Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to Socialism or regression into Barbarism.
- Rosa Luxemburg, "Junius Pamphlet" 1916

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Built on the backs of negative externalities

Forgive me for being remiss in posting. I've been preparing for my annual performance review (which is tomorrow, eek), so I've been playing tag with methane flux data for two weeks. However, every so often I see something in my morning blog feed that simply demands response. In this case, it's my favorite professional asshole, Jeffrey A. Tucker.

Mr. Tucker is a sad panda, you see. The webmaster of the Mises Institute, a libertarian think-tank, his articles all have the same mantra: Government is stealing your modern conveniences for no reason. 1 gallon per flush toilets? Low flow shower heads? Compact fluorescent light bulbs? Low-phosphorous dish detergent? Abominations unto Nuggin, all of them! Why, every one of them is an example of the reigning in of capricious resource consumption and reduction of negative externalities. If someone had invented The Sardonic Shit-Cannon (TM), that took the contents of a house's flushed toilets and fired them straight up into the air so raw sewage rained down on the town below, Mr. Tucker would get bent out of shape when the EPA banned it.

Because oh, he hates the EPA and the "goofy environmentalists." Poor saps, thinking that taking a swim in a non-poisonous river or having access to clean drinking water is more important than being able to clean your dishes without the horror of rinsing them off first. The nerve of us, asking an Important Man like Mr. Tucker to forgo consuming 20 times as much water per day as, say, someone from Cambodia, just so we can stop the Colorado River from drying up, or the Albuquerque Aquifer from collapsing. And to suggest that he might bear the "pain in the neck to carry a full tray across the room, spill a bit here and there, and then balance it carefully in the freezer," just so he can reduce his energy consumption a little bit and play his part in staving off the fucking climate apocalypse. Why should he care? He can afford the finest air conditioning and electronic security in a home high on a bluff in a safe region.

People like Jeff Tucker live on negative externalities. Libertarians exist in a fantasy world, where none of their choices have consequences, where they can consume and pollute as much as they want and "the market" will magically fix everything. They refuse to believe that they can buy a huge plasma TV directly because a family in Burma lives in abject poverty. They refuse to hear that the huge diamond rock they just gifted to their sweetheart was bathed in blood of African rape victims. They don't care that they can have a lithium-ion battery in their Blackberry because the US military blew up some Afghan kid's parents to secure the region's mineral resources. It doesn't matter that the capital gains bonus they used to buy a new hot tub came because an entire Michigan town was thrown out of work and factory moved to Vietnam. They don't see it, it doesn't appear in their ledgers and their portfolios, and they don't. Give. A shit.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is why we can't have a nice planet. We will face fires and storms and rising waters and poisonous tides and collapsing fisheries and nuclear leaks and groundwater contamination and rampant disease. We will face these horrors, and more, so Mr. Tucker and his socialite pals can live in their air-conditioned McMansions on the bluff. Because Mr. Tucker and friends so hate to be inconvenienced, and they will peddle their influence with right-wing lawmakers to take away those pesky environmental regulations that only matter to people down in the shit, anyway.

It's about freedom. Didn't you get the memo?


  1. Goddamn your writing grabs one by the throat. The penultimate paragraph is one of the best visceral summations of global corporate capitalism that I've ever read. There really is that X-then-Y connection.

    But people don't see it. I wish there was a way to make them see. Changing an entire vast social and economic system will be hard, but in principle it should be much easier to get people to feel some empathy for other human beings who are suffering. But those who suffer are far away from the comfortable, affluent elites on the bluff. Another image that will stick with me from your post.

    I've read some speculative works drawing on work in anthropology, ecology, game theory, neurobiology, and evolutionary biology, to the effect that human cultures across the world have gradually been undergoing a moral evolution. Steven Pinker, I believe, calls this an expansion of the "moral sphere." An increase over time in the mental circle that encompasses who should be treated as a human being.

    Once upon a time, in this view, the circle of humanity included only males of the aristocracy, not the slaves and serfs and commoners. And the aristocracy that came to dominate the world was that of the white Europeans, collectively known as "the West." Now, at least in principle, the moral sphere includes all human beings.

    But clearly not in practice. I think it will be very important to make sure, if we can, that the circle continues to expand in practice as well as principle. Even with climate change and peak oil. I think this was the point you were making in your post on "Feminism at the End of the World."

    Final little note on the moral circle, and apologies if I've told this anecdote before. But I really like it. When Columbus landed in the Caribbean, he planted a flag claiming all these lands for God and the King of Spain. When Apollo 11 landed on the moon almost 500 years later, the crew planted an American flag, but also a plaque that said "We came in peace for all humankind."

    Two different symbols, the second hinting at some moral evolution. If there is more progress, a flag planted some day on Mars will represent everyone on Earth (the UN flag, for example), and a memorial will not lay claim to the planet at all, but will simply note that human beings came to see what was there, on behalf of all the other humans watching on the home world, far away.

    I do love my romantic delusions.

  2. Ooops -- the Apollo 11 plaque actually said "for all MANkind." More room for progress at the Mars landing.

  3. I'd also like to think that humanity in general is on an upward slope. After all, only a few centuries ago slavery was openly practiced by virtually every human civilization, capital punishment for relatively minor infractions was common worldwide, and wholesale slaughter of civilian populations in war was widely practiced. This horrible things hang on, of course, but are not as ubiquitous as they once were. But social progress is a heavy and slippery thing, and humanity backslides all the time, particularly during periods of stress. My greatest fear for the anthropocene is the return of a theocratic dark age, and the attendant marginalization and persecution of all who do not conform. It's no coincidence that I constantly wail on libertarians; while not theocratic, exactly, they do harken back to the "property rights are the ONLY rights" attitudes that permeated the feudal structure of the dark ages. After all, dark age Europe was a libertarian utopia for all people, if you simply adopt a fairly narrow definition of "people." Modern Libertarians, being overwhelmingly white, male, wealthy, and privileged, seem to remember the old definition of "people" very well indeed. And if I give my last breath undermining any influence those dinosaurs have in the coming age, I'll spend it gladly.