The Pathway to Attaining Sustainability

Randall G Holcombe recognizes that “government was not created for the benefit of its citizens, it was created for the benefit of those who rule.” State socialism has failed and so has the trickle-down market. Richard K Moore asserts, “power (be it economic or governmental) is the problem – not who holds it…” The obstacle to change is about escaping from elite domination. Man has produced imbalances not only in nature, but, more fundamentally, in his relations with his fellow man and in the very structure of his society. The imbalances man has produced in the natural world are caused by the imbalances he has produced in the social world. The common theme that runs through all these things, and what must be changed, is that they are all aspects of a capitalist ideology manipulated by an economic elite. The situation offers the opportunity to argue for the fundamental transformation of society as the only alternative to attaining sustainability.

One of the popular myths is that personal consumer choices can move us towards sustainability. Before buying in, we should be asking ourselves who benefits from this. While one shouldn’t think there is anything “bad” about trying to make consumer choices that are less exploitative or less cruel (if that is possible) we need to understand that this only mildly alters the details of the existing system without challenging the paradigm itself. For example, alternative energies are similar in that they attempt to operate only within the context of industrial society and extraction culture. They simply seek to alter details, not to facilitate a paradigm shift. Civilization and complex society, necessarily result in social stratification or hierarchy. To adequately fulfill all the functions needed to maintain civilization and mass society, authority and submission, division of labor, specialization, etc., emerge. However, no civilization has ever achieved sustainability.

Almost every aspect of modern life is contributing to the changing climate, from air transportation, to our reliance on cars, to how goods are produced and transported, how our food is grown, and how we light and heat our homes. A century ago it would have been possible to regard air pollution and water contamination as the result of the self-seeking activities of industrial barons and bureaucrats. Today, this moral explanation would be a gross oversimplification. Without any doubt most corporations are still guided by a public-be-damned attitude, but there is a more serious problem than the attitude of the owners is the size of the firms themselves. The issue is their enormous proportions, their location in a particular region, their density, their requirements for raw materials and their role in the national division of labor. Regardless of the reason, it’s been clear for quite some time we are only paying lip service to sustainability.

People have been pointing out the environmental problems of industry since industry’s beginnings. Yet, approaching the problem through conventional politics hasn’t gotten very far. We haven’t been able to legislate our way out of climate change, nor have we even mitigated some of the more solvable effects of industrialized society, like water pollution from agriculture. Most people hold onto the idea that it is merely the regulatory agencies, or the particular political party in power, that are to be held accountable for this, but perhaps existing social conditions are inhibiting development. People – in the U.S. in particular, but the world over as well – have lost control over government, which means a loss of control over the economy and its negative effects. In our ‘democracy’ of corporately-funded elections, ubiquitous lobbyists, an impotent when not sycophantic mainstream media, and an (understandably and increasingly) cynical, jaded electorate, can we expect to regain control of the government, as it currently is structured?

Rex Tillerson, former Chairman, President, and CEO of Exxon Mobil Corporation, best expresses the view advocating adaptation and a lack of concern for the consequences. Tillerson “told a New York audience that global warming is real, but dismissed it as an ‘engineering problem’ that has ‘engineering solutions.’” In response to the objection that changes to weather patterns will severely affect crop production, he said “we’ll adapt to that.” The “climate crisis” should be spoken of as climate catastrophe because this is what it is for the majority of the peoples of the Earth. A recent study estimates that in the next sixteen years, 100 million people will die as a result of the changing climate. Ninety percent of these deaths will occur in poor countries, which speaks to the racist and class dimensions of the climate crisis. It is primarily poor people of color, living in what once was called the Third World, who have contributed the least to changing the climate, but who will continue to suffer and die as a result of it.1

The forces responsible for changing the climate and endangering the future of humanity have names. Names such as: Chevron and Exxon Mobil, Saudi Aramco and Petroleos de Venezuela. They are the predominant groups responsible for playing havoc with our collective future. In fact, two-thirds of historic carbon dioxide and methane emissions can be attributed to exactly ninety entities. While these are the primary economic forces responsible for climate change, it would be a mistake to think if we stop these particular companies from conducting business as usual, we can solve the problem. They are only the most public faces of a system that goes much deeper. The driving force of climate change is the capitalist profit motive and confronting this effectively will require massive grassroots local organizing with an international perspective. It is necessary to seek a path to sustainability to get us out of the climate crisis.1

The climate crisis offers damning evidence that trickle-down economics has become socially useless. We should not rely on fear of an impending apocalypse as motivation for people to drop their daily routines and get involved. People can simply refuse to accept the reality or fact as a defense mechanism. The danger is that news of how bad things are getting, and how much worse they are likely to become, can result in fear and denial, and actually be counterproductive in generating a movement. Presenting people with an alleged threat to their well-being will elicit a powerful emotional response that can override reason and prevent a critical assessment of these policies. As author Mark Vernon has noted “… the politics of fear plays on an assumption that people cannot bear the uncertainties associated with [risk]. Politics then becomes a question of who can better deliver an illusion of control.”

Antonio Gramsci asked: why did the revolution succeed in Russia, and not in Italy or anywhere else in Western Europe, where classical Marxism had predicted it would be more likely to occur due to the more advanced development of capitalism? He argued that the reason for this failure was an incorrect understanding of the workings of power in modern capitalism: while Marxist revolutionary practice had assumed that political power was concentrated in the state apparatus, Gramsci suggested that power also rested in the institutions of ‘civil society’ or the structures and organization of everyday life. The revolution would therefore have to aim not only at conquering state power, but much more importantly, to create an alternative civil society, which would have to be able to attract the majority of people by convincing them of the validity of the project, which was in turn premised on its ability to perform.2

Today’s global development agenda aims to provide an expanding global population with the high-impact material affluence enjoyed by the richest parts of the world. This is despite evidence crying out that the universalization of affluence is environmentally unsupportable and not even a reliable path to happiness. The social costs of globalization include the costs of production that are not born by the producer or included in the price of the product, underemployment, lost tax base, rising trade and current account deficits from offshoring of manufacturing and tradeable professional services. We should talk more about what an economy is actually for: satisfying needs, creating a better society and improving our quality of life. Once we do that we see that continuing down this present path can be counter-productive, as well as impossible in a finite system such as the planet we live on. Considering the ecological disaster as one long-term crisis, we could restructure society to not only ‘save the planet’ but also support the full development of our positive humanity.

The path to sustainability requires meeting the basic needs of all and extending to all their aspirations for a better life. Sustainable development is the development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. These ‘needs’ are the essential needs of the poor and marginalized, and the limitations imposed that require a change in social organization. The change in social organization must address a political system in which a handful of very wealthy people and special interests determine who gets elected or who does not get elected. The future of sustainability should be one in which candidates are not telling billionaires at special forums what they can do for them. The paradigm shift has candidates speaking to working people, the middle class, low-income people, the elderly, the children, the sick, and the poor – and discussing with them their ideas as to how to improve lives for all while attaining sustainability.

1 Messersmith-Glavin, Paul (15 April 2015) Organizing Against Climate Catastrophe.

2 Mueller, Tadzio Empowering Anarchy Power, Hegemony, and Anarchist Strategy.

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