Inequality and climate change. These are humanity’s most pressing
problems according to the president of the World Bank. Many would
agree, and further note that impacts of climate disruption hit hardest
on the poor.
Where is our economic system taking us? The powerful forces of
industrialization and globalization may have raised living standards for
billions, but have they also sowed the seeds of collapse?
Sustainable Tompkins is hosting a spring salon series on ‘The Climate, the Market, and the Commons’
at 7 pm on Thursday evenings at the Sustainability Center, 111 N.
Albany, on May 8, June 5, and June 19. The first salon on the topic of
climate denial attracted a large audience for a lively discussion on why
we seem stuck in denial even as predictions of catastrophic climate
This salon-style event was hosted by Gay Nicholson of Sustainable Tompkins.
Our topic on May 8 was on on the role of business and technology in
both creating and solving the problem of climate change. Our guest
speakers were be Stu Staniford (computer scientist and blogger at Early
Warning and the Oil Drum), Marty Hiller (science writer and EcoVillage
resident), and Karl North (former sheepfarmer and eco-agriculture
instructor, and writer on systems thinking tools for a sustainable
future). They kicked off the salon discussion by framing the debate
over whether we will experience a “power conversion” scenario via green
capitalism or a “power down” scenario driven by economic collapse…. or
some combination designed for a more sustainable transition driven by
society and its elected representatives.
Advocates for clean energy, such as The Solutions Project,
point to the potential environmental, social, and economic benefits of a
swift conversion from dirty fossil fuels to a portfolio of renewable
energy sources combined with highly efficient systems for transport,
housing, and manufacturing. Leaders like Van Jones of Green For All have
worked to demonstrate how this green energy conversion could
simultaneously address inequality by creating thousands of good jobs in
Skeptics of this scenario may applaud clean energy initiatives, but
have strong doubts that the Market will self-regulate away from the
precipice of climate chaos. After all, ExxonMobil is assuring
shareholders of its intention to fully exploit their oil and gas
reserves, while Russia and other circumpolar nations are jostling for
position in the race to drill the Arctic as the polar icecap melts. The
Koch brothers and other fossil fuel interests are spending millions to
defeat the spread of rooftop solar. Given the nature of capitalism with
its devotion to profits and the geopolitical power-seeking interests of
Russia,China, and others, how will a transition to renewables move fast
enough to stop global temperature increases to dangerous levels?
Furthermore, skeptics point to the paradox of energy efficiency
measures that have consistently resulted in more carbon emissions as the
savings from efficiency allows more consumption in other areas. Market
controls such as cap and trade systems have been ineffective and
consistently corrupted; and carbon taxes thus far have been too low to
deter consumption, while potentially creating a perverse dependency for
governments on tax revenues from carbon pollution.
What are our choices in going forward? How much intervention in the
marketplace is possible under capitalism? Is there any way to power
down our economy in order to protect the future without triggering a
painful collapse? Is it reasonable to have faith in technology advances
to either aid in power conversion or geoengineer ways to cope with
The purpose of our conversation salon is not to agree on answers to
these questions, but rather to get used to asking them and exploring
their implications with each other. The pathway out of our collective
denial is built from our engagement with the issues and greater
confidence in our ability to create solutions.