list.... It is a civilisational wake-up call. A powerful message spoken in the language of fires, floods, droughts, and extinctions—telling us we need an entirely new economic model and a new way of sharing the planet.”

She has intelligibly laid out the fundamental principle that you cannot possibly live within a capitalist framework and strive for environmental preservation. The redeeming feature lies in the reaffirmation of resistance movements standing up for ecologically sustainable communities not overwhelmed by the hyper consummation of catastrophic capitalism that is hostile to the environment. Nature cannot be approached from a rapacious utilitarian point of view. And soon, very soon, humanity will be asked: “History knocked at your door, did you answer?”

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