What Must Be Done

EDITORIAL, 11 Sep 2023

#813 | Howard Richards – TRANSCEND Media Service

Videos produced by The Drawdown Project –a project that appears to be well-funded and to have the support of some (but not enough) powerful institutions—outline what must be done to prevent more climate catastrophes worse than the catastrophes already happening.  The main staff members of the project, including the narrator of the videos (Jonathan Foley) are climate scientists.  What must be done for the most part is in some measure already being done, but it is now done on too small a scale to stop or to reverse humanity´s lockstep march toward self-destruction.

What must be done includes drastic cutbacks in the carbon dioxide emitted by burning fossil fuels.  Carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels alone accounts for 62% of the global warming observed today.  About 40% of climate change is caused by other factors.  Construction using cement to make concrete and deforestation, for example, also add to CO2 emissions without being, strictly speaking, the burning of fossil fuels.  About 11% of today´s climate change is due to deforestation.

Emissions of other gases besides CO2 like methane and nitrous oxide also cause climate change.   Rice cultivation and gas belching farm animals are major methane culprits.  Fertilizer use is a major nitrous oxide culprit.  Fluorinated gases leaked, for example, from refrigeration, are also important.

Going back to the single biggest factor, burning fossil fuels, about 25% of the damage –the largest single component of that factor—is burning fossil fuels to generate electricity.  Food production, industry, and transportation (gas guzzling autos and airplanes) are not far behind.

Another part of the picture is formed by the sinks that take C02 and other harmful gases out of the atmosphere.  Natural sinks that remove CO2 from the atmosphere are found in forests, natural soils, and oceans.  To save itself and the biosphere humanity must, first and foremost, reduce emissions.  And to arrive at the sustainable planet that it is necessary –not optional—to create, humanity must follow up by protecting and enhancing natural sinks.

Without pretending to be social scientists or political philosophers, the climate change scientists at Project Drawdown assert that social justice and protecting the cultural heritage and land rights of indigenous peoples are indispensable components of transitioning to a sustainable world.  Foley (the narrator) confesses to being mystified by the apparently inexplicable tragic spectacle of human beings bitterly divided and hostile to one another, polarized and armed.  Project Drawdown might be heard to be shouting over and over,

“Whatever it is that you are doing that is keeping you from doing what must be done to reverse climate change, stop doing it, and instead do what must be done.”

Some causal connections explaining the social paralysis standing in the way of doing what must be done are not hard to see.  Two examples:

  1. The general objective of South Africa´s National Development Plan (NDP) is to achieve 5% annual economic growth, and then to use the surplus generated by the growth to eliminate extreme poverty by 2030.  The NDP pays lip service to fighting climate change, but in the end the overriding goal of growth trumps doing what must be done.  The NDP funds building a new railroad to carry coal from mines to ports in order to create jobs and to grow the economy with the revenues earned by selling coal to India.
  2. Appalachian miners afraid of losing their steady jobs and being dumped into the precariat, rally in support of a populist presidential candidate carrying signs proclaiming, “Trump mines coal.”

These easy to see examples of the frustration of ecology by economics suggest a simple general approach to understanding polarization and paralysis:  economic imperatives inherent in the dominant system clash with what must be done.   It is a simple approach that might be classified, if it must be assigned to a discipline, under the heading “philosophy of history” or “global dynamics,” or “sociological theory” “global political economy” or “International Relations Theory.”  Whatever rubric best suits it, the same approach, I claim, that explains paralysis regarding  doing what must be done a large scale to cope with climate change, helps  explain also paralysis in saving succeeding generations from the scourge of war;  paralysis in stopping organized crime, drug lords, and the steady advance of narco culture; and in general the inability of human beings as a species to work together to do what should be done and must be done.

Whatever the problem, the primary necessity to satisfy investors, where investors are the key decision makers deciding whether the economy stops or starts, is constraint number one.  This constraint further shortens the already short list of possible, as distinct from merely imaginable, solutions to the problem.

Here I do not mean that structural explanations exclude human creativity, rule out conspiracy theories, and deny the existence of conscious decision-making in one great Levi Straussian structuralist straitjacket.   I mean striking a balance recognizing both structural imperatives and conscious agency.

A good example of such a balance is Alfred Marshall´s Law of Substitution.  Whenever a more efficient way to run a profitable business doing or making something, for example generating electricity, is discovered, it will become, ceteris paribus, a substitute that will drive out old-fashioned customary practices.  Emile Durkheim makes a similar point when he gives as an example of a social fact, the fact that a businessperson could, if she or he chose to do so, opt for using obsolete technologies, but to do so would be to invite certain ruin.

Nonetheless, Durkheim cannot deny a flip side explicit in Marshall:  It is the conscious and often creative efforts day after day of businesspeople seeking success every day for their business, that drives an overall historical trend that leaves obsolete and inefficient technologies behind.   One could add other trends similarly driven.

So, I allege that the simple fact that in today´s business civilization most humans are on most days doing what they must do, to solve their immediate need to get by, pay their bills, and to keep their business going if they have a business, trying to make sure that in today´s win lose world, they are among the winners and not among the losers,  explains why everybody does not, immediately upon receipt of the news that a green transition is not optional but necessary, just down tools, pick up new tools, rewire brains, and set about doing what the Drawdown Project says humanity must do. This is not a complete explanation, but I do not know of any better approach to a first approximation.

