Friedman Fantasizes about Green Capitalism

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The mentality that “natural capitalism” can save the world will lead to a the “Fortress World” scenario, the rich, walled in enclaves, periodically breached by the world’s poor

(Courtesy of Jewbonics, November 15, 2009)

Climate change is class war, extended to future generations. Capitalist economic production says, our accrual of wealth is more important than your desire to live a free life, or to live free of exploitation. Climate change is the historical output of capitalist economic relations, except, people will be paying for it in perpetuity if it is not stopped short. Chomsky puts it beautifully, characterizing the main current of capitalist ideology as “the insistence of the managers of the state-corporate sector on privileging short-term gain for the few over the hope that their grandchildren will have a decent future.”

Others demur: capitalism can be “greened,” they maintain. I don’t think so. I think the mentality that “natural capitalism” can save the world will lead to a the “Fortress World” scenario, the rich, walled in enclaves, periodically breached by the world’s poor. That top-level technocrats are talking about “natural capitalism” is a step forward, but the arguments are nonsense.

Consider Thomas Friedman’s most recent bit of punditry splattered in the NYT about “natural capitalism.”

Thomas first talks about how the US “is going to assume the primary burden of fixing Central Asia.” With non-sense stipulated as common-sense, Thomas then goes on to discuss who should be responsible for fixing other parts of the world. The Amazon? China. China is responsible for 1/4 as many CO2 emissions per/capita as the US. Since 1990, it has emitted 1/7th of the CO2 that the US has. Don’t even bother with the calculation from 1750, the right place to start. Meanwhile China has embarked on a green-stimulus program far more ambitious than the one the US has put in place, and as Greenpeace notes,

“China has set national goals for renewable energy (15% by 2020) but the US has not set renewable energy targets at Federal level. Instead, 28 states have set renewable portfolio standards with variable levels and target years. Chinese fuel economy standards are significantly stricter than those of the US. Chinese cars have already reached the level of efficiency the US aims to achieve by 2016, under President Obama’s newly established fuel economy standards.”

No go for Tom. As far as he’s concerned, “How about it, Beijing? Why don’t you step up and provide some public goods for the world for once — not because you get a direct benefit, but just because it would make the world a better place for everyone?” He’s referring to the 30 billion dollars annually that would be required to reduce deforestation by 25 percent. Carbon markets will take care of much of the rest. Righto.

“China’s days as a global free-rider should be over. China should pay its fair share — and more — since it will benefit every bit as much as the U.S., Europe and Japan.”

Tom is pissed that China has 2.2 trillion dollars of reserves. I know international political economy is a bit wonky, but it is what Friedman holds himself out as an expert on. A huge chunk of those 2.2 trillion dollars are held in dollar-denominated bonds and treasury notes. They fund American debt-driven consumption. So China loans us money so we can buy a bunch of stuff, thereby off-loading CO2 into the atmosphere, and then berate China as a “free-rider” for enabling US free-riding on the global economic system.

This is as criminally brain-dead as Friedman’s suggestion that we’re saving Afghanistan by cluster-bombing Afghani wedding parties, but it wouldn’t be a good Friedman piece if he weren’t able to cram one more clotted chunk of stupidity into it:

“I was struck by how many of the building blocks for “natural capitalism” that Gov. Waldez Góes — whose state sits at the mouth of the Amazon — is putting in place, so that he can have an economy based on preserving the rainforest rather than stripping it. He’s building on the three P’s — creating protected forest areas, improving productivity on lands that have already been cleared so farmers there will not need more, and establishing property rights for Amazonian lands, which are a legal mess, inviting Wild West land grabs and scaring off investors in sustainable agriculture.”

For Friedman, we can protect the earth by turning everything into property and putting a “value” on it. Protected forest areas are only protected when the state says so and uses violence to enforce its directives. But the Brazilian state is partially controlled by rural landlords that benefit from flouting the law, and benefit from deforestation. The lack of “property rights” isn’t the issue. The creation of “property rights” is the issue, not remediable by “natural capitalism” but by “natural socialism,” wisps of which are unlikely to ever appear in Friedman’s columns, until a typhoon hits his McMansion and sweeps it out to the Maldives, at which point maybe ignoring the world in favor of fantastical reconstructions of it will be a tad harder.


  • ibn jubayr asks a key question: “one question i have is what would the Left propose as a transitional program? how do we combine the demands for ecological sustainability and at the same time fight off the attacks by the rulers on working class gains in terms of wages, whether monetary or social?”

    There is much discussion of a ‘Green New Deal’ in the media and in some Green Parties, but is this not just a whitewashing over rotten wood, providing short term fixes while maintaining the essence of capitalism? Should we not be championing something significantly more radical and inspiring?

    I would also be interested to hear more thoughts on this.

  • Tom Friedman hasn’t “gotten it” (what real sustainable living is) for a lot of years. We should not waste time criticizing him, but try to find someone who does and get that person to write for the New York Times, and the like.

  • my view is that the US’s massive blind spots will take us to the brink. and my only hope for the survival of life anywhere near as we know it now depends on whether US-style capitalism falls apart before our natural capital does. only then can we utilise the earth’s resources at all wisely. i never used to be a socialist, but as far as i can see, we’re going to get nowhere fast with capitalism.

  • a timely post.

    i’m really impressed with Friedman’s ability to reach new lows in his role as the mouthpiece of US foreign policy. China floats US debt, and Friedman calls China a freeloader – hilarious and pathetic.

    his op-ed, of course, comes just before Obama sits down with Hu Jintao to discuss what are to be the “political” terms debated at Copenhagen, since no real none of the world’s rulers are willing to commit to anything in a time of great uncertainty.

    the economic & political crisis are at the center
    of the climate movements ability to move forward, and this will depend on its ability to insert itself into the debates and struggles that compose the crisis.

    US rulers have understood this all too well. while the climate bill in the House may have been a little naive, the Senate saw clearly how the climate change needed to be discussed in the terms of the economic crisis and now uses the language of job creation and job protection.

    will the climate bill hurt US capital more than their international competitors? is this setting the stage for protectionist measures? no other national ruling classes are willing to make any commitments if it looks like the US will be taking protectionist measures.

    the Blue Dogs swing to the right on other national debates, such as health care, and further divisions in the Democratic Party over the climate bill lead by Max Baucus are further signs of cracks, crisis, and the potential move to the right by the climate movement.

    the question is where and how will the Green Left and the climate movement intervene in these debates? if the Baucus’s of the world are given carte blanche for organizing and framing working class discontent, such as in the coal industry for instance, we may miss our opportunity to build off of ruling class weaknesses and make real gains for the working class and in the ecology movement.

    these are some of the things i’m thinking through. so far Van Jones has typified the demand for green jobs, but has done so as an advocate of and on the terms of green capitalism. one question i have is what would the Left propose as a transitional program? how do we combine the demands for ecological sustainability and at the same time fight off the attacks by the rulers on working class gains in terms of wages, whether monetary or social?

    i’d like to hear what others think.