The Deep Politics of Ecological Inaction

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In a recent post I proposed the following three-part response to the ecological crisis:

  1. Immediate solar radiation management in the Arctic to prevent methane releases that would sharply accelerate global warming;
  2. Rapid drawdown and aggressive mitigation of greenhouse gases to reach safe atmospheric concentrations; and,
  3. Decreased per-capita consumption, lower populations, and higher efficiencies to significantly reduce the global economy’s environmental impact.

Although these steps are necessary to solve the crisis, there is no indication they will be implemented in the time that is ecologically available.  Solar radiation management remains largely taboo; there is no concerted effort to draw down greenhouse gas concentrations; emissions mitigation is largely symbolic; and fundamental economic restructuring to slash our environmental impact is on no-one’s agenda.  Simply put, humankind is doing nothing of substance to avert ecological collapse.  Our purportedly intelligent species is effectively committing suicide while decimating the planet’s non-human life.

Such inaction in the face of an existential crisis is obviously irrational, so the question must be asked: What is the source of this irrationality?  If it derives entirely from human nature then we are all at fault and there is little hope.  If a more specific factor is involved then perhaps this can be modified or eliminated to permit our species to reach a sustainable future.  In considering this question I will focus on the rich capitalist countries, which dominate the global economy and are thus the key players in this perilous saga.

For many among the environmentally concerned the answer to the above question is the greed and cynicism of large corporations, supported by the greed and cynicism of right-wing politicians.  This answer is not wrong, but it ignores the profound political and historical realities that underpin these repugnant attitudes.  To make progress on this front, a more fundamental question must be answered first: Who rules these societies?  If disastrous environmental decisions are being made, who is ultimately making them, and what are their motivations for doing so?

To explore these questions we must enter the world of deep politics.  This refers to the unvarnished facts about class, power, and social control that are rarely acknowledged in the public domain.  Deep politics is distinguished from electoral politics, which refers to the elections, parties, personalities, and policies that are publicly visible and openly debated.  It should be no surprise that, to address a crisis that is unprecedented in human experience, we must look beneath the political surface to determine who is really pulling the strings.

Everyone knows the conventional story: we live in a democracy where the people themselves pull the strings and there is nothing beneath the surface except conspiracy theories.  But the reality is dramatically different.  Today’s capitalist societies arose from European feudalism, a system dominated in each country by a landowning class.  As manufacturing flourished after the 16th century, the rising capitalists gradually replaced the landowners as society’s ruling force.  At no point in this historical process was political power transferred to the populace.  On the contrary, historian Eric Hobsbawm has found that the British people were granted parliamentary rights only after capitalist power had been fully entrenched and the working class was no longer a threat to its rule.  The Times of London rejected even this limited freedom until well into the 20th century.  (Industry and Empire, p. 125)

In a document written last year to counter the pervasive myth of popular sovereignty, I used the insights of Niccolo Machiavelli, Edward Bernays, and George Orwell, as well as the sadly neglected tenets of traditional conservatism, to construct a more realistic picture of power in a capitalist society.

To summarize, power is held by the capitalist ruling class, which exercises social control through the state.  Social control refers to the various means used by the rulers to manage and restrain the populace.  The term “state” refers to the organizational structures that coordinate social functioning (commerce, immigration, taxation, etc.) and maintain social order (the legal system, the police, the military, and the surveillance and intelligence apparatus).  The state is distinct from government.  Although the latter provides popular representation and can be used to pressure the rulers, it is neither the locus nor the instrument of political power.  Referring to the state’s components as “government agencies”, as is commonly done, is a serious error in political analysis.  Identifying government as the seat of power, as is universally done, is to submit to the democratic illusion.

From the ecological perspective, the problem with this picture is not that society is controlled by a ruling class.  Such control is necessary in any complex society, although this fact is routinely suppressed to preserve the standard illusions.  Instead, the problem is that society is controlled by a capitalist ruling class.  Capitalism replaced feudalism because it was a more productive economic system and thus better at satisfying human needs and wants.  Unfortunately the system achieved this abundance through heedless economic expansion, which inevitably produced the environmental chaos we see today.

My initial questions can now be answered.  The rich capitalist societies are ruled by a capitalist class, which is therefore the primary factor in today’s irrational environmental decisions.  This class is driven by its historical mission: rapid expansion of production and consumption through a growth-dependent economic system.  It tightly controls the populace and neutralizes any environmental concerns they may have.  (I will have more to say about this neutralization in future posts.)  To a significant degree, therefore, the source of humankind’s ecological irrationality is a specific group, which raises the possibility that it can change or be eliminated.

Can the capitalist class change?  Consider what this would imply: a group that for centuries has single-mindedly pursued economic expansion must swiftly convert to economic contraction.  This would require a new economic system, which it hasn’t contemplated; a new economic theory, which it hasn’t developed; and new business leaders attuned to strict environmental constraints.  It would also necessitate a new mode of social control that doesn’t use growth to mask social injustice, as well as a humbling admission of past errors to justify these drastic shifts.  This is not a credible scenario.

Can the capitalist class be eliminated?  In theory it could eliminate itself by allowing an environmentally responsible group to replace it at the social helm.  In the business world this kind of thing happens daily: CEOs resign or are gently removed because their leadership skills no longer match corporate goals.  In the class context, however, such smooth successions are impossible.  Whereas CEOs are handed golden parachutes and remain within the gilded circle, a self-demoted ruling class would lose power, privileges, and status.  These sacrifices would be historically unprecedented and psychologically devastating, which means that this possibility can also be dismissed.

A second way to eliminate the capitalist class is through revolution – history’s typical response to an obsolete ruling group.  However, the anger and desperation that triggered past revolutions are absent today.  Most people in the countries of interest are rich by global standards and have little appetite for radical change.  As well, surveillance and social control are now so advanced that a revolutionary movement would have little chance to form and grow.  We can safely conclude that revolution will not consign the current rulers to the dustbin of history.

This, then, is humankind’s terrible quandary: the capitalist class cannot and will not respond rationally to the ecological crisis, but its power is unchallenged and time is quickly running out.  Clearly, something extraordinary must happen soon to break this deadly impasse.  In my next post I will explore what this might be.

Frank Rotering
May 19, 2017

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