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Earth Day reality check: ‘We need to be as viciously capitalist and free market as we can to save the planet’

Earth DAY pic
We need to be as viciously capitalist and free market as we can to save the planet.

Whale oil provided the lighting to read the breakthrough novel of 1870, the story of Captain Nemo in 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. That was also the year of the foundation of Standard Oil. The result of that foundation is that we didn’t hunt the whales to extinction, but instead turned to kerosene to light the latter part of the 19th century, moving to electricity only in the 20th.

It really isn’t hyperbole to insist that John D. Rockefeller saved the whales by his making mineral oil products so much cheaper than the cetacean-derived equivalent. And that’s really all you need to know to understand Earth Day and what to do about it.

We need to be as viciously capitalist and free market as we can to save the planet.

This is not, as you will note, what is generally said about this day of celebration of all things environmental. Yet it’s still the truth.

One thing noted by Simon Kuznets was that poor people, truly poor, don’t give a damn about the environment. Forests are burnt down, rivers clogged with sewage, animals hunted to extinction, (the megafauna of every continent and island group underwent catastrophic extinctions just after man first arrived. This is not a coincidence) just because everyone’s too busy finding dinner for that day – or avoiding being something else’s dinner. Kuznets went on to note that richer people care and do more about the preservation of the natural world — partly because we all just like looking at it knowing that it’s there, partly because richer people can have a longer time horizon.

This observation has been codified as the environmental Kuznets curve, and the switch to the environment getting better as incomes rise, well, there’s a bit of argument about that. Generally around the $8,000 to $10,000 per person per year range for GDP when people start to care about the environment. That’s about the average income in the world today. Back in the 1960s, the U.S. was at that level (when expressed in today’s money). That was around when we decided that after a century of the Cuyahoga River catching fire maybe we should stop doing that? We became rich enough to do so.

So, if we want the environment to get better, Mother Earth to heal her wounds, Gaia to recover, etc., we need to go pell for leather in making the world’s poorest as rich as possible as fast as possible. That’s the pre-condition for people to care enough to do all of those things which we know will benefit the environment.

The excellent news is we know how to do that.

We know there’s only one economic system which does do that. Every country and populace that has got rich has done so through some variant of capitalist free-marketry. No socialist system has managed it, no feudal, no planned, no fascist, certainly no communist. Every place and time which has engaged in what we today call neoliberal globalization has become rich. Thus, that’s the system we need to use to save the environment, isn’t it?

Fortunately we have been using it these recent decades. The effects upon poverty have been startling. Absolute poverty, living on less than $1.90 a day of modern money, has fallen since Ronald Reagan moved into the White House. At that time, 45 percent of all humans lived in absolute poverty, but today fewer than 10 percent do. That’s another 35 percentage points of all of us getting rich enough to care about Gaia at least a little bit. The effects of that upon air (and other forms of) pollutionhave been equally startling. Sure, CO2 is still going up, but we can deal with that the same way: getting rich enough to both have the resources to do it and also rich enough to care to do so.

It’s wealth, human wealth, which saves the planet. Given that we’ve only one known way of creating wealth, neoliberal globalization, then that’s what we should be doing.