With climate change hard upon us, a new green movement is taking shape, one that embraces environmentalism's concerns but rejects its worn-out answers. Technology can be a font of endlessly creative solutions. Business can be a vehicle for change. Prosperity can help us build the kind of world we want. Scientific exploration, innovative design, and cultural evolution are the most powerful tools we have. Entrepreneurial zeal and market forces, guided by sustainable policies, can propel the world into a bright green future.
The inane naïveté of it all. "The industrial system we've devised" is the problem the article says. First, I'm not sure who "we" is in this case. The industrial system grew out of fossil fuel-powered technology operating within the law system of capitalism. Capitalism was, and is, driven by the maximization of profit, which has included the externalization of environmental costs. The result is an economic system that has plundered the planet and shat where it lives.
But now, capitalism as a system is faced with a dilemma. It cannot continue the process of accumulation -- that is, the making and selling of stuff to amass more profit -- without natural resources and healthy consumers. The environment is becoming an internal cost. As with every social crisis, the challenge for capitalism as a system, and its agents, like the "resurrected Al Gore" featured on the cover, is how to resolve the problem within the constraints of capitalism -- to turn lemons into lemonade.
The traditional solution proposed by the environmentalist movement has been the regulation of capital, going back to the early 1970s: the Environmental Protection Agency, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Air Act, etc. This inside the beltway strategy is failing now in the neoliberal political climate of zero government and market-based solutions. It was this three-step strategy (isolate an issue; design a technical fix; sell the technical fix to legislators) that Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus challenged in their "Death of Environmentalism" article, the failing strategy of working within existing economic and political structures. According to Shellenberger and Nordhaus, "modern environmentalism is no longer capable of dealing with the world's most serious ecological crisis [climate change - jd]"; and "[w]hat the environmental movement needs more than anything else right now is to take a collective step back to rethink everything." The political climate has changed, in terms of how people get information, who they trust, how they act. The "left" and "progressives" must connect with people where they are, not where one wishes they were. The masterminds of the New Right capitalize on the general anxiety churned up by globalization, and package that into an anti-choice, anti-science, anti-human agenda. No effective vision has been articulated to counter it. Part of the problem for many "progressives" is that the solution to this problem cannot be found within the framework of capitalism, and rather than sink capitalism, they blunder on with blind and un-inspiring solutions.
As a result, the emerging solution for "neo-greens" is to see capitalism itself as the solution. Maybe private property and profit maximization and the market really can solve the environmental mess that it ... umm ... created.
Capitalism is a remarkably flexible and adaptable system. Some corporations are realizing that they must address things like climate change, because they also are on lifeboat Earth, and climate change is an objective, happening thing. They must confront environmental catastrophe if they are to continue as enterprises. Their solution is to make "green" an investment opportunity, to turn it into a site of accumulation, a place to make profits. British Petroleum looks for alternative energy sources because because "peak oil" may be a real thing, and ultimately, it doesn't matter what the source of the energy they package and sell is, as long as they package and sell it. If General Motors can make and sell cars that run on ethanol, why not? The manufacturers that make smokestack scrubbers for coal plants are a site of profitability, as will be some of the alternative energy companies that venture capital firms are now pumping money into. The Wilderhill Clean Energy Index, which tracks the stock prices of companies involved in the alternative energy business, has almost doubled in price in the past year. Speculative capital finds profit opportunities in carbon emissions trading and weather derivatives.
Looming behind "green capitalism" as the way out of the environmental crisis is the long-standing question of "is capitalism sustainable?" As James O'Connor pointed out in an essay that appears in his collection Natural causes: Essays in ecological Marxism, Guilford Press, 1998), "sustainable for whom?" Capitalism conceivably (maybe) could manufacture a franken-world ecosystem that sustains profit-maximization. It could create the conditions to sustain capitalism, and never address the polarization of wealth and the total immiseration of 3/5ths of the world's population.
Another concept of "sustainable" implies a system that sustains the non-human environment as well as the health and well-being of the human part of it, too. This can't be done within the context of capitalism. The polarization of wealth is an emergent property of capitalism. General Motors, no matter what color it is, green or otherwise, cannot help but destroy the lives of its workers and retirees -- that's what it (GM) does -- it maximizes profit for shareholders. Capitalism means alienation -- from production, from people, from nature. Everything (if not now, soon) is routed through the commodity relationship, the price tag and the toll.
An environmental movement that figures out a way to accommodate itself with globalization and capitalism may succeed in some narrow way, along some narrow issues. But it will ultimately fail in achieving a world that sustains the people on it in any meaningful way. And the environment also will be the poorer, in the same way that the "Rainforest Cafe" is not a rainforest (or Lincoln Park zoo an African savannah or a tree plantation a jungle, etc. etc.).