Tag Archives: environmentalism

End capitalism, build a green economy

19 Apr

For capital in Canada and the United States, the sudden drop in oil prices is a disaster. For humankind it is a signal that fossil fuel use must decline.

Thirty years ago scientists pointed out that the burning of fossil fuels was causing global warming. To prevent catastrophic climate change, carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere would have to be kept below 350 parts per million, a level that could be maintained only if three-quarters of the known reserves of conventional fossil fuels were left in the ground.

Corporate capitalism in Canada responded by investing tens of billions in tar sands, fracking, and oil pipelines. U.S. capital invested even more in off-shore drilling and fracking. Governments provided fossil fuel corporations with tax breaks and subsidies. By 2014 atmospheric carbon dioxide levels over North America on some days exceeded 400 parts per million.

In the 1980s when science first drew attention to global warming, it was to be expected that some would claim this was merely an idea. Now, the hypothesis of human-caused climate change has been tested and measured. Increases in global temperature continue to be historically unprecedented.

As predicted, glaciers and polar ice caps are shrinking. Sea levels are rising. Droughts and floods have become more frequent. Storms, rainfall, and hurricanes have become more severe. Carbon dioxide raining down from the atmosphere increases ocean acidity; crustaceans from coral reefs to microorganisms are losing the capacity to reproduce, undermining the ocean ecosystems on which all sea life depend.

Climate change deniers may have been eased to the fringes, but corporate capitalism continues to ignore the impact of carbon emissions. For capital, profits from the exploration, development, and transportation of coal, oil, and natural gas are just too important. Profits in the automobile industry, air travel, agribusiness, and global trade depend on plentiful fossil fuels. Major financial institutions are heavily invested, directly and indirectly, in fossil fuels. In a time when most global markets for consumer and producer goods are stagnant and low interest rates have reduced the base return on capital, capital generally is dependent on profits from fossil fuels.

Unwilling to reduce dependence on fossil fuels, corporate interests in the United States and Canada insist that green energy is not a realistic alternative. They’re wrong, and at this point they probably know it.

To undermine green energy expansion, they have persuaded federal governments to impose punitive tariffs on solar panels made abroad. They have persuaded states, counties, and utilities to deny local solar producers access to grids. Meanwhile, in China, India, Africa, Brazil, and even in some U.S. states, wind and solar power is a growing source of electricity. Electricity from wind power will double by the end of this decade. With present technology solar power alone could replace all the electricity now provided by fossil fuels at no additional cost. As investments on wind and solar increase, the technology will advance, further reducing the cost and efficiency of green power.

To drive a wedge between industrial workers and environmentalists, corporate shills present green power as touchy-feely, less industrial, less masculine than energy from fossil fuels. Yes, solar and wind are cutting-edge technologies. Many highly educated professional and technical specialists will be required in basic research, development, and administration. Still, most employees will be engaged in manufacturing, transportation, installation, and maintenance — traditional blue-collar occupations that can be equally done by men and women. Work will be widely dispersed in all regions. By boosting employment, income, and markets, the massive expenditures required to convert to green energy will end the austerity promoted by capitalist interests. Employment and income will rise. Markets will revive.

The shift to green energy, motivated by human well-being, will have to be pushed from below. Although capitalist interests now have a death grip on political agendas, people acting together for the common good can counter capitalist influence. We are the vast majority. Industrial and service workers, professionals and technical specialists, students, the unemployed, and pensioners all share a common interest in the continuation of the environments on which humankind depends. No more than 5 per cent depend on marginal increases in profits.

Strikes, protests, boycotts, and civil disobedience can help speed up the shift away from fossil fuels. Community-owned utilities, cooperatives, and local capital can take initiatives. Electoral mobilizations can push federal, provincial, and state governments to shift to green energy and to provide funding for public transportation. Cities could be reconfigured to make it practical for people to walk and cycle to employment, services, entertainment, and commerce. Publicly supported local food production could replace dependence on transnational corporate imports.

The funding required could in part come from excise taxes on fossil fuels, perhaps $50 a barrel, equivalent to the recent drop in the price of oil. Since capitalist profit is at the root of the problem, most of the revenues should come out of additional taxes on corporate income and private capital.

Al Engler


Raise taxes on capital and the rich

24 Feb

In the 1940s, following decades of booms, busts, unemployment, disorder, wars and destruction, rigid free market policies were abandoned. Governments began to deliberately act to maintain employment and market demand. This shift was identified with J.M. Keynes, a prominent British economist and government adviser who had made the case that classical economics was wrong. Depressions, he wrote, were not caused by a decline in the supply of capital but by a fall in demand caused by declining wages and rising unemployment.

During Keynesian times, until the late 1970s, economies and employment grew steadily. Democracy came to mean that governments had a responsibility to protect and advance the interests of common people. Keynesian policies, including increased access to higher education, public health care and income support were funded by taxes on those with the means to pay. The marginal tax rate on the highest income was 80 per cent. Taxes on corporate income were 50 per cent and higher.

Humankind now faces global crises. Widening disparities in income, opportunities and control are provoking disorders, militarism and wars. Emissions of carbon dioxide from fossil fuels threaten the climates on which human well-being depends. Private capital, focused on short-term profits, systemically aggravates these problems. Prevailing ideology is now aggressively hostile to government action. Tax cuts for corporations and the super rich have reduced the public funds required.

Since 1980 taxes paid by corporations and the rich have been methodically reduced. During Keynesian times, the richest one per cent got ten per cent of total income. The richest one percent now gets twice as much, twenty percent. Ten per cent of total income has been transferred from public revenues to private capital.

Neoconservatives like Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan claimed that giving capitalists more money and freeing corporations to maximize profits would be generally beneficial, trickling down to the masses. Instead disparities widened. Tax cuts not only provided private capital with more funds to invest; it gave the super rich more money to manipulate political agendas. Regulations on corporate finance and industry were weakened. Union rights were curtailed. Corporations were freed to move capital to countries with lower taxes, and jobs to places with lower wages. Real wages fell. Unemployment rose.

With consumer markets stagnant, investors awash in funds turned to speculation in stocks, bonds, futures and real estate, to derivatives, index funds, credit default swaps and collateralized debt obligations. Capital markets became casinos, adding little to real production. Gains for a few came out of the losses of many others.

Meanwhile as taxes on capital were reduced, public deficits and debt increased. Concerned that capital would lose value, the rich demanded austerity. Although governments were more than willing to spend more on prisons, intrusive surveillance, militarism and war, social programs and infrastructure spending were frozen and cut. Public assets were privatized. Here in Canada, while courts were confirming rights of indigenous people, governments used deficits as an excuse to disregard Treaty obligations.

Meanwhile, carbon emissions from the burning of fossil fuels continued to rise. In 1995 countries meeting at the Kyoto Conference agreed to voluntarily reduce carbon emissions. Science had concluded that carbon dioxide levels had to be kept below 350 parts per million. But corporate capitalism preoccupied with profits from existing industry did not act. Declining public revenues and corporate opposition prevented government action.

By 2014 carbon dioxide levels exceeded 400 parts per million.  If green energy had replaced two percent of fossil fuel energy each year since 1995, as the Kyoto Accord proposed, carbon emissions would already have been reduced by half. Instead, corporate capitalism responded by spending hundreds of millions to deny that carbon dioxide emissions were a problem. Hundreds of billions were spent to develop, produce and transport more fossil fuels.

Everyone not blinded by capitalist dogma or the prospects of immense profits now knows that fossil fuel emissions are melting polar ice caps and glaciers, raising sea levels, flooding coastal communities, acidifying oceans, and generating more frequent and more destructive weather events.

Now that denying climate change is no longer credible, capital simply disregards the threat, claiming that there is no technologically realistic alternative to energy from fossil fuels. Yes, the technology to efficiently store and distribute alternate energy on the scale required has yet to be developed. But the needed technologies would already be available if solar, wind, wave and geothermal power had received the investments, tax breaks and subsidies provided for offshore drilling, fracking, tar sands and oil pipelines.

Technology is not the problem.  With relatively small expenditures Denmark in 2014 got 40 percent of its electricity from wind power. Renewable energy, mostly solar, is providing Germany with 25 percent of its electricity. Solar power is providing China, India, Brazil, and African countries with expanding shares of electricity.

Capitalism is the problem. So long as major shareholders and top corporate executives are entitled to make major economic decisions in their private interests, capitalist profits will continue to trump employment, labor income and public services. Environmental costs will continue to be externalized—passed off to communities and future generations. Replacing capitalist title with human entitlement begins with deliberately transferring income from private capital to the public.

