Sunday, September 27, 2015

Humans at the Crossroads

As I mentioned last post, the climate change conversation, as it becomes more intense in anticipation of the Paris conference, has also taken on a greater breadth, to the point where the climate crisis and our collective response to it becomes a conversation about human values and human civilization. This is obviously an inexhaustibly huge topic, but I want to look at two particular directions this vast discussion is taking:

1) Markets and Morality. We have Pope Francis to thank for bringing this issue to public scrutiny. Is the 'free market' system to blame for environmental degradation? Can the market offer solutions? The pope has been taken to task for challenging the efficacy of carbon exchange markets--which in fact have proven more useful for speculation as the pope says than for decarbonization--but that technical question hides the larger one. Is the quest for perpetual growth, profit, consumption, and expansive wealth compatible with environmental responsibility? In this era dominated by market logic,  have we lost touch with what environmental scientists call the eco-system and the pope calls Creation? Will the urgent need for climate mitigation and adaptation require us to set aside the profit imperative and increased consumption, transfer resources to the poorest and neediest, and rethink our relationship to nature? Francis makes clear the moral imperatives to build relations of solidarity between rich and poor, to accommodate immigrants, and support the victims of climate injustice. Now we have to determine whether to accept those imperatives--or continue in the present direction of widening inequality, environmental degradation, perpetual conflict, and tbe brutalization of human relationships.

2) Technology and Ecology. Much of the environmentalist response to the climate crisis has been ecologically informed: walk more softly on the earth, convert to renewable or sustainable systems, resist the impulse to growth and concentrated wealth, find means to share more and consume less. In contrast to this approach, though, some scientists have urged technological fixes that would leave much of the rest of the world-system intact: generating nuclear energy, launching reflective particles to reflect solar rays out of the atmosphere, seeding the ocean with iron to capture carbon. This orientation, often called eco-modernism and supported notably by the Breakthrough Institute, envisions a future very different from the ecologically informed one. Concentration of humans in megalopolises while more of the earth reverts to wilderness, heavy dependence on nuclear energy, fully industrialized agriculture--a science fiction world governed by technocratic solutions and an overarching belief that science and technology can solve our problems.

These schematic differences may really translate into a single choice. Because, despite right-thinking declarations to the contrary, the market forces deployed by global corporations are more likely to endorse capital-intensive technologies that preserve the status quo than to support the ecological balance that limits growth, writes off vast fossil-fuel assets, and redistributes resources to the poor. Those moral imperatives to respect and support the poor, as the pope has made clear, are more compatible with the shared, restrained, creation-centered economics of a post-capitalist world. The past 30 years have given rise to the mistaken idea that there are no choices, that there is just one rational, market-driven world system. The climate crisis, along with the recent financial collapse and Great Recession, have made alternatives seem advisable. The question now seems open, the choice waiting to be made. Resistance to climate change may offer the means to rebuild a global civilization more humane than our present one.

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