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STILL OUT ON A LIMB

A Green Capitalist Solution?

With the Paris Climate Summit approaching, THE NATION magazine has featured articles about global warming induced climate change. A recent cover story by economist Robert Pollin was entitled “The New Green Economy: Think we can’t stabilize the climate while fostering growth? Think Again” His thesis is, “The global economy can bring global emissions down to the IPCC target of 20 billion tons within 20 years if most countries - especially those with large GDPs or populations - devote between 1.5 and 2 percent per year of GDP to investments in energy efficiency and clean, low-emission renewable-energy sources.” He argues that the jobs generated by these investments, coupled with targeted retraining of those who lose jobs by weaning the world off of fossil fuels will cause growth while lowering our carbon footprint.

Pollin contrasts his view with “leftists [who see] … the solution to climate change is to oppose economic growth in general and advance an alternative ‘de-growth’ agenda.” He cites one of my favorite books, Juliet Schor’s PLENTATUDE, as an example of this transgression.

Pollin argues well. He shows that if we act quickly, plan carefully, and invest wisely, we can cut carbon emissions within the confines of our current system. But he writes as if this key element of our economy is a self-contained unit. His scenario suffers from the same, albeit more sophisticated, tunnel vision I discussed in my last blog (It’s Real, but I’m not Worried), because efficient energy generation is the beginning, but not the end, of the carbon impact of what he proposes.

For instance, Pollin writes that his plan won’t cost more because, “To begin with, energy-efficient investments make it cheaper to cook meals, heat and cool homes and offices; travel by cars, buses and trains; and operate industrial machinery.” In our system people buy more if it is cheaper. All the new green jobs and lowered costs mean that more people will eat, heat, cool, and travel more. It means appliance companies, and auto dealers will advertise to get more people to buy bigger, better refrigerators, air-conditioners and cars with their newfound income. Such increases, regardless of efficiency, will produce more greenhouse gases.

Applying Pollin’s logic to his snapshot of India illuminates this problem more dramatically. In India, his plan will “produce a near tripling of average incomes within 20 years… [and] also create an average of about 10 million more jobs per year….” Under capitalism, with companies competing to sell as many products as possible, 200,000,000 more jobholders with three-times the income will cause an explosive increase in consumption. Producing and selling more goods only exacerbates our wasteful, throwaway economy, in which fashions change so quickly that local Goodwill stores can’t accommodate the mountains of discards, and we hardly have time to learn how to use new electronic devices before they must be replaced. Everyone should have a path out of poverty, but creating huge masses of new consumers and new products courts ecological disaster.

Pollin gives his argument too much credit. He demonstrates that his plan can IN AND OF ITSELF reduce the global carbon footprint to sustainable levels. But the energy producing aspect of our economy is not isolated. It is part of a larger system that mandates competition, profit and consumption-fostered growth, increasing global carbon footprint to unsustainable levels.

We must make the changes Pollin advocates. But while they are necessary, they are not sufficient. We must get off the capitalist growth treadmill if we are to survive.
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