All hail capitalism, mendacious destroyer of life on Earth

What hope is there that the G8 politicians will tackle what matters?


If you’re hoping that the representatives of the world’s richest nations meeting in Hokkaido for the G8 Summit next month will take action on climate change, you’re in for a disappointment.

Despite the fact that scientists are already documenting how climate change is degrading our oceans and atmosphere, and despite their calls for us to immediately begin cutting CO2 by 50 to 80 percent, don’t hope for more than platitudes.

“The (G8) talks have been stalemated from the start. Developing countries are saying climate change is the problem of developed countries, and not theirs,” a senior Japanese Foreign Ministry official involved in negotiations over climate change issues, and who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Japan Times reporter Reiji Yoshida last week.

Developed countries, on the other hand, refuse to make substantial cuts in their own greenhouse-gas emissions, more fearful of a short-term economic slowdown than a very long-term ecological meltdown.

Most nearsighted of all is the United States — the world’s largest source of carbon-dioxide emissions caused by human activities — which refuses to make any commitment unless China and India do. In short, the Bush administration is refusing to let others on the planet achieve even a fraction of the development the U.S. has — even at the cost of the planet.

As a result, the portfolios the G8 leaders bring to the table in July will be business-as-usual politics. They will be, at best, uninspiring efforts to appear concerned about the worldwide fossil-fuel consumption that is bankrupting the natural capital of our children’s future.

The truth is that politicians worldwide are simply too beholden to corporate interests to end our addiction to oil and coal.

Take the U.S. for example. “Corporations, industries, labor unions, governments and other interests spent a record $2.79 billion in 2007 to lobby for favorable policies in Washington,” according to the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP), a Washington-based nonpartisan, nonprofit organization.

“For every day Congress was in session, industries and interests spent an average of $17 million to lobby lawmakers and the federal government at large,” the CRP adds in an April 10 press release (see opensecrets.org ).

Some of the money goes directly to politicians, and some of the money goes to professional lobbyists and lobbying firms. Looking at the fossil-fuel sector, in just the first four months of 2008, oil and gas interests contributed $14,206,861 to politicians, 27 percent to Democrats and 72 percent to Republicans, according to the U.S. Federal Election Commission.

So, yes, you may be electing your representatives in Washington, Tokyo and London, but who do you think those representatives are more likely to listen to — you or Exxon Mobil?

With our resources for sale to the highest bidder, modern capitalism has us on the path to environmental and economic ruin.

“(The) features of capitalism, as they are constituted today, work together to produce an economic and political reality that is highly destructive of the environment. An unquestioning society-wide commitment to economic growth at almost any cost; enormous investment in technologies designed with little regard for the environment; powerful corporate interests whose overriding objective is to grow by generating profit, including profit from avoiding the environmental costs they create; markets that systematically fail to recognize environmental costs unless corrected by government; government that is subservient to corporate interests and the growth imperative; rampant consumerism spurred by a worshipping of novelty and by sophisticated advertising; economic activity so large in scale that its impacts alter the fundamental biophysical operations of the planet — all combine to deliver an ever-growing world economy that is undermining the planet’s ability to sustain life,” writes James Gustave Speth, Dean of the Yale University School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.

“The fundamental question thus becomes one of transforming capitalism as we know it: Can it be done? If so, how? And if not, what then?” he asks in the introduction to his latest book, “Bridge at the Edge of the World.” Speth is a former administrator of the U.N. Development Programme and founder of the World Resources Institute in Washington.

One place not to look for economic and environmental innovation is U.S. presidential candidate John McCain. In a speech in Houston, Texas, and followup talks he gave last week touting his plans for U.S. energy independence, McCain proved he’s not up to the task of crafting new, safe and clean energy policies.

“The stakes are high for our citizens and for our economy. . . . Many do not have the luxury of waiting on the far-off plans of futurists and politicians,” insisted McCain. So what is his answer? To invest billions in clean-coal technologies and nuclear power, both of which will take decades of development before they bring energy relief to Americans.

