The Overton window is shifting.
The Green New Deal (GND) championed by Justice Democrats and the Sunrise Movement demonstrates the formation of a comprehensive agenda in line with the recent UN assessment that necessitates a 45% reduction of carbon emissions in the next 12 years in order to prevent apocalyptic climate ramifications.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Markey are set to introduce GND legislation within the next several days. More moderate democrats are endorsing aspects of the GND – acting as a crucial litmus test for serious Democratic presidential contenders. Debates not only on climate change, but marginal taxation rates and universal health care are regularly being discussed on cable news programs.
While significant that Democratic presidential candidates are addressing the climate crisis, it is critical that they confront the ideological foundation of the problem. With billionaires such as Michael Bloomberg announcing support for a GND, along with moderate Democrats with historically strong ties with Wall Street, it is useful to turn to Naomi Klein’s 2014 study This Changes Everything to help understand the intimate connection between the climate crisis and capitalism. Only candidates who explicitly challenge and debunk the central tenants of the neoliberal hegemony should be able to claim the legitimacy necessary to confront the crisis.
Naomi Klein, in her impressive 2014 study on the connection between capitalism and the climate in This Changes Everything refers to the ideology underlying the climate crisis as extractivism which she defines as a “nonreciprocal, dominance-based relationship with the earth, one of purely taking”. This drive is not only particular to the extraction of material resources, but also human beings who are reduced to a form of “labor to be brutally extracted, pushed beyond limits”.
Klein traces the lineage of this ideology to “post-Enlightenment Western Culture” which led to the myth of “humanity’s duty to dominate a natural world that is believed to be at once limitless and entirely controllable”. The process of modernity and capitalism has led to a process of domination. Through decades of austerity policies, the poorest and most vulnerable communities on the periphery are deemed disposable. These communities are likewise those on the front lines of the climate crisis, feeling the harshest and most direct ramifications of fossil fuel extraction and consumption.
Klein maintains that we have to alter the dominant narrative from one of individual greed, to one of collective well-being. This battle of ideas requires that we view ourselves as:
not apart from nature but of it. That acting collectively for a greater good is not suspect, and that such common projects are responsible for our species’ greatest accomplishments. That greed must be disciplined and tempered by both rule and example. That poverty amidst plenty is unconscionable.
So if climate change results from an ideology of extractivism which stems from a modern drive to master the natural world for wealth and material satisfaction, then a comprehensive response requires a denial of these ingrained assumptions. We need to abandon the ideas fundamental to the neoliberal project: the vilification of public sector expenditure, tax cuts for the wealthiest and most powerful companies and individuals, and the desire for constant economic growth. A movement that can adequately tackle the climate crisis must instead embrace:
visionary long term planning, tough regulation of business, higher levels of taxation for the affluent, big public sector expenditure, and in many cases reversals of core privatizations in order to give communities the power to make the changes they desire.
So who will lead the way in this revolutionary battle of ideas and policy?
It will be those who directly experience the consequences of the extractivist program – those barely surviving on the periphery from years of targeted austerity measures and a history of institutional inequality and exploitation. It will be the youth, who foresee a future where rising sea levels create millions if not billions of climate refugees, where hurricanes, wildfires, heatwaves and deadly droughts become normalized, and where wealthier states erect strict quotas and barriers to protect a privileged minority at the expense of a desperate majority.
With this in mind, it is important to critically assess the lifestyle and investments of potential Democratic nominees, to consider their legitimacy in adequately confronting such a monumental task. Bloomberg will provide a particularly egregious initial case study.
During a recent event in the New Hampshire – billionaire, owner of Bloomberg L.P., and former mayor of New York City Michael Bloomberg, disconcertedly chuckled when asked about what steps he has taken in his daily routine to address climate change. He smirked at the suggestion that his own lifestyle could in any meaningful way reveal his approach to tackling the crisis.
His gabby response (above) speaks volumes. When challenged on how his own lifestyle demonstrates his commitment to the climate crisis, Bloomberg responds with details of his personal hygiene – circumventing a serious question about his legitimacy, into a rambling response on his drinking habits, exercise routines, and frequency of his fruit salad consumption.
The response is indicative of the class dynamics within the climate debate. Those most affluent in our society tend to view their individual physical well-being as an adequate response to the climate crisis: buying more expensive organic foods, riding a bike once in a while, having a bullet proof SUV drop you off at the subway to head to the office.
Earlier in the talk, Bloomberg stated that “I’m a little bit tired of listening to things that are pie in the sky, that we are never going to get passed, never going to afford. I think its disingenuous to promote those things, you have to do something that is practical”.
What our society and planet cannot afford is Bloomberg.
Bloomberg is worth around $50 billion. He holds significant personal investments in natural gas companies through the firm Willett Advisors, in which the CEO Steven Rattner has stated that “We invest a lot in the energy sector, so we have a dog in this fight . . . we’ve certainly been on the more bullish side of the argument on oil”. Furthermore, Bloomberg has a history of explicitly advocating for fracking and natural gas as an alternative to coal.
With billions invested in natural gas, and with the source of his personal wealth coming from a strongly held belief in the autonomy of market forces, Bloomberg is not the answer to the climate crisis.
As Naomi Klein, in a short section on Bloomberg in This Changes Everything notes: “Bloomberg has made no discernible attempt to manage his own vast wealth in a manner that reflects his concerns”. With so much of his own investments tied up in natural gas and the contemporary global economic order, it is inconceivable to imagine him embracing large scale infrastructure and energy projects funded by the public sphere as a result of increased taxation rates on the most affluent members of society.
Instead, approaching the climate crisis from the framework of Naomi Klein and the groundwork for the GND proposed by Justice Democrats and the Sunrise Movement, demonstrates that issues of extreme inequality are inextricably linked to the crisis. To adequately address climate change we need to confront the ideology of extractivism and neoliberalism which has legitimized and celebrated a world in which 26 individuals own as much wealth as half the world population, as the epitome of success and the ‘American dream‘.
‘Practical’ for billionaires, such as finding a parking spot for your private jet on the Davos runway, should not be accepted as a credible argument against the drastic measures required to respond to the climate crisis. ‘Practical’ for the vast majority of the global population is for billionaires to distribute their wealth, in a manner that can fund a necessary response in line with the recent UN assessment for the survival of human civilization.
The work of Naomi Klein and the rising progressive movement, shows us that the climate and neoliberalism are not distinct, but inseparably linked. That you cannot be both green and pro-business. That in order to confront the climate crisis, we need to invest in universal public goods: health care, education, water, transportation, high speed internet. That we need to address the student loan crisis, the housing crisis, wage stagnation – which all require an abandonment of the extractive ideology. That we need to view these problems through a collective and holistic lens, in which we value the well-being of our planet and fellow human beings above short term economic profit and greed.
Western culture has a tendency to treat symptoms and not underlying causes. We are bombarded by pharmaceutical commercials to take drugs that combat pain, anxiety, and depression. We watch ‘resistance’ television networks that unilaterally focus on Trump as the culprit of our contemporary problems. We view success in monetary terms while dismissing notions of privilege. We blame homelessness, poverty, and personal debt on ‘laziness’. As a result, billionaires become the saviors, those who succeeded at the American Dream.
What we really need, is to confront this ideology – and the underlying history of policies that have valued profit and economic growth at the expense of us and the planet. Therefore, the minority of billionaires, and their intimate political representatives are not the answer, we, the majority, are.
Klein, N. (2015) This Changes Everything: Capitalism and the Climate, New York: Simon & Schuster