There is no escaping the fact that we are entering the opening years of difficult times with no adequate political framework or philosophy. As Amory Lovins, quoted above, puts it, "We lack a theory of governance . . . We need to invent whole new institutions, new ways of doing business, and new ways of governing" (Gould and Hosey, 2007, p. 32). What is to be done?
One possible answer is that given by libertarians and think-tank conservatives who say that we do not need much governance in the first place and should therefore happily dispense with most of it. They propose to replace parasitical governments with "free" markets and privatize public services. Like many ideologies, this one has always worked better in theory than on Main Street. The many mistakes that led to the economic collapse of 2008, in Joseph Stiglitz's words, "boil down to just one: a belief that markets are self-adjusting and that the role of government should be minimal" (2009). Downsizing government removes any countervailing power to that of corporations and leaves the public defenseless to face, as best it can, the many problems generated by unfettered capitalism, such as unfair distribution of wealth, unequal legal protection, exposure to pollution, inadequate and expensive health care, lack of emergency help, and unavailability of basic services. Libertarian ideas appeal most strongly to those who are wealthy enough to buy their own services and live in well-defended enclaves isolated from the larger society.
A second and more realistic possibility is to reduce the need for government by redesigning energy systems, buildings, communities, manufacturing, farming, forestry, transportation, infrastructure, and waste handling in ways that mimic natural processes and radically increase local resilience. The result would be communities, societies, and eventually a global civilization running on sunshine and wind without pollution from the combustion of fossil fuels; towns and cities designed to work with natural processes; manufacturing systems that mimic natural processes and emit no pollution; and localized food systems built around sustainable farming and powered by sunshine. The agreeable result would be to eliminate the need for a great deal of environmental regulation and government interference in markets while making society more resilient in the face of climate change, oil shortages, terrorism, and economic turmoil.
In fact, a design revolution is gathering steam: solar and wind technologies are being deployed rapidly, the U.S. Green Building Council and the American Institute of Architects have adopted the goal of building only carbon-neutral buildings and communities by the year 2030, the application of biomimicry is helping a growing number of companies to eliminate waste and pollution, markets for food grown sustainably are growing and are increasingly profitable, and the technology necessary to reduce or eliminate fossil fuels is becoming available. But ecological design does not necessarily solve larger problems, such as the provision of basic services, health care, fairness, or emergency services at the scale that will be needed. And a design revolution won't go very far without a major overhaul in public policy and the tax system, as well as imaginative public investment in research and development. Ecological design, in short, is a promising step in the right direction and could reduce or eliminate many problems that perplex politicians and baffle government bureaucrats, but it cannot eliminate the need for competent government to create the larger conditions that make it possible on a societal scale in the first place.
A third, and related, possibility is to make capitalism an environmentally constructive, not destructive, force.5 An ecologically enlightened capitalism would place value on "natural capital" such as soils, waters, forests, biological diversity, and climate stability while retaining the dynamism and creativity of markets and entre-preneurship. It would, in other words, internalize costs that were formerly off-loaded onto society and future generations, thereby eliminating pollution and waste. If this is successful, the driving forces of capitalism, such as innovation, entrepreneurship, constant change, economic growth, and even those less likeable features of greed and miserliness, will be fine as long as prices include the true costs of using natural capital. It is said that firms operating by the rules of natural capitalism inevitably will be more profitable than those that do not. Perhaps with better design, improved technology, and ecologically smarter business we don't need much government at all. But again, let's take a closer look.
Without anyone quite saying as much, the case for natural capitalism begins with the assumption that government and politics cannot be bettered and that improvement in human behavior or corporate motivation is both highly unlikely and unnecessary.
We should aim, accordingly, to harness self-interest, not loyalties to community; the power of greed, not that of altruism; and the practical force of utility but that of no larger vision. In the transition to an ecologically designed, pollution-free world operating on sunlight, there is far less for government to regulate, less cause to intervene in markets operating by the logic of natural capitalism, and fewer, if any, wars to fight over oil or resources. So what do governments do when they no longer need to regulate commerce, bother people, or fight each other? Perhaps, as Karl Marx once fantasized and tax-cutter Grover Norquist suggested more recently, the state would simply wither away.
