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We can fight neoliberalism and mitigate its impacts at the same time

By: | January 19, 2017

Whether or not global plutocracy can be toppled, its billions of victims need immediate help.

Ed Finn
The Nonagenarian’s Notebook

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“The greatest peril facing humankind,” a group of scientists concluded in 1992, “is to become trapped in spirals of environmental decline, poverty and unrest, leading to social, economic, and environmental collapse.” Photo: Andrew / Flickr.

Men are seldom blessed with good fortune and good sense at the same time.
                       –Titus Livius Livy

The die is cast.
                                                              –Julius Caesar, on crossing the Rubicon

A half-minute commercial that popped up on your TV set in recent months showed the famed environmentalist David Suzuki addressing an audience of young children.

He tells them that destructive climate change is rampant and that little is being done to stop it, so it’s up them to tackle the problem and create a viable future for themselves.

The kids exchange bewildered glances.

The TV blurb is part of the Ontario government’s ambitious $7 billion five-year plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and transition to a low-carbon economy. Its message is that it shouldn’t be left to the next generation to tackle the climate change threat that this generation is failing to confront.

Premier Kathleen Wynne and her colleagues are to be complimented for this initiative, but her claim that “we are making real progress” rings hollow. Had it been launched 15 or 20 years ago by an earlier Ontario government – or preferably by an earlier federal government – real progress could indeed have been made. As it is, phasing out fossil fuels in the province over the next five years can do very little, on its own, to curb global warming.

That herculean task, to have the faintest chance of success, would have to be undertaken collectively by all the world’s large industrial nations. And it would require switching from fossil fuels to renewable forms of energy by 2025, at the latest.

What are the chances of such a vast environmental rescue mission being launched in the brief time frame still theoretically open? Given the determination of the big oil and gas corporations and their subservient political leaders to extract and burn every last drop of ecologically destructive fossil fuel, the prospects are – to say the very least – improbable.

As I watched the Suzuki TV blurb, I was thinking of my request for comments on my recent three-part blog on neoliberalism — and how few responses I received. I suspect from the sparse feedback that most readers were as frustrated as I am as I gaze up at the towering and seemingly unassailable ramparts of the reigning neoliberal corporate empire.

I realize that these battlements are not permanently impregnable. If the environmentalists’ efforts to breach them fail, the fortresses will crumble eventually, during the Armageddon that follows the corporations’ depletion or contamination of the planet’s non-renewable resources.

Of course, when this collapse occurs – no later than 2050 at the latest — it will also engulf what remains of human “civilization,” including the inundation of coastal cities, sweeping economic and social chaos, and a 50% or more population loss.

This is the horrific future to which we are being herded by our current economic, financial, and political leaders. To face this bleak reality is not to give way to despair, nor to stop striving (against all odds) to bring about a better future. But to deny the gravity of the future we face is to indulge in self-delusion.

Facing reality

Back in 1992, nearly 1,700 of the world’s leading scientists, including 104 Nobel Prize winners, signed a World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity. They cautioned that “Human beings and the natural world are on a collision course. Human activities are inflicting harsh and often irreversible damage on the environment and on critical resources. If not checked, many of our current practices put at serious risk the future that we wish for human society and the plant and animal kingdoms, and may so alter the living world that it will be unable to sustain life in the manner that we know.”

The scientists stated “a great change in our stewardship of Earth and the life upon it is required, if vast human misery is to be avoided and our global home is not to be irretrievably mutilated.”

They cited as a priority a transition from fossil fuels “to more benign inexhaustible energy sources to cut greenhouse gas emissions and the pollution of our air and water.” And they argued that “acting on this urgent matter is not altruism, but enlightened self-interest. We all have but one global lifeboat. No nation can escape from injury when global biological systems are devastated. No nation can escape from conflicts over increasingly scarce resources.”

This desperate warning from the world’s top scientists was not only ignored by the world’s corporate and political leaders, but widely disdained and derided — as were all such subsequent climatologic warnings and appeals. Far from being curbed, these ruinous economic practices have been intensified. Inevitably so, since the dominant global economic system – neoliberal capitalism – can only survive by continuing recklessly to plunder and pollute the planet.

To stop these depredations would necessitate nothing less than the termination of capitalism itself (or at least the unbridled form of capitalism that now prevails), and that is something our corporate overlords will never – can never — do of their own volition, regardless of the horrendous consequences.

This should change everything

Naomi Klein’s latest book, This Changes Everything, is subtitled Capitalism vs. the Climate. What she bluntly claims is that capitalism as it now functions is incompatible with a healthy and sustainable climate, and has to be stopped before it precipitates a global catastrophe.