Let´s approach the big picture via Keynes.  It changes everything, Keynes writes, to deny the best-known law in economics, Say´s Law, and to appreciate the far-reaching consequences of a chronic weakness of effective demand.  Its flip side is the chronic weakness of the inducement to invest.  Hardhearted as we have become living in the framework of today´s dominant institutions, we simply take it for granted and see it as natural that employers do not hire people because everybody needs a dignified livelihood, but rather if and when it is profitable to hire them.  Nothing seems more natural than pulling the USA out of a long depression with war spending, and then continuing economic growth led by government deficits featuring a permanent warfare state.  Nothing seems more natural than the elites (i.e., the investors) of the rest of the world counting on U.S. trade deficits to generate profitable trade surpluses for them.   Nothing seems more natural –in today´s dominant warped vision of reality—than reliance on permanent war establishments to generate economic security for millions who would not otherwise have it.

Designing a sustainable world that meets human needs in harmony with nature is not likely to figure as a relevant way to occupy one´s mind to a young person pursuing a military career.   That young person is quite likely to be seen by his or her family as a success compared to siblings and cousins who do low paying part time work at McDonald´s.  The less successful members of the family often tend to drift off into drug abuse and into the regular practice of the seven deadly sins.

It does not take much philosophy to persuade the former, the healthy young people pursuing a military career, that the moralistic rhetoric in the media that portrays her or him as honorably serving high ideals with advanced military technologies, trumps the agenda of the Drawdown Project.  Something that does spark their interest, when push comes to shove, is advancing their careers by accumulating combat hours.

There is not necessarily any coherent relationship between the life-worlds of the many different participants in the drama of history –between what is going on in their heads and what they do every day – and the structural fact that the system only works, with some unstable semblance of stability, when huge and unpayable debts are making up for the chronic weakness of effective demand and for the weakness of incentives to invest.

Looked at from a nonviolent perspective, the preceding simple idea is the flip side of another simple idea: what Mahatma Gandhi called modernity´s lack of dharma.  Gandhi´s coining of the word adharma names the norms that organize the life and define the personality of homo economicus. 

Step one of theorizing the dynamics moving history in today´s global economy should, I allege, consist first and foremost of identifying the constitutive rules of markets as causal powers.  They are the generative mechanisms that govern, ceteris paribus, the physical organization of the production of the means of subsistence that makes human life possible in today’s global economy.

It does not follow, however, that what most motivates human beings is the acquisition of the means of subsistence.  For example, there are many cases where the need for dignity and self-respect trumps the need for food.

It does follow that market economies are economies with losers. Many people cannot sell anything at a high enough price to make it possible to sleep legally in some space on the planet and to avoid the humiliation of not being able to play the roles of a normal member of society.  Violence and paralysis are built into the constitutive rules of buying and selling.  And not only because those rules organize and rationalize a world where warfare states are generated by a chronic need to strengthen the inducement to invest.

It follows that Kantian dreams of perpetual peace achieved by enforcing Kantian ethics and Kantian jurisprudence on a global scale are not much different from political realism.  Liberals inspired by Kant or Kant-like ideals, advocate rigid norms legally and morally obligatory everywhere and everywhen.  Often, they call it the rule of law.

The counter-dreams of the political realist define themselves as non-Kantian. Realist prescriptions can be defined as counter dreams (counter to idealistic liberalism).  They tolerate atrocities that allegedly are necessary atrocities. It turns out, nota bene, that using evils to fight allegedly greater evils often is a way to minimize the political risks to investors.  Thus it serves the cause of high economic growth and low inflation.   It rationalizes a global rule of law, a single world market organized by world rules, backed by the military might of a hegemon.  The classic Kantian and realist viewpoints (today joined by several others) turn out to be complementary ways to organize a world order that systematically generates humiliation, conflict, and violence.  Both lend themselves to imagining that the problem (growth) is the solution (growth).   Neither one takes seriously the findings of the climate scientists or aims to liberate humanity from the tyranny of economic imperatives.


Prof. Howard Richards is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace, Development and Environment. He is Research Professor of Philosophy at Earlham College and he also currently teaches in the University of Cape Town`s EMBA programme. He was educated at Redlands High School in California, Yale, Stanford, UC Santa Barbara, University of Toronto, Harvard and Oxford. His books include: The Evaluation of Cultural Action, a study of an application of Paulo Freire´s pedagogical philosophy in rural Chile (London Macmillan 1985); Letters from Quebec; Understanding the Global Economy; The Dilemmas of Social Democracies; Gandhi and the Future of Economics; Rethinking Thinking; Unbounded Organizing in Community; and The Nurturing of Time Future. His new book, written with the assistance of Gavin Andersson, Economic Theory and Community Development: Why Putting Community First Is Essential for our Survival, is available from the publisher, Dignity Press, and from Amazon and other major booksellers, as a print book and as an eBook. Email: howardrichards8@gmail.com and howardri@earlham.edu