Thank You for Being Late (part 2)

November 15, 2018

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Today I’ll discuss two chapters of Thomas Friedman’s Thank You for Being Late that I found especially insightful: Ch. 8 on the implications of new technologies for employment, and Ch. 9 on the problem of global order.

The future of work

Friedman begins his discussion of work with a bold pronouncement: “Let’s get one thing straight: The robots are not destined to take all the jobs. That happens only if we let them–if we don’t accelerate innovation in the labor/education/start-up realms, if we don’t reimagine the whole conveyer belt from primary education to work and lifelong learning.”

I was pleased to find that Friedman’s position is similar to the one I laid out in my critique of Martin Ford’s The Rise of the Robots Ford predicted a future of massive unemployment, with millions of displaced workers relying on government for a minimal income. We could get a taste of that during a transitional period, but I don’t think that’s a very good description of where we are ultimately headed.

Friedman doesn’t deny that smart machines can now perform many tasks currently or formerly performed by humans. But he makes a sharp distinction between automating tasks and automating whole jobs so as to eliminate the human contribution altogether. The upside of automation is increased productivity. Workers aided by new technologies can produce more per hour, reducing the unit cost of what they produce. That can create a larger market for the product, increasing the demand for labor in a given occupation. A car was an expensive luxury item before the assembly line cut costs to create a mass market and a booming industry. Friedman reports that “employment grows significantly faster in occupations that use computers more,” as in banking and paralegal work.

To give an example from my own experience, financial planning software has automated many of the most tedious tasks involved in preparing a retirement plan, such as mathematically projecting future income from savings rates and asset allocation choices. But that hasn’t resulted in a reduced need for financial planners. On the contrary, it has made the services of a planner affordable for more people. Planners can spend less time doing calculations but more time relating to their clients.

Friedman says, “Jobs are not going away, but the needed skills for good jobs are going up.” What are disappearing are well-paid jobs with only modest skill requirements, like twentieth-century manufacturing jobs.

Retooling education

In general, today’s good jobs require more education; yet it does not follow that a college education necessarily qualifies a person for a good job. That’s not because a liberal education is a waste of time, but because it is only a foundation that must be built upon with lifelong job-relevant learning.

Friedman quotes MIT economist David Autor, who stresses the need for more than one kind of learning: “If it’s just technical skill, there’s a reasonable chance it can be automated, and if it’s just being empathetic or flexible, there’s an infinite supply of people, so a job won’t be well paid. It’s the interaction of both that is virtuous.”

Friedman is a strong believer in a broad, basic education that includes “strong fundamentals in writing, reading, coding, and math; creativity, critical thinking, communication, and collaboration; grit, self-motivation, and lifelong learning habits; and entrepreneurship and improvisation….” Even a robotics enthusiast like Martin Ford acknowledges that humans surpass robots in general intelligence, as opposed to specialized task capabilities.

However, recipients of this basic education will also have to cope with rapidly changing workplace requirements. Technology will play a central role here, both in creating the automated systems with which workers interact, and in enhancing learning processes themselves. Friedman wants to “turn AI into IA,” by which he means turning artificial intelligence into intelligent assistance to support lifelong learning. “Intelligent assistance involves leveraging artificial intelligence to enable the government, individual companies, and the nonprofit social sector to develop more sophisticated online and mobile platforms that can empower every worker to engage in lifelong learning on their own time, and to have their learning recognized and rewarded with advancement.” When the time comes to pick up a new skill, you can probably find an app to help you learn it.

Friedman describes AT&T as one company that is demanding more lifelong learning of its employees, but supporting it with measures like tuition reimbursements, online courses developed in collaboration with online providers, and promotions for those who acquire new skills. This represents a new social contract between employer and employee–“You can be a lifelong employee if you are ready to be a lifelong learner.”

Every major economic shift has involved the rise of a new asset class, such as land in the agrarian economy and physical capital in the industrial economy. The rising asset class today is human capital, and that is where society’s investments must be increasingly concentrated.

