Climate Change is the New Falling Rate of Profit

It didn’t get much attention, but last week President Obama took the most drastic actions on climate change of his presidency.  Leaving aside the really only marginal question of whether those policies will actually address climate change (see my friend Sasha’s post explaining why it won’t), the more interesting question for me is why he even bothered.  Was it the campaigning around the Keystone XL pipeline pulling him to the left?  Hurricane Sandy tugging on his heart strings?  Or the ever-more-weighty scientific consensus?

For those interested in understanding climate politics, a good place to start is Theda Skocpol’s new report on the failed attempt to pass “Cap-and-Trade” legislation through Congress in 2010, which reads like a mix between a murder mystery novel and brilliant sociological analysis.  She argues that you can’t understand climate (in)action without considering the political calculus behind it, and takes the American environmental movement to task for a naïve understanding of Congressional politics.  Enviros, she claims, had a foolish belief that climate change should be a non-partisan issue and failed to adopt a coherent, state-by-state strategy for mobilizing large numbers of people to get the bill passed.

When I saw Skocpol speak on campus a few weeks ago, though, many in the audience seemed to think that talking about a “strategy” for “organizing” against climate change was quickly becoming irrelevant.  One archetypal grey-haired Bay-Area eco-warrior started raving at the end of the presentation about how, as the seas rose, the forests burned, and hurricanes swelled, climate change legislation would practically pass itself.  Another well-heeled representative from one of the mainstream environmental groups Skocpol had ripped apart lectured her that, while her points were well-taken, “If you look at the science, there’s just no question—we’re going to have to do something.”

It wasn’t just at Skocpol’s talk that I have been hearing half-optimistic prognostications of climate doom and humanity’s subsequent rebirth.  I increasingly encounter people who are convinced that climate change will force us to do what no amount of social mobilization could achieve: a switch away from fossil fuels, an abandonment of a growth-based economic model, or a massive redistribution from global north to south.  My political sociology professor even made an offhand remark in our class on “revolutions” that the next best change for drastic upheaval was from climate change.

If you’ll bear me a digression, all this reminds me of lefties talking about Marx’s fabled  “falling rate of profit”, which predicts that the fortuitous combination of technological innovation and competition will eventually make capitalism so (over)productive that the rate of profit drops to zero, and the system goes into crisis. Never mind that Marx predicted this a century-and-a-half ago: serious social scientists are still dredging up evidence that the fateful day is nigh.  I think the reason that we cling to arguments like this is understandable.  If something is so bad – whether its capitalism or climate change – it can’t possibly last, right?  But such arguments are also appealing because they assures us that things will work out, regardless of what we do as individuals.

What’s missing, of course, is an acknowledgment that for climate or capital “crises” to change things, they have to be crises for the right people.  Downturns in capitalism may well immiserate lots of people, but as the quick rebound of the 1%’s incomes post-Great Recession shows, if they’re not bad for those in power, it doesn’t matter much.  The same point could be made for climate change: bad, but bad for the wrong people.  Melting glaciers in the Andes, declining crop yields in Africa, millions displaced by flooding in Bangladesh are all very real catastrophes – but not the kind of catastrophes that move governments to take action.  Even more Hurricane Sandies won’t change things unless they magically stop hitting the Rockaways and start hitting the Hamptons – and people in the Hamptons don’t have the money to just move elsewhere or put up a sea wall.

I honestly don’t know why Obama decided to take action on climate change.  I’m glad he did.  But I do know that if we convince ourselves that more advances will come from some combination of scientific papers and bad weather, we’re going to fry.

And by “we”, I mean, “poor people”, which is the problem.


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