The Elephants of Doom in Copenhagen

What people there should be talking about to save humanity, and why they won't.

By Michael M'Gonigle 8 Dec 2009 | TheTyee.ca

Michael M'Gonigle is the EcoResearch Professor of Environmental Law and Politics at the University of Victoria. Read his earlier essays on The Tyee here.

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Behind this one, a whole herd.

[Editor's note: Environmental law professor and Greenpeace veteran Michael M'Gonigle thinks it's wrong to support any deal likely in Copenhagen, and wrote a letter explaining why to a colleague who is attending the summit. The first part ran in yesterday's Tyee. Here is part two.]

Bring in the Elephants

So now that you understand my concerns about what is on the table at Copenhagen, I want to look at what is not. I am not just referring to the so-called elephant in the room that stands there but no one acknowledges. There's a whole herd of elephants out there, and some of them aren't in the room at all.

To discuss the real structures driving climate change is not easy. Many folks don't even see them, and our institutions -- especially our education and the media -- work hard to keep it that way. This cultural blindspot is especially acute in the U.S., but it afflicts the whole of the industrialized world -- including the environmental movement.

At your meetings, those who understand "root causes" will want to save their discussions for the bar. Talking about them in the Plenary is death if you want to be taken seriously. But this is a mistake.

Consider again Gus Speth. I mentioned his book The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability. Speth is an inveterate Washington insider, a former head of the Council of Environmental Quality (under Jimmy Carter) who participated in numerous international treaty negotiations. He is dean of Yale University's School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.

His book is good, and his array of graphs is unsettling. But his boldness lies in the first word of his subtitle: Capitalism. Now that's a no-no. Is he questioning our economy, our way of life? After all, have we not just spent the last year trying to save Wall Street and GM? Have we not just invested a thousand thousand more days and dollars into that task than we are ever likely to see coming out of Copenhagen?

The mother of all elephants: economic growth

Anyway, the topic is passé, isn't it? Our liberal democracy (and its capitalist economy) is really the only world worth having, the "end of history," what all development is about, what everyone aspires to. There is no conflict between the environment and the economy. Whatever problems we may have can be solved if we just get more efficient with our energy use. New technologies like carbon sequestration can do that. And markets will work their magic if we can get the incentives right. So let's price carbon to force that market innovation, and let's support "green" science to create these new technologies.

This is the brave new world of "ecological modernization": we can have our cake (economic growth) and eat it too (climate stability). Indeed, economic growth is how we can afford to do all this, and markets are how we will direct it.

This is the official ideology of Copenhagen. This is the agenda.

But there are some problems here. First, what about all those other hockey stick trajectories of ecological decline -- like biodiversity loss, overfishing, deforestation, and water scarcity? Economic growth isn't going to fix these trends but make them worse. Indeed, some of the "solutions" to climate change (like nuclear power and hydroelectric power) will directly exacerbate some of these problems.

Second, how can greater efficiency solve even climate change? Historically, economic growth has always depended on increasing energy use. Beyond pure speculation, where is the evidence that an economy can keep growing without also expanding its levels of energy consumption and all the negative consequences that these expansions entail?

The gains from technology may make us more efficient, for sure. But to resolve the problem, they actually need to detach economic growth from energy growth. This is the distinction between what the experts call "relative" decoupling (greater efficiency) from "absolute" decoupling (energy-free economic growth).

This is a critical distinction, because if we can only achieve relative, but not absolute, decoupling, then as the economy grows, it will eventually catch up and surpass the gains made by efficiency. As the years go by, it will become more and more difficult (and costly) to squeeze still more efficiency gains out of a limited supply.

Take cars, for example. We can increase fuel economy, and we can shift to hybrid electrics. And we can use our oil more wisely, stick up a million windmills, and dam another 100,000 rivers. And we can grow, slowly steadily, year by year. And then we will have more and more cars everywhere, and the oil is still going to run out, and there will be no more rivers left to dam, and no new places to take advantage of the wind. Then what?

Like Obama in Afghanistan, we should ask, "Where is the 'exit strategy'? And when?" And what will the world look like when we face up to that inevitable exit?

People rightly decry the Tar Sands proposals, for it is an egregious example. But is not Copenhagen premised on a Tar Sands strategy writ large? Growth needs energy, and energy has costs.

Copenhagen's most basic contradiction

Let me give you another example. The Mekong River system in SE Asia is one of the world's last great wild rivers. It is hugely biodiverse, and its abundant fisheries support millions of communal inhabitants. But to provide power for Bangkok, fuel industrial development and generate cash for the region's "emerging" economies, the Mekong is slated for 55 dams. This modernization is partly funded by, you guessed it, the Kyoto Clean Development Mechanism! Driven by organizations like the World Bank and the IMF, no critical discussion is allowed in the region. It's just full steam ahead.

This is Copenhagen's most basic contradiction. Growth may keep the economic world stable, but in the now "full" world that we occupy (for the first time in human history), growth causes more problems than it solves. Growth has become self-defeating. As a recent British government report put it:

"[S]implistic assumptions that capitalism's propensity for efficiency will allow us to stabilize the climate and protect against resource scarcity are nothing short of delusional. Those who promote decoupling as an escape route for the dilemma of growth need to take a closer look at the historical evidence -- and at the basic arithmetic of growth."

This is the largest elephant in the room because the whole panoply of solutions on the table -- cap and trade, carbon taxes, clean development mechanisms, carbon offsets -- are all made to fit within capitalism and its growth imperative. But doing without growth is not something anyone is prepared to consider. Growth is the lifeblood of capitalism. We simply dare not, cannot, talk about it.