The threat of global disorder

In the immediate aftermath of the Cold War, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, The U.S. remained the only superpower and the most obvious model for other countries to emulate. Many thinkers expressed the hope that the world could move faster in the direction of American-style democracy and capitalism. But then the interventions in such places as Iraq and Afghanistan failed to produce stable democracies, the Great Recession called into question capitalist progress, and Americans lowered their expectations for world leadership.

What Friedman calls the post-post-Cold War world is characterized by shrinking American power, especially in the Middle East, and new challenges arising from the accelerations in technological change, globalization and environmental degradation.  In large areas of the less developed world, the danger is that states will fail and societies will sink into disorder, dragging the global political order and economy down. Environmental disasters like deforestation in Central America or drought and desertification in sub-Sahara Africa are uprooting people from their traditional relationship to the land. And while some poorer countries are advancing by providing cheap labor to the global economy, the future may belong to those who can provide smarter labor, and that requires greater investments in human capital.

Friedman says that during the Cold War, superpower competition gave America a reason to assist developing countries, in order to keep them in our camp. The mid-twentieth century economic boom also gave us the means to do so. While many Americans are now inclined to turn their back on the rest of the world, Friedman makes a case for renewed global involvement: “While we cannot repair the wide World of Disorder on our own, we also cannot just ignore it. It metastasizes in an interdependent world. If we don’t visit the World of Disorder in the age of accelerations, it will visit us.” The dislocated people in failed states can become refugees or terrorists. The same technologies that can empower people to learn and produce more can empower them to build improvised explosive devices triggered by cell phones, or perhaps a weapon of mass destruction.

In Friedman’s view, the best thing the U.S. could do to “help stabilize the World of Disorder and widen the islands of decency” would be to help fund schools and universities. He would also like to see us help the poorest people make a living in their own villages by assisting them with their environmental problems. He points out that it costs only 100-300 dollars to restore a hectare of degraded land.

In a world of enhanced interdependence, the haves would do well to invest in the development of the have-nots, domestically and globally. If we do not rise together, we will very likely fall together.

Continued


Thank You for Being Late

November 13, 2018

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Thomas L. Friedman. Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016.

This book is New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman’s latest reflection on social change–technological, global and environmental. The title refers to his experience of having someone show up late for an appointment, and then realizing that the extra few minutes provide a time for reflection in an otherwise busy day.

Friedman’s basic premise is that “the three largest forces on the planet–technology, globalization, and climate change–are all accelerating at once. As a result, so many aspects of our societies, workplaces, and geopolitics are being reshaped and need to be reimagined….In such a time, opting to pause and reflect, rather than panic and withdraw, is a necessity.”

Technological acceleration

In chapters 2 through 4, Friedman pulls together a wealth of examples to provide a fine overview of developments in digital technology. I can’t do justice to all the detail, but here are a few highlights.

Remarkable breakthroughs have affected all five of the basic components of computing:

(1) the integrated circuits that do the computing; (2) the memory units that store and retrieve information; (3) the networking systems that enable communications within and across computers; (4) the software applications that enable different computers to perform myriad tasks individually and collectively; and (5) the sensors—cameras and other miniature devices that can detect movement, language, light, heat, moisture, and sound and transform any of them into digitized data that can be mined for insights.

The result is “one of the greatest leaps forward in history.”

All this computing power is not just on a desktop or a laptop, but in the “cloud”, or what Friedman calls the computing “supernova”. The ability to tap into this universal information-processing capacity is deeply empowering to individuals, groups and organizations. The challenge is to use that power constructively and not destructively, for collective liberation and not just for domination or other selfish purposes. One downside is that technological innovation is occurring faster than “the average rate at which most people can absorb all these changes.” For example, we are not yet accustomed to the kind of lifelong learning that the information age will require.

Friedman also asks why it’s taking so long for technological change to raise economic productivity. In The Rise and Fall of American Growth, Robert Gordon argued that the extraordinary productivity gains of the “special century” from 1870 to 1970 are unlikely to be repeated. Friedman is more optimistic, pointing out that productivity gains from electrification took several decades to materialize. New factories and business processes had to be designed, and a new generation of managers and workers had to emerge. Many technological breakthroughs are far too new–a number of them emerged in 2007–to assess their effects on social institutions. I find it exciting to imagine a new era of rising productivity and wage gains, which might go a long way to alleviate class, race and gender tensions.

