It is significant that Sir Nicholas Stern has
presented the dangers of climate change, in terms of an “economic”
threat to the world. It is more usual to see the workings of the
economic system as a challenge to the resource-base of the planet. This
dexterous turnabout manages to preserve the primordial importance of
the economy over the conditions that sustain life itself. There are
good reasons for this volte-face.
The present ecological
crisis – the threat of climate change, pollution of the elements
indispensable for life, resource-depletion and loss of biodiversity –
is itself a consequence of efforts to resolve earlier economic
conflict. In the early industrial era, the most intractable issue was
the alienation of an impoverished labouring class, which grew out of a
wasting peasantry to serve the factory system. The enduring poverty and
exploitation of these people seemed inevitable, destined to remain
forever deprived of the most elementary necessities of survival.
question that preoccupied ruling elites was the reconciliation of the
working class to a society from which it seemed permanently estranged.
This took on greater urgency as the 19th century advanced, workers
learned to combine and organise, and the struggle between capital and
labour defined itself more clearly. The potential power of the workers
made wealth and privilege fearful, an anxiety increased by the writings
of Karl Marx, the organisation of political parties under the influence
of his sulphurous revolutionary prophecies, and aggravated subsequently
by revolution in Russia in 1917 and in China just over 30 years later.
the survival of capitalism depended on attaching its people more
securely to itself, and on its ability to lure them from the
temptations of socialism. This it did very effectively indeed, by the
creation, not only of the welfare state, but even more significantly,
of the consumer society, which overwhelmed the people with the riches
it showered upon them in an avalanche of rewards, prizes, offers and
free gifts – the very opposite of the impoverishment without end
forecast by Marx.
Of course, this required an abusive
exploitation of resources, the effects of which were not, at the time,
foreseen: in the economic calculus, the treasures of the planet were
merely “raw materials”, a factor of production, just as labour had
been, until labour threatened to revolt.
Now it is the
“raw materials”, the natural world itself, which is in revolt against
an industrial system that threatens to return the planet to chapter one
of Genesis, when “the earth was waste and void, and darkness was upon
the face of the deep.”
The response to the internal
problems of industrialism led directly to the appearance of an external
contradiction of even greater magnitude: it is now a question not of
reconciling a refractory and potentially subversive people, but of
reconciling the planet itself to the system which weighs with such
fateful violence upon it.
This also shows that the victory
of capitalism over socialism, following with the downfall of the Soviet
Union 15 years ago, far from being the ultimate triumph it was made out
to be, was merely a temporary distraction from the menace to the world
of a competitive struggle between two aspects of the same system. It
was not just a crisis of socialism, but of industrialism itself.
the collapse of communism the only system left in contention, instead
of reflecting on its purpose and direction, and modifying its values,
swiftly sought to occupy the space evacuated by its vanquished rival.
So spectacular has the wealth been arising from this exuberant
expansion, that almost no country in the world has failed to follow the
same version of wealth, progress and development.
process, intensified resource-use, contamination by 40,000 or so
chemicals in the global environment, the effects on climate, the
consequences of the uninhibited extension of global capital, now
threaten the world beyond anything previously wrought by human activity
That the beneficiaries of this process have
become addicted to its continuation into perpetuity only intensifies
the danger. Democracy has come to mean the ability of governments to
sustain the voracious system that knows nothing of limits, since it
promises infinite economic growth in a finite world. It is predicated
upon the limitless dilation of appetite in a world whose limits were
officially recognised at least 30 years ago – first by the limits to
growth of the club of Rome in 1972, then by the North-South Brandt
Commission in 1983, the Brundlandt report in 1987 and the South
Commission in 1990.
It is common wisdom that no government
can expect to be elected if it fails to guarantee the rising income
which alone ensures continuity of the only version of freedom now on
offer – that freedom to go on consuming like there is no tomorrow,
surely the most self-fulfilling prophecy ever formulated by the
reckless accountants of the calculus of permanent growth and expansion.
way of life which embodies exorbitance, waste and excess now bears down
upon a perishing resource base; and with the demands of the “Asian
giants”, India, China and the rest, no alternative path has been
crafted to the well-beaten track of their mentors. Yet they are now
expected to bypass the very processes whereby the west became rich, and
which it still preaches to the rest of the world.
savage paradox, that a way of life, conceived to ensure social peace
when first established, should engender conflict, violence and
resource-wars, now that it has spread to the whole planet.
is not the salvaging of the social and economic system that should be
at the heart of the current emergency, but a reassurance that the
resource base upon which all systems depend will be conserved, so that
it may provide a secure sufficiency for all humanity for an indefinite
This cannot be assured by horror stories about the
monetary cost, by technological fixes, by faith in conquering other
worlds, by belief in the redemptive capacity of science, or the
ingenuity of humanity to promote limitlessness in a bounded world. It
requires an alternative and convincing story of survival, an energising
myth that will inspire collective action, a narrative that tells of a
different kind of emancipation; just as capitalism once promised
undreamed of wealth that would cure the ancient human scourge of
poverty, and as Marx told the workers to unite since they had nothing
to lose but their chains. These old myths have served their purpose,
and no longer carry a plausible guarantee of liberation. This age
awaits its empowering ideology, its renewal of hope, its fable of
It is not the know-alls, experts, scientists,
or the brains swimming in the aimless circularity of high-powered
thinktanks that will rescue us. It is, however, just conceivable, that
a modest myth, which speaks of a joyful frugality, an austere delight
in the rediscovery of the riches of human resourcefulness allied to
restraint in the use of material resources, might do so. But that would
require an act of faith to transcend former ideologies of hope, which
have been reduced by events into the gloomiest counsels of despair.
This is, of course, scarcely the province of bureaucrats, however
worthy. It belongs to the transforming power of faith in ourselves to
rise to the urgency of what now stares us in the face.