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Jobs or Environment?

The scientific consensus is that continuing “business as usual” will result in the rapid destruction of the planet’s productive capacity and cause the demise of most complex life forms, including our own. Many people understand this, but agreeing on how to avoid climate disaster remains a great challenge.

Historically, our species’ impact on the planet grew steadily, but relatively slowly, until the capitalism-driven industrial revolution in the early 19th century. Since then, our global carbon footprint has mushroomed, and in the last 50 years it has enveloped the world. Today, because of the interaction between capitalism and industrial production, we face human-induced global warming, sweeping resource depletion and mass extinction. Earth’s resources are finite, but the developed world produces too much, consumes too much, and capitalism requires perpetual growth to avoid recessions, or even a depression. The underdeveloped world has a much smaller carbon footprint, but its natural resources are being vacuumed up by the richer nations.

Many people assume that we can’t take action to protect the environment if it will hurt the economy. But scientists, who are neither politicians nor economists, teach us is that if economic and environmental needs are in conflict, we cannot afford to chose the former at the expense of the latter. It seems obvious: if the way we extract and consume resources causes global warming, climate change, sea level rise, and resource depletion, then we must alter our extraction and consumption behavior. But this means reversing the developed world’s requirement of continuous growth.

Many “Greens” in the United States and Europe claim that there doesn’t have to be a conflict. They call for a “Green New Deal” or a “Green MacArthur Plan” or a “Green Apollo Project.” Such proposals postulate that we can “grow our way” to sustainability with new technology and increased efficiency. Both business and labor push this agenda.

Labor demands full-time, living wage work for all and progressives support this demand. But if there are more people working for more hours, even in green jobs, we’ll produce and consume more. Greener, more efficient, production still requires energy and uses resources. And, if we work to distribute resources more fairly throughout the world, that means 7 billion, not just 500 million, consumers. It is wishful thinking to believe that we can rev up the global economy to sustain 7 billion consumers while avoiding environmental destruction.

The elephant in the room is that we need to reduce economic activity even though this is incompatible with capitalism. In order to extract and consume less, we must produce less. In other words: the environment must trump the economy. Furthermore, if we share resources equally, the 20% of us (myself included) who consume 80% of the world’s products must live differently and give up approximately three-quarters of what we have. Actually, for most of the top 20% the figure is not that high because of the top 1%’s alarmingly enormous consumption. That said, are the remaining 19% willing to give up even half their stuff?

These concerns feed our paralysis. We don’t see a political path to get those in power, who represent the 1%, to alter our economic system, and we can’t imagine ourselves, and other reasonably well-to-do people, giving up our lifestyles. But if we accept that we are unable to change either our economic system or our lifestyles, then we are conceding that our economic system will trump the environment.

We’ve been advertised into thinking our devices and clothes, cars and travel are essential to our happiness. Studies have shown, however, that American consumers are not fulfilled by the lives they are leading. We might discover that we can consume less and feel more satisfied.

We fear that we don’t have the time and/or ability to build the movement we need, but are we that powerless? Each year brings new international convulsions. Domestic and worldwide rebelliousness may appear ephemeral, and the politics of those resisting are not necessarily green, but there is massive global dissatisfaction with the status quo. Perhaps we can harness this if we give up politics as usual in the name of derailing business as usual.

In the United States, the majority of people are barely getting by, and millions live in poverty. How absurd for me to ask them to risk transforming our economy while, in effect, stopping to smell the roses. Those of us who believe in economic justice will find such a request particularly troubling. But domestic consumption must be reduced, and some proposals on the table could move us concretely in the right direction. A Labor-Green coalition calling for a huge hourly wage increase tied to a 25 hour work week would enable people to work less and still make enough to house and feed themselves and their families. More people would have good jobs, but the total amount produced would not increase would not increase. A reduction in work hours, coupled with community-building campaigns, can encourage people to use their new-found free time for social fulfillment rather than consumption, lowering our carbon footprint.

This will drive the capitalists crazy since the wage increases will come out of their profits, and slackened consumption will reduce their sales. But that’s what it would mean for the environment to trump the economy.
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