Global acceleration

Electronic connectivity is one of the main factors accelerating human interactions across vast distances. The total value of global flows of goods, services, and finance increased from 24 percent to 39 percent of world GDP between 1990 and 2014.

William H. McNeill, the historian noted for The Rise of the West, argues that “the principal factor promoting historically significant social change is contact with strangers possessing new and unfamiliar skills.” People may perceive such contacts as either a threat or an opportunity, but in the long run they provide societies with more solutions to human problems. Friedman believes that “those societies that are most open to flows of trade, information, finance, culture, or education, and those most willing to learn from them and contribute to them, are the ones most likely to thrive in the age of accelerations.” Although Friedman has little to say about the Trump presidency in this book, we know from his columns that he has little use for nationalism or isolationism.

Friedman does recognize that people whose lives are vulnerable to disruption by globalization will need help coping with this new world. “If a society doesn’t build floors under people, many will reach for a wall–no matter how self-defeating that would be.” Nevertheless, his chapter on globalization contains his most optimistic statement:

[I]f there is one overarching reason to be optimistic about the future, and to keep trying to get the best out of digital globalization and cushion the worst, it is surely the fact that this mobile-broadband-supernova is creating so many flows and thus enabling so many more people to lift themselves out of poverty and participate in solving the world’s biggest problems. We are tapping into many more brains, and bringing them into the global neural network to become “makers.” This is surely the most positive—but least discussed or appreciated—trend in the world today, when “globalization” is becoming a dirty word because it is entirely associated in the West with dislocations from trade.

Environmental/demographic acceleration

The human impact on the planet is increasing, as a result of both our dramatic population growth and our intensive use of the Earth’s resources.

Here Friedman is most concerned with global climate change, and he does not explain demographic trends as much as I would like. Human population growth accelerated especially in the twentieth century because of progress in reducing mortality rates, especially for infants and children. Just between 1900 and 2000, world population increased from 1.65 billion to 6 billion. Smaller families and declining birth rates have reduced the rate of growth somewhat, but the world population is now 7.7 billion and expected to add a couple billion more before leveling off.

A team of scientists specializing in Earth systems identified “nine key planetary boundaries we humans must make sure we do not breach.” Unfortunately, we have already breached four of them. We have put more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than we should, if we want to hold average global temperature rise since the Industrial Revolution to 2 degrees Celsius. In some places, biodiversity is already below 90 percent of preindustrial levels. The portion of the earth’s original forests that remain has fallen below 75%. And we have been poisoning the earth by adding far too much phosphorus, nitrogen and other elements.

Other boundaries that we are currently staying within, but not by much, involve how much we are acidifying oceans, using freshwater, loading the atmosphere with microscopic particles, and introducing other novel entities into nature, like plastics and nuclear wastes.  One area where we are moving in the right direction is in restoring the thickness of the ozone layer that protects us against dangerous radiation.

Technological breakthroughs–especially in clean energy–are helping. But we also need to change our behavior more rapidly, in order to apply known solutions on a large enough scale.

Continued


Viking Economics (part 3)

June 28, 2017

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Even the wealthiest, most economically developed countries in the world face serious challenges in the years ahead. An important question for the future is whether a more egalitarian social system is an advantage in dealing with these challenges. If so, that makes the Nordic model even more relevant to current policy discussions.

Globalization

In much of the developed world, globalization has benefited capital more than labor, as global corporations profit by offshoring work to cheaper sources of labor. Nordic countries have a long history of global trade. Countries like Norway “lacked the extensive land, abundant resources, and large population that enabled countries like the United States and Germany to generate robust, internally driven economies.” But Nordic countries also have a strong commitment to high employment and good wages. Can they sustain that in the global economy?

