Joseph Romm’s piece in Alternet: Are we all Madoffs?

Published online 12 March 2009.

This is another short reaction to Joseph Romm’s piece in Alternet: “Why the Global Economy Is a Ponzi Scheme and We Are All Bernie Madoffs”.  Much as I’d like to agree with Romm (as he is one of the most authoritative voices out there on the topic of abrupt climate change), no, we are not all Bernie Madoffs.  The global capitalist economy marginalizes most of the world’s population while granting the status of “Bernie Madoff” to, well, Bernie Madoff — really, even granting Romm’s metaphor, the few who are privileged to take real advantage of the economy.  And, perhaps, even for them, “playing the Ponzi scheme” means “just getting by.”  Still, Romm’s use of metaphor is creative and interesting.

(crossposted at Docudharma)

In a recent posting to Alternet, Joseph Romm finds a new metaphor to describe the contradiction between an expanding capitalist economy and a finite planet Earth: Ponzi scheme!  To tell the truth, something in the tension of present-day social forces had to snap: scientists tell us that abrupt climate change (and its cause, excessive carbon dioxide buildup in the atmosphere due to fossil fuel burning) had to be confronted resolutely, yet all number of stern warnings has proved ineffective.  The Kyoto Protocol has shown to be ineffective, at least so far.  So something has to be next.

OK, the article, summarized.  Mostly this is an excoriation of our American society for not confronting abrupt climate change with any degree of seriousness, and for piddling away the time under Bush with inaction.  “The adults, in short, are not standing up,” Romm reflects gloomily.  The result, we are told, is that future generations will have to pay for our profligate energy-using habits.  The result is that we are robbing the future in much the way that a Ponzi scheme does:

In our case, investors (i.e. current generations) are paying themselves (i.e. you and me) by taking the nonrenewable resources and livable climate from future generations. To perpetuate the high returns the rich countries in particular have been achieving in recent decades, we have been taking an ever greater fraction of nonrenewable energy resources (especially hydrocarbons) and natural capital (fresh water, arable land, forests, fisheries), and, the most important nonrenewable natural capital of all — a livable climate.

After going over a summary of the Ponzi scheme that Madoff ran, Romm summarizes his metaphor:

Madoff is reviled as a monster for targeting charities. We are targeting our own children and grandchildren and on and on. What does that make us?

*****

End of summary.  The problem with all of this is that Romm’s chosen audience, the wealthy, is not likely to heed.  Don’t tell someone they’re a Madoff — do you think they’re going to listen?  Romm reflects with gloom:

…it has gotten harder and harder for any of us to pretend that we are innocent victims, that we aren’t just hoping we can maintain our own personal wealth and well-being for a few more decades before the day of reckoning.

People will reason this: “If WE didn’t maintain our own personal wealth, wouldn’t someone else jump in and grab our chunk for themselves?  Isn’t that how the rich got rich?  They didn’t just stop at some point and say, ‘I’ve got enough now.'”

The world economy is a creature of 1,125 billionaires and a bottom 50% which makes less than $2.50/ day; the American economy has a top 1% which owns half of all non-home capital assets, and a bottom 99%… well, you get the idea — a wealth pyramid.  Living proof of the cliches that “it takes money to make money,” “the rich get richer and the poor have babies” and so on.  Well, anyway, don’t piss off the rich — the cops are sworn “to protect and serve” their property rights, and you wouldn’t want them to cut you off, as the main vehicle for “getting ahead” is consuming more to make more.  So we’re not all Madoffs.  We have secure alibis.  Nobody wants a revolution, we’re all incrementalists, one baby step at a time, and so on.

Our customary power arrangements all reinforce this doomed arrangement, as Romm well notes:

By enriching the authorities, as noted, we encouraged those with the most power to solve the problem to do nothing.

By enriching those who did the most plundering the most, we enabled them to fund lobbying and disinformation campaigns to convince substantial fractions of the public and media that there is no Ponzi scheme — that global warming is “too complicated for the public to understand” and nothing to worry about.

Did WE enrich the authorities and the rich?  We can only blame this whole mess on “humanity” if we ignore the rather large populations in the nations of the South, looking on at a party to which they weren’t invited.

Maybe Romm would benefit from writing a criticism of the hypothesis of Sing C. Chew.  Civilizations rise, they screw up the environment, and they fall.  As Chew points out, climate change isn’t the main antagonist in all this; climate change is merely the knockout blow by which a civilization’s weakening of ecosystem resilience becomes fatal to its perpetuation.  As Chew says on p. 130 of his most recent book, Ecological Futures:

Market optimism, regionalization, and globalization policies and practices will be pursued until ecological and natural limits are reached.  The “business as usual” approach will be fostered similar to what we witness in the palace-centered kingship economies that persisted at the end of the Late Bronze Age crisis (the second Dark Age (1200-700 BCE, in other words).  No doubt, as the catastrophes continue to mount as effects of global warming compound and recur, more stringent measures will be implemented to maintain economic, social, and political control.

Collapse — just like we like it.  Oh and things will look so great after that 5.5 degree temperature increase, too.  Heck, I dunno.  Maybe Romm’s jeremiad will get the enviros around here to pay a little more attention to the wealth pyramid than they do now.  We can then redirect the conversation away from “alternative energy will save us” (except it won’t stop anyone from consuming fossil fuels) and “let’s have a cap and trade system” (except the current one, the Kyoto Protocol, hasn’t worked), and conversations about “being green is a personal responsibility” by the well-off for the well-off.  We need a new economy, of course, one which is in touch with ecosystems every step of the way.

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