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How to fight neoliberalism without giving way to despair

Photo: Dariusz Więckiewicz/flickr

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This is an epilogue to Ed Finn's three-part series examining the ideology of neoliberalism and the enormous harm its implementation imposes on people and the planet.

"Men are seldom blessed with good fortune and good sense at the same time."
-- Titus Livius Livy

"The die is cast."
-- Julius Caesar, on crossing the Rubicon

A half-minute TV commercial playing in Ontario shows the famed environmentalist David Suzuki addressing an audience of young children.

He tells them that destructive climate change is rampant and little is being done to stop it, so it's up them to tackle the problem and create a viable future for themselves.

The kids exchange bewildered glances.

The TV blurb is part of the Ontario government's ambitious $7-billion five-year plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and transition to a low-carbon economy. Its message is that it can't be left to the next generation to tackle the climate change threat that this generation is failing to confront.

Premier Kathleen Wynne and her colleagues are to be complimented for this initiative, but her claim that "we are making real progress" rings hollow. Had it been launched 15 or 20 years ago by an earlier Ontario government -- or preferably by an earlier federal government -- real progress could indeed have been made. As it is, lowering greenhouse gas emissions in the province over the next five years can do very little, on its own, to curb global warming.

That herculean task, to have the faintest chance of success, would have to be tackled collectively by all the world's big industrial nations. And it would require completing a worldwide switch from fossil fuels to renewable forms of energy before 2020, at the latest.

In other words, it's not going to happen.

As I watched the ad, I was thinking of my request for feedback from my recent three-part blog on neoliberalism -- and how few responses I received. I suspect from the sparse response that most readers were as frustrated as I am as I gaze up at the towering ramparts of the reigning neoliberal corporate empire.

These battlements are not permanently impregnable. If the environmentalists' efforts to breach them fail, they will crumble eventually, anyway, when the big corporations finish depleting the planet's non-renewable resources, and contaminating the rest.

When this collapse occurs it will also engulf what remains of human "civilization," including the inundation of coastal cities, sweeping economic and social chaos, and a massive population loss.

This is the horrific future to which we are being herded by our current economic, financial and political leaders. To face this reality is not to give way to despair, nor to stop striving (against all the odds) to bring about a better future. But to deny it is to indulge in self-delusion.

Facing reality

Back in 1992, nearly 1,700 of the world's leading scientists, including 104 Nobel Prize winners, signed a "World Scientists' Warning to Humanity." They cautioned that:

"Human beings and the natural world are on a collision course. Human activities are inflicting harsh and often irreversible damage on the environment and on critical resources. If not checked, many of our current practices put at serious risk the future that we wish for human society and the plant and animal kingdoms, and may so alter the living world that it will be unable to sustain life in the manner that we know."

The scientists stated that "a great change in our stewardship of the Earth and the life upon it is required, if vast human misery is to be avoided and our global home is not to be irretrievably mutilated." They cited as a priority a transition from fossil fuels "to more benign inexhaustible energy sources to cut greenhouse gas emissions and the pollution of our air and water." And they argued that "acting on this urgent matter is not altruism, but enlightened self-interest. We all have but one global lifeboat. No nation can escape from injury when global biological systems are devastated. No nation can escape from conflicts over increasingly scarce resources."

This warning from the world's top scientists was not only ignored by the world's corporate and political leaders, but disdained and derided -- as were all such subsequent warnings and appeals from climatologists. Far from being curbed, these ruinous economic practices have been intensified. Inevitably so, since the dominant global economic system -- neoliberal capitalism -- can only survive by continuing recklessly to plunder and pollute the planet.

To stop these depredations would necessitate nothing less than the termination of capitalism itself (or at least the unbridled form of capitalism that now prevails), and that is something our corporate overlords will never -- can never -- do of their own volition, regardless of the horrendous consequences.

This should change everything

Naomi Klein's latest book, This Changes Everything, is subtitled Capitalism vs. the Climate. What she bluntly claims is that capitalism as it now functions is incompatible with a healthy and sustainable climate, and has to be stopped before it precipitates a global catastrophe.

As it stands, in what could be called the last round of the fight between capitalism and the climate, the odds are no better than 100-to-1 against the climate winning. Free-market capitalism has battered the environment so viciously and with virtually no restraint that even some of the most knowledgeable and vocal "friends of the Earth" seem to be losing hope.

