Analysis: Politics and climate change – part 2: Capitalism vs the climate?


Credit: Unsplash

By Alex Diggins

In part one, we examined whether democratic institutions would be able to survive in a globally warmed world – and suggested two ways they might. In the second part of this analysis of politics and climate change, we ask: To save the world, is it as simple as capitalism vs the climate? 

Ideologies – even discredited ones – can be perversely enduring. Nowhere is this more evident than consumer capitalism. Capitalism has done and is doing irreversible environmental damage. And it is likely that this damage will get exponentially worse as the feedback loops of global warming, such as the melting of the summer sea-ice, kick in; indeed, it is possible that the economic system which has lifted so many millions of human beings out of abject poverty will, in turn, become the catalyst for unprecedented misery as it renders large swathes of earth uninhabitable, sparking famine, mass displacements and war. Talk about a Catch-22.

There is a clear difficulty with this analysis though: no-one has come up with a better system. As far back as Thomas More’s Utopia, thinkers have identified the failings of capitalism and the brute attitudes it engenders towards fellow man and environment alike. But no-one has managed to make a fairer, more effective system of governance work long-term. The socialist experiments of the 20th Century led to Stalin’s gulags, Khmer Rouge’s killing fields, and the ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ of modern-day China – capitalism in all but name. As Jason W. Moore, a radical cultural theorist, argues, ‘it’s easier for most people to imagine the end of the planet than the end of capitalism.’

Given the whack-a-mole resilience of capitalism, then, it seems incumbent on those who care about the environment to work within its framework rather than expending energy on futile attempts to undermine it from without. Anything else is fatuous posturing. Which is what makes the divisiveness of some leading environmental activists so frustrating. Pundits like Naomi Klein, who argued in her book Capitalism vs the Climate that globalised capitalism is antithetical to environmental concern, have an all-or-nothing approach to the problem: either we entirely abandon free-market liberalism, or we roast in a climate holocaust of our own greed.

It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism

This is a false dichotomy. Not only does it ignore the hypocrisy of Klein’s own way of life (those air miles flying to speaking events sure rack up – if you want a low-impact lifestyle then go live in a shed in the woods), but it also further encourages the partisanship which has spilt western society like a nut. There is no realism in Klein’s argument; little awareness of messy, entangled nature of politics and life. This is certainly not to suggest that a far-seeing idealism has no place in the climate debate. Bold, lucid arguments about how to rewrite society and humankind’s place on the planet are to be celebrated – indeed, they may prove critical as global warming tightens like a noose around our civilisation. However, at some point, blue-sky thinking must meet cold-hard reality: Left-leaning environmentalism needs to find a way to communicate with the socially conservative Right. Otherwise, the squabbles will continue until there is no world left to fight for.  

Politics, it’s in the blood

One way this might be done is to recognise that social and political attitudes are as much a matter of genetic hardwiring as they are of upbringing. Nature is apparently as much to blame for turning out an unscrupulous fat-cat businessman or a work-shy hippie as nurture. A study by the University of Singapore in 2015 found that a variant of the DRD4 gene (the so-called ‘adventure gene’) indicated whether participants would be more likely to display adventurous or risk-averse traits. When those surveyed were then asked about their political leanings (more likely to vote conservative or liberal), it was found that there was a correlation between the conservative voters and those with high levels of the DRD4 gene. As the study’s author, Dr Chew Soo Hong, argued, this indicates that “despite a country’s political system or even culture, political ideology is in part hard-wired into our genes.”

Social and political attitudes are as much a matter of genetic hardwiring as they are of upbringing

Though it might seem like this and similar studies are only of interest to wonkish political science types, they have profound implications for the climate change debate. Those with higher levels of the DRD4 gene (characterised as trait ‘conservative’, in psychologists’ parlance) are more likely to be deaf to the entreaties of those defined by trait ‘openness’ – characterised by liberalism, tolerance and a concern for others and the environment. Recent research suggests what political cartoonists have long suspected: conservatives and liberals are two different species.


Conservatives and liberals – different political species

Or they almost are. The Singaporean study identified a correlation, not causation, and while genetics are a partial explanation for political allegiance they are no excuse: some behaviours – bigotry, prejudice and discrimination – are odious whatever their cause. But these findings do demonstrate why the vociferous protests of some environmental activists, damning the free market, the nation-state and gas-guzzling rednecks alike, are doomed to fail. Not only is insulting someone an unlikely way to change their mind, those rednecks’ viewpoints were probably decided long ago by genetics before you got your kale-munching face all up in their grill.

