The United Nations conference to address climate change in Copenhagen over the last week has illustrated several crucial features of contemporary politics, as Obama completes a year in power, the NATO plots a military surge into the war spanning from Palestine to Afghanistan, and an economic recovery staggers along.
Three Features of Political Climate
First, in the current balance of social forces in North America and globally, it is impossible to get committed political action to change the existing economic model of development, in the specific sense of a reform of the fossil fuel-dependent, outward-oriented, finance-led, labor-repressing economic model of neoliberal globalization and in the larger sense of a rupture with the ecologically-destructive profit-driven system of capitalism.
Second, it is clear that, despite the financial crisis of 2007-09, there has been no break with the power structures of neoliberalism: any interference in market relations to shift distributional relations (including how much humans withdraw from nature) is blocked (as opposed to government interventions to preserve the power of banks and financial capital); finance capital remains a central force backing the financialization and commodification of the environment; and U.S.-led imperialism remains at the core of global decision-making and the ordering of the relations between states. While there are cracks and modulations in these power structures (notably, the rise of China, Brazil, and India), there is no dramatic shift in power so as to open new vistas for alternative development (although the interventions at Copenhagen of Bolivia, Venezuela — leaving aside some aspects of their own oil and gas policies for the moment — and others in the ALBA pact were notable for their insistence that an alternative path is more necessary than ever).
Third, the turn to market environmentalism of so much of the environmental movement in North America has been in equal parts political and ecological disasters. This effort to form alliances with the capitalist classes and the state within the confines of neoliberalism has done nothing to advance solutions to the most crucial ecological issue of the day: carbon emissions reduction. At the same time, it has shifted the ecology movement to the political right, where it spends most of its time in concertation with governments and business and the rest spinning out green entrepreneurship and localism as solutions to global economic and environmental crises.
A Green-Left Alternative
What has been made invisible by the ecology movement’s tragic embrace of the market over the last decade as a solution to ecological problems and especially greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions is this: the best GHG reduction strategy that can be immediately implemented — and also better for the long run in its focus on the quality of human development and not the quantity of capitalist growth — lies with many of the traditional demands of the Left.
Some of these traditional demands are: work time reduction and increased leisure time; massive expansion of collective services such as daycare, education, parks, museums, and other recreation facilities; increased funding of the “grant economy” for cultural workers, community festivals, and the like; a mass shift to public transportation funded by long-term (50-year) bond floats; major income redistribution given the huge class differences in causing environmental degradation; increased worker input into the health and ecological conditions of labor processes; expansion of the cooperative and worker-controlled enterprise sector as a basis for building alternative local communities; debt relief for the global south; mass transfer of sustainable technologies; sharply limited growth in the north to provide room for growth in less developed zones and to diminish inequality; and so forth.
From this foundation, it is possible to integrate energy-switching, retrofitting, carbon taxes, and so forth in a way that actually builds better social and ecological relations in a system of responsible production. Instead, the mainstream of the North American environmental movement has been absorbed in the politically fruitless and intellectually dishonest pursuit of a financial-market-led cap-and-trade strategy for carbon emissions reduction — like bloodletting, a cure that can only worsen the disease.
Stalling — But Not Yet Breaking — Cap-and-Trade
There is only one good thing to have come out of the Copenhagen debacle. The sordidness of the final agreement may well stall extensive implementation of the cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions and the “clean development mechanisms” foisted on the global south — the latest mechanism of imperialism — in the name of GHG reduction.
Well, maybe another positive note: it showed clearly the Conservative government of Stephen Harper in Canada toadying behind the U.S., a bought-and-paid-for shill of the Alberta oil and gas industry and as strong a defender of neoliberalism as exist anywhere on the planet. Now the whole world can see what Canadians should know well: the “ugly Canadian” can no longer be shielded by nationalist cultural mythologies.
Greg Albo is Associate Professor at the Department of Political Science of York University.