And it's not only our political and corporate leaders who refuse to face this reality. So do most of the people who vote for the neoliberal politicians and consume the neoliberal CEOs' products. In last year's federal election in Canada, climate change was rarely mentioned and ranked well down the list of issues considered important. A recent Pew Research Center poll in the U.S. found that 55 per cent of Americans don't believe climate change is a "serious problem."

This is the primal outlook of short-term-wired brains galvanized only by problems that are imminent and personal.

Many previous civilizations and empires have crumbled because of the hubris and greed of their rulers. They all ignored the warning signs of resource depletion, income inequality, and the mounting rebellion against their despotic regimes.

American journalist and farmer Joel Salatin, commenting recently on the growing threat posed to food security by climate change, noted that people tend to delay making changes to their lifestyles unless forced to do so. But by then it's often too late.

"No civilization on the brink of collapse has ever changed fast enough to avert collapse," he pointed out.

The Mayas, the Sumerians, the Egyptians, the Persians, and even the long-lasting Roman Empire ultimately fell because of the refusal of their leaders to constrain their accumulation of wealth and power. Whether they were nobles, high priests, warriors, or despots, they had risen to the top of their society and relished the affluence that power conferred on them. They were not going to risk losing their privileged status by making changes that might endanger it -- even if such reforms were clearly needed to save their empires from collapse.

Naomi Klein says she hasn't lost hope yet. She puts her faith in the mobilization of mass social movements, such as those that successfully campaigned in earlier times for the abolition of slavery and apartheid, and against the suppression of civil rights in the southern United States.

Such victories can indeed inspire hope and spur action. But it has to be kept in mind that they were each focused on a particular social iniquity in one part of the world. The collapses of previous civilizations were also regional in scale, and did not impede the subsequent rise of others such as the British, Spanish and Portuguese empires. But the prevailing neoliberal corporate empire girdles the globe and encompasses almost every human being on the planet. Its collapse will also be global in extent, and so will its cataclysmic impacts.

My use of "when" rather than "if" in the last sentence connotes my reluctance to assume that a rescue from collapse today is any more likely than it was for past civilizations. I don't entirely rule out that possibility, but, given that our current corporate rulers are just as avaricious and purblind as the autocrats of old, it's hard to maintain optimism.

But that doesn't mean we have to wallow in despair and passivity. Far from it. As Naomi has noted, there are thousands of environmental, social and economic activist groups around the world that have had encouraging success from their localized campaigns. They are in the process of joining forces to build a movement they plan to expand to worldwide scope. The barriers they face, however, are formidable, especially two of them. The first -- the shortage of time -- is obvious. The second is even more daunting: the refusal of most major governments to heed demands for effective action on climate change.

The decline of democracy

The hard reality is that the only entities with the potential ability to stop neoliberal capitalism from vandalizing the planet are the world's elected governments. Without the imposition of political limits on corporate power, even the broadest and strongest mass protest movement will be unavailing. That may seem unduly pessimistic, but, if our governments won't tackle and shackle the corporate miscreants, who or what will?

The governments of virtually all the world's major nations have been subverted by the world's major transnational corporations. Political leaders have either embraced corporate neoliberalism willingly or have been intimidated by the threat of corporate retaliation if they try to govern in the public interest.

And there's the rub when it comes to putting the brakes on global warming. With unchecked neoliberal capitalism reigning supreme over the economy, the maximization of economic growth and profits will continue to be its sole and inviolable mantra -- and by extension that of its subservient governments. With most government leaders now in bed with the CEOs, lobbying for political curbs on the global warming caused by the CEOs is futile -- almost as futile as lobbying governments to stop putting private interests ahead of the public interest.

Consider what a government wishing to operate in the public interest would have to do just to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It would have to impose a sizeable carbon tax on polluting industries. It would have to order a phase-out of tar sands oil development and fracking gas extraction before 2020, then boost taxes on corporations and the rich to pay for the conversion from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources. Can you seriously imagine that any national government, including ours, would dare to tax billions from the rich and powerful to pay for effective action on climate change?

