Despite growing consensus among scientists regarding human-induced climate change, the U.S. remains a leader in resistance to corrective action. Some blame our recalcitrance on the small minority of climate skeptics or on the simple self-interest of oil companies. There may, however, be deeper and more intractable reasons.
In a provocative new blog, http://contemporarycondition.blogspot.com, Johns Hopkins professor William Connolly, a friend and mentor, points out that self-interest alone can’t explain resistance to climate initiatives.
Self-interest is colored and partially shaped by deeper intellectual and moral commitments. Along with the immediate self-interest of the oil companies, one may include a belief among some evangelicals that only God can alter climate and that it is the height of hubris to claim that man can.
Connolly also highlights another quintessentially American conviction, neoliberalism, or market fundamentalism. This creed insists: “The market is a self-organizing, self-regulating system. It optimizes freedom and benefits IF the state confines itself to adjusting the money supply, waging war, and punishing crime, and IF it sets severe limits to the organizing power of consumers and labor.”
In the wake of an economic crisis only barely contained by massive federal fiscal and monetary intervention, this creed still thrives. Its salience is a tribute to its deep cultural resonance — and its destructive power.
A doctrine so embedded as to resist the challenge of economic crisis impedes governmental efforts to address climate change. To suggest the seriousness of climate change is not merely to tap deep fears of death and destruction but also to challenge one powerful salve of those fears, our faith that the untrammeled market, Adam Smith’s invisible hand, can always deliver us. For many Americans who resist biblical fundamentalism, the invisible hand replaces God.
Connolly points out that markets are not unique. And herein resides the limits of market fundamentalism: “the world is full of open, self-regulating systems of multiple types.” These include ocean currents, animal habitats, the global economy and the human body itself, with its complex mind-body interchanges. “All display some powers of self-maintenance.”
All, however, also “pass into stages of sharp disequilibrium, often created by conjunctions between internal
perturbations and new intrusions” from other systems with which they interact. When and with what consequences tipping points are reached may be inherently unpredictable.
Just as systems are never fully predictable even internally and interact with other systems, so too a response to the current conflation of market fundamentalism and evangelical conviction must be flexible and many sided. Connolly argues that “The defeat of this combine will require the emergence of a new pluralist assemblage, consisting of multiple constituencies who forsake hubris, cultivate positive spiritual affinities” across ethnic, national, and philosophical boundaries.
Thus evangelicals are not all of one cloth, and secular environmentalists and deep ecologists can team with those who see dominion over the Earth in terms of stewardship. In a world of periodic flux, progressive assemblages should be continually willing to adjust strategy and be open to new issues and rights claims.
It also would confront neoliberalism directly. Elites use government not merely to enforce the law, crush unions and make war, but also to override market outcomes when their own finances are threatened. They repeal New Deal walls between commercial and investment banking, but when their convoluted deals explode, they orchestrate bailouts for themselves.
Neoliberalism has become a narcotic to soothe amid troubled times but its “market discipline” seldom curbs the elites who profess it. Even before the bailout government moved beyond attacking unions and neglecting regulations to directly channeling resources to established corporations. Think no-bid contracts with defense firms, the Medicare prescription drug program and media spectrum giveaways that bothered even Sen. Bob Dole.
These programs betray a hypocrisy that may open space with some of the evangelically minded. The elite favoritism embodied in these giveaways also by implication challenge one long-standing barrier to reform, the pervasive American faith that everyone can become rich.
The trick, however, is to use such discussions not to revive market fundamentalism. A new social ecology should treat not only markets, but also regulations, and public goods as complex and adjustable tools we employ in a world of open systems subject to periodic disturbance.
John Buell is a political economist who lives in Southwest Harbor. Readers may reach him at email@example.com.