Greta T and Economic History

Posted in: Comment, News and Updates

Now that Jacinda Harden has shuffled off the political scene, and the Queen of Scots is following suit, that only leaves Greta Thunberg as the great progressive hope of the world. [ "progressive" as in overtly pressing a social justice agenda ].

Back in November, in reporting Ms T's new-found approach to sustainability.  I said: "If I hear her correctly, it's not people who are the problem, it's capitalism as it is based on colonialism, on imperialism, on oppression, on genocide, on racism, on oppressive extraction, and on the destructive forces of patriarchy, heteronormativity and militarism."

I noted that she obviously also thinks that there is no use trying to become sustainable in the current system as only de-growth will do.  So we shall all be poorer, including the already poor.  I believe she reiterated these themes at the annual global gabfest that is Davos – taking time off from being arrested by the deutsