Agape Day IV: A New Hope

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether [this] nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war.
-Abraham Lincoln

The transcript of my exchange with two panelists yesterday morning at the Agape Political Workshop on Ecology; my comments follow. This is a mostly verbatim transcript, with a small amount added from other comments for context. The whole thing was translated and simulcast live in English, French, Spanish, and Italian.

This is from a morning panel on climate change, during the Q&A. The context is probably fairly clear from the transcript; my question was preceded by a note I wrote to myself during the speeches:

Oh fantastic now we’re back to Veblen and the Theory of the Frickin’ Leisure Class

My question: I’m aware that, as you say, the United States is emitting 20 times, per person, the amount of greenhouse gasses as an average person in India does. However, I was disappointed to end that discussion with criticism of conspicuous consumption, material goods; this sort of ‘moral’ solution to the problem, even if it worked, would only produce economic losses and negative impacts for workers at every level within those industries. So what is it that the U.S. can actually learn from a country like India that we can put concretely into practice to reduce emissions?

Athena (English): Well, this is a very complicated issue, and there is no question that reducing emissions means reducing consumption, and that this in turn means reducing production and growth. This is why the debates about climate change in the United Nations have been so difficult. But I think we also have to redefine what it is, in fact, that we mean when we speak of growth. We need to return to the description of basic human needs within real communities, and to define economic success in terms of necessities and in terms of sustainability, rather than defining it exclusively as growth in GDP.

Ultimately, what we need is a new kind of social contract at the same time as we are putting environmental reforms into place. So, for example, when the car industry shrinks, as it should and as it already has, creating problems in Detroit — we need to be asking ourselves what we will do for the people who are displaced as a result. They will need training and other kinds of assistance in order to be part of this transition.

To say that a new social contract is part of new ecologically-motivated reforms is also to say that the very way we teach and understand these issues must change. Currently, as [another participant] pointed out, we think of ecology and economics as separate disciplines. But this is a problem, and changing it would be a step towards a solution.

Alberto (Italian): We know that by 2020, fifty percent of the agricultural yield in developing countries, in equatorial regions, will be gone. By 2050, 90% of agricultural production in sub-Saharan Africa will be either severely impacted or totally gone. You mention India: India will suffer increasingly frequent and severe typhoons, like we saw last year in Pakistan when the entire country flooded. This will create an immense, global humanitarian crisis. It is not a matter of a single Indian village, or a single American community, though it is important to act on local levels to establish that communities, not corporations, are in charge of the territory in and around them. This gets to things like creating alternatives to enormous paved developments, covered in asphalt, that cannot absorb carbon dioxide and remove it from the atmosphere.

Meanwhile, if the United States does not contribute the necessary money to reduce emissions and foster ecologically safe development in these countries, it will not be a question of reduced production. It will be a situation so extreme, to an almost apocalyptic extent, that it would dwarf these effects of slowed manufacturing. What would be required, an estimated $200 billion, is less than one-sixth of what the United States has allocated to save the banks in this economic crisis that began in 2008. The reasoning has been that the banks are “too big to fail.” Well, so is our climate, our climate is too big to fail.


The facts woven through this dialogue are not, in themselves, remarkable; although I didn’t know all of them, none of them are especially surprising. The rhetorical re-valuations, on the other hand, are remarkable: “new social contract,” the community as common “territory,” “the climate is too big to fail.” This rhetorical power, this fearlessness, is exactly what we are lacking, and need so desperately, from the American Left.

And when, furthermore, I consider that these were impromptu, immediate responses, uttered without time to plan, or even make notes — then I am struck by the possibility that there is more to climate change than Al Gore, and more to broad social concern than Barack Obama. That, in fact, there is something to hope for.