As it stands, in what could be called the last round of the fight between capitalism and the climate, the odds are no better than 100-to-1 against the climate winning. Free-market capitalism has battered the environment so viciously and with virtually no restraint that even some of the most knowledgeable and vocal “friends of the Earth” seem to be losing hope. Of the 1,700 scientists who warned us about global warming 25 years ago, almost all who are still alive now remain ominously silent. They have apparently assumed that issuing another such warning at this late date would be pointless.

And it’s not only our political and corporate leaders who refuse to face this reality. So do most of the people who vote for neoliberal politicians and fail to join the environmentalists’ campaigns against pipelines and further global-warming oil and gas developments. In the 2015 federal election in Canada, climate change was rarely mentioned and ranked well down the list of issues considered important. (A recent Pew Research Center poll in the U.S. found that 55 percent of Americans don’t believe climate change is a “serious problem” – and President-elect Trump and most of his cabinet appointees actually believe it’s a hoax.)

"Many previous civilizations and empires have crumbled because of the hubris and greed of their rulers," writes Ed Finn. "They all ignored the warning signs of resource depletion, income inequality, and the mounting rebellion against their despotic regimes."

“Many previous civilizations and empires have crumbled because of the hubris and greed of their rulers,” writes Ed Finn. “They all ignored the warning signs of resource depletion, income inequality, and the mounting rebellion against their despotic regimes.” Photo: duncan c / Flickr.

This is the primal outlook of short-term-wired brains galvanized only by problems that are imminent and personal.

Many previous civilizations and empires have crumbled because of the hubris and greed of their rulers. They all ignored the warning signs of resource depletion, income inequality, and the mounting rebellion against their despotic regimes.

American journalist and farmer Joel Salatin, commenting recently on the growing threat posed to food security by climate change, noted that people tend to delay making changes to their lifestyles unless forced to do so. But by then it’s often too late.

“No civilization on the brink of collapse has ever changed fast enough to avert collapse,” he pointed out.

The Mayas, the Sumerians, the Egyptians, the Persians, and even the long-lasting Roman Empire ultimately fell because of the refusal of their leaders to constrain their inequitable accumulation of wealth and power. Whether they were nobles, high priests, warriors, or despots, they had risen to the top of their society and relished the affluence that power conferred on them. They were not going to risk losing their privileged status by making changes that might endanger it – even if such reforms were clearly needed to save their empires from collapse.

Naomi Klein says she hasn’t lost hope yet. She puts her faith in the mobilization of mass social movements, such as those that successfully campaigned in earlier times for the abolition of slavery and apartheid, and against the suppression of civil rights in the southern United States.

Such victories can indeed inspire hope and spur action. But it has to be kept in mind that they were each focused on a particular social iniquity in one part of the world. The collapses of previous civilizations were also regional in scale, and did not impede the subsequent rise of others such as the British, Spanish, and Portuguese empires. But the prevailing neoliberal corporate empire girdles the globe and encompasses almost every human being on the planet. Its collapse will also be global in expanse, and so will its cataclysmic impacts.

My use of “when” rather than “if” in the last sentence connotes my reluctance to assume that a rescue from collapse today is any more likely than it was for past civilizations. I don’t entirely rule out that possibility, but, given that our current corporate rulers are just as avaricious and purblind as the autocrats of old, it’s difficult to sustain optimism.

I hasten to add, however, that this doesn’t mean we have to wallow in despair and passivity. Far from it. As Klein has noted, there are thousands of environmental, social and economic activist groups around the world that have had encouraging success from their localized campaigns. They are in the process of joining forces to build a movement they plan to enlarge to worldwide scope. The barriers they face are formidable, two in particular. The first – the shortage of time – is obvious. The second is even more daunting: the refusal of most governments (including ours) to heed demands for prompt and effective action on climate change.

The decline of democracy

The hard reality is that the only entities with the potential ability to stop neoliberal capitalism from vandalizing the planet are the world’s elected governments. Without the imposition of political limits on corporate power, even the broadest and strongest mass protest movement will be unavailing. That may seem unduly pessimistic, but, if our governments won’t tackle and shackle the corporate miscreants, who or what will?

It’s obvious that the governments of virtually all the world’s major nations have been subverted by the world’s transnational corporations. Political leaders have either embraced corporate neoliberalism willingly or have been intimidated by the threat of corporate retaliation if they try to govern in the public rather than private interest.

And there’s the rub when it comes to putting the brakes on global warming. With unchecked neoliberal capitalism reigning supreme over the economy, the maximization of economic growth and profits will continue to be its predominant mantra – and by extension that of its compliant governments. With most government leaders now in bed with the CEOs, lobbying for political curbs on the global warming caused by the CEOs is clearly futile.

Without the imposition of political limits on corporate power, even the broadest and strongest mass protest movement will be unavailing.

