Leaving aside for a moment the phenomenon of a maverick businessman turned maverick politician overturning the neoliberal consensus, I have explored in earlier blogs the rules of the game “The Tragedy of the Commons”. Chapter 6 of my book ‘Citizens’ Income and Green economics’ explains it, but here is an attempt at a précis.
Where expansion has been possible for any length of time, a culture will evolve to take maximum advantage. This is now the case worldwide, for the first time in human history.
There are, or were, numerous so-called ‘primitive’ tribes which had learnt to live sustainably within their resources. They varied enormously, but common features tended to be ways of minimizing conflict, and sharing rather than fighting over resources.
But such societies were inevitably at a disadvantage as other societies which had not learned this skill encroached on them. Expanding societies were not merely bigger than their more sensible neighbours, but competition and an individualistic ethos would usually be the optimum way of exploiting resources.
But when Limits to Growth becomes an issue, the competitive, aggressive culture which has served them well cannot automatically transform itself. The logic of the ‘Tragedy’ is that if one player decides to opt out and demand less from the environment, they do nothing to safeguard that environment: they merely put themselves at a disadvantage vis a vis the rest of their competitors.
Something like this must have occurred on Easter Island, but fast forward to the modern, global situation. The optimum strategy for a mega-corporation making huge profits, but which is nevertheless aware that over-exploitation is now looming is to deny it, put resources into ‘proving’ it is not happening, and to continue competing and expanding aggressively, for as long as they dare.
It now transpires that Exxonmobil has followed this strategy quite closely. The company was aware of the phenomenon of climate change as long ago as the 1970s, but they judged – correctly – that they could continue to exploit diminishing resources, and endanger the ecosphere, for several more decades.
But these people are not mad, though they are appalling risk takers. Exxonmobil knows that trashing the ecosphere, especially the major aspect , climate change, is not conducive to their long term profitability. But how and when to stop?
Answer: only when everybody else agrees, or can be compelled to join in. Which is what seems to have happened last December in the ‘Paris’ Agreement on Climate Change. The two large long term national offenders. China and the USA, both signed, and most major oil companies also paid lip service. Exxonmobil did not, but even their attitude has begun to soften, now that it is going to be all major players.
This links up with another point I made last week, that only an autocratic world order would dare to enforce the measures necessary to ensure a sustainable future. Democratically elected governments would never risk the unpopularity.
Or would they? Does Trump have the biggest surprise of all up his sleeve? But even if not, I pin my hopes on the possibility that the mega corporations know which side their bread is buttered. Even without TTIP, I think we are stuck with global neoliberal government. The possible struggle between Trump, and a global ruling neoliberal consensus which has perhaps just done a major volte face from denialism to defending ‘Paris’, will be interesting.
This is not the way I would have preferred to save a planet fit for future generations. The corporations will for example not be interested in curbing the likely domestic excesses of the emerging Trump administration, or the destruction of rainforest habitats, but with the Citizens’ Basic Income as a catalyst, it should be possible for a new culture to emerge which protects more than short term profits.
At least if I am right, we may keep the global temperature down to a level which does not trigger runaway arctic methane release, and we shall get the opportunity to try to civilize our now post-democratic world.