comments_image Comments

Is Our System of Government Incapable of Meeting the Challenges We Face?

In the long emergency ahead, the challenges to be overcome are first and foremost political, not technological or economic.

Continued from previous page


Heilbroner’s conclusions are broadly similar to those of others, including British sociologist Anthony Giddens, who somewhat less apocalyptically proposes “a return to greater state interventionism”—but as a catalyst, facilitator, and enforcer of guarantees. Giddens believes the climate crisis will motivate governments to create new partnerships with corporations and civil society, which is to say more of the same, only bigger and better. David Rothkopf of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace likewise argues that the role of the state must evolve toward larger, more innovative governments and “stronger international institutions [as] the only possible way to preserve national interests.”

The performance of highly centralized governments, however, is not encouraging—especially relative to the conditions of the long emergency. Governments have been effective at waging war and sometimes in solving— or appearing to solve—economic problems. But even then they are cumbersome, slow, and excessively bureaucratic. They tend to fragment agencies by problem, rather like mailbox pigeonholes, but the long emergency will require managing complex systems over long time periods. Might there be more agile, dependable, and less awkward ways to conduct the public business in the long emergency that do not require authoritarian governments, the compromises and irrational messiness of politics, or even reliance on personal sacrifice? Can these be made to work over the long time spans necessary to stabilize the climate? If not, how else might we conduct the public business? Broadly, there are three other possibilities.

First, champions of markets and advanced technology propose to solve the climate crisis by harnessing the power of markets and technological innovation to avoid what they regard as the quagmire of government. Rational corporate behavior responding to markets and prices, they believe, can stabilize climate faster at lower costs and without hair-shirt sacrifice, moral posturing, and slow, clumsy, overbearing bureaucracies. The reason is said to be the power of informed self-interest plus the ongoing revolution in energy technology that has made efficiency and renewable energy cheaper, faster, less risky, and more profitable than fossil fuels. In their 2011 book, Reinventing Fire, Amory Lovins and his coauthors, for example, ask whether “the United States could realistically stop using oil and coal by 2050? And could such a vast transition toward efficient use and renewable energy be led by business for durable advantage?” The answer, they say, is yes, and the reasoning and data they marshal are formidable.

But why would corporations, particularly those in highly subsidized extractive industries, agree to change as long as they can pass on the costs of climate change to someone else? Who would pay for the “stranded” oil and coal reserves (with an estimated value in excess of $20 trillion) that cannot be burned if we are to stay below a 2 degree Celsius warming—often thought to be the threshold of catastrophe? Would corporations continue to use their financial power to manipulate public opinion, undermine regulations, and oppose an equitable sharing of costs, risks, and benefits? How does corporate responsibility fit with the capitalist drive to expand market share? Economist Robert Reich concludes that given the existing rules of the market, corporations “ cannot be socially responsible, at least not to any significant extent. . . . Supercapitalism does not permit acts of corporate virtue that erode the bottom line. No corporation can ‘voluntarily’ take on an extra cost that its competitors don’t also take on.” He further argues that the alleged convergence of social responsibility and profitability is unsupported by any factual evidence.

There are still larger questions about how large corporations fit in democratic societies. One of the most insightful students of politics and economics, Yale political scientist Charles Lindblom, concluded his magisterial Politics and Markets in 1977 with the observation that “the large private corporation fits oddly into democratic theory and vision. Indeed, it does not fit” (emphasis added). Until democratized internally, stripped of legal “personhood,” and rendered publicly accountable, large corporations will remain autocratic fiefdoms, for the most part beyond public control.

See more stories tagged with: