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Climate Change and the Politics of Interdependence

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Reprinted from neweconomy.net

Twenty-ninth Annual E. F. Schumacher Lectures, October 2009
Edited by Hildegarde Hannum Copyright  2009 by the E. F. Schumacher Society (now New Economics Institute) and Benjamin R. Barber

Introduction by Jessica Brackman,
Member of the Board and Vice-President,
 E. F. Schumacher Society
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The first time I heard our next speaker I was in my car. When I turned on the radio to listen to NPR, he was midway through his lecture. I had no idea whom or what I was listening to, but within moments I was riveted, exhilarated to happen upon this articulate messenger, this renegade soul mate, despairing like me of the direction our culture has taken: democracy compromised, capitalism gone awry, consumerism run entirely amok. Harsh in his criticism, hopeful in his message, incredibly intelligent and insightful, and able to communicate the most complicated political, social, and economic interrelationships clearly, concisely, and with a passion that was contagious, I asked myself, "Who is this man?" And even then, after I'd pulled into my driveway and parked, I stayed behind the wheel to hear the last few minutes, unwilling to tear myself away, and more important, determined to learn this extraordinary person's name. I grabbed a pen and a scrap of paper so I'd be poised when the announcer came on to reveal the man's identity, and finally I learned just who this feisty visionary was. It was Benjamin Barber.

Of course I ran inside to get the story on him, and this is what I learned: He's a highly respected political theorist, a professor at the University of Maryland and a senior fellow at Demos, a public-policy-and-advocacy organization committed to shaping a more equitable economy, a more vibrant democracy, and an empowered public sector that works for the common good. He is the author of 17 books, including his 1996 bestseller, Jihad vs. McWorld: How Globalism and Tribalism Are Reshaping the World and his most recent Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults and Swallow Citizens Whole. A frequent contributor to The New York Times, The Washington Post, Harper's, The Atlantic Monthly, and The Nation, among other publications, he has received numerous honors and served as advisor to a number of politicians in this country and abroad. But perhaps of even greater interest, I'm told that he is an accomplished singer, actor, and magician. If we're a really good audience, maybe he'll show us a few tricks.

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I'm especially gratified to have this chance to hear Benjamin Barber again--this time live with all of you.

* * *

Thank you for that introduction. As for "magician," to still be here after appearing as a speaker for so many years is the only magical act I think I've been engaged in. I'm glad to be here with the Schumacher Society and in Stockbridge. My wife Leah and I live in Richmond part of the time, and I grew up in New York and the Berkshires, so this area is home to me.

What I want to do today is take the powerful and important message Bill McKibben delivered this morning and complicate it a little as well as raise some issues from the perspective of politics and political science that I think we also need to deal with. At the same time I'll try to answer the question raised after Bill's lecture, What does the climate-change crisis have to do with capitalism, and couldn't we deal with it quickly by getting rid of capitalism?

I want to talk about climate change and its challenges in relation to the reality of our economy and our politics today because when you put climate change in the economic and political context, it becomes more complicated and difficult to cope with than when we simply sit together and talk about what we need to do on the upcoming International Day of Climate Action, what we need to do to support the 350.org movement, and what we need to do to create a greener world. The questions I want to raise have to do specifically with the problem of how to find the political will to do it.

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Bill said quite rightly that the issue here is not what kind of compromises politicians can reach with other politicians. The real debate is between politicians and scientists. Science has an intractable and unchangeable agenda; it doesn't compromise. There's another problem with science, however: it doesn't vote. It should, but it doesn't, and politicians don't listen to science per se but to the voters, as they should in a democracy. Simply to say, "Science has the truth in these matters so let's just get on with making the changes it recommends" is in a sense to reject not just politics but democratic politics. We have to find solutions that accommodate themselves to politics, or we will merely be whistling in the wind. It's not enough to address the crisis caused by the use of fossil fuels and their impact on climate change, because they are only one part of the problem. Methane, which stays in the atmosphere far longer than CO2 and comes primarily from the world's livestock, is an equally large challenge. If we were to stop using fossil fuels today, methane would still be there, which means that how we eat, whether we have a grain or meat economy, becomes relevant as well.

