What use are environmental ethics in a world of economic self-interest? Do you live in a world of greed but long for a world of good? I have always longed for a world where people are as interested in each other’s good as in their own, only to find that most people would rather compete for profit and status than seek each other’s well-being. Call me a progressive environmentalist.
A liberal political ethic of justice and civil rights for all, with the government playing a significant role in market regulation and in establishing racial, ethnic and gender equality, cannot in and of itself overcome the force that economic and political power wields over national life.
In Moral Man and Immoral Society, Reinhold Niebuhr distinguishes between the ethical good that individuals and small groups can achieve and existential social immorality: we are not building “an ideal society in which there will be uncoerced and perfect peace and justice, but a society in which there will be enough justice, and in which coercion will be sufficiently non-violent to prevent [the] common enterprise from turning into a complete disaster.” (italics added).
Living in an “immoral society”: How to avoid “complete disaster”
Our “common enterprise”, alas, is heading for just such a disaster, with right-wing parties flouting justice, attacking democracy, and spouting the rhetoric of political violence in attempts to establish Fascist autocracies in America, Israel, and Europe.
These horrors leave us longing for the good old days when competing economic philosophies – as between Lyndon Johnson’s liberal Great Society and Ronald Reagan’s neo-liberal Trickle-down Economy – were worked out through a common agreement to follow the rules of electoral politics.
The Republican Party in the United States has traditionally followed the tenets of neoliberalism, an economic system opposed to government interventions, lest they restrict the freedom of the market and of corporations.
The Democratic Party, on the other hand, has favored government intervention for social goods like food banks and child care, Gender, Racial, and Labor rights enforced by the rule of law, along with sufficient regulation to restrain corporate greed within the realm of the common good.
One area in the United States where the clash between liberal and neo-liberal ideologies has been prevalent is environmental policy, particularly in response to global warming.
The conviction that doing right by the environment will threaten business interests has been common in both parties and has deadlocked Congress from effectively combating climate change.
Lately, however, liberals have gotten off our high horses to find common ground with business, and business has realized that clean energy, sustainability, and combating global warming are economically advantageous. And Conservatives, of all people, are working at the state and local level for “energy independence”, free markets, land rights and consumer choice.
“‘Quite frankly, our conservative voice has been missing from policy debates for too long, especially at the state and local levels,’’’ says Brittany Tisler, interim chief of the Michigan-based nonprofit.
Are these green projects all along the political spectrum mitigating the traditional clash between the liberal assumption that the environment is a commons to be regulated for the good of all vs. neo-liberal insistence that the environment is a commodity for economic exploitation?
These convictions are so entrenched, notes Paul Krugman, that people cling to them despite evidence to the contrary:
“Strange to say, however, at this precise moment — the most hopeful moment for the environment, as far as I can tell, in decades — my inbox has been filling up with woeful claims that environmental protection is incompatible with economic growth. These claims are oddly bipartisan. Some of them come from people on the left who insist that the planet can’t be saved unless we give up on the notion of perpetual economic growth. Others come from people on the right who insist that we must give up on all this environmentalism if we want to preserve prosperity.”
Take, for example, the disagreement between environmentally-minded stockholders engaged in socially conscious investing and Republicans furious that “Wall Street has taken a sharp left term” into “woke capitalism”.
Robert Reich — Office Hours: Is “woke capitalism” the new Republican racist dog whistle? https://t.co/UVwXaJVYlW
— Robert Reich (@RBReich) March 15, 2023
Unfortunately, the MAGA or extreme right wing of the party has seized control of the House of Representatives and voted down labor laws permitting social investing in retirement funds.
Coming together for the green transition: How governments, environmentalists and businesses can work together
Paul Krugman is convinced, nonetheless, that such rear-guard actions cannot permanently overcome the economic advantage of sustainability, clean energy, and profitable green technologies:
“The biggest factor making this kind of climate initiative possible, after so many years of inaction, is the spectacular technological progress in renewable energy that has taken place since 2009 or so. This means that we can greatly reduce emissions using carrots instead of sticks: giving people incentives to use low-emission technologies rather than trying to regulate or tax them into giving up high-emission activities. And the politics of carrots are obviously a lot easier than the politics of sticks.”
Another factor making climate initiatives not only attractive but possible for business is the recent technological advance adapting Artificial Intelligence, through the technique of Decisions Intelligence, to sift and utilize data in order to help companies rise to the challenge of planetary stewardship. The complexity of the challenge we are all facing is well explained in this video about earth systems science:
This coming May, the Earth Systems Predictability Forum will meet to discuss how Artificial Intelligence can be advantageous in making decisions about the impact of global warming.