One way of reconciling an openness to foreign trade with a desire to protect domestic workers is a policy of “flexicurity,” a Dutch concept that has become central to economic policy in Denmark. “The Danes changed the social contract between the state and the workforce. Instead of guaranteeing workers their existing jobs, the government would guarantee workers ongoing support and retraining so they could get new jobs.” By providing the universal services of education, training and a strong social safety net, Nordic countries help their workers cope with a world of enhanced foreign competition.

Although immigration is a controversial issue almost everywhere, Nordic countries have also had the confidence to extend economic assistance to newcomers. Both Norway and Sweden have about a 14 percent foreign-born population, even a little higher than the US’s 13 percent. Norway will support immigrants for a year while they learn the language and culture and receive job training. “Norway is ranked number one among the twenty-seven richest countries for its policies on migration: acceptance of asylum-seekers and refugees, open borders to immigrants and students from developing countries, and friendly integration practices.”

That is not to say that conflict between immigrants and natives is nonexistent. Sweden has experienced youth riots in immigrant neighborhoods, especially during the period after the mid-1980s, when it was cutting public spending and allowing inequality to grow. In general, however, Lakey believes the Nordic model goes a long way to reduce social conflict. While American-style inequality “institutionalizes scarcity,” making people of different races and ethnicities compete for too few opportunities, the Nordic model:

generously funds agencies and programs that assist people who otherwise might lack opportunity. It seeks out barriers to advancement, such as burdens of childcare and dependent elders, and tries to alleviate those to free everyone to move ahead. By universalizing such programs, as well as health care, vacations, access to public transportation, and other enhancements that otherwise can become racialized for disadvantaged populations, the model carefully avoids setting categories of people against each other.

Of course, doing all these things is costly. But who can calculate the social and personal costs of our failure to do them?

Climate change

As I have argued elsewhere, environmental issues highlight the tension between private gain and public cost. Fossil fuels provide profits for producers and cheap energy for consumers, but their market success depends on not factoring in the social and environmental costs of climate change and other environmental damage. Renewable energy will become cheaper and more profitable over time, but the government may need to put a big thumb on the scale to discourage what is publicly dangerous and encourage what is publicly good as quickly as possible.

Because Nordic countries are more receptive to market interventions for the public good, they have generally been leaders in national and international action on climate change. Sweden, Denmark and Norway were among the first to impose taxes on carbon emissions, back in 1991. Denmark has been a world leader in wind power, because of national policies like incentives to form local wind energy co-ops. In 2013, Sweden was already getting over half of its energy from renewable sources, compared to an average of 15% in the European Union and even less in the U.S.

Norway is in an awkward position on climate change, because oil accounts for almost half of its exports. How much of the Arctic oil reserves it can actually develop without unacceptable environmental damage is a vital but unresolved question. On the other hand, Norway’s large public pension fund has divested from coal, as well as from Canadian tar sands oil. Norway also doubled its carbon tax in 2012 because the government wasn’t satisfied with the country’s rate of emission reductions.

Automation

Lakey does not discuss the potential impact of automation on employment, but it is a challenge that is receiving more and more attention. I recently reviewed Martin Ford’s Rise of the Robots, which warns of a “jobless future” for millions of workers whose jobs are vulnerable to automation. Ford and others envision an expansion of public welfare programs to support the jobless multitudes.

Lakey has described Nordic countries not as welfare states, but as “universal service states.” They place a strong emphasis on helping people to become productive citizens with good jobs. Does that make them more or less prepared to cope with a more automated economy?

In Parts 2 and 3 of my discussion of Ford’s book, I described my somewhat different vision of the future, emphasizing the transformation of work rather than just the elimination of jobs. I have no doubt that robots will take over many tasks that they can do more efficiently than humans. But as in the transition from farming to manufacturing in an earlier time, I would hope to see human labor shifted to new frontiers of economic activity, especially in the area of skilled personalized services. I would also like to see the extension of the twentieth-century trend of shortening the typical work week, which would have the effect of spreading the available work to more people. As the twentieth-century experience showed, fewer hours is compatible with high pay as long as workers have the skills and the technological support to achieve high productivity. That in turn depends on the development of human capital, which requires broad access to education, health care and other human services, industries that both create jobs and equip people to get jobs. Since the development of human potential is a public good that not every family is able to pay for, a strong public role in such areas as health insurance is called for. There is also a role for non-market work–labors of love if you like–which can flourish when people have the leisure to balance their work and family responsibilities and participate in volunteer work.

