David Coates

Making the Case for a Green Economy

(Chapter outline)



Global Warming as a Manufactured Issue

Global Warming as an Exaggerated Issue

Global Warming as a Hyped Issue

Global Warming as an Excuse for Bad Policy

Market Solutions to Global Warming


Climate Change is No Hoax

“Seven ayes, one no – the no’s have it” is no way to make public policy

Making a clean green break with the immediate past

For once, genuinely taking a lesson from Europe

So what can we do? We can make the general case

…and we can make the specific steps.

Avoiding weaknesses, picking strengths


The first thing we can do is recognize that the public regulation of greenhouse gas emissions is vital. Left unregulated, markets will not produce a green outcome, no matter how often conservative forces in the U.S. insist that they will.

Indeed, there is a particular irony here on which it is worthwhile momentarily to dwell. The irony is this: that the very idea normally used to defend private ownership against collectivism and public regulation – the tragedy of the commons – plays entirely the other way when environmental policy is in the frame. In the classic formulation of the tragedy, a commonly held piece of land is systematically over-grazed by the individuals who share it, because no one individual has a personal short-term interest in the commons’ long-term conservation. The normal solution is private ownership of land, the parceling up of the commons into private plots that each individual farmer has an interest in conserving long-term. But the climate cannot be parceled off, and privately owned in bits. It is an unavoidably shared entity. It is the ultimate public good. So the logic of individual competition threatens it directly. No individual corporation has an interest in restraining its own use of this free good. On the contrary, each corporation has a powerful incentive to exploit existing climate conditions fully before they degenerate, precisely because its overuse will guarantee that degeneration. The market, left to itself, guarantees global warming. For that warming to cease, collective restraint is required, and that restraint will have to be a created one – the product of the restructuring of private corporate interests by systematic and sustained public intervention. Private corporate interests will inevitably resist such public regulation, claiming it will weaken competitiveness, but in making that claim they will be entirely wrong.

That potential resistance serves to remind us, however, that our problem here, as guardians of a better climate, is not the moral superiority of unregulated markets. It is the incredible difficulty of imposing a moral order on a fully-functioned privately-run economic system. Indeed a body of literature already exists arguing that environmental degradation (including global warming) is so endemic to capitalism that nothing short of a socialist transformation of the capitalist order will save the planet. Private ownership, and the logic of market competition, is presented in this literature as a “second contradiction of capitalism” – a contradiction so entrenched that it cannot be managed away. This is the new Malthusianism; not global degradation through population growth per se, but degradation resulting from the commodification of the natural environment and from the inexorably pressure on finite natural resources created by the unrestrained consumption of increasingly affluent populations – their insatiable appetite for more and more man-made goods. Costas Panayotakis has termed this “working more, selling more, consuming more” as ‘capitalism’s third contradiction”. It is the very productivity and avarice of capitalism that is said, in this literature, to be driving the global economy towards the precipice; such that only a brake on growth, a lowering of affluent living standards and a retreat from private ownership can (literally) stop the rot.

If that is too unpalatable a message for many progressives, then the time is short for us to prove otherwise: to demonstrate by policy and action that a green capitalism is both possible and within our grasp, that we do not need (and indeed cannot afford) to wait for a fundamental transformation of property structures for which, however desirable, no major constituency now exists. In the absence of global socialist movements, if the planet is to be saved, then it can and must be saved by public policy that restructures private capitalist interests – by initiatives of at least the following kind: (a) the establishment of progressively higher standards, and tougher penalties, on the energy-efficiency and environmental protection of existing technologies and products; (b) the negotiation of an effective post-Kyoto global agreement on the lowering of greenhouse gas emissions as economies industrialize and grow; and (c) the development of new carbon-free sources of power and transportation in both advanced economies and developing ones. All that, of course, is easier to type than to do – because individually, each of those policy transformations will be system-changing, and because collectively that will initiate a total and essential resetting of the relationship between capitalism and nature. Green politics, whatever else it is, is not a politics for the fainthearted – it is a politics that requires a tough-minded and totally-focused progressive commitment on a daily basis over a prolonged period of time – a politics requiring not simply strong nerves but also stamina.

David Coates holds the Worrell Chair in Anglo-American Studies at Wake Forest University. He is the author of Answering Back: Liberal Responses to Conservative Arguments, New York: Continuum Books, 2010.

He writes here in a personal capacity.

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