Instead of a stand-off between anti-capitalist liberals and market fundamentalist neo-liberals, we are also hearing about instances of them joining forces though we must always beware of green-washing where they do so to their mutual advantage.
An international group of environmental voters, the Citizens’ Climate Lobby, has long backed a carbon fee and dividend plan which collects fees at the site of emissions and returns them directly to American households. They act based on the results of an independent study of the policy which they dub the “ Largest Public Statement of Economists in History.”
Two key points are:
- “A sufficiently robust and gradually rising carbon tax will replace the need for various carbon regulations that are less efficient. Substituting a price signal for cumbersome regulations will promote economic growth and provide the regulatory certainty companies need for long- term investment in clean-energy alternatives.
- To prevent carbon leakage and to protect U.S. competitiveness, a border carbon adjustment system should be established. This system would enhance the competitiveness of American firms that are more energy-efficient than their global competitors. It would also create an incentive for other nations to adopt similar carbon pricing.” (bolding added)
Lately, the United States Senate has taken an interest in the Carbon Fee concept on both a national and an international basis.
In an article titled “New Carbon Positivity,” Emma Dumain notes that the Democratic “Senate Budget Committee chair, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse has pledged to draw the connection between the climate crisis and future economic calamity, and discussion of a carbon tax has already arisen in that context;” while Republican “Sen. Mitt Romney, at a recent committee hearing, noted, ‘We do a lot of things that make us feel good about ourselves but will have almost no impact on global emissions. If we want to do something serious about global emissions, we need to put a price on carbon.’”
Internationally, the US Senate is looking into a “carbon border adjustment mechanism, or CBAM, which is tantamount to environmental trade policy that would slap a fee — or tariff — on imported goods based on their carbon content as a means of incentivizing decarbonization broadly.”
What American lawmakers are looking for is an adequate response to Europe setting up its own CBAM system that is expected to be launched this year:
Let’s look at some further examples of business/environmentalist/government bedfellows:
- The Governor of New Jersey, Paul Murphy, intends the state to reach 100 percent clean electricity by 2035, rather than the current target of 2050. “Murphy outlined six environment-related actions he plans to take. The other steps include ending the sale of gasoline-powered vehicles by 2035 and installing zero-emission heating and cooling systems in 400,000 homes and 20,000 businesses.”
- In this same article, reporter Steven Mufson writes that “World Bank President David Malpass announced plans to step down. . . amid intense criticism of his views on climate change.”
- Oliver Milman, in the US News, reports that “The plummeting cost of renewable energy, which has been supercharged by last year’s Inflation Reduction Act, means that it is cheaper to build an array of solar panels or a cluster of new wind turbines and connect them to the grid than it is to keep operating all of the 210 coal plants in the contiguous US….Coal is unequivocally more expensive than wind and solar resources, it’s just no longer cost competitive with renewables.”
- Meanwhile, in Michigan and other states where cars and auto parts are manufactured, the new market for electric vehicles is bringing profits to auto plants and new jobs for workers.
- As for the apprehension of job loss among coal and oil workers, the replacement of fossil fuels by clean energy has made the transition to new jobs popular: Emma McConville laid off from her job as a geologist with Exxon Mobil, quickly found work with “Fervo, a young Houston company that aims to tap geothermal energy under the Earth’s surface. Today she manages two Fervo projects in Nevada and Utah, and earns more than she did at Exxon.”
- Environmental and business interests have become stakeholders in each other’s projects on a worldwide basis. Impakter, for example, maintains a web page with detailed and practical steps for companies to assess, improve, and profit from their environmental sustainability.
According to John Elkinton, we have moved beyond the purely economic “bottom line” of traditional capitalism to “not one but three bottom lines: financial, social, and environmental. ” In Green Swans: The Coming Boom in Regenerative Capitalism, he envisions a whole new world of economic pragmatism demanding that environmentalists and businesses find common ground.
Central Banking News defines a green swan as a “climate black swan, named after Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s popular concept for events with major effects that come as a surprise and are recognized only in hindsight. The physical and transition risks of climate change are characterized by deep uncertainty and nonlinearity, so their chances of occurring are not reflected in past data. These unknown unknowns make traditional approaches to risk management largely irrelevant.”
It seems that capitalism is, suddenly and surprisingly, moving into sync with environmentalists in a way that has the possibility of significantly cutting back on global warming. Is this one of those felicitously unexpected conjunctions, a huge Green Swan splashing down right in front of our wondering eyes?
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here by the authors are their own, not those of Impakter.com — In the Featured Photo: Green swan Source: pxfuel.com swan page (copyright free – image manipulated)