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The Decline of Nations and the Climate Crisis

As they stand today, the world’s governments are incapable of addressing the global climate crisis in time to moderate the coming catastrophe. That is just an unhappy fact.

In part, the difficulty stems from the global collapse of the nation state and the rise of corporate hegemony. We decry outsourcing of public sector responsibility to corporations. But it is probably more diagnostically helpful to look at it the other way. Corporations, with a big assist from their agents in various executive, legislative and judicial spheres, outsource to enfeebled governments whatever they can get off their books to enhance their profits.

For instance, the U.S. Supreme Court this week is expected to strike down health care reform’s individual mandate. An accurate description of that move: hapless public sector emergency rooms must take care of those individuals deemed taxing to the corporate bottom line.

While we are alarmed at the growing use of corporate police and military mercenaries, we haven’t paid enough attention to the deeper scandal. Corporations outsource their private security to national militaries. The costs – the financial costs of militarization, the human costs in deaths and injuries – are written in red ink on the public’s books.

So-called free market capitalism can’t and won’t respond the climate crisis. Here’s a thought experiment. Imagine that the earth is nothing but a corporate warehouse of goods to be exploited. Where’s the visionary competitor who wants to prudently husband those warehoused goods? The exploiters and extractors face no competition. The exploitation of Warehouse Earth is a monopoly enterprise.

At the Rio+20 conference, it was obvious to observers that global business interests had infiltrated and neutered many United Nations environmental efforts. As Friends of the Earth put it:

We are experiencing a corporate takeover of the UN, as big business exerts its influence in a number of ways. There is increased business influence over the positions of national governments in multilateral negotiations; business representatives dominate certain UN discussion spaces and some UN bodies; business groups are given a privileged advisory role; UN officials move back and forth to the private sector; and – last but not least – UN agencies are increasingly financially dependent on the private sector.

Of course, the far right sees any effort to avoid environmental catastrophe as some kind of leftist thought-control conspiracy intent on global enslavement. Glenn Beck and his fellow “Agenda 21 Conspiracy” members redefined the very word “sustainable” as:

…code for ‘centralized control over all of human life on planet earth.’

You can’t make this stuff up. Bike lanes and smart meters are to these nutbags nothing more than razor wire being wrapped around the globe by freedom-hating conspirators.

In his brilliant and thought-provoking new book, 2312, Kim Stanley Robinson refers to this era proceeding global environmental collapse as “The Dithering.” No kidding. Which brings me back to the key phrase in the opening paragraph above: “as they stand today.”

In the past, most of the world’s environmental activists have aimed at shaping the policies of governments as they exist. Successes have been incremental. But if status quo governments can’t get the job done, it means the actions must be focused elsewhere. They have to focus on dramatic changes in representative governments still open to such change.

If the paralysis is due to corporate control of government, then that control must be erased or diminished. In the U.S., that would mean a constitutional amendment ending the bizarre dystopian concept of corporate personhood. It would also mean radical and fundamental reform of political practices – full public finance of elections, for example.

Unless these and other changes are made, there is little hope of addressing climate change until long after it is too late. We are asking a machine to do a job it can’t do. We may as well ask a lawnmower to build a house.

There is a growing global environmental movement that recognizes these barriers to change. It skews younger, to the generation that will write the first histories of this crisis, a generation that’s not going to treat baby boomer leadership with anything but contempt.

That movement – and the legacy environmental groups – should strongly consider turning their focus on the reform of governments we need to act. We can’t stop agitating on critical environmental issues, but we need to recognize that right now we’re not doing much but dropping index cards in a corporate suggestion box. About the only environmental gain from that is that the corporations might be recycling the unread index cards.

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Glenn W. Smith

Glenn W. Smith