This fatal contradiction has been many centuries in the making. It's no wonder that the planet is at stake. And no wonder that no one is talking about it because we all depend on the systems constructed when the planet was not filled up. We may all be on board the proverbial Titanic, and the captain may be drunk. But if we ram the iceberg it's not going to be just his fault, or even P&Os. After all, it's a bloody good party in the dining room, and no one really wants their conversation interrupted to storm the bridge. Another glass of wine, please.

The father of all elephants: the state

But growth capitalism is not the only elephant in the room. Plenary -- where all the contracting parties sit down together -- is actually full of elephants masking as the entities that we entrust to solve our problems, our governments.

Here again, the (unnoticed and unspoken) contradiction of the state itself is overwhelming. Everyone is lobbying state representatives like mad to save us. But the state is, in fact, the greatest global liquidator of them all. Not Exxon or Cargill or CocaCola -- but every single government at Copenhagen. Ever since the modern state took shape, governments have aided and abetted, subsidized and licenced, sold off and profited from resource destruction. This liquidation makes economic growth possible -- and meaningful environmental regulation impossible.

When the world was replete with unexploited frontiers, governments could get away with it. This is what colonialism was/is all about, the quest for space, for free resources and cheap labour that can enrich the homeland. Everywhere governments provide the licences to scoop up the fish, the subsidies to the agribusiness giants, the tenures to clear-cut the forests, the highways to... You get the picture.

Globalization and free trade, by the way, are just the latest stage here, Western governments creating new rules for a full planet to ensure that every last morsel can be located and devoured by those with the power and organization to do so. Copenhagen, incidentally, must fit within globalization, not challenge it.

The dependency of the state on this liquidation is near total. For example, when natural gas prices tanked in the recession, the B.C. government lost $1 billion in resource revenues from that one resource alone. The resulting deficit affected everyone down the line, from arts groups to the homeless. When the Titanic dining room runs out of dessert, we passengers don't like it.

Here, too, we can see how the financial crisis and the ecological crisis are inter-linked. Resource consumption fuels growth, and when growth slows, financial debt steps in to get it all going again. And when the "stimulus" takes hold, resource demands and prices go up, and ecological erosion picks up again.

So what can our poor governments do? They can make compromises that aren't really compromises. And they can move at a glacial pace, even while the glacier is melting.

Trading off and hollowing out

Let me give you two (local) examples that nonetheless foreshadow what any government will, indeed, can do in Copenhagen.

First, consider how the whole history of environmental regulation is exactly this, half measures that are an inevitable product of a state committed to this double movement. On the one hand, the commitment is to the structural need to liquidate its resources and environment to fuel its growth. On the other hand, governments provide enough environmental protections to maintain their democratic legitimacy.

New parks -- sure, but put them on rock and ice. Fish farms -- let's study them, but issue more licenses in the meantime. Carbon taxes for the election -- and tax exemptions for gas and airplane fuel thereafter. Fly to Copenhagen for the photo-op, but first ensure that that pipeline from the Tar Sands and the supertanker port are on track. China can't wait.

This is why many people talk about the "hollowing out" of the political, with no serious party able to challenge it. All must move to the stimulus centre, and woe betides the party that tries to do otherwise.

Second, this double movement is also why 30 years of land claims litigation and negotiation have produced virtually nothing. Here, the oppositional role of the state is explicit, its prime demand of First Nations being "Give us your title or, for sure, no deal."

"Oh, and by the way, sign up for some resource partnership, or you will get no benefits."

Now this is not new stuff. The Left has been talking about this -- capitalism and the state -- forever. Enviros from the South know how they work (and I would pay special attention to what they have to say in Copenhagen).

And some Northern enviros have been catching on of late, for example, in the globalization battles of the '90s, and the rising chorus about corporate food insecurity today. But if the environmental movement in the industrialized world has a single characteristic in this political reality, it is its inability to put this understanding all together, and take it seriously.

A herd of baby elephants

What to do about all these elephants that are both in the room and not, if you happen to be there in Copenhagen lobbying for a deal? Facing the overwhelming contradictions of our growth economy and the governments that fuel it, everyone of the environmental and social justice activists will inevitably have to choose -- to be an agreeable part of the conversation in the room, or demand, again and again, that we take notice of those invisibilized elephants.

To shrink from acting on that choice is to give the sources of climate change legitimacy, and to delegitimize those who would demand that we engage in real debate. Recognize that a half-baked treaty will help to seal shut that debate for a long time to come. But it will be to no avail, for life after Copenhagen will inevitably have to deal with these contradictions.

Let me be crystal clear -- targeted reductions in greenhouse gas emissions within a continuously growing economy assumes that there are political avenues available that will allow us to defy the laws of nature. The goal of Copenhagen is a planetary imperative, but within the context that has been set for it, it cannot be met.

We do need an exit strategy, and the longer we remain in denial, the greater will be the contradictions, the higher the costs, and the more difficult it will be to resolve them. This is the lesson of the lost Kyoto decade.

Once upon a time, "green" meant something akin to what I have been talking about. But as the environment has moved to the centre of today's economic and political discourse, so too have the pressures to co-opt our language and our movement, to shape our messages, and control our voices.

We environmentalists are all so fond of saying that you can't solve a problem with the same thinking that created it. This is indeed the real promise of Copenhagen.

It is time to move us past the limited promise of state treaties. To do so, you must not imprison, but must liberate, that new power of critical planetary dialogue that has brought us all to Copenhagen, and that we will need to guide us in the eco-conversion ahead.

After a deal, if any, comes into view in Copenhagen, M'Gonigle will write a follow-up assessing the moment -- and what real "planetary eco-conversion" will look like and require of us.  [Tyee]

Read more: Politics, Environment

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