Although I hadn’t read Viking Economics when I developed these ideas, the Nordic model seems relevant to everything on my list. The same “flexicurity” policies that reduce fears of globalization can also reduce fears of automation. If you lose a job, you can expect help in finding and qualifying for a new one. The Nordic work week is already shorter than ours. The universal services model is more conducive to the development of human capital, and citizens are already accustomed to paying high taxes to support it. Finally, “Thanks to an economic model that fosters work/life balance, people have abundant time to volunteer in the community.” It’s a way of life that compares favorably to the American system, where workers cling to technologically and environmentally obsolete jobs like coal mining because they expect little help to become something new. We can do better.

 

 


This Changes Everything (part 3)

April 19, 2017

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A key question in the political debate over energy is whether governments should have a strong energy policy at all. The conservative answer is essentially no. Government should not “pick winners and losers,” but remain neutral toward different energy sources and let the market decide. It is the “invisible hand” of the market that is most rational and fair. If fossil fuels are what sell, then we should continue extracting them.

Naomi Klein, on the other hand, sees our heavy reliance on environmentally dangerous sources of energy as a massive market failure. Fossil fuels are both more profitable for producers and cheaper for consumers than they should be, because market participants are not paying the full environmental cost. The planet, not the market, will dole out the consequences, including heavy costs for poor people who never got the benefits of high consumption. In this case, the market outcomes are neither rational nor just. Klein doesn’t say it in exactly these words, but the root of the problem is capitalism’s propensity to privatize benefits while socializing costs.

That is the basic argument for strong public policies–local, national and international–to facilitate a transition to cleaner energy as soon as possible.

Democratic resistance

Since the fossil fuel industry has accumulated enormous economic and political power, the only solution Klein sees is a massive democratic resistance movement. She sees such a movement emerging as the conflict between private interests and the public interest becomes clearer.

The fossil fuel industry is on a collision course with the climate, since it is planning to extract and burn far more carbon than scientists say the atmosphere can safely absorb. The valuation of fossil fuel companies on the stock market is based on the future profits projected on the basis of those plans, so they have strong incentive to keep going.

What really encourages resistance is that extractors are “pushing relentlessly into countless new territories, regardless of the impact on the local ecology (in particular, local water systems), as well as the fact that many of the industrial activities in question have neither been adequately tested nor regulated, yet have already shown themselves to be extraordinarily accident-prone.”

Resistance is growing especially in the Pacific Northwest, led especially by “resurgent Indigenous Nations, farmers, and fishers whose livelihoods depend on clean water and soil, and a great many relative newcomers who have chosen to live in that part of the world because of its natural beauty.”  For many people, climate change is still a somewhat abstract notion, but a threat to the local water supply is not.

And what could be more democratic than a popular demand for clean water? “Having the ability to defend one’s community’s water source from danger seems to a great many people like the very essence of self-determination.”

Of course, the success of a broad environmental movement remains to be seen. Truly transformative social movements are historically rare. Klein cites the example of anti-discrimination movements that achieved only partial victories. The movement for African American rights succeeded in outlawing the most obvious forms of discrimination. But it has not achieved the “massive investment in jobs, schools, and decent homes” that would be needed to eliminate the large racial gap in wealth and income. On the other hand, the labor movement of the 1930s achieved more substantial economic gains. In that instance, the crisis of the Great Depression shifted popular opinion dramatically to the left, producing the New Deal wave of progressive legislation. The climate crisis may require a political change of that magnitude.

Global responsibility

What makes the challenge of climate change so daunting is that it requires developed countries not only to curb their own fossil fuel emissions but to help poorer countries curb theirs. Klein believes that this is a matter of both economic necessity and moral justice.

