For the past year, many commentators have assumed that once the COVID-19 pandemic fades away, the world’s governments will understand that another global task awaits them: addressing the consequences of climate change. COVID-19 has already upset those calculations, at least in terms of timing. Even when things appeared to be improving during the summer of 2020, none of the governments, even the ones that seemed most successful in controlling the pandemic, showed an interest in thinking about future challenges. Instead, they focused on how the consumer economy might get back to its “normal” pattern of continuous growth and how the accumulated debt provoked by the crisis could be accounted for.
Initially, the realization that our societies can continue to function in non-optimal conditions, even after the shutdown of a significant proportion of economic activity, led to speculation about how we may no longer really need to spend hours in traffic jams, submit to choking air pollution and jump from one plane to another to get our pressing business done. A change of lifestyle seemed in the works. The idea emerged that we could to some degree adapt to something less frenetic than what had become the high-tension consumer society obsessively committed to exponential growth.
Out of Many, Two: The American Art of Choosing Sides
The confusion wrought by an accelerating — and a more devious than anticipated — pandemic, now accompanied by the increasingly ambiguous hope that the arrival of vaccines will bring closure, has left all those hopes of lifestyle change in a state of suspended animation.
While no one can now predict what the economy will look like at the end of 2021 and whether the businesses forced to press the pause button for the better part of a year will function, most people are aware that the clock is still ticking on the climate crisis. The Guardian now informs us that humanity is crying out for an answer: “The biggest ever opinion poll on climate change has found two-thirds of people think it is a “global emergency.”
Today’s Daily Devil’s Dictionary definition:
1. For human beings, an existential threat.
2. For politicians, a minor annoyance that urgently needs to be sidelined.
Most people will not be surprised by the results of this survey, for the simple reason that the numbers tell us what most people actually think. In contrast, if we polled the governments of the world to find out how many had begun acting to counter this global emergency, the answer would be zero or close to zero. Until January 20 of this year, the most powerful economy in the world had decided to not even think about the question.
To demonstrate that at least thinking was now possible, on January 27, newly elected US President Joe Biden reaffirmed his commitment to return to the Paris Climate Agreement and “signed a sweeping series of executive actions — ranging from pausing new federal oil leases to electrifying the government’s vast fleet of vehicles — while casting the moves as much about job creation as the climate crisis.”
For the moment, Biden’s plan is modest, to say the least. He has put more emphasis on purchasing emission-free vehicles (presumably made in the USA) with a view to creating jobs than on the work of transforming an economy built to deplete resources and deregulate the climate. One of his initiatives seeks to “identify new opportunities to spur innovation,” which is also more about economic growth and the creation of jobs than it is about economic paradigm shift.
The Times offers this realistic reminder: “Mr. Biden called on the campaign trail for overhauling tax breaks to oil companies — worth billions of dollars to the oil, coal and gas industries — to help pay for his $2 trillion climate change plan, although that plan is expected to face strong opposition in Congress.” Recent history tells us that Congress is extremely accomplished at engineering bailouts and tax cuts for oil companies, but singularly lacks experience in actually taxing them. In contrast to the predicted inaction of the new administration, The Guardian notes the eagerness and sense of self-sacrifice of the ordinary people polled: “Even when climate action required significant changes in their own country, majorities still backed the measures.”
For five hundred years, the world has been organized around two concepts: the nation-state and a globalized economy. The development of a global economy required the existence of nation-states with effective central governments. The emerging nation-states rapidly evolved to become mature managers of their own increasingly industrialized economy. They did so precisely because of their ability to mobilize the resources of a global economy. That implied setting the rules permitting them to exploit, effectively and efficiently, other people and their resources. The model of the nation-state could not have taken its modern form without pursuing a policy of deliberate colonialism tending toward economic empire.
Along the way, modern nation-states, most of which began as monarchies, evolved into either democracies or people’s republics. This essentially meant offering a stake in the gains to the nation’s population to ensure its acceptance of a system that was built on exploiting other populations and resources. If many of the citizens of these democracies did not directly profit from the colonial system that defined the global economy, they at least had indirect access to some of the gains thanks to manufacturing and the gradual development of a consumer society. They could also feel privileged and culturally superior to those who were exploited overseas. This became a major psychological contributor to the stability of modern nation-states.
It has also led to a state of severe, endemic instability for the entire planet. All political power lies in the individual nation-states who compete for their maximum share of global resources. No state is willing to give ground to another or even to a well-organized group of nations. No effective global conscience, let alone global government, is possible. At the same time, the people of the earth, and especially the young whose lives will extend decades into the future, are beginning to understand that something must be done while realizing that their own nation-state is not likely to make it happen.
The United States has consistently preferred to defend the status quo of an economy. After all, it sets the economy’s rules — thanks to the dollar, its omnipresent military and its successful engineering of a global consumer economy. Republicans have built climate denial into their civic credo. Democrats have done what is necessary to appear more open than Republicans. But the party stalwarts, with Biden as the archetype, have shown no commitment to going further than seeming marginally more committed than the Republicans.
This poll demonstrates how the current global system based on the idea of competing democratic nation-states has betrayed the fundamental principle of democracy. When the ideology of democracy began to prevail in the late 18th century, its stated intention was to ensure that the interests of the people would prevail. Because all political logic was confined within the boundaries of individual states, the shared interests of the people of the earth could be forgotten or dismissed as irrelevant.
That is what we are seeing today. Distancing himself from Donald Trump, Joe Biden promises to marginally reduce the massively disproportionate contribution of the US to global warming. To do so, he must emphasize job creation rather than seek a response to a global emergency. This solution implies more manufacturing, not less damage to the environment. With its global hegemonic position, the US is the only nation that can lead and set the tone for the rest of the world. The sad reality is that Biden and the Democrats cannot even lead at home. In all likelihood, the timid measures Biden is proposing will be blocked or watered down by the Republican opposition.
Two-thirds of humanity are crying out for a solution to two obvious crises. The nation-states have demonstrated their ineptness at addressing the pandemic. Populations, even in peaceful countries like the Netherlands, are already revolting. What the nation-states have failed to do for their own populations reveals how unlikely it is that they can respond to the needs of all of humanity. It may be time to rethink all of our institutions. Or rather, it may be too late.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary on Fair Observer.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.