To do so would incur prompt and ruthless financial retaliation. The world's corporate rulers will not tolerate governments that deviate too far from the corporate-neoliberal doctrine. Yes, some token tax hikes will be permitted, some relatively modest boosts in social spending, even occasional rebukes of business misconduct (as long as they remain strictly verbal). But any government that implements a tough "anti-corporate" agenda risks punitive investment "strikes," the exodus of more factories and jobs to low-wage countries, and of course the nastiest of all: denying cushy business posts to retiring politicians.

Facing the future

I'm writing this rather bleak blog on a warm Saturday in June. The sun is shining, the foliage is blooming, kids are frolicking on their way to the nearby swimming pool. All around the city, people are dining at café patios, jogging or bicycling on nature trails, sunbathing on beaches, and generally relishing the clement weather.

These are the activities of people who quite properly are enjoying their leisure time. For them, life is too short and precious to waste time worrying about climate change. Most of them have more pressing family, financial, or work-related problems to deal with, so naturally feel they can defer a threat that might not reach a crisis stage for decades.

What they don't seem to realize is that many of their immediate concerns are also direct consequences of the same twisted neoliberal system that is despoiling the environment. The worst effects of global warming may be a long way off, but many of the other injurious effects of corporate rule -- poverty, inequality, hunger, homelessness, unemployment, and preventable disease -- are already blighting the lives of billions of people. Even those in the middle class with currently adequate incomes can never feel financially secure in an economy vulnerable to occasional deep recessions and mass layoffs.

It's noteworthy that the 1,700 scientists didn't confine their 1992 warning to global warming. They also expressed deep concern about deforestation, overfishing, overpopulation and the extinction of so many animals, plants and insects integral to the planet's web of life. Even then, these reckless corporate assaults on the environment were raising alarm in the scientific community. And so was the spread of poverty and gender inequality.

"We must reduce and eventually eliminate poverty," the scientists stated. "We must ensure sexual equality, and guarantee women control over their own reproductive decisions."

The scientists realized that these substantive reforms could be costly to implement, but made this salient observation: "Resources now devoted to the preparation and conduct of war -- amounting (at that time) to over $1 trillion annually -- will be badly needed for these new tasks and should be diverted to them."

"The greatest peril facing humankind," they concluded, "is to become trapped in spirals of environmental decline, poverty and unrest, leading to social, economic, and environmental collapse."

Coping with plutocracy

Writing in a recent issue of Harper's about the tendency of most people to ignore warnings about global warming, Annina Mitchell sympathized with the scientists and activists who have been dismissed as alarmists. "No one enjoys playing Cassandra," she wrote. "Just ask James Lovelock or Al Gore. It is more comforting and comfortable to avoid the ecological catastrophe ahead... I don't begrudge those who remain hopeful about our future. The existential challenge I face -- along with many others whom I prefer to call 'realists' -- is to maintain a life filled with exuberance, meaning, and community service, despite what I rationally foresee as the likely fate of our species."

That is the kind of positive attitude I would recommend to environmentalists and activists in Canada. Our country, like most others, contains millions of victims of neoliberal capitalism. According to Canada Without Poverty, an estimated 4.8 million Canadians are living in various stages of poverty, including more than a million children under the age of 18. Nearly a million families are so bereft that they have to rely on food banks; but still 300,000 or more children remain undernourished, thousands of them going to school in the morning without breakfast. The number of homeless Canadians also keeps rising.

UNICEF has ranked Canada in a dismal 21st place among the richest 29 countries in its rate of child poverty. The OECD has put Canada even lower on its child poverty scale -- 24th among its 31 member countries.

With a hefty per-capita GDP of $38,000, Canadian governments have access to enough potential tax revenue to greatly reduce poverty, and even eliminate child poverty. But instead they have forfeited billions by needlessly cutting taxes, primarily leaving it up to the food banks and other charities to succor the many victims of corporate rule.

Helping the food banks and other NGOs help the victims of this worst of all economic systems is the kind of community service that Annina Mitchell was recommending in Harper's. Granted, it falls far short of mounting an insurrection against corporate rule, but neither does it imply capitulation. The two activities are not mutually exclusive. Organizing a global effort to topple the plutocratic empire can continue -- whether feasible or not -- but alleviating the distress of its victims can also proceed and is much more desperately needed.

While the war against the neoliberal environment wreckers rages on, we can be the modern Florence Nightingale brigade, ministering to those who have fallen on the field of battle.

Photo: Dariusz Więckiewicz/flickr

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