Neoliberalism has conned us into fighting climate change as individuals | Martin Lukacs
Stop obsessing with how personally green you live – and start collectively taking on corporate power
Would you advise someone to flap towels in a burning house? To bring a flyswatter to a gunfight? Yet the counsel we hear on climate change could scarcely be more out of sync with the nature of the crisis.
The email in my inbox last week offered thirty suggestions to green my office space: use reusable pens, redecorate with light colours, stop using the elevator.
Back at home, done huffing stairs, I could get on with other options: change my lightbulbs, buy local veggies, purchase eco-appliances, put a solar panel on my roof.
And a study released on Thursday claimed it had figured out the single best way to fight climate change: I could swear off ever having a child.
These pervasive exhortations to individual action — in corporate ads, school textbooks, and the campaigns of mainstream environmental groups, especially in the west — seem as natural as the air we breath. But we could hardly be worse-served.
While we busy ourselves greening our personal lives, fossil fuel corporations are rendering these efforts irrelevant. The breakdown of carbon emissions since 1988? A hundred companies alone are responsible for an astonishing 71 percent. You tinker with those pens or that panel; they go on torching the planet.
The freedom of these corporations to pollute – and the fixation on a feeble lifestyle response – is no accident. It is the result of an ideological war, waged over the last forty years, against the possibility of collective action. Devastatingly successful, it is not too late to reverse it.
The political project of neoliberalism, brought to ascendence by Thatcher and Reagan, has pursued two principal objectives. The first has been to dismantle any barriers to the exercise of unaccountable private power. The second had been to erect them to the exercise of any democratic public will.
Its trademark policies of privatization, deregulation, tax cuts and free trade deals: these have liberated corporations to accumulate enormous profits and treat the atmosphere like a sewage dump, and hamstrung our ability, through the instrument of the state, to plan for our collective welfare.
Anything resembling a collective check on corporate power has become a target of the elite: lobbying and corporate donations, hollowing out democracies, have obstructed green policies and kept fossil fuel subsidies flowing; and the rights of associations like unions, the most effective means for workers to wield power together, have been undercut whenever possible.
At the very moment when climate change demands an unprecedented collective public response, neoliberal ideology stands in the way. Which is why, if we want to bring down emissions fast, we will need to overcome all of its free-market mantras: take railways and utilities and energy grids back into public control; regulate corporations to phase out fossil fuels; and raise taxes to pay for massive investment in climate-ready infrastructure and renewable energy — so that solar panels can go on everyone’s rooftop, not just on those who can afford it.