November 2, 2012 · 0 Comments
Above: A photographer in Chicago shoots waves generated from the remnants Hurricane Sandy as they crash into the shoreline of Lake Michigan on Oct. 30. Waves up to 25 feet high generated by winds up to 50 mph were expected on the lake.
By Costas Panayotakis:
In a column published in the November 1, 2012 edition of The New York Times Nicholas Kristof describes Hurricane Sandy as a wake-up call that underlines the urgency of dealing with climate change. (i) Going through the reasons that, according to scientists, “rising carbon emissions could make extreme weather – like Sandy – more likely,” Kristof notes the absence of climate change from the debates between Obama and Romney and declares himself puzzled about the Republicans’ failure to grapple with this issue. According to Kristof, this “failure is odd, because in other areas of national security Republicans pride themselves on their vigilance.”
Kristof’s naiveté on this issue reflects the limitations of what sociologists might call the functionalist conception of politics. This conception assumes that, like other institutions in our society, the political system is set up to satisfy the needs of the general public. Failure of institutions to do so is then viewed as a dysfunction which calls not for the radical overhauling of the dysfunctional social system that fails to serve the general public but for moderate social reforms that will allow the social system to serve its true purpose. The reason Sandy is a wake-up call, Kristof reasons, is that it serves as a reminder that a social system that allows climate change to proceed unabated also fails to defend the general public’s interest in ‘national security.’ In this sense, Republicans (and Democrats) are viewed as parts of a dysfunctional political system that fails to align itself with the commitment to national security that both parties proclaim. At the same time, however, Kristof takes care to include the media in the dysfunctional institutions that are contributing to the problem: “Politicians have dropped the ball, but so have those of us in the news business. The number of articles about climate change fell by 41 percent from 2009 to 2011, according to DailyClimate.org.”
While Kristof seems completely mystified by the dysfunctional treatment of climate change by politicians and the media, he seems to have a better idea about what an appropriate response to climate change might be: “we may need to invest in cleaner energy, impose a carbon tax or other curbs on greenhouse gases, and, above all, rethink how we can reduce the toll of a changing climate. For example, we may not want to rebuild in some coastal areas that have been hammered by Sandy.” Kristof’s functionalist approach to climate change may prevent him from figuring out why some of the appropriate steps he cites have neither been adopted nor even discussed by the two men who hope to be president for the next four years, but fortunately there is another approach within sociology that can easily explain what Kristof can’t. This approach, known as conflict theory, can be traced back to the work of Karl Marx and points out that, in inegalitarian societies, social institutions reflect not the interests of the general public but the ability of wealthy and powerful minorities to make social rules suit their interests.
In today’s societies, one such minority is the capitalist class. Thanks to its control of the economy, the capitalist class is able to deploy the surplus produced by working people in ways that ensure its continued prosperity and domination. It can, for example, use part of the surplus to shape policies in ways that secure its continued externalization of the ecological costs of its economic activity. The fact that a carbon tax would force capitalist interests that benefit from consumerism and the overconsumption of fossil fuels to bear the cost of their actions rather than shifting it to vulnerable populations that perish from extreme weather phenomena in Bangladesh, Haiti or New Orleans helps to explain why politicians, dependent on the financial support of such capitalist interests, are not overly eager to discuss, let alone adopt, Kristof’s solutions. Another part of the surplus is used by capitalist elites to spread misinformation about the causes and seriousness of climate change. Despite the overwhelming consensus within the scientific community about the seriousness of the climate crisis, capitalist elites have been busy bankrolling ‘experts’ and ‘think tanks’ that propagate climate ‘scepticism’. As for the failure of the media to expose the dangers of climate change, isn’t that merely a reminder that these media are part of the capitalist economic system, controlled by capitalist interests and dependent on revenues from corporate advertising which contributes to consumerism and the environmental devastation of the planet?
The deification of self-interest that provides capitalism with necessary ideological support doesn’t help either. In propagating the ideology that competition in capitalist markets can ensure that the pursuit of economic self-interest does not lead to exploitation but to the common good, the capitalist class also legitimizes a self-interested attitude that can prove a serious obstacle to any effort to do anything about climate change. After all, why would self-interested individuals today, who may in various ways benefit from the fossil-fuel based status quo, agree to any taxes or social reforms that may reduce their own benefits for the sake of unborn generations? In all these ways, the externalization of the environmental effects of economic activity is not a puzzling dysfunction that we can do away with by tweaking the status quo. This externalization, and the deepening ecological crisis it has produced, is a predictable product of a capitalist system that can only continue to generate profit for the few by devastating the lives and environmental conditions of the many. But this is the kind of ‘inconvenient truth’ that you are not likely to read in the pages of The New York Times…
Costas Panayotakis is Associate Professor of Sociology at CUNY’s New York City College of Technology and author of Remaking Scarcity: From Capitalist Inefficiency to Economic Democracy (Pluto Press).
(i) See Nicholas Kristof, “Will Climate Change Get Some Respect Now?,” http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/01/opinion/kristof-will-climate-get-some-respect-now.html?ref=global-home