Consider what a government wishing to operate in the public interest would have to do just to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It would have to impose a hefty carbon tax on polluting industries, not an ineffectual token tax as most governments have done. It would have to order a phase-out of tar sands oil development and fracking gas extraction to be completed by 2025, then boost taxes on corporations and the rich to pay for the mass conversion from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources.

Can you seriously imagine that any national government, including ours, would dare to impose and collect billions from the rich and powerful to pay for meaningful action on climate change?

To do so would incur prompt and ruthless financial retaliation. The world’s corporate rulers will not tolerate governments that deviate too far from the corporate-neoliberal doctrine. Yes, some tiny tax hikes will be permitted, some relatively modest boosts in social spending, even occasional rebukes of business misconduct (as long as they remain strictly verbal). But any government that implements a really tough “anti-corporate” agenda risks punitive investment “strikes,” the exodus of more factories and jobs to low-wage countries, and of course the nastiest of all: the denial of cushy business posts to retiring politicians.

Facing the future

I wrote this rather bleak blog quite a while ago — on a warm Saturday in June. The sun was shining, the foliage was blooming, kids were frolicking on their way to the nearby swimming pool. All around the city, people were dining at café patios, jogging or bicycling on nature trails, sunbathing on beaches, and generally relishing the clement weather.

These are the activities of people who quite properly are enjoying their leisure time. For them, life is too short and precious to “waste time” worrying about climate change. Most of them have more pressing family, financial, or work-related problems to deal with, so naturally feel they can defer a threat that might not reach a crisis stage for decades.

What they don’t seem to realize is that many of their immediate concerns are also direct consequences of the same brutal neoliberal system that is despoiling the environment. The worst effects of global warming may be a long way off, but many of the other injurious effects of neoliberalism – e.g., poverty, inequality, hunger, homelessness, unemployment, and preventable disease — are already blighting the lives of billions of people. Even those in the middle class with currently adequate incomes are never financially secure in a capitalist economy vulnerable to occasional deep recessions and mass layoffs.

It’s noteworthy that the 1,700 scientists didn’t confine their 1992 warning to global warming. They also expressed deep concern about deforestation, overfishing, overpopulation, and the extinction of so many animals, plants and insects integral to the planet’s web of life. Even then, these reckless corporate assaults on the environment were raising alarm in the scientific community. And so was the spread of poverty, inequality, and gender inequality.

“We must reduce and eventually eliminate poverty,” the scientists stated. “We must ensure sexual equality, and guarantee women control over their own reproductive decisions.”

The scientists realized that these substantive reforms could be costly to implement, but made this salient observation: “Resources now devoted to the preparation and conduct of war – amounting (at that time) to over $1 trillion annually — will be badly needed for these new tasks and should be diverted to them.

“The greatest peril facing humankind,” they concluded, “is to become trapped in spirals of environmental decline, poverty and unrest, leading to social, economic, and environmental collapse.”

Coping with plutocracy

Writing in a recent issue of Harper’s about the tendency of most people to ignore warnings about global warming, Annina Mitchell sympathized with the scientists and activists who have been dismissed as alarmists. “No one enjoys playing Cassandra,” she wrote. “Just ask James Lovelock or Al Gore. It is more comforting and comfortable to avoid the ecological catastrophe ahead. . . I don’t begrudge those who remain hopeful about our future. The existential challenge I face – along with many others whom I prefer to call ‘realists’ – is to maintain a life filled with exuberance, meaning, and community service, despite what I rationally foresee as the likely fate of our species.”

That is the kind of positive attitude I recommend to environmentalists and activists in Canada. Our country, like most others, contains millions of victims of neoliberal capitalism – the poor, the hungry and the homeless. I wrote about some of them and described their misery and destitution in my recent piece on child poverty.

Helping the food banks and other NGOs help the victims of this worst of all economic systems is the kind of community service that Mitchell was championing in Harper’s. Granted, it falls far short of mounting an insurrection against corporate rule, but neither does it imply capitulation. The two activities are not mutually exclusive. Organizing a global effort to topple the plutocratic empire can continue – whether feasible or not – but alleviating the distress of its victims must also proceed and is much more desperately needed.

While the fight against the neoliberal environment wreckers carries on, we can also mobilize a modern social and economic Florence Nightingale brigade, ministering as she and her valiant nurses did to those who fall on the field of battle.

Ed Finn was editor at the CCPA Monitor for 20 years. Formerly, he was editor of the Western Star in Corner Brook, a reporter at The Montreal Gazette, and for 14 years wrote a column on labour relations for The Toronto Star. He also served for three decades as a communications officer for several labour organizations, including the Canadian Labour Congress and the Canadian Union of Public Employees.

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