Lattanzi-Silveus ’14: System change not climate change

By
Opinions Columnist
Tuesday, November 13, 2012

We’ve had two “once in a century” hurricanes in the last two years. When Hurricane Irene hit last year, it was supposed to be an extraordinary event. But this year Hurricane Sandy far surpassed it. It killed at least 105 people and cut power to 8.5 million buildings. And, as is always the case with environmental disasters, people in working-class, black and Latino communities were most affected and the last to receive government help. So yes, climate change is real. It also affects people today, not just in the future. Hurricanes have become more frequent, and so have droughts. Pollution personally affects the working class – especially the minority working class – through chemicals from nearby factories and incinerators that cause cancer and respiratory illness or through heat waves that kill 400 people every year .

But let’s take a step back for a moment. Why are we even at this point? Why are we releasing deadly chemicals into the environment? Why don’t we have a real system of public transportation? Why do we recycle so little? Why do we not only use tons of oil and coal to produce power, but also give huge government subsidies to oil and coal producers?

It is not because a cleaner reality is unfeasible. There are plenty of very viable ways to produce electricity without emitting greenhouse gases. For example, there’s solar energy. We would only need to cover 1 percent of the Sahara with solar panels to power the entire world. 

And it’s not because of choices made by ordinary people either. Municipal waste – the waste that you and I produce – only accounts for 2 percent of total waste. The Environmental Protection Agency doesn’t even have an idea of how much of the rest of the waste is recycled, let alone have a plan to actually try and make recycling happen.

The problem is systemic. The problem is the profit motive and capitalism itself. It is simply not profitable to produce in an ecologically friendly way. It costs much less to produce without having to worry about pollution controls or the effects that you might be having on people nearby or on the planet. The Darwinian process of the market tends to bankrupt any firm that might produce sustainably in favor of those who can sell more cheaply at the expense of sustainability. As a result, we are left with firms that focus on short-term profitability at the expense of our collective long-term interests.

But capitalism is wasteful in other ways. Tons of packaging and hundreds of thousands of bright people are wasted in careers spent persuading us to scrap what we have and buy their shiny new product. This packaging, and the products that we are being convinced to replace, become trash. The people in the advertising industry are spending time selling us products we don’t need when they could be figuring out how to avoid destroying our planet.

Responsible consumption is not the answer. It cannot work as a strategy to tackle such a global problem. Most people do not have the luxury of paying that much more to consume something that is “green” or “organic.” Beside, the best market strategy for firms wanting to appeal to “green consumers” is to do the least amount necessary to be “green.” They might curb their emissions a little, but it’s far too little to really slow climate change.

We can and should fight for meaningful regulations and reforms, like the creation of the EPA and the Clean Air Act in the 1960s. But this is not something we can regulate away, either. As soon as the mass movement that created rules and institutions dies down, they will slowly be weakened by the corporations. Those corporations will lobby, buy elections, fund huge media campaigns and threaten to move money and jobs abroad to make sure the political system slowly repeals the gains we have made, as they have over the past 50 years. Without a popular movement to back it, the EPA has become a shadow of what it once was. And large corporations have learned to avoid the rules of the Clean Air Act.

The problem is systemic: the relentless pursuit of short-term profit upon which our economic system is founded. This means the answer is system change. Green technology is out there, but it is simply less profitable than pollution. In order to use it, we need a society where workers control production, and the goal is meeting our needs, not making a profit. We need a society in which we can democratically plan our economic priorities and not leave them up to the shortsighted chaos of the market. In short, we need socialism. In capitalism, those who choose how we produce have a vested interest in polluting. In socialism, we would collectively choose how we produce. And it is in our collective interest not to pollute.

Estimates say that environmental collapse could occur as soon as 40 years from now. Within our lifetime. Time is short – we need socialism now!

 

 

Luke Lattanzi-Silveus ’14 believes that we still have time to save the planet 

and can be contacted at 

luke_lattanzi-silveus@brown.edu.

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