Friends, neighbors, it’s good to see all of you. I know you, you know me, and just seeing all of your faces at this city council meeting reminds me why I love living in this town. Because I feel comforted by stasis and regularity, both fed by ignorance, and which combine to perpetuate injustice.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak tonight, and I look forward to contributing to our robust debate by making claims that are floating in an ether of confusion, prejudice, and unearned authority. But for those of you who may not know me, let me introduce myself. I’m a retired professional who rose through the ranks because competition in my field was minimized due to systemic discrimination against women and people of color. My job was well paid, did not punish me for my lack of soft skills, and convinced me that I know what’s best for other people, even if it seems like what’s worst for other people. I grew up here and, after leaving for a time to go to college and start my career, returned to this town, my true home, in order to raise a family and stop time from progressing. I’ve lived in the same house in the Elm Heights neighborhood for the past twenty years, and I just love everything about this town except for the problems that my politics have directly created.
Now that we’ve heard from all the members of the city council tonight, I think we as citizens need to make a few things clear. The first is, we aren’t Madison. We aren’t Boulder. We aren’t Terre Haute. So when I hear a member of the council saying, “Well, Waukesha made a few small but substantive changes in such-and-such an area and the results have been very promising empirically,” what that council member fails to understand is that we aren’t Waukesha. We aren’t Tacoma. We aren’t Amherst. We aren’t Portland, Maine. Are we Scottsdale? No, we are not. And so all this so-called “evidence” about how policies have worked in other towns simply does not apply to us. No evidence applies to us. Our town exists in a fog of mystery and enigmatic strangeness, and nothing that happens outside city boundaries should have any bearing on how we govern or exist.
The second thing the council must understand is that subject-specific expertise built up through a lifetime of education and research doesn’t mean much unless you are also able to make exaggerated claims that stoke fear and resentment, ideally combined with a kind of faux-folksiness that harkens back to an age that never existed. Am I impressed that you have a Ph.D. in city planning or education or environmental science and are using your expertise to make the commons more equitable, livable, just, and human-centered? I mean, maybe. But the thing is, you haven’t frightened me with your expertise. There has been no “Oh God, the Other is taking over and we must stop them from inflicting their strange ways on our all-American life” moment tonight. And so, I’m afraid, you have wasted all of our time.
If I haven’t convinced you yet of my point of view, this surely will: as a middle-class white Christian man who came of age during the most profound and sustained economic boom in our nation’s history, I understand struggle. I never received anything in my life, except a world-class public education that cost virtually nothing. I wasn’t handed anything, except two loving parents, a comfortable upbringing, and the general feeling that our nation’s institutions and structures were designed for the success of people like me.
So when the city council talks about poverty, when it talks about affordable housing, when it talks about Medicaid, what we’re really talking about is work ethic. What we’re talking about is a culture of give-me give-me give-me that, yes, I directly benefited from via the university I attended, but now that I’ve benefitted from public programs, I don’t want anyone else to benefit from them. The question is not, “How can we help other people?” The question is, “How can other people help themselves via policies that rely on magical thinking?”
Or, to put it another way, let’s make a list of public programs that have directly benefitted me. Those are good. Now let’s make a list of public programs that benefit other people. Those are bad. That’s what small government means, after all: the consolidation of wealth and power in the hands of those who already have those things, because the idea that in a democratic society we are all equals is dangerous and frightening to me.
Please, stop talking, folks. I didn’t talk while you were saying things that I wasn’t paying attention to.
I’d like to conclude my remarks with a NIMBY rant about how, first of all, we should not take any action on global climate change, because making a carbon sacrifice is something we should outsource to people whose lives would be more greatly affected by that carbon sacrifice. And, second, we need to preserve the character of our neighborhoods, by which I mean prevent immigrants and people of modest means from buying or renting near where I live.
Thank you, and remember: you should pay special attention to what I think, because I’ve been saying offensively wrong things about this place for over forty years.
It is a weapon pointed at the living world. We urgently need to develop a new system.
For most of my adult life, I’ve railed against “corporate capitalism”, “consumer capitalism” and “crony capitalism”. It took me a long time to see that the problem is not the adjective, but the noun.
While some people have rejected capitalism gladly and swiftly, I’ve done so slowly and reluctantly. Part of the reason was that I could see no clear alternative: unlike some anti-capitalists, I have never been an enthusiast for state communism. I was also inhibited by its religious status. To say “capitalism is failing” in the 21st century is like saying “God is dead” in the 19th. It is secular blasphemy. It requires a degree of self-confidence I did not possess.