Speaking in Missouri, McCain even promised to get 45 new reactors up and running by 2030, and set a goal of 100 new plants over time, according to a story on the environmental news Web site Grist, written by Kate Sheppard. Talk about “far-off plans.”

“Once we supply the means of clean-burning coal and carbon capture, nations everywhere will pursue the same end: abundant energy with low carbon emissions,” he added, ignoring that carbon sequestration — the injecting of carbon deep underground — is still experimental, is considered dangerous by many, and will take decades to develop (see this column last month). All the while we need to be cutting CO2 emissions now.

So McCain’s plan is to push nuclear-power generation and carbon capture, no matter how long these technologies take to come on line.

On the other hand, clean, alternative energy sources that are already available and would flourish with minimal subsidies will get far less support. “In the progress of other alternative energy sources — such as wind, solar, geothermal, tidal and hydroelectric — government must be an ally but not an arbiter,” chides McCain.

If you’re not sure, an “arbiter” is a person with the power or influence to decide what will be done: Exactly the role McCain has taken on for his nuclear and coal agenda.

Which means he’ll be letting clean, safe renewable energies boom or bust on their own, but throwing his weight behind nuclear and coal technologies, despite the fact that these are neither clean nor safe.

One safe bet, though, is that far more lobbyist dollars are behind coal and nuclear than alternative-energy technologies.

So how about Barack Obama? Will he be any better? We’ll see between now and November, and perhaps beyond, but at least Obama has called for investment in renewable energies.

Whoever wins, some of us are hoping that this year’s oil crisis will set the stage for more interest in renewable energies. One well-known writer, however, has her doubts.

In January, author Naomi Klein wrote an article titled “Why the Right Loves a Disaster,” explaining how powerful interests use crises to solidify control.

“Over the last four years, I have been researching a little-explored area of economic history: The way that crises have paved the way for the march of the rightwing economic revolution across the globe. A crisis hits, panic spreads and the ideologues fill the breach, rapidly reengineering societies in the interests of large corporate players. It’s a maneuver I call ‘disaster capitalism,’ ” explains Klein.

“Sometimes the enabling national disasters have been physical blows to countries: wars, terrorist attacks, natural disasters. More often they have been economic crises: debt spirals, hyperinflation, currency shocks, recessions,” she adds.

Oil shortages, food shortages, a U.S. recession, climate-change fears. What better time to push through the coal- and nuclear-power agenda, when consumers worldwide are scared and eager for a quick fix . . .

But if we can buck the disaster capitalists, and if oil, coal and nuclear are dead ends, where should we be headed?

One of many blueprints for action is the Apollo Project for Good Jobs and Energy Independence, a U.S. program that calls for “a public investment of $30 billion a year for 10 years, creating 3 million jobs that pave the way to energy independence.”

More specifically, the project proposes:

* New factories and retooled plants producing wind turbines, solar panels and hydrogen fuel cells. * A revived American auto industry leading the world in developing the next generation of clean-energy cars such as flex-fuel vehicles and hybrids. * Schools, offices and homes retrofitted to become more energy efficient with large savings for business and families. * A 21st-century public infrastructure with mass-transit and high-speed rail systems and a modernized electrical grid. (For more information, see: www.apolloalliance.org )

Some might argue that Americans in particular are not ready for, or even capable of, the changes necessary to become independent from oil. But I’d be willing to bet that given the right incentives, Americans and others would jump at the chance to build new economies based on localized energy generation using wind, solar, water and hydrogen.

In fact, if communities worldwide demanded localized energy independence, the only ones to lose out would be big oil and coal companies, nuclear-power interests, and large electric utilities.

Which perhaps helps to explain why the leaders of the G8 nations — and the corporate interests that put them in power — are not the least bit interested in letting consumers switch from fossil fuels to localized, independent energy generation.

Stephen Hesse can be reached at stevehesse@hotmail.com