The existential threat to conservatism
by David Atkins
The Washington Post has another in a long line of distressing reports about the unsustainability of the modern economy, this time about the end of fish:
Between 1950 and 2006, the WWF report notes, the world’s annual fishing haul more than quadrupled, from 19 million tons to 87 million tons. New technology — from deep-sea trawling to long-lining — has helped the fishing industry harvest areas that were once inaccessible. But the growth of intensive fishing also means that larger and larger swaths of the ocean are in danger of being depleted.This is more than just a wake-up call for greater awareness of sustainable food practice. It's not even just a reminder of the current global ecological crisis. It's also a reminder of the grand ideological precipice on which conservatism itself rests.
Daniel Pauly, a professor of fisheries at the University of British Columbia, has dubbed this situation “The End of Fish.” He points out that in the past 50 years, the populations of many large commercial fish such as bluefin tuna and cod have utterly collapsed, in some cases shrinking more than 90 percent (see the chart to the right).
Indeed, there’s some evidence that we’ve already hit “peak fish.” World fish production seems to have reached its zenith back in the 1980s, when the global catch was higher than it is today. And, according to one recent study in the journal Science, commercial fish stocks are on pace for total “collapse” by 2048 — meaning that they’ll produce less than 10 percent of their peak catch. On the other hand, many of those fish-depleted areas will be overrun by jellyfish, which is good news for anyone who enjoys a good blob sandwich...
The big thing the WWF paper emphasizes, however, is that human consumption patterns are currently unsustainable. We’re essentially consuming the equivalent of one and a half Earths each year. This is possible because we borrow from the future, as is the case with fish — one day the world’s fish population may collapse, but there’s plenty for us now. WWF doesn’t quite call it a Ponzi scheme, but that’s the first metaphor that comes to mind.
So is there any way to stop this slide? After all, it’s not like people can just stop eating fish altogether. Pauly, surprisingly, is fairly optimistic. He argues that strict government quotas on catches can help stop the slide.
Economic conservatism rests on the principle that government intervention is largely unnecessary because markets in their grand wisdom correct themselves over time without the need for interference. Economic conservatism is also predicated on the notion that the best way to improve human happiness is to ensure unending economic growth as measured by Gross Domestic Product, regardless of what industries are growing, or whether that growth is sustainable.
Ecological crises like climate change, peak oil and fish depletion present an existential threat to economic conservatism. Self-correcting markets are ill-equipped to handle problems that creep up invisibly but are already too late to solve by the time market consumers truly start to take notice. Once fish or oil become so rare that their prices cause consumers to seek alternatives, the economic and ecological damage will already have been done. The problem will be beyond the point of repair.
By the time human beings in the marketplace start to realize that the earth is heating up, the feedback loops will already have gone far beyond the point of no return.
Meanwhile, the continued "growth" of the fishing, oil production, and carbon-emitting sectors of the economy, far from adding benefits to well-being, are actually guaranteeing the misery of current and future generations--to say nothing of the extinction of countless species.
In short, there is no free market solution to these problems. Which means that conservatives ultimately must insist that there is no problem in order for their ideology to maintain credibility. This isn't just a policy issue for them on which to take a stand in defense of plutocratic wealth. It's an existential threat. As I wrote five years ago apropos of climate change:
This baleful philosophy of neo-liberalism holds as its guiding principle the idea that--if given enough time--corporations in a free-market system unfettered by governmental (i.e., consumer and labor) regulation will provide the greatest variety of products and services at the lowest prices to the greatest number of people. It also holds that unswerving allegiance to this principle will result in greater worldwide prosperity, increased jobs, and a brighter future for the world's citizens.It's even truer today than it was back then.
When confronted with the abject failures of this ideology (though many would argue that rather than failures, these consequences were the entire goal from the beginning--namely, the redistribution of wealth from the middle-class and the poor to the very rich), such as America's large number of uninsured, the unquestionable disaster that was energy deregulation, the increasing gap between the massively rich and the rest of us, the disastrous consequences of IMF/World Bank-controlled "globalization", etc., the defenders of the status quo usually engage in one of two different responses:
"Give it more time and even less regulation--it will work, I swear!"
"The cure would be worse than the disease."
In the case of uninsured children or the bleak future of many African and South American countries under the weight of IMF loans, the former is the usual response: that the healthcare industry is under the weight of too many lawsuits; that corruption is still too rampant in third-world countries; that the market will eventually provide a solution for healthcare for the American poor; that we just haven't given African economies enough time.
The latter, however, is often cited as well on a host of different issues: single-payer healthcare is supposed to be worse than the present system; reasonable economic protections are supposed to lead to even greater poverty; state-controlled electricity is supposed to lead to even higher prices. Though these arguments are all demonstrably false, they are continually employed by the desperate mandarins eager to continue the fleecing of the hoi polloi.
Time and fear are the greatest assets of the neoliberal--a situation remarkably similar to that of the neoconservative, whose mendicant pleading for yet another Friedman Unit in Iraq and threats of another 9/11 in the wake of Democratic electoral victory manage to hum the same tune--if only on a lower, more ominous octave. The melody in both cases is sharp, disturbing and painful to the ears of Truth.
Global warming, however, is a problem that not only points to an utter failure of the neoliberal system, but also cannot be assuaged by appeals to fear or to a continued stay of patience on the part of the world's increasingly suffering population.
The fact that a problem of such momentous impact has gradually arisen under the watchful eyes of our quarterly-report-obsessed Wall Street bureaucrats with nary the movement of a little finger to stop it is itself proof of the myopic blindness (not to mention selfish greed) that afflicts a purely market-driven system. It is proof of a failure of long-term thinking and visionary planning in pursuit of higher and higher record corporate profits.
But the fact that global warming is an autocatalytic process--i.e., one whose negative impact will increase, feeding off itself--means that there IS NO MORE TIME. We cannot wait for the "free market" to eventually provide the bounties that the Thomas Friedmans of the world insist are at the end of the neoliberal rainbow, if only we march long and hard enough in pursuit of the mirage. The threat is upon us NOW--and if nothing is done to stop it NOW, soon nothing will be able to stop it.
And the corporations in the free market certainly won't be able to stop it themselves.
Meanwhile, there is almost no cure that could be worse than the disease of apocalyptic climate change resulting in the elimination of polar ice caps, the loss of millions of species, world wars, famines, droughts, diseases, natural disasters, mass migrations, energy depletion, and the very real possibility of global economic and even civilization collapse. One is reminded of Al Gore's joke in his potent documentary An Inconvenient Truth in which the Earth is balanced on a scale, counterweighted with gold bars. In comparison with losing one's civilization, one's freedom, one's stability, even the planetary patterns of life we have come to know and depend on, almost any economic cost is preferable.
And it is instructive to note that most of the corporatist effort has at this point been to attempt to discredit the very premises behind global warming, rather than to mitigate the perceived need to act. Because they know that if the public comes to accept the basic premises, there will be no way for them to defend the ideology that has been their prevailing basis of power for decades.