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Thinking about the place of the U.S. in the world focuses around its imperial reach, military spending, nuclear arsenal and misguided foreign policy. Who can overlook what the U.S. warfare state means today?
Behind the military might lies of course an industrial economy with a global base; U.S. political power relies on its economic strength.
More and more people are catching on: the American economy is not producing for its citizens. Standard accounts show lagging employment, slow to no GDP growth per capita and increasing inequality.
Of wider concern is the impact of the global U.S. economic model on the world environment. Dealing with water shortages, air quality, climate change and soil depletion raises issues that go beyond conventional economic policy, because monetary values cannot be reliably assigned to the ecology that surrounds the economy.
In Climate Casino, a new book for a general readership, Yale economist William Nordhaus argues the public must accept that while reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions will be expensive, climate change will cost a lot more. He contrasts the cost of repairing damage due to hurricanes with the increased costs of a moving to a green economy.
No radical, Nordhaus is president of the American Economics Association. Does his election mean the economics profession is catching on to the connection between GHG emissions and extreme weather eruptions such as Hurricane Katrina? Possibly. But the methodology of conventional economics is poorly equipped to understand ecology. Economists can grasp that when disasters linked to extreme weather occur, the costs are "socialized," absorbed by society as well as by the specific families who lose their homes, or cities that see infrastructure destroyed. Unfortunately, the American economy cannot easily transform itself into an efficient mechanism for socializing the costs of reducing GHG emissions, let alone protect scarce water or the earth's crust from fracking. Prices and taxes -- the standard market mechanisms -- are not up to the task.
The U.S. economy runs by rules that make company profits the incentive. These rules are currently producing an energy revolution, and an ecological calamity. Shale gas and shale oil production are booming across the U.S., reducing the need for foreign oil. Big money rewards producers while GHG emissions soar and ground water gets contaminated. Earthquake dangers grow because fracking weakens the earth's crust.
The WIERD economies (Western, Industrial, Educated, Rich, Democratic) have varying degrees of energy dependence and unequal political capacities for addressing green issues such as fracking. In each of them the American economic model has been influential. Such resistance as has arisen has remained politically marginal, mainly because of the presumed success of the capitalist market economies.
The post-1945 economic boom was fueled by pent-up demand for consumer products. What has driven that demand ever since is marketing. Nothing was more richly rewarded or meant more to economic success than the ability to sell something bigger than the product along with the product, the sizzle not just the steak.
Successful marketing explains why cars became more than transportation and why brands opened wallets. Marketing came to politics, finance and to corporate campaigns massaging public opinion, such as the greenwashing done by forest product companies or energy producers.
There is no profit incentive to preserve the species or protect the earth. So long as the marketing gurus control public taste and influence consumer spending, the costs of environmental destruction are just going to keep going up until they exceed the ability of a profit-driven world to cope.
What global society needs is an ecologically driven economy that puts the relationship with nature first. The marketing-driven economy passes off costs to someone else in order to make a profit for the firm by displacing workers and ignoring real ecological effects of corporate action.
For an ecologically driven economy to happen, the destructive potential of the profit-driven model needs to be known and understood. In an important recent article, Richard Smith exposes the weakness of conventional sustainability analysis and shows the limits of green capitalism. In his introduction, he frames a disaster scenario resulting from expected global warming of 4 degrees Celsius that deserves the widest possible attention.
Moving from mindless consumption of branded products to mindful choices of how to live a green existence requires social and political action as well as individual commitments to think and live in an ecologically sane fashion.
Initial critiques of consumer society focused on the waste it produced, senseless packaging of course, but also the under-employment of human talents and capacities and the direction of daily energy into mind-numbing activities.
The obvious waste of resources in militarism inspired Western political movements dedicated to turn swords into plowshares by re-allocating money from guns to meeting real human needs.
Today the waste economy critique has deepened to encompass how to stop wasting the planet through environmentally destructive practices. Building an ecologically sustainable economy requires overthrowing the marketing-driven economy, individually and through collective action. Nothing less than a worldwide peaceful revolution will make America green.
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Duncan Cameron is the president of rabble.ca and writes a weekly column on politics and current affairs.
Photo: Ben Schumin/flickr
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