“There is no economic mechanism that can substitute for the initiative of an aroused populace.”
Socialist scholar and historian John Riddell has kindly given us permission to publish this letter, which he wrote to a Canadian green activist who supports carbon taxes as a means of fighting greenhouse gas emissions.
It was so good of you to take time today to talk to me about your work on global warming….
I am looking forward to discussing some of these issues further. In anticipation of that, here’s a thought on carbon taxes.
Whether extracted at the source or at point of consumption, carbon taxes aim to alter behavior by changing the price structure. The idea is that if fossil-fuel energy is more expensive, we will turn to alternatives.
We are experiencing a big experiment with this notion: the enormous increase in the price of gasoline. It has indeed produced a change in behavior, but only a very small, marginal one. Price increases of this sort will not persuade very many people to turn away from automobiles. The response to price stimulus is far too slow to generate change at the pace needed to meet global warming.
Why is this? Because most people have no alternative to automobile use. A minority, in the central city, can turn to public transit or bicycle – but even there, a shift is blocked by stagnant and decaying public transit services, bicycle-unfriendly streets, and chronic traffic congestion that halts all traffic except subways.
For those outside the city centre, they are stuck with their cars. More broadly, carbon taxes will reduce the standard of living of working people without giving them any option to change their lifestyle and improve its quality.
Of course, we can give the tax revenue back to those who are affected. But in that case there is no stimulus. Yet if we do not give it back, we will be robbing those of modest means for the benefit of the more advantaged. This is not ethicaly defensible; it will never be accepted.
Carbon taxes can only be one element in a rounded policy that includes creation of alternatives. This requires society-wide initiatives. And if that is to be done democratically, it requires recruiting large numbers of people to help in planning and executing these initiatives.
I fear that many are overestimating what carbon taxes can achieve. There is no economic mechanism that can substitute for the initiative of an aroused populace.
By coincidence, we received this letter from John just as were about to post the following passage from Marxist economist Paul Burkett. In it he explains, in more theoretical terms, why carbon taxes and other schemes to commoditize nature cannot overcome capitalism’s anti-ecological nature.
The tension between the system’s economic signals and the environment is not a matter of ‘missing markets’. The problem is that economic signals and incentives generated by the wage-labour relation do not, and cannot, encompass the requirements of a healthy and sustainable economy-environment interaction. They can only encompass the environmental requirements of value accumulation with all its ecological contradictions.
No matter how efficient, complete, or undistorted the price system may be, there is no way that its one-dimensional measuring rod of money can be an adequate the measure of, or guide to, the sustainable production of use-values by human labour enmeshed with nature. There is no way that the system can reverse its anti-ecological reduction of wealth to abstract labour, or the dominance of markets and money over life-values.
A system based on exploitation of labour must also exploit nature. A more ecologically sensitive system would have to overcome the separation of workers and communities from the conditions of production and put sustainable human development, not money and capital, in command of production.
That’s from Paul Burkett, Marxism and Ecological Economics: Towards a Red and Green Political Economy, Haymarket Books, 2009. pp. 293-4