“It’s a stupid, reckless, and dangerous game we are playing here, folks.”
Jack explained why free-market economics has, so far, been quite successful at improving the human condition. The distribution of goods, services, and other assets is facilitated through open and free buying and selling, supporting a dense network of exchange, that is available to everyone. It incentivizes producers to know their markets and respond to them instead of relying on top-down governmental regulations. Learning happens continuously from experience, so processes become more effective and efficient. And a free-market economy supports a more egalitarian society than many other forms of controlled economic systems. There is incontrovertible evidence for centuries of positive social gains on many fronts that are correlated with free-market expansion: a clear and steady decline in violence of all sorts along with equally impressive increases in human health, longevity, access to education, and global human rights. All that is undeniably true. And good.
But given our collective impact we are having on the planet today from our large numbers and powerful technologies, that classical free-market economic system needs to be urgently restructured to send both a market price signal reflecting private utility and a socio-environmental score reflecting the burden of the economic transaction on public goods. The ‘commons’ — our atmosphere, oceans, and forests — are being destroyed. Market price alone should not have the final say.
The composite price-score would reveal a truer relationship between common resources and individual desires. A socio-environmental score, Jack argued, would take into account how much is given up or sacrificed publicly and over time for what an individual desires in 'private utility' right now. This score could be a basis for 'taxing the bads,' like global warming pollution, more effectively, he suggested. Then, the green premiums associated with more expensive but cleaner technologies will likely disappear and those technologies would quickly replace the environmentally destructive cheaper options in a free-market economy.
“We can’t keep on powering a world coming up on eight billion people by continuing to burn grotesquely large amounts of fossil carbon and expect the Earth’s biosphere not to choke and gag on the accumulated exhaust. We must build in some feedback mechanisms to disincentivize this behavior over time. Our planet’s climate appears innocuous enough. But make no mistake my friends, she is an ornery and temperamental beast, and we are foolishly poking at her with sticks. What could possibly go wrong?! It’s a stupid, reckless, and dangerous game we are playing here, folks. We must change our ways.”
Jan’s reaction was not surprising coming from a corporate attorney for Big Oil,
“Come on, climate change? Wasn’t it called 'global warming' just yesterday? What happened there? Warming not scary enough? How can you claim we have anything to do with that? It’s been going on forever. And many scientists disagree with the notion that we are causing this climate change you are referring to.”
I had been playing some light, jazzy cocktail-hour music on my guitar, while listening to the others talk. The discussion made me think about how this ‘free-market revolution’ — with its veneration of greed, individualism, and competition — has starved states of revenue to support public works and the social wage, precipitated several financial crises, and hastened ecological destruction globally; for it operates with a cold clear logic: take more than you give back.
Many climate change deniers, like Jan, are consciously or not, simply defending their cultural investment in this grand ideological project of extremist capitalism, which holds that ‘the market’ is always right, regulation is always wrong, private is good, public is bad, and taxes that support public services should be eliminated. To admit that the climate crisis is real and that is poses a legitimate threat to civilizational survival would deal a major body blow to their economic worldview.
After the Cold War, the world accepted a new international system driven by three forces: American power, free markets, and the information revolution. And then the neoliberalist turn in the 1980s put the world on a direct path toward extremist capitalism by bringing deregulation of the corporate sphere, privatization of the public sphere, and corporate-friendly ‘free-trade deals’ on a global scale.
British prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s famous declaration that ‘there is no alternative’ got lodged deeply in the psyche of capitalist society. As a result, a grotesque concentration of capital in private hands driven by all-out grabs for global resources has entrenched the power of transnational capital to dictate the trade and finance policies of most countries. These policies pit democracy against oligarchy as they battle for dominance. Viability of both the public sphere and the commons hang in the balance.
Though the roots of growing inequality lay in the free-market excesses of the private sector, in many countries the response has not been a move to the left economically, but rather a move to the right culturally. Economic anxiety breeds cultural anxiety, hostility to immigration, and a nostalgic desire to return to a familiar, tame, homogeneous, predictable past in the form of right-wing populism.
At the end of the day, though, this no-alternative neoliberalism appears to be nothing more than a sophisticated rationale — by a fossil-fueled, debt-ridden, unaccountable international petroculture — for reckless and unfettered greed.