Failure of governance over the past five or six decades has been cited as a critical factor in the unchecked disastrous human disruption of Earth’s climate and resource systems. In the April 15 Business Forum, “Dumping capitalism won’t save planet,” Noah Smith draws needed attention to this issue as he argues that socialist (or centrally planned) economies are unlikely to be more successful in coping with climate change than capitalist ones. He reasons that attempted transitions from capitalism to socialism would provoke major conflicts; and argues that both socialist and capitalist regimes have poor environmental track records. His conclusion, however, that technology solutions will solve the climate challenge without the need to alter patterns of production, consumption and population growth is quite wrong.
Political transitions from socialist to capitalist systems (or vice versa) may involve armed conflict. However, the risk of warfare is not a reason to avoid transformation of economic systems. We are and have been in a “world at war” for more than a century. The basis for warfare is not ideologic but rather the consequence of intense competition among global elites (for wealth, territory, resources, etc.) that is clothed in ideologic terms. Examples include World War I, a competition among European dynastic empires; World War II a consequence of trade inequities and pressures on controlling elites; and multiple “client” wars such as the Syrian conflict. If it could be demonstrated that centrally planned systems are more capable of saving our futures, then transition might be worthwhile.
Smith is correct that regardless of economic system, the record of nations regarding environmental preservation has overall been a failure. The U.S. is historically the world’s largest carbon polluter; the Soviets have a ruinous environmental record.
More to the point, capitalist and socialist systems are not static, they evolve. Previously successful U.S. antitrust enforcement protected markets and preserved the benefits of competition. Decades of deregulation have led to the emergence of giant monopolies, which limit the capacity of states to formulate policy in many areas. Growth of monopolistic enterprises has been encouraged by international trade agreements and, in the U.S., by the deregulation of political campaign contributions by corporate entities and wealthy donors.
As a result, in every sector of the U.S. economy, from pharmaceuticals to defense to petrochemicals, powerful monopolistic corporations and their trade groups virtually determine policy options for federal and local governments. Ultimately, these monopolies assume economic and variable social control of states. By virtue of economic transnational domination, corporate monopolies are evolving into “centrally planned economies” not under the aegis of legitimately constituted governing entities. In this sense, capitalist and socialist systems are converging, making arguments favoring one over the other moot.
An example of this convergence was on display at the United Nations Climate Change Conference meetings in Poland in 2018, when U.S., Russian and Saudi governments formed a fossil-fuel bloc that successfully opposed progress on carbon control. The results are the unchecked exploitation of natural resources, contamination of air and water, despoiled habitat, defoliation of vast areas, ocean warming and acidification and climate change. It is fair to say that long-term investments in environmental preservation take a back seat to profit and growth considerations regardless of economic system.
Smith correctly points out that governments must address the needs and expectations of their populace in order to maintain power and control. In particular, nations emerging from poverty face increased demands for energy that raises emissions and pollution. A flagrantly ignored aspect of the Paris climate accord, by wealthy nations with capitalist or socialist economies, was the failed adherence to pledged transfers of wealth and technology to poor nations to manage growth while reducing fossil fuel dependency. Further proof that no economic system has demonstrated a greater capacity to respond to climate change.
Smith concludes that “The best hope for the climate … lies in reducing the trade-off between material prosperity and carbon emissions.” In other words, technologic solutions to climate change will emerge obviating the need to alter growth and consumption trajectories.
But authoritative reports prove that a massive reduction of global fossil-fuel consumption within the coming decade is required in addition to global deployment of as yet undeveloped industrial scale carbon capture technology to preserve human societies. This inevitably entails an unprecedented transformation of social, governmental and economic systems.
It is inconceivable that current, let alone improving, standards of living can be maintained in this situation. As a corollary, unrelenting growth of production, consumption and population are simply incompatible with satisfactory control of emissions, pollution and resource depletion. No foreseeable technologic “fix” can allow us to avoid these hard choices.
The institution of a successful global response to climate will require central planning and control, i.e. a global governing entity with some enforcement capacity. Is this socialism? A hybridized form of capitalism? Other?
We must face that radical change is inevitable; how we manage it is the question.
Bruce Snyder, MD FAAN, is coordinator of Health Professionals for a Healthy Climate, an organization of Minnesota health care professionals concerned about climate change.