The Environmental Consensus: under construction

So how can their minds be changed? Well, the nuclear option is to just sit and wait: as freak weather grows ever more ferocious and frequent, ruining harvests and livelihoods, the reality of manmade climate change will become harder to deny. But this would be a foolish and unconscionable cruelty. The words ‘I told you so’ turning to ashes in the mouth quicker than the planet will. A far better solution would be to radically rethink the vocabulary and presentation of the climate change debate. To some extent, this is already being done. Emissions trading schemes (effectively markets where companies can sell their greenhouse gas emissions) and initiatives like purchasing carbon credits are environmental policies packaged as a free-market enterprise. But such a rebranding of the environmental movement must go further.

Take British and American national identity. In both countries there is a very deep strain of entrepreneurship and self-reliance: Britain is the ‘nation of shopkeepers’ that eventually ruled the largest empire in history; America is the land of the ever-westering ‘Frontier’ and, a little later, the ‘American Dream’ – epitomised by Hollywood, the factory of make-believe. Yet, in both countries, this entrepreneurial self-reliance (which accords naturally with the ‘conservative’ gene) is also wedded to a resilient environmental tradition and a history of celebrating the natural world.

The best solution would be to radically rethink the vocabulary and presentation of the climate change debate

In Britain, the same nation that produced the East India Trading company also gave the world Wordsworth and the Romantic poets and, in the Lake District, created landscape tourism. In America, the ‘Gilded Age’ of J.D Rockefeller and the oil oligarchy also inspired John Muir, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson who, through their writing and lobbying, forged modern American environmentalism and its system of national parks. Clearly, then, entrepreneurship and environmentalism are not antithetical; they just have become so in the us-against-them mentality that characterises so much of modern ecological thought.

Green and pleasant - dave massey

Britain’s green and pleasant land; starring in referendums since 2016. Photo credit: Dave Massey photography.

The Leave campaign in the Brexit debate was derided for its parochial Little Englandism: it’s fantasy world where every right-thinking Englishman builds gunboats for the colonies in the morning and wanders, lonely as a cloud, over England’s green and pleasant land in the afternoon. But this sneering concealed an important truth: narratives about the natural splendour of a country cut across political divides – no-one, regardless of their politics, wants to live somewhere that is dirty, polluted and degraded. And it is upon this consensus that an environmental activism which bridges political – and genetic – gulfs might be built. Celebrate the environment as an apolitical space. Consider it commons over which all can take ownership and be proud. Cherish it for everyone, or lose it forever.   

Climate change to the rescue

Global warming is the political hot potato of our times: passed around, from government to government, until it drops cataclysmically to the floor. The typical response to the issue has been lots of hot air (of both kinds), plenty of finger-pointing, incremental change and little decisive action. Those of a pessimistic disposition (or a genetically ‘conservative’ bent) may be inclined to envisage that this will continue indefinitely. This will not be the case. The evidence for a warming climate is becoming unignorable: 18 of the hottest 19 years on record occurred in the 21st Century, and the summer of 2018 has broken records the world over.

Celebrate the environment as an apolitical space; cherish it for everyone, or lose it forever

Popular awareness and dissatisfaction inevitably follow these alarming statistics. The Blue Planet II provoked furore over plastics is a just a local example of a global phenomenon: ordinary people worldwide are realising that environmental issues are intrinsic to their everyday lives. Such awareness is by no means universal; ignorance and vested interests still act as potent constraints. But a generational prediction would not be far-fetched: a child born in 2018 will come of age in a world where awareness of the reality of man-made climate change is near universal.

Awareness and action, though, are radically different things. And if climate change doomsayers are to avoid Pyrrhic victory – vindicated, but with no world left to enjoy – then conversation not conflict needs to be their watchword. In these past two blogs, we have predicted how climate change might affect politics and tried to indicate how the democratic norm might be maintained. But even if intergovernmental bodies, creative theories and ecological consensus fail (and they might: predictions, especially about the weather, being a fool’s game after all), then one thing remains certain: the partisanship that characterises today’s climate change debate is damaging and dangerous. It is the greatest obstacle towards achieving meaningful action. Saving the world is an enormous undertaking; shaking your neighbour’s hand is an easier first step.        


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