But as I’ve grown older, I’ve come to recognise two things. First, that it is the system, rather than any variant of the system, which drives us inexorably towards disaster. Second, that you do not have to produce a definitive alternative to say that capitalism is failing. The statement stands in its own right. But it also demands another, and different, effort to develop a new system.
Capitalism’s failures arise from two of its defining elements. The first is perpetual growth. Economic growth is the aggregate effect of the quest to accumulate capital and extract profit. Capitalism collapses without growth, yet perpetual growth on a finite planet leads inexorably to environmental calamity.
Those who defend capitalism argue that, as consumption switches from goods to services, economic growth can be decoupled from the use of material resources. Last week, a paper in the journal New Political Economy by Jason Hickel and Giorgos Kallis examined this premise. They found that while some relative decoupling took place in the 20th century (material resource consumption grew, but not as quickly as economic growth), in the 21st there has been a re-coupling: rising resource consumption has so far matched or exceeded the rate of economic growth. The absolute decoupling needed to avert environmental catastrophe (a reduction in material resource use) has never been achieved, and appears impossible while economic growth continues. Green growth is an illusion.
A system based on perpetual growth cannot function without peripheries and externalities. There must always be an extraction zone, from which materials are taken without full payment, and a disposal zone, where costs are dumped in the form of waste and pollution. As the scale of economic activity increases, until capitalism affects everything from the atmosphere to the deep ocean floor, the entire planet becomes a sacrifice zone: we all inhabit the periphery of the profit-making machine.
This drives us towards cataclysm on such a scale that most people have no means of imagining it. The threatened collapse of our life support systems is bigger by far than war, famine, pestilence or economic crisis, though it is likely to incorporate all four. Societies can recover from these apocalyptic events, but not from the loss of soil, an abundant biosphere and a habitable climate.
The second defining element is the bizarre assumption that a person is entitled to as great a share of the world’s natural wealth as their money can buy. This seizure of common goods causes three further dislocations. First, the scramble for exclusive control of non-reproducible assets, which implies either violence or legislative truncations of other people’s rights. Second, the immiseration of other people by an economy based on looting across both space and time. Third, the translation of economic power into political power, as control over essential resources leads to control over the social relations that surround them.
In the New York Times on Sunday, the Nobel economist Joseph Stiglitz sought to distinguishbetween good capitalism, that he called “wealth creation”, and bad capitalism, that he called “wealth grabbing” (extracting rent). I understand his distinction, but from the environmental point of view, wealth creation is wealth grabbing. Economic growth, intrinsically linked to the increasing use of material resources, means seizing natural wealth from both living systems and future generations.
To point to such problems is to invite a barrage of accusations, many of which are based on this premise: capitalism has rescued hundreds of millions of people from poverty – now you want to impoverish them again. It is true that capitalism, and the economic growth it drives, has radically improved the prosperity of vast numbers of people, while simultaneously destroying the prosperity of many others: those whose land, labour and resources were seized to fuel growth elsewhere. Much of the wealth of the rich nations was – and is – built on slavery and colonial expropriation.
Like coal, capitalism has brought many benefits. But, like coal, it now causes more harm than good. Just as we have found means of generating useful energy that are better and less damaging than coal, so we need to find means of generating human wellbeing that are better and less damaging than capitalism.
There is no going back: the alternative to capitalism is neither feudalism nor state communism. Soviet communism had more in common with capitalism than the advocates of either system would care to admit. Both systems are (or were) obsessed with generating economic growth. Both are willing to inflict astonishing levels of harm in pursuit of this and other ends. Both promised a future in which we would need to work for only a few hours a week, but instead demand endless, brutal labour. Both are dehumanising. Both are absolutist, insisting that theirs and theirs alone is the one true God.
So what does a better system look like? I don’t have a complete answer, and I don’t believe any one person does. But I think I see a rough framework emerging. Part of it is provided by the ecological civilisation proposed by Jeremy Lent, one of the greatest thinkers of our age. Other elements come from Kate Raworth’s doughnut economics and the environmental thinking of Naomi Klein, Amitav Ghosh, Angaangaq Angakkorsuaq, Raj Patel and Bill McKibben. Part of the answer lies in the notion of “private sufficiency, public luxury”. Another part arises from the creation of a new conception of justice, based on this simple principle: every generation, everywhere shall have an equal right to the enjoyment of natural wealth.
I believe our task is to identify the best proposals from many different thinkers and shape them into a coherent alternative. Because no economic system is only an economic system, but intrudes into every aspect of our lives, we need many minds from various disciplines – economic, environmental, political, cultural, social and logistical – working collaboratively to create a better way of organising ourselves, that meets our needs without destroying our home.
Our choice comes down to this. Do we stop life to allow capitalism to continue, or stop capitalism to allow life to continue?