Thursday, 20 February 2014

Anti-Capitalism and the Environmental Crisis

Last night, while washing up, I switched on the radio and found I was listening to "The Moral Maze". I’m not sure of the exact moral issue under discussion, but it was something to do with the contribution of science to policy-making. The witnesses sounded a pretty sensible bunch.

Then at the end of the programme came a summing up from the panel, and I was taken aback to hear Michael Portillo saying that he was inclined to doubt climate change science because so many of the people who warn about the current environmental crisis are anti-capitalist. Michael Portillo has reinvented himself, since the abrupt termination of his career in government, as a friendly TV presenter whose programmes range from nice tourist ones about trains to intelligent and moving ones about Picasso. He also gives good value on Andrew Neil’s political sofa in the middle of the night. But here he was implying – I don’t recall the exact words, so I apologise if I misrepresent him – that climate change scientists are untrustworthy because they are anti-capitalist.

Well, where to begin….

1. Even those who prefer capitalism to socialism (a very reasonable position considering the dreadful history of extreme socialism in action) must surely admit (assuming they are humane people of goodwill) that unrestrained capitalism is brutal and life-destroying. In the mid-nineteenth century roughly a thousand coal miners a year were killed in Britain and roughly a thousand merchant seamen were drowned. Only health and safety laws prevented market forces from carrying on in this murderous way. Those corporations who export their factories to countries where labour is cheap and safety regulations unenforced do not do so out of a desire to further international development, and even if factories collapse or neighbourhoods are poisoned, they only change their ways when obliged to do so.

Exactly the same point applies to global environmental considerations. Under capitalism money-making schemes that wreck the environment will only be prevented by legislation and global treaty, rigorously enforced.

Incidentally, if anyone wants to know my own position, I’m an old-fashioned Butskillite, born when Attlee was Prime Minister. We need market forces and an enterprise economy, but we also need the best possible regulatory system to make sure that the rich, powerful, energetic and lucky don’t exploit to the utmost the weak, tired, poor and unlucky.

2.  It is probably true that some of the people who are concerned about the current environmental crisis are what might be caricatured as rent-a-mob radicals. There may be others who have jumped on the environmental train for sinister private ambitions. There are others, of course, who see a handy chance to make money out of our fears, as we buy solar panels and install carbon-capturing power-stations.

It may also be true that some scientists, who should know better, and some campaigners and journalists – anyone whose job includes sexing up the truth – have damaged the cause by one-sided or distorted arguments of various sorts. 

But none of this means that there is no environmental crisis. None of this means that human activity is not making the environmental crisis worse.

3. Some things are matters of opinion, some things are matters of judgement, some things are matters of fact. The number of absolutely irrefutable facts in this world is comparatively few, but that does not excuse us from basing our judgments on evidence. Scientists in the western liberal tradition are very cautious about claiming that their current state of knowledge is irrefutable fact, but that does not mean that their findings are worthless. The consensus in the scientific community at the moment is that the world is heating up, that the climate is changing, that the oceans are dying and that the rate at which species are becoming extinct is speeding up alarmingly. I am, as I say, astonished, to hear intelligent and well-informed politicians and journalists arguing so vehemently against this consensus. As for throwing out vague allegations that climate change science is merely anti-capitalism, well, that is just fantastical.

This is only a blog-post not an academic paper, so I may have mis-remembered the quotation. But did not J M Keynes once say: “When the facts change, I change my opinion. What do you do, sir?” What indeed!

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