Can the System Solve the Problem?


Having just emerged from yet another political campaign brimming over with meaningless twaddle, I have a gnawing suspicion that our system can’t handle serious issues.  The clowns have taken over the circus, and the implications for our future are downright ominous.

Citizens of the United States have a fondness for characterizing our political system as a democracy, in which the will of the people means something. Our system still does retain traces of popular sovereignty, and if enough people get mad enough—and get organized—they can have an effect.

More often than not, however, politics as usual in the United States functions on a daily basis as a special-interest oligarchy run by lobbyists paid by large corporations: government of those well-heeled enough to hire representation and manipulate public opinion with the drumbeat of sly advertising.

Whatever its defects, our government does not customarily shoot us in the back or send us to gulags if we dissent from the party line. More likely, we will be allowed our indulgences. We will be allowed to debate serious issues in out-of-the-way places (witness this column in a ‘Peace & Justice’ publication).  But the really big media juggernaut rolls on after Lady Gaga’s latest taste in midriff-bound red meat. The temperature rises and editorial eyes roll. 

Politics in the Glibocracy

Our political system is not very good at compelling people to do things that are necessary but uncomfortable. We live in a ‘Glibocracy’ fueled by the ‘Newspeak’ of our age: Fun and easy? No problem. Profitable? No problem. Tough but necessary? Big problem. Our presidential campaigns have been very artfully contrived to turn real issues into personality-driven, feel-good pap and patriotic clichés.

There’s a lot of stump-talk about ‘Washington being broken.’  But the real issues receive very little oxygen in campaigns that are filled with rituals and personal attacks. And the question that gets to the very heart of our ecological crisis is never addressed: Can a corporate-run state that survives mainly by granting favors to established interests segue to long-term environmental sustainability?

Indications thus far are not encouraging. Our political and economic systems are not attuned to the necessity of requiring people to do more with less, and make decisions with an eye to future generations. To do this, we are going to have to redefine our present-day notions of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness—of ‘having’ and ‘being.’ How hot does the weather have to get to make such things acceptable to most voters?

Somewhere in the ‘Greenhouse Gas Museum,’ circa 2100, there may be a video display showing Republicans in the U.S. Senate, June 6, 2008, filibustering to death the first serious effort under the U.S. Capitol dome to severely restrict carbon-dioxide emissions. The narrator may remark at stalling tactics such as compelling a clerk to read the text of the 491-page “Climate Security Act,” frittering away ten hours of precious legislative time, while accreting greenhouse gases continued to carry all of us to a date with climatic destiny.

Our necessary segue to sustainability faces broader cultural and philosophical hurdles as well.

How suited to sustainable solutions is an economic system in which ‘more’ is often assumed to be better—particularly when ‘more’ usually involves manufacture, sale and purchase of consumer goods that turn raw materials into products… along with profits and copious amounts of carbon dioxide?

To some degree at least, our current socio-economic system is a reflection of our preferences as a people and a culture. If we are to have any hope of preserving civilization as we know it in the decades ahead, however, we simply must start decoupling our notions of quality of life from carbon dioxide.

But are we ready to live seriously ‘green’ lives?

Are we ready to make a measure of material sacrifice a civic virtue?

The late environmentalist Edward Abbey was fond of calling capitalism the ideology of the cancer cell.  Abbey was not making mere word-play, but commenting on the capitalist system’s need for growth to survive… the disorganized character of that growth… and the tendency of capitalism to ultimately destroy the environment that sustains it—the very attributes cancer cells exhibit in the human body. 

Can Capitalism Change its Character?

A major—perhaps the major question facing an Earth and its human denizens in a time of worldwide environmental crisis—is: can capitalism change its character?  A sustainable environment can make good business. Witness the growth of alternative forms of energy. Can capitalism factor respect for the Earth that sustains us all into its calculus of development? If so, it may be a positive force in a new, sustainable world. If not—if it retains the attributes of the cancer cell—then ultimately, our progeny will inherit an exhausted, poisoned world.

Can capitalism, with its appetite for pell-mell (and often environmentally destructive) growth, survive in a new world in which geophysical reality demands that we restrain our demands upon the Earth? Are we prepared to operate with an accounting system that holds us all responsible for the toll that our activities exact on the Earth and its atmosphere? 

Can we fashion a system in which polluting the atmospheric commons is defined as a criminal act? Such a system would re-define some present-day free choices (e.g. trashing the commons) as illegal. Are we ready, for example, for a stiff tax on the emission of greenhouse gases that will squeeze these dangerous byproducts out of our production chain? NASA climatologist James Hansen suggests that we rebate such a carbon tax to the poor and middle class. Would most of us see this as climate justice—or a socialist (and therefore unacceptable) expansion of the state? Are we ready to move past a parochial nationalism to realize that the problem is global, demanding fundamental changes not only in the ways that we produce and consume energy, but also in the ways that we define personal and national success, happiness and prosperity?

‘Business-as-usual’ will perpetuate an international political and economic system that may well conduct us right into an environmental hell—“another planet” in the words of Jim Hansen. 

Is ‘green capitalism’ an oxymoron, or the engine of transition to a new world?

When I am in a darker mood, I believe that we not only have a special interest-driven system, but politicians who won’t lead even when a problem is obvious—not if action may cost constituents money and risk the loss of their vote. ‘Democracy,’ such as we have it, may be the death knell of the world we know.

On better days, I like to think that people will compel change, that we will survive, and that the better aspects of capitalism will contribute to that survival.

But with the climate of the Earth at stake, I wish we weren’t facing such a gamble.

Bruce E. Johansen is Jacob J.  Isaacson Professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and author of The Encyclopedia of Global Warming Science and Technology (2009). 

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