I was deeply impressed by last week’s climate change rally – I was in central Wellington, New Zealand, when the local march came past. It was not just for kids; people of all ages were there. And it pointed up the fact that what’s happening today will impact the next generation. And the one after that – and more. It’s a shift that will impact how humanity lives and exists over the next centuries. If we survive. Is that fair on today’s kids, or the kids they will undoubtedly have in time? Of course not. And yet the hate poured on such individuals as Greta Thunberg – for pointing out the obvious – seems incredible.
That hate, as far as I can tell, has come from those who stand to lose the most if the necessary steps to limit the damage aren’t taken. Although there seem to be many who want to deny that human-driven climate change is real, the argument has broadly been driven by the vested interests of the one-percenters and those who have bought into that ideology – the neo-liberalism that took ground in the west from the 1970s. We’re into the second generation of it now, and it’s also well into its end-game. The unbridled ‘free market’ – also adopted with alacrity in the former Soviet Union – doesn’t provide wealth for all; mostly, it produces chaotic swings that can be exploited by the rich to take wealth from the poor and – of late – the middle-income earners.
This isn’t to deny the value of the capitalist system. On the contrary, it is a good system when it is properly calibrated. Human economic systems have always been about creating value, maximising that value, and enjoying the results of it. Historically, every successful economic system has been, basically, ‘capitalist’ in one form or another. The current incarnation – in which most people rely on employment to survive, and where money, itself, has become a tradable commodity, distinct from its value as a way of defining transactions for goods or services – has, itself, evolved over time. Broadly, the current form originated with the industrial revolution in the eighteenth century, and was an outgrowth of the earlier mercantilist system. It gained particular power in the nineteenth century colonial frontier – particularly the Pacific Rim (midwest-western US, Australia, New Zealand) where it was able to emerge in almost unbridled form.
The issue has always been finding a balance in the mix; human endeavour can’t produce enough to create a utopian world for all, and human social systems inevitably stratify outcomes and concentrate benefits in the hands of a few. Complex human societies cannot be run by a few simplistic ideas, such as the reduction of social interactions to monetary value. And there are limits to how far a generation can be pushed, a lesson repeatedly learned in Europe during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when the birth-pangs of the First and then Second Industrial Revolution, driving the social shifts of the day, led to popular uprisings by the dispossessed.
The issue then, isn’t the general ‘capitalist’ economic system of itself, but the extent to which it was allowed to run to one of its extreme edges from the 1980s onwards – a position normalised by those who benefited from that shift. When I look back at the thinking of the 1980s and 1990s I remain aghast at its shallowness; take Francis Fukyama’s hypothesis that the fall of the Communist bloc marked the final victory of capitalism and therefore the ‘end’ of history. This childish mis-perception of how history works was itself reduced, simplified and used as a mantra by the neo-liberals. You know the form: the permanent future is now. History is over. We won. Get with the program. And a changeless utopian future of pure free-market nirvana was meant to follow, in which the poor would receive whatever the rich trickled down on them.
Well, quite. A lot of this effort to shrug off wider human reality was driven by the recency effect; but the aspiration was real. Alas, history says otherwise. Societies always change – it’s the nature of how they work; and that change, by definition, is what constitutes history. Although history doesn’t work in mechanistic ‘cycles’, it’s nonetheless true that major social change is usually tri-generational: the grandchildren of those who originate a particular phase typically want something else. We saw that in the twentieth century when the world of the two wartime generations of 1914-45 was rejected by the baby boomers in the 1960s. We are seeing that now, in the kids getting worried about what future the neo-liberal revolution that began two generations ago will leave.
In short, we have to accept that the broad social framework on which the whole capitalist system rests also changes – and so, therefore, will the expression of the system. Into that mix today, for instance, is also flowing the effects of the digital revolution and the information age, in which production has swung from physical goods to intellectual property. The implication is that the nature of value-creation – the fundamental basis of any economy – is changing. The social and economic ramifications of this are going to be as profound, economically, as the industrial revolution was from the late eighteenth century. We don’t know where that will go.
This presupposes, of course, that our civilisation will continue at all. The problem is that any human economic system only works if it is growing – hence the focus on ‘economic growth’, which the neo-liberals reduced to a few simplistic numbers, usually Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The current system also works on the basis of imagined value – the stock market, for instance, where values rise and fall not because of real issues, but simply because they can be traded on a market where whispered rumour suffices to provoke panic. The outcomes, however, are real. For more on that, check out a technical paper on the origins and nature of the 1930s Great Depression in New Zealand, which I wrote for a peer-reviewed economic journal – here.
The issue with ‘permanent growth’ is that everything ultimately comes from exploiting the environment, one way or another. And sooner or later that environment will run out. Put another way, we’ve been exploiting the world, on industrial scale – and at an increasing rate – for the last 250 years. The very economic system that this created also relies on growing that exploitation to keep working. But Earth is only a limited place. Put another way – and as just one example of that exploitation – we’ve been dumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere at a massively increasing rate for 250 years. What did we think would happen? And, of course, there is much more than just this in terms of our impact across a wide range of areas.
But inevitably, those who have benefited the most from this won’t want it to stop – and that, to me, explains a good deal of why the issue of human-driven climate change has been politicised, reduced to polemic, and often personalised. It has also swung the debate away from the essential issue – which is what sort of world will be left for the next generation?
Today’s kids are worried about it, and rightly so. I’m worried too, on all sorts of levels. The whole world seems to be on the edge of crisis just now – economically, environmentally and socially. The Global Financial Crisis of 2008-10 was stopped from being a major depression via a good deal of money creation. But that didn’t cure the underlying issues, which were largely a result of what happens when the controls are lifted. We may already be too late to stop all the effects of climate change driven, ultimately, by human greed.
The solution is a no-brainer; with concerted action, we can avert crisis in all these areas, especially environmental – on which all rests. But so far, all we’ve done is fight over whether the reality of climate change even exists, this to the point where concerted and necessary action to restrict the damage has yet to be fully achieved. The kids are right; it’s disgraceful. And it’s an appalling legacy to leave for them.
Time to do something about it – and instead of fighting over climate change, let’s approach the issues with reason, care, tolerance, kindness, empathy and civility towards each other, all of which, I think, will go a long way towards building the platform so urgently needed to resolve Earth’s greater problems.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2019