“Developed countries, which represent less than 20 percent of the world’s population, have emitted almost 70 percent of all the greenhouse gas pollution that is now destabilizing the climate.” The richer countries not only have a history of appropriating other peoples land, labor and resources (especially through slavery and colonialism), but they have also appropriated the sky, “gobbling up most of our shared atmosphere’s capacity to safely absorb carbon.”

That puts developing countries in a real bind. They are told that they must limit their fossil fuel emissions just when they are starting to industrialize. But the cheapest and easiest way for them to develop is to use the most readily available sources of energy, without bearing the costs of environmental protection or innovative technologies.

They cannot break this deadlock without help, and that help can only come from those countries and corporations that grew wealthy, in large part, as a result of those illegitimate appropriations….With many of the biggest pools of untapped carbon on lands controlled by some of the poorest people on the planet, and with emissions rising most rapidly in what were, until recently, some of the poorest parts of the world, there is simply no credible way forward that does not involve redressing the real roots of poverty.

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (1992) recognized this when it asserted a principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities.” The nations of the world are all in this together, but the countries that have gotten the richest on fossil fuels have a special responsibility to switch to cleaner energy, as well as to help finance that transition in poorer countries.

One reason why emissions are falling in the United States (although not enough) but rising in poorer countries is that we have offshored so much manufacturing, especially to countries with weak environmental policies. The system is very profitable, but it complicates efforts to combat global warming.

In Klein’s view, the solution is not just for richer countries to contract their economies, while poorer countries expand theirs on the same old fossil-fuel model. That would just redistribute emissions, not reduce them. The challenge is for all countries, rich and poor alike, to agree to develop differently.

What kind of populism?

In a previous post, I mentioned Klein’s point about bad timing: Climate change became an issue just “at the peak of free market, end-of-history triumphalism.” She is hopeful, however, that other social problems such as growing inequality have helped discredit that ideology. If so, conservative politicians may be losing some of their cultural legitimacy, and a progressive counter-revolution may be in the making.

In this context, what should we make of Donald Trump’s “populism”, which arrived on the scene after Klein’s book was written? It is a little different than mainstream conservatism, since it encourages some government interventions in markets, especially restrictions on global free trade to protect US. manufacturing. (What exactly those restrictions would be is not clear.) When it comes to energy, it is worse than conservatism, since it is not so much energy neutral as pro-fossil fuel. Our new EPA Administrator is Scott Pruitt, who as Attorney General of Oklahoma consistently represented the interests of fossil-fuel companies. Our Secretary of State is Rex Tillerson, the former CEO of Exxon-Mobil. Neither Trump nor Pruitt has accepted the scientific consensus on climate change.

Trump seems obsessed with jobs in coal mining and pipeline construction. He has not shown much interest in creating new kinds of jobs or training workers to perform them.  Klein, on the other hand, points to the economic potential of clean energy. One study she summarizes is from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives:

[I]f $5 billion is spent on a pipeline, it produces mostly short-term construction jobs, big private sector profits, and heavy public costs for future environmental damage. But if $5 billion is spent on public transit, building retrofits, and renewable energy, economies can gain, at the very least, three times as many jobs in the short term, while simultaneously helping to reduce the chances of catastrophic warming in the long term.

Trump’s brand of populism is a reactionary one favoring traditional industries and jobs. But the very fact that many of his supporters are disillusioned with establishment conservatism may create some room for a more progressive populism favoring a more innovative and sustainable economy. Whether public opinion will shift in that direction in time is hard to say. If history is any guide, the old economy may have to show even more signs of failure before people will turn to something new.


This Changes Everything

April 17, 2017

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Naomi Klein. This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014

Journalist Naomi Klein spent five years delving deeply into the problem of climate change and what it may mean for our capitalist way of life. She concludes that up until now the world has been failing to tackle the problem effectively, and that’s mainly because the necessary steps “fundamentally conflict with deregulated capitalism, the reigning ideology for the entire period we have been struggling to find a way out of this crisis.”

