Radical pragmatism

Arguing about the existence of climate change as a premise for arguments about political economics is like arguing about the existence of God as a premise for arguments about morality: a waste of time — time that could be better spent advocating for a particular economic or moral position. If a theist justifies eating meat because the Bible says that God instructed humans to be masters over every living thing, a vegetarian would be ill-advised to counter-argue that God does not exist. The vegetarian may more cannily argue that mastery does not mean killing.

Similarly, an advocate for clean air and water and asylum for climate refugees would be hard-pressed to convince a climate change denier of the reality of anthropogenic climate change. Instead, it is more likely that a climate skeptic could be persuaded that we should not deplete and pollute our environment for the profit of the few at the expense of the many, and we should not leave fellow humans stranded without arable land or fresh water — without getting into arguments about the climatological consequences or causes of such problems. 

Ultimately, it is not our attitudes toward science or religion that must change, not our metaphysical beliefs, but rather our economic system, our way of relating to nature and other people, that must change from exploitation to equality.


Fair-weather enemies

At this point, there is little hope that we reform our economy to stave off catastrophic effects of climate change. But we could still reform our global governance to respond to those effects in a fair, humane way — for example, welcoming climate refugees, rebuilding communities after disasters, or relieving food producers and consumers amid shortages caused by droughts and floods. Better yet, we need governments actively building systems to avoid or mitigate such problems by helping people transition from precarious areas, methods, and jobs, for example, by investing in energy-efficient homes so people can stay cool without going broke or browning out electricity grids and by expanding the residential and transportation capacity of cities to accept people fleeing areas that are no longer viable.

This list could go on in great breadth. But I will save my breath and focus on a more fundamental problem than these technical ones: we are divesting from public services. We are moving toward further privatization. We are closing borders. We sing the praises of deregulated capitalism and technological fixes — as the wealthy prepare bunkers on higher ground and the rest of us try to ignore the water lapping at the edge of the levee. Today we denounce the pretensions of government to solve problems. Tomorrow we will beg them to do so. But the longer we keep moving in the wrong direction, the more we starve our public institutions, the less capable of helping will they be.

Litmus test

The fundamental justification for government, its raison d’etre and source of legitimacy, is solving collective action problems. Why else would people band together, trading off a degree of autonomy, but in order to solve problems for the common good?

There is another explanation: exploiting others in order to concentrate power and control. To the extent that rulers fail to solve collection action problems, they are not governing but exploiting.

Take, for example, building infrastructure, which requires specific costs to be borne, but bears generalized benefits. No one individually has enough incentive to assume the great costs of building what will benefit everyone. Government’s power to tax and spend solves this free-rider problem by spreading the costs and coordinating the investment.

Or rulers concentrating their power can build infrastructure by exploiting underclass labor, providing access only to some, and reaping profits for the ruler class.

For another example, consider the tragedy of the commons. A river is a common resource, but if anyone can use it however they wish, pollution and depletion will destroy its value. Government can solve this collective action problem, too, by regulating how we use common resources, restricting pollution or depletion that is all too expedient for producers to avoid without being required to by a coordinating body who ensures that all producers bear equally the cost of not polluting or depleting.

Or rulers can allow whomever, maybe just some some, to pollute and deplete for the sake of narrow expedience, at the expense of all.

The point of drawing these alternatives is to inform the question of legitimacy. Governance is solving collective action problems for the common good. Exploitation is taking advantage of these problems for profit and power.

Every day is Earth Day

Earth wields all power, ultimately. We may redirect its forces for our narrow purposes, but only briefly. Even our redirections are determined by it, done for power on Earth, and on its terms. In time, what we do here will have hardly mattered. The planet in all likelihood has a few billion years to go, most of which we will have not been here. The changes we are making to it are significant to us and many other species, even catastrophic, but probably neutral for the planet itself. Earth will destroy us long before we can destroy it.

And so, when we deplete our forests, pollute our air and water, cover soil with pavement, trigger erosion and desertification and species loss, it ourselves we are depleting, polluting, paving, eroding, parching, killing. We will likely live on as a species for many thousands, even millions, of years, adapting through technology to the changes we have wrought, even leaving this planet for another. But many of us will suffer unnecessarily and die prematurely in the process, and this cost will be borne predominantly by the poor and by those who have been living most in harmony with nature, by those who contributed least to the hastening of the process. And the world in which we live will be uglier, dirtier, noisier, more crowded, more competitive, more unequal.

Unless, that is, we find a better way, one that does not rely on exploiting our resources as quickly and for as much private gain as possible. For such a fundamental change in course, we will need a fundamental change in perspective. For most of human history, the size of our communities, our economies, our species has been modest enough in relation to the vast wealth of Earth that our modes of production and appetites for consumption did not seem to require second thought. Only in the last couple centuries, and especially the last half-century, has it become clear what we have done. Only in this late stage have we become capable of cognizing ourselves as one species, as global, and as powerful enough that we cannot simply take and take and take from Earth without giving back. Now that it is clear, we must learn again to live in harmony with each other and with nature, but this time on a global scale. Considering how far we have diverged from our grounding in community and nature, it will be a long, uncertain way. And we have not made a good start.

Last gasps

Despite the resurgence of nationalism, the need for global governance has never been more apparent: global warming creating climate refugees, plastics contaminating the oceans, civil wars bleeding into regional conflicts, acts of terror and hacking calculated to influence elections, outsourcing of jobs leaving communities destitute, races to the bottom, corporate tax havens, and so on. Profit and power become more concentrated while the price is paid globally.

I can hear the last gasps as I write – but are they the death throes of the nation-state or of hope for a better future?