New Internationalist

A business climate

Issue 428

Even global warming is being used for economic gain. But we can’t buy ourselves out of ruin, argues Jeremy Seabrook.

The only way in which global warming can be ‘sold’ to the people of the West is as a business opportunity. Green technologies, by means of which we shall all become richer, will at the same time save the planet. Who could possibly demur from this ‘win-win situation’? No other appeal carries equal conviction. Hence all discussion about altering our ‘way of life’ must be subordinated to the revolutionary potential of futuristic technologies, which will, miraculously, save us from the effects of the earlier miracles of technology that have brought us to this pass.

The natural world was long ago usurped by the technosphere, as a language of imperial conquest suggests: the business climate, economic environment, the atmosphere for investment, financial tsunamis, economic storms, doldrums and depressions – all eclipse the elements that sustain life. It is inevitable we should look to business for salvation. And at the moment, the proponents of universal business have some unlikely allies: the criers of apocalypse are all suddenly at one with entrepreneurial mystics, who know the art of buying our way out of ruin.

We are living with the consequences of that distant occurrence, which for two centuries has celebrated the triumph of the market over society

Our best hope would be disengagement from the melancholy rules of the market, rather than deepening dependency upon the mechanism which created the spectre of a planet, desiccated in some places, drowned in others. That this is no longer possible is a bleak comment on the limits to a freedom, diminished by the apparently unnoticed exchange of wealth for liberty, especially the liberty to do things differently, to alter iron economic laws, to imagine other ways of living, more austere maybe, but perhaps also more joyful, less destructive of the only habitat have, at least until the planets have been colonized as formerly remote continents were.

Idealists and utopians have often been chided for their apparent leave-taking of the ‘real world’. But what could be more utopian than the idea of a self-regulating market, an autonomous entity set free from society 200 years ago, under the baleful deterministic sign of which all humanity must now find its fortune? We are living with the consequences of that distant occurrence, which for two centuries has celebrated the triumph of the market over society.

Tensions in the air

The history of industrial society has been one of the tension between believers in the autonomous market and those who have sought – with varying degrees of success – to protect society from its destructive effects. The early 19th century imagined it had discovered underlying natural laws, of which the free market was both expression and embodiment – laws as savage as any evolved by societies supposedly more primitive, which sacrificed human beings to the mysterious powers that governed their fate. This was the nightmare world of Malthus, who declared that at nature’s banquet no place had been set for the poor, and of his disciples who discovered that starvation was the most powerful stimulus to labour, even at below-subsistence rewards.

The achievement of industrial society was to reduce humanity, with its passions, idiosyncrasies and yearnings, into labour; and nature, despite its vast diversity and beauty, to raw materials

The achievement of industrial society was to reduce humanity, with its passions, idiosyncrasies and yearnings, into labour; and nature, despite its vast diversity and beauty, to raw materials. This is perhaps the most catastrophic of all the metamorphoses with which humanity has tried to subdue the earth to its will. Of course, heroic efforts have been made to reclaim for society what had been enclosed and sold as commodity; this was, indeed, the purpose of the labour movement. This had nothing to do with destiny, History, or other abstractions subsequently devised by ideologists. What had begun as a reclamation of human values from the convulsions of the Industrial Revolution, became, under the influence of Marx, an occult project of redemptive determinism, rivalled only by the mirror-belief of the fanatics of the free market.

Of course ‘scientific socialism’ was a fiction, but then, so was the re-shaping by political economy of human life and nature into commodities. With the death of communism, we have at least been able to see more clearly the bare bones of a system no longer hidden by the lumbering menace of Marxism, and which re-emerged with the Washington consensus – the second coming of laissez-faire.

The existing paradigm

The reason for the hysteria surrounding global warming is that the uninhibited expansion of the (non)self-regulating market after the decay of communism has forced the world to confront, not only its recent moment of unfettered exuberance, but also the effects of two and a half centuries of industrial capitalism. The recent financial crisis required a vast investment of public funds into the private banks which had brought the global system to the brink of ruin. It would seem, on the face of it, that only concerted government action can prevent runaway climate change. But an epic government bailout on two fronts – global finance and global warming – would deal a double blow at the mysteries of political economy. This cannot be contemplated.

Global warming is being promoted as an epic business opportunity, rather than as a call to reduce our predations on the earth. The planet must fit into the business model. Industrial society cannot accept global limitations

This is why global warming is being promoted as an epic business opportunity, rather than as a call to reduce our predations on the earth. The planet must fit into the business model. Industrial society cannot accept global limitations. This reversal of reality comes from an inability to escape the ideological model which accompanied the Industrial Revolution. It also suggests why reduction in emissions of CO2 is looked to as the sole source of salvation: this is the only aspect of industrial society susceptible to the technical fix, and therefore containable within the existing paradigm.

On the day the climate change meeting opened in Copenhagen, the BBC carried a report that the Penan people in Sarawak were suffering from an assault by loggers on the forests that have sustained them for millennia. The Penan complained their extinction will follow the felling of forests on which they depend. This is not a curious example of backward peoples compelled into the benefits of the 21st century: it foreshadows the fate of the planet.

One might have thought that the ruinous effects of the self-regulating market would, before now, have been sufficient to discredit its morose wisdom. Yet despite the damage it has inflicted upon planet and people over two centuries, it constantly re-asserts itself

The dominant global ideology has taken two severe blows: the self-regulating market could not deter bankers from the creation of fanciful value-added, worth-subtracted ‘products’, neither can it do anything to prevent unacceptable climate-change. Yet the way out must be cast in terms that do not stray from the sacred precinct of market relationships.

It may be that such an approach is impossible. But it demonstrates the tenacity of faith – and belief in market forces has attained something of the status of cult, if not actual religion. It also shows how faith is not weakened, but rather reinforced, by disconfirming evidence. What we are seeing amid the exaltations of the congregation of bien-pensants in Copenhagen, is the hardening of yet another fundamentalism in a world that has already seen too many of them. If ‘climate-change deniers’ are scorned, this is because they make explicit that ideology which is actually being conserved beneath the revolutionary rhetoric at Copenhagen. Climate-change sceptics are being dealt with ferociously, since they reveal that which ought to be hidden: that the objective is a resumption of business-as-usual of universal capitalism under the benign mantle of green energy. Sceptics attain the status of heretics and spoilers because they let the economic cat out of the ecological bag.

Huffing and puffing

One might have thought that the ruinous effects of the self-regulating market would, before now, have been sufficient to discredit its morose wisdom. Yet despite the damage it has inflicted upon planet and people over two centuries, it constantly re-asserts itself through the reforms, improvements and radical revisions it is supposed to have undergone. Was it not enough, the ravages of early industrialism, clearances of human beings from land for more profitable commodities, imperial incursions that laid waste continents, the pathological co-existence of excess and want, upheavals and migrations of people torn from belonging for the sake of a single aspect of their being, labour? Apparently not. Only when degradation also threatens the fortified habitat of the rich and powerful does it become a matter of importance. Even so, that same menace is to be cast as another opportunity to create more wealth.

After all the huffing and puffing, we can see the economy prevails over planetary integrity. If there were no gain to be got out of preserving the human habitat, it would no doubt, like any other piece of industrial debris, have to take its chances. The market has ceased merely to dominate society, and now pervades the cosmos. With tourist flights into space already planned, how long before paradise itself is staked out and sold off as gilded plots of real estate?

Jeremy Seabrook is a regular contributor to New Internationalist.

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