The first part of her statement is widely accepted, at least among scientists and most world leaders. The 2009 climate summit in Copenhagen set a goal of limiting average global temperature to no more than 2 degrees Celsius above what it was when countries first turned to coal to power the industrial revolution. That would require the richer countries to reduce their carbon emissions “in the neighborhood of 8-10 percent a year.” So far that isn’t happening. According to the EPA, US carbon emissions dropped only 2.9% between 2014 and 2015, and only 11.7% over the ten-year period from 2005 to 2015. In the world as a whole, that drop was offset by increased emissions from developing countries.

Much more controversy surrounds the question of what to do about it. Many people hope for a technological fix that could solve the problem with minimal impact on our habits of production and consumption. Economic conservatives want to limit changes to what can occur through market mechanisms such as consumer demand for greener products, while minimizing the role of government regulation. Liberals are willing to entertain government measures like a carbon tax, but are suspicious of calls for a more radical economic transformation.

Klein is willing to think more radically, since she regards climate change as a real game changer. It poses  a massive threat; it is happening rapidly; and it forces us to rethink how we have related to nature and organized our economic lives.

[T]he real reason we are failing to rise to the climate moment is because the actions required directly challenge our reigning economic paradigm (deregulated capitalism combined with public austerity), the stories on which Western cultures are founded (that we stand apart from nature and can outsmart its limits), as well as many of the activities that form our identities and define our communities (shopping, living virtually, shopping some more).

No doubt people prefer little problems with little solutions to big problems requiring big solutions. That makes Klein’s book a tough sell. Nevertheless, it’s worth reading, just in case she may be right.

The “greatest market failure”

The roots of the climate problem lie deeper than capitalism, in the relationship to nature that Klein calls “extractivism”.  She defines this as “a nonreciprocal, dominance-based relationship with the earth, one purely of taking. It is the opposite of stewardship….” Both Western religion and Western science conceived nature as a subordinate thing to be used for the benefit of spiritually or mentally superior humanity. Although these ideas preceded industrial capitalism, “the ability to harness the power of coal to power factories and ships is what, more than any single other factor, enabled these dangerous ideas to conquer the world.” The expansion of production and consumption in the modern market economy was built on the foundation of fossil fuel extraction.

Implicit in the notion of the “free market” was the freedom to dominate nature. (Klein also sees domination in the relationship of capital to labor and rich countries to poor countries, a point I’ll return to later.) As long as producers and consumers of fossil fuels “pay nothing for the privilege of treating our shared atmosphere as a free waste dump,” the “invisible hand” of the market fails to channel self-interest toward the general good. Since the true cost of burning fossil fuels is not factored in when calculating corporate profits or consumer prices, neither producers nor consumers have enough incentive to change their behavior. That’s especially true if much of the environmental damage they are causing hasn’t happened yet or is happening somewhere else on the planet. Klein quotes the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change when it calls that problem “the greatest market failure the world has ever seen.”

Part One of Klein’s book is called “Bad Timing.” The world was starting to hear about scientific evidence of global warming in the 1980s, around the same time that “neoliberal” economic policies were on the ascendancy. Those policies aimed to use low taxes and deregulation to free up private capital while restricting public action. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, conservatives declared the historical struggle among economic ideologies over and free-market capitalism the winner. A grand market failure was not something they wished to consider, let alone correct. “A belief system that vilifies collective action and declares war on all corporate regulation and all things public simply cannot be reconciled with a problem that demands collective action on an unprecedented scale and a dramatic reining in of the market forces that are largely responsible for creating and deepening the crisis.”

That is why the debate over climate change is so deeply polarizing. For social critics, the climate issue is the most powerful argument against deregulated capitalism. And for precisely that reason, the defenders of that retrograde brand of capitalism have strong motives to deny or minimize the problem.

