Might the neoliberals save us from eco-doom?

I start 2019 with an outrageous prediction.  It frightens me, but less so than the future if it does not happen. My clairvoyant record is mixed. I saw the 2017 Green vote collapse coming, but I also said Rex Tillerson would become Donald Trump’s strong man.

But Rex Tillerson is the clue.  T Rex spent 10 years as CEO of ExxonMobil funding climate denial lies. The strategy had been successfully tried and tested in the ‘smoking does not cause cancer’ campaign. What was emerging clinically was flatly denied. The tobacco giants held the truth at bay for several extremely profitable decades. The same strategy has been all too successful over the issue of climate breakdown, but this time the victims are all of us, not just a few million smokers. In her book This changes Everything (Penguin, Random House, 2015) Naomi Klein gives a detailed account of how closely the denial campaign has followed the tobacco/cancer script.

When he became USA Secretary of State in 2017, Tillerson advised the President to endorse the 2015 Paris Climate Change Agreement. At first sight this seems a startling volte face. I admit underestimating Trump’s mental aberrations, but I see no reason to change my assessment of Tillerson.

He is a ruthless businessman. For ten years he competently managed a corporation with a larger annual turnover than Austria.  But unlike Trump, who actually believes the climate lies, I believe Tillerson is as clear on ecological realities as (I think) I am.

But I also believe that Tillerson understands the logic of the Tragedy of the Commons, better in fact than many politicians. Businesses must deny the problem until they can be reasonably sure that all other competitors can agree, or be compelled to co-operate in whatever arrangements are necessary to avert it.  Venezuela has unintentionally demonstrated what happens if one player alone keeps its oil in the ground.

The Paris Climate Agreement, though inadequate, came closer than I expected to an acknowledgement of looming climate breakdown. China is still somewhat inconsistent, but the Chinese government’s co-operation at ‘Paris’ was a marked improvement on its previous stance. At all events, I believe it was Tillerson’s judgment that this was the moment to call a halt to unrestrained economic growth – globally.

Some years ago I heard a Radio 4 programme where the thesis was that democracy could never deal with ecological issues. Any politician who does not claim to offer a better standard of living, or at least something positive, must almost invariably be defeated by an opponent who does.

The programme made a worryingly cogent case, but was recently reinforced for me by reading The Political Brain (Drew Westen, 2008). His main theme is that emotion always trumps reason, but he also draws attentions to studies showing that humans are hard-wired against the perception of loss, which includes the expectation that you will be worse off than previously, however slightly.

The Radio 4 programme suggested that decision making should be handed over to an elite group of scientists, free from the aforesaid constraints. The IPCC has in fact spoken. I am not aware of any plans to hand power to them.

However, as George Monbiot points out, democracy has already been quietly demolished by neoliberals. Many trans national corporations (TNCs) are now more powerful than nation states. Not only Monbiot, but Global Justice Now, as well as Naomi Klein. can cite a long list of reversals of attempts by governments to stem the causes of ecological damage.

But are they following the same ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ logic as Rex Tillerson? It makes no sense for one TNC to stop operating in, say Ecuador, until they can be sure that it will be part of a watertight global arrangement.

The question is, do enough CEOs of TNCs have the wisdom I credit Rex Tillerson as having? There is a weakness in this possibility. It is in the nature of business that CEO’s of TNCs must take some huge risks – gambles. Only the successful ones remain in control. They may be aware of the problem, but we shall have to trust their judgment as to when to stop.

My prediction is not pretty, but much prettier than Professor Jim Bendell’s  assessment of the future. [If you click the link. Prof. Bendell’s post starts after the retreat ad]

If Tillerson seems an unlikely saviour, enter arch neoliberal Milton Friedman. There is an important difference between Negative Tax and unconditional basic income (UBI), but if that can be part of the watertight package which narrowly averts ecological catastrophe . . .


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