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August 21, 2019

The environmental calamity


August 21, 2019

Current conditions represent a political emergency of sorts, meaning that ways of solving environmental and social problems will either be worked out or circumstances, led by the environment, will assume a life of their own. Given that these conditions are the result of historical processes that were decades and centuries in the making, understanding how we got here is crucial to resolving them.

The relevant ‘we’ here is being redefined through the relation of late-stage capitalism to the world. Climate change and species loss are shifting boundaries, shrinking the universe of arable land, breathable air and drinkable water. Fortress America, previously a conflation of place with one’s status in the imperial order, is largely the source of this vengeful gravity. Political geography is about to get interesting.

In this regard, the IPCC just won’t quit issuing proclamations. Joining climate change and mass extinction is dead and dying land. It seems that you can’t just denude a few hundred million acres of arable land, destroying the ecosystems to which it belongs, without consequences. What mystical clairvoyance could have imagined such an outcome? And more to the point, what can be done about it?

With updates on the breadth and depth of environmental calamity coming fast and furious, still missing is the political path to salvation. The only certainty – as offered by the authors of said calamity, is that we, the little people who add up to 90 percent or thereabouts of the demos, want – nay demand, calamity. The proof: we still eat, live indoors, wear clothing and find our way to and from work.

However, this is but mere paraphrase. The direct proof is that we consume. And we do so through the social mechanisms – stores, the internet, etc, that have been provided. From this slim foundation the certainty is built that we ‘demanded’ state corporatism, aka neoliberalism, aka rule from above. Markets are the transfer mechanism through which the purchase of a bag of rice becomes support for industrial agriculture.

Amongst the background premises that has made American political economy close to immutable is this idea of self-generation, that capitalism and democracy emerged from the free choice of the governed. Ironically, the neoliberal form that has permeated the West in recent decades was conceived by liberal intellectuals after WWII. And it was imposed by cadres of government and business leaders beginning in the 1970s.

Crucially for electoral politics, no vote to transform American political economy from the managed capitalism of the New Deal to neoliberalism was ever taken. Ryan Grim, political reporter for ‘The Intercept’, places the Koch Brothers funding the neoliberal Democrat’s Third Way and on the executive board of the DLC (Democratic Leadership Committee) at crucial moments in this history. It seems that the political ‘center’ has long had an agenda.

This, along with abundant evidence of capitalist machinations from the Powell Memorandum to right-wing think tanks created and funded in the 1960s and 1970s by the rich, gives provenance to the claim that neoliberalism was imposed from above. This imposition carried out through trade agreements, financialization and privatization, to which none amongst the demos agreed, contradicts theories that it self-generated through democracy, markets, or anything of the sort.

Among the more brazen pushbacks to taking collective action to right social and environmental wrongs in the present is the assertion that ‘we,’ variously phrased as citizens and / or consumers, chose the world we inhabit, and therefore ‘own it’ in its current form. This isn’t to deny agency, but rather to point out that claims regarding political ownership are more plausible when it is chosen than imposed.

Through its Anglo-American provenance, this logic of self-generated political organization is the basis for ideological explanations of both capitalism and democracy. Through our individual purchases we indicate our material desires. And through our votes we indicate our political preferences. Capitalist democracy is posed as an historical accumulation of these individual choices – just without the actual history.

To work this anti-history back into an historical context, none other than the IMF (International Monetary Fund) has stepped into the environmental arena to offer that direct and indirect subsidies of fossil fuels were around $5.2 trillion globally in 2017. Environmental destruction has long been built into this historical process. The solution: raise the price of gasoline to $15 per gallon and hamburgers to $14 and presto-change-o, environmental problems will be solved.

In a narrow sense, this should produce a WTF moment. Who decided that $15 per gallon gasoline should be sold for $3? And who decided that a $14 hamburger should be sold for $3? The answer, that a complex interaction between government bureaucrats, elected representatives, private interests, trade groups and military strategists – considered together through something called history – resulted in these subsidies.

Excerpted from: ‘Neoliberalism and Environmental Calamity’.


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