Global climate and global trade

Another bit of bad timing is that the era of global climate agreements is also the era of global free-trade agreements, and the two have conflicting goals. Klein describes Ontario’s Green Energy and Green Economy Act, which Al Gore praised as the “single best green energy [program] on the North American continent.” In order to promote renewable energy and give manufacturers of materials like solar panels incentives to come to Ontario, it included a requirement that a certain percentage of materials be locally sourced. However, the World Trade Organization ruled that this “protectionist” provision violated the terms of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Global free-trade pacts have stronger enforcement mechanisms than international agreements to reduce carbon emissions, so “trade trumps climate.”

Global free trade contributes to climate problems in other ways. China has become “a free trader’s dream…and a climate nightmare.” Corporations feeling burdened by environmental regulations or high labor costs can offshore their manufacturing operations to developing countries. There costs can be contained by low environmental and labor standards, which go together in a package deal. “The same logic that is willing to work laborers to the bone for pennies a day will burn mountains of dirty coal while spending next to nothing on pollution controls because it’s the cheapest way to produce.” That is certainly a capitalist logic, at least in one form. Producing cheap goods for export is not the only way to compete in the global marketplace, but it is an obvious way for a poor country wishing to industrialize quickly.

The resulting loss of manufacturing jobs in countries like the United States puts pressure on less educated workers to hold onto jobs in the fossil fuel industry if they have them, and to oppose environmental regulations that threaten those jobs. (Instead of working to raise environmental standards internationally, President Trump proposes to lower them domestically, protecting coal jobs by joining the global race to the bottom.) Another downside is that the goods imported from overseas that could have been produced at home have to be shipped, another big contributor to fossil fuel emissions.

Managing the economic transition

Klein maintains that running the economy on renewable energy is becoming technically feasible, but the private sector will not make the transition fast enough on its own. The profits from using fossil fuels are too great, and the profits from large-scale investments in solar or wind power are too uncertain. She sees an expanded role for governments and community cooperatives in fighting carbon emissions and promoting cleaner alternatives.

Some fossil fuel production can be curbed through carbon taxes that reflect the true cost to society of that production. Government can also charge higher royalty rates for oil, gas, and coal extraction. These additional revenues can then be devoted to investing in the “post-fossil fuel future, as well as to helping communities and workers adapt to these new realities.” Some forms of production are so irrational from an environmental perspective that they need to be banned outright. In order to get at the least accessible coil, oil and gas, companies are “blasting the bedrock of our continents, pumping our water with toxins, lopping off mountaintops, scraping off boreal forests, endangering the deep ocean, and scrambling to exploit the melting Arctic.”

Until the day comes–if it ever does–when renewables can provide as much energy as fossil fuels do now, we will need to reduce energy consumption. Here too, Klein believes that private self-interested decisions will have to be supplemented by new public policies. For example:

That means cheap public transit and clean light rail accessible to all; affordable, energy-efficient housing along those transit lines; cities planned for high-density living; bike lanes in which riders aren’t asked to risk their lives to get to work; land management that discourages sprawl and encourages local, low-energy forms of agriculture; urban design that clusters essential services like schools and health care along transit routes and in pedestrian-friendly areas….

Although she is a critic of contemporary capitalism, Klein is not as radical as some authors I have read. She does not call for an end to capitalism as such, or an end to economic growth altogether. That would be a problem especially for the less developed countries, which contain a majority of the world’s people and are counting on economic growth to lift millions out of poverty. She summarizes what she does hope for in a section called “Growing the Caring Economy, Shrinking the Careless One”:

Obviously a huge number of jobs would be created in the sectors that are part of the green transition—in mass transit, renewable energy, weatherization, and ecosystem restoration. And those sectors that are not governed by the drive for increased yearly profit (the public sector, co-ops, local businesses, nonprofits) would expand their share of overall economic activity, as would those sectors with minimal ecological impact (such as the caregiving professions…).

The richer countries, which are farther along in the transition to a service economy, might center their lives less around acquiring–and powering–material things. But they could be compensated by living lives richer in human relationships and services. (I wouldn’t be the first sociologist to suggest that modern urbanites and suburbanites sacrificed a degree of human community in their rush toward material prosperity.) Meanwhile the locus of material progress could shift more to the poorer countries. But higher standards of environmental protection would need to spread everywhere.

Continued