This is an appealing vision in many ways, and on odd-numbered days I am inclined to believe some of it. But on other days I am sobered by the recollection of the lamentable history of corporations and the persistence of greed, ignorance, hard-heartedness, the lust for power, and the unfailing human capacity to screw up even good things.6 For those prone to hyperventilate about the many virtues and sincerity of green corporations, I suggest that they spend a few hours on top of what's left of any one of the 500-plus mountains in Appalachia leveled for a few years of "cheap" coal—or perhaps sit outside the former headquarters of Enron or Lehman Brothers and contemplate what corporations have wrought to people and the land. Or they might simply ponder the Hummer—its origins and the many reasons for its demise, along with those of General Motors and the city of Detroit. Maybe a natural capitalism will be different, but we ought at least to ask why and how it would be different. Is natural capitalism as inevitable as claimed? Will it, in fact, be more profitable, as claimed? Can capitalism be rendered patient and disciplined in the long term? Will green capitalists, as a rule and not as an occasional late-life and much celebrated event, subordinate the will to accumulate to the larger good?
With few exceptions, corporate decisions to go green or reduce carbon footprints are based on the cold logic of profit in a system that is designed to maximize short-term shareholder value and in which the rights of an abstraction—the corporation—have by legal alchemy been rendered equal to those of real people.7 There are few, if any, reasons for abstractions to protect the long-term public good, but there are many for them to appear as if they are doing so. Given the rules of the market, there is still little or no reason not to off-load environmental costs of doing business onto less-developed countries or future generations, but there are many reasons to lobby behind closed doors against rules requiring corporate accountability and decency, which are central to the vision of a natural capitalism. Even were corporations to become fully housebroken, there still might be precious little incentive for them to do their fair share to alleviate poverty or distribute income fairly, but there would be many reasons to justify not doing so as economic necessity. And there is no particular reason why they would prefer democratic government to other forms, raising the specter of a world largely controlled by solar-powered, hyperef-ficient, and green corporations—but that would be a sustainable form of fascism.
The theory of natural capitalism assumes that the four kinds of capital—financial, productive, ecological, and human—can be melded into a single economic framework. But, in fact, they operate by very different rules. Financial and productive forms of capital work by the laws of greed and smartness. But human and ecological forms of capital, otherwise known as people and nature, work by the laws of affection, prudence, and foresight. Advocates for natural capitalism believe that these radically different forms of "capital" can be willingly and voluntarily joined, across many different sectors of the global economy—from mining and manufacturing to services and information—in time to head off the worst of the long emergency. It is a gamble that the considerable global powers of accumulation can be voluntarily joined with the public interest in long-term sustainability without the robust convening or supervising agency of governments committed to protect the commonwealth. And it is a gamble that we can build an enduring, fair, and decent global society around smarter consumption. It is a gamble that this union will require little democratic participation in defining the public agenda or in making the decisions that affect the future of civilization. But in the absence of robust government leadership and a revitalized civic life, there is little convincing evidence that the transition to a more natural capitalism would transform enough of the global economy in time to avert disaster. There is a great deal of evidence, however, that practitioners of natural capitalism, like all previous capitalists, will make every effort to keep the consumer economy growing, come what may.
The issue is not whether it is possible for corporations to do much better, and I happily acknowledge that many are in fact doing so. Nor do I dispute the potential of better technology and improved design to reduce our carbon emissions and ecological footprint. At best, however, such things only buy us a little time to get the big things right, and those are things only governments can do: maintain a forum for public dialogue, promote fairness, resolve conflicts, provide services that markets cannot, and meet our obligations across the boundaries of politics, ethnicity, time, and species, all of which will grow more difficult in the conditions of the long emergency. Natural capitalism is a necessary but insufficient response to the long emergency ahead. But how do we revitalize democracy and our public life?
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