In his Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Thomas Piketty makes the case that corporation taxes should return to 1950s levels. Marginal tax rates on personal incomes over $500,000 should be raised to 80 percent. He proposes an annual tax of 0.1 percent of private wealth over half a million dollars rising in steps perhaps to 2 percent on wealth over three or five million dollars.  Homes are already taxed annually.  Why should stocks, bonds, and other wealth be excluded?  Piketty adds a progressive estate tax on inheritances over one million dollars and a tax of 0.1 percent on financial transactions. He argues that more transparency in income records and better statistics gathering would make it practical for countries to cooperate in preventing income and wealth from being hidden in offshore accounts.

Of course, the super rich will aggressively object. But nearly everyone else would gain. Taxing capital could provide local governments with funds to reduce disparities and expand social services. Public spending on green infrastructure would provide more employment and increase market demand. Public spending to reconfigure cities could make it practical for people to live their daily lives without cars. Public spending on solar, wind, wave and geothermal power and public transit would reduce carbon emissions and generate more jobs.

Al Engler

Taking responsibility at work requires taking power

15 Oct

Something about the Canucks versus Canadiens hockey game Saturday night has stayed with me, producing a mental itch that won’t go away.

It wasn’t Dan Hamhuis scoring on his own net on a whiffed pass, double ricochet off Roberto Luongo , although that will haunt the Canuck defenceman for the rest of his career.

It was in a break from the action when my TV screen filled with beautiful images of crystal clear streams, healthy salmon and pristine British Columbia back country. A kind and gentle voice praised the incredible environment that Mother Nature has bestowed on this province. One felt a sense of soothing comfort, tinged with pride at having chosen to live in this part of the world.

It was a commercial promoting the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline. An ad for a project that is an essential part of what one could argue is the greatest single environmental threat currently facing the planet.

After the initial shock at the over-the-top doublespeak of using our love for nature to promote a pipeline proposal to transport some of the most carbon intensive oil on the planet, I began to wonder who would sell their soul, along with their creative energy, to create a piece of propaganda that would have amazed George Orwell himself.

Somewhere, a group of artists, or at least reasonably creative women and men, had sat in an office discussing how best to convince a skeptical public (polls have shown well over 60 per cent of B.C. residents opposed) on the merits of building a pipeline from the Alberta tar sands to the west coast.

Imagine these human beings, not much different from you or me, pitching proposals, exchanging ideas and debating the merits of various creative approaches to ignoring climate science, disregarding the likelihood of breaks in any pipeline, discounting the well-reasoned fear of shipping accidents and completely overlooking the opposition of First Nations whose land the pipeline must cross.

“Let’s sell them on a pipeline by showing pretty pictures of nature,” one of them says. “And use a voice that people trust to brand the pipeline as environmentally friendly.”

“That’s it,” says another. “That’s it exactly. It’s the same as selling beer. If we can convince young men that getting drunk makes them more attractive to women, we can easily use people’s love of nature to sell a pipeline.”

“Exploit the very thing that the pipeline will destroy to sell it, that’s hardcore,” says yet another. “Deviously wicked.”

“I love it,” says the client.

And not one of them feels the least bit guilty for helping to destroy the livability of our planet. Why? Because they are just doing their jobs.

So the commercial is written, produced, directed, location scouted, lighted, costumed, filmed, acted in, edited, catered, etc. and not one of the dozens of people making it feel the least bit guilty for contributing to global warming, because after all, they too are just doing their jobs. Likewise the sales rep at the TV station, the traffic person, the director, master control operator and every other worker from Calgary to Fort Mac to Vancouver who take no responsibility — all are also just doing their jobs.

Am I the only one who is bothered by this? “Just doing my job,” sounds eerily similar to “just following orders,” a soldier’s excuse for committing a war crime. Is this where our economic system’s pursuit of ever-greater profits has led us? The sum of our individual actions is creating an environmental disaster but none of us are responsible?

I’m pretty certain most who work in Fort McMurray understand how destructive what they do is to the environment. I feel confident that the vast majority of creative people involved in selling products that are bad for us understand what they are doing. Most may prefer not to think about it, but they do understand. They believe there’s no choice. Acting like you don’t care is simply what it takes to successfully earn a living.

This is the attitude of people who feel powerless. It is the attitude of a soldier who has learned the negative consequences of ever questioning an order.

Our economic system gives the power to decide most things to a small number of people motivated by greed. Most of us must follow orders if we are to succeed. Our ability to choose is confined to decisions like Coke versus Pepsi. We feel powerless because that is our reality.

To take responsibility requires taking power.

This is the mental itch that won’t go away: How do people who feel powerless take power and build a world with a democratic economic system where we collectively decide what to produce and how, rather than let the profit motive decide all?

We better quickly figure out an answer because all the science tells us it will soon be too late.

Gary Engler

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