Last week, I read an article by Naomi Klein that critiqued a lengthy opus in last week’s New York Times Magazine called “Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change.” The title of Klein’s article was “Capitalism Killed Our Climate Momentum, Not Human Nature.” As you may guess, the original article, by Nathaniel Rich, recounted the history or our massive failure to act in the ’70s and ’80s and up to the present to control our carbon output and thus head off climate change. We knew then everything we know now, and yet could not, and still can’t, take constructive steps to save ourselves, much less the planet. Rich blames the intransigence of human nature as represented by our inability to take a catastrophe several decades in the future seriously enough to suffer inconvenience now. Klein thought that that let our capitalists off the hook. She thinks it was they who refused to take a hit for the future.
I think that they are both right. Klein refers to two defects of modern capitalism, the first is due to another facet of human nature. The capitalist economy we evolved is dominated by a small number of very wealthy and powerful national and international corporations. The flaw in human nature is that, except in the case of a few saintly individuals, power corrupts. It was inevitable that those powerful few would take as much for themselves as possible at our expense and that they would rig the economy as well as our democratic political system so that they could perform the heist as efficiently as possible. Those people need to be reined in, but we need to realize that they are just doing what most of us would do if put in the same place. The second defect of modern capitalism is that it requires continual growth and use of ever more scarce resources, and is driving us toward oblivion at 90 miles per hour.
In case you are wondering, the purely socialist option in which the state distributes goods and services has its pitfalls as well. If the distributing is being done by a powerful central committee, you have the concentration of power once again and the same result. Committee members may not be rewarded with money, but power will accrue all the same accoutrements of luxury and privilege. The other problem with pure socialism, as I stated last issue, is that a committee can never perform the business of distribution as finely as millions of private local transactions.
Last week, I wrote in favor of the basic concept of capitalism, as I see it, and I would like to explain why I’m not abandoning it outright as many would like to do. I interpret Adam Smith as originally postulating a free market system operating in a town in which the producer and consumer knew each other and could negotiate a price between them in person. They each had the option of finding another if they couldn’t reach agreement. It is easy to see how prices could seem to be set by an invisible hand. What we have today is wholly different. Producers and consumers almost never know each other, nor does the transaction involve only the producer and the consumer. There are a whole plethora of middlemen—speculators, distributors, wholesalers, and retailers—who actually control the final price to the consumer. The producer usually gets very little for their product and the consumer pays a price that rewards the middlemen handsomely. The consumer has millions of choices but limited ability to choose a sustainably produced product. If you define capitalism as a means for wealthy people to exploit poorer people, then I’m for scrapping it. If you define it as local free enterprise, then I think it is an essential and useful tool. The main problem we face is the concentration of power.
We need to break up those power centers using the only tool we have, a crippled and weak democracy that has been rigged against us. The powers that be have inculcated in us a lack of faith and a deadly cynicism about the ability of government to carry out the will of the people. They don’t want us to vote. They want us to band up and fight each other instead. In the recent primary, only 30% of the eligible voters voted in our 34th district. Urge candidates and officials, especially Senators Murray and Cantwell, to take no money from wealthy corporate interests. Elect people that will stand up to corporate power and rein it in.
The other thing we can do is boycot the big boys by doing business more and more at the local level. The possibilities are changing rapidly. Food and energy are fast becoming sectors that we can supply at the local level. Forego major purchases that fill corporate coffers. Invest locally, start a business.
We can slow the runaway climate train, but we have to regain control of our government first, and we have to humbly accept our nature and avoid triggering the darker aspects of it. All the while, we should be building resilience locally.