German President Christian Wulff said that it was his “admirable passion for a global ecological perestroika” that won Mikhail Gorbachev, the last General Secretary of the Soviet Union, the German Environmental Award in 2010. A year later, Gorbachev published a book in which he humbly described himself as a “prophet of change” and confessed to a great awakening in the last days of the USSR. Industry, he discovered, was destroying the sociological and environmental stability of his country. “It became clear that growth was occurring only at massive cost to the environment,” Oxford University Professor David King wrote for the book’s afterword. In that sense, the implosion of the Soviet state that Gorbachev so vehemently resisted was an act of altruistic sacrifice to environmentalism.
Blaming the Soviet state’s legitimacy crisis on its productive capacity is bizarre considering that, in the last full year of the country’s existence, the country’s ailing per-capita GDP begun contracting after years of stagnation. But the claim serves a purpose, and not just to whitewash Gorbachev’s legacy. To the most honest of today’s committed climate activists, the existential problem they are confronting isn’t just environmental degradation but the essential nature of capitalism.
The latest scare that caused the activist class to let the veil drop was a report released this week by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The report contended that the world has nearly reached the point of no return and, at the current pace, could see an average temperature increase of over one degree centigrade in as little as 12 years. Any effort to prevent this catastrophe will require dramatic changes in how governments operate, societies function, and commerce is conducted. To the vanguard of the revolution, this alarming report was just more evidence that society will either embrace an atavistic socialist economy or perish.
Meteorologist and University of Minnesota scholar Eric Holthaus put the scale of the challenge in stark terms: “The world’s top scientists just gave rigorous backing to systematically dismantle capitalism as a key requirement to maintaining civilization and a habitable planet,” he wrote. But how? The IPCC recommends a slow and voluntary (at least, for now) dismantling of the comforts provided by Western capitalist energy. For example, they recommend consumers give up at least 30 percent of the meat they presently consume and forego their car, truck, or plane trip for a bus or train ride instead.
For the radical environmental left, however, that’s Menshevik talk. Without total societal transformation, wrote Arizona University Professor Benjamin Fong, we won’t have much of a chance making it past the 22nd century. “The intelligence of the brightest people around is no match for the rampant stupidity of capitalism.” The Intercept’s Kate Aronoff offered some more radical suggestions to address the issue of climate change: First, “Fund a massive jobs program to decarbonize every sector of the economy.” Second, “Bring the fossil fuel industry under public ownership, rapidly scale down production.” Finally, “Seize the state.” A de-industrial revolution, if you will.
These activists have done a great public service by boiling down the public-policy debate around mitigating the effects of climate change to its most elementary level. If the climate debate becomes about the value of market economics and entrepreneurial dynamism, it’s a debate the capitalists will win.
One of the IPCC’s most sensible recommendations to the threat posed by excessive carbon emissions is to popularize the use of “smart thermostats” in homes. But the biggest draw for consumers who purchase relatively expensive Internet-connected devices like those isn’t the marginal contribution they will make to atmospheric stability but the downward pressure they put on the average home’s heating and air conditioning bill. Market forces, economic incentives, and maximum personal benefit are still the most powerful influences affecting mankind. And contrary to the green Bolshevist movement’s fantasies, self-interest will be what ameliorates whatever mankind’s contribution is to the threat posed by climate change.
Take, for example, energy consumption. The story of mankind’s reliance on combustible fuels is the story of markets and how prices drive innovation. The production of whale oil became prohibitively expensive during the Civil War, when merchant vessels were treated as military targets, making the exploitation of petroleum and kerosene commercially viable. The development of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling made relatively clean-burning gas cheaper than oil exploration and extraction. The stagnant demand for energy in America (estimated to rise by less than one percent by 2050) will transform the U.S. into a net energy exporter for the first time in nearly a century by 2022.
The energy crisis of the early 1970s did not yield to great power conflict, as Marxist dogmatists insisted scarcity of resources inevitably would. It was addressed by innovation that resulted in the development of rudimentary clean-energy technologies which have become more efficient and accessible as demand has increased. Governments can provide all the subsidies and incentives they like to private corporations, but only price determines the point at which energy-efficient technologies become widely adopted by individuals, businesses, cities, and nations. Call it heightened social consciousness if you like, but the demand for improved environmental policing by the state and support for a green marketplace is directly tied to economic growth and individual purchasing power. In plainer terms: the rich get the environment they pay for.
By contrast, it is the developing world where economic centralization is far more robust than in the capitalist West that produces most of the world’s carbon emissions. What’s more, the Communist world of the 20th century was the site of the worst pollution-control regimes and longest-lived environmental catastrophes. The correlation between a command economy in a centralized police state and reckless environmental policies is a mystery only to those who do not understand the consumer economy and the influence individuals wield in a capitalist system.
The socialist movement may have suffered a setback with the collapse of the Communist world, but it didn’t disappear. It simply adapted. The exploitation of the workers became the exploitation of the environment. The problems change but the fix remains the same: top-down command economics and the abolition of consumer culture. Socialism has become a solution in search of a problem.