The world's tropical forests and forests generally are the lungs of our planet. They breathe in CO2 and breathe out oxygen, which allows animals then to breathe in oxygen and breathe out CO2. Twenty percent or more of the current CO2 levels, which have far surpassed the maximum allowable 350 parts per million, comes from deforestation. The fact that we're cutting down too many trees leads to a different set of issues from the use of fossil fuel. People like toothpicks in Japan, for instance; the Indonesians cut down their rain forests to produce toothpicks for the Japanese. We like soft toilet paper; we cut down the rain forest to get wood-pulp-based toilet paper. Those are issues that will not be addressed by eliminating fossil fuel alone, which is not to say we shouldn't take the situation seriously. It's to say, that is not enough. There is a parallel set of problems that need to be addressed, which is why I want to turn to what I believe underlies the crisis of climate change, of global warming, of fossil fuel, and that is our economic and political system. Let's try to see what the connections are and then look at--I won"t say solutions, that's too strong-- some potential remedies, some potential approaches that enable us to challenge climate change by altering the way we engage in politics and in economics in addition to what car we drive and how we drive.

 Let me start by suggesting that among the crises we face that are politically important and that our politicians rightly care about are not just global warming but obviously also the collapse of the global financial economy, the coming bankruptcy of Medicare and Social Security, the deep inequality of both the national and the international economic systems. We must remember here in Stockbridge and Massachusetts and New England that the reason people don't always respond to our urgency about global warming is in part that their interests seem threatened by the solutions we offer. It's easy enough for us to say we should stop using fossil fuel, but if you're a trucker, if you're a farmer in the Midwest, then pushing the cost of fuel up to $4 or $5 a gallon, which is a great solution economically, can be ruinous for you. If you talk to union people about this, they're going to ask, "What about the jobs?" Growth is in part an aspect of modernization ideology and its restless striving for change, but growth and development are also about jobs and people making a living and having an adequate income.

To assume people who believe in growth are just plain stupid is to misunderstand how climate change and curbs on climate change may impact our fellow Americans and people elsewhere, as well as to misunderstand the politics of it. Members of Congress are going to be talking to people who are losing their jobs and are worried about $4 or $5 a gallon gas. Electric vehicles are fine, but they aren't yet available, and in the meantime people have to drive to make a living. If you make the cost of gas so expensive, how can they make a living? I have a very simple solution to fossil-fuel use, and it is available. It's even better than a higher price for the gas you use. That solution is a global economic recession or depression! And it's already had an impact. In fact, for the first time we are seeing a slight downturn in the relentlessly upward pressure on CO2 emissions as a result. Just from the point of view of global warming, you might well ask what we can do to sustain and deepen the global depression. I'm serious, because that would probably do the trick. Now, if you raise the price of oil to $8 per gallon, that would be a big incentive for people not to use their cars or drive their trucks. But clearly that's a trade-off we can't afford economically or in terms of economic justice, and it's politically impossible in any case. Imagine saying to President Obama: "You can't get people to understand this whole matter of carbon emissions; just prolong the recession as long as you possibly can. That will have a profoundly good effect on warming." If he took that advice, he wouldn't even make it to the next election, and the Democratic Party would be right out of office, with good reason. It's not a reasonable trade-off.

I agree with science. Science says: "You don't want people to lose their jobs, and you don't want the global economy to go broke, but if you don't do something, you're all going to be out of work and a place to live. You're going to be out of air to breathe. You're going to be living under water if you don't do something soon, but raising the price of gas and deepening the recession are not solutions that will work in the U.S. Congress or with President Obama."

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neweconomy.net 
The mission of the New Economy Coalition (formerly the New Economics Institute) is to build a New Economy that prioritizes the well-being of people and the planet. 

The stakes are high. Climate change is accelerating. Inequality is at historic levels. The financial industry continues to teeter on the brink of collapse, threatening the global economy. And all the while, our political system has proven incapable of effecting the structural transformations necessary to — quite literally — save the planet. The time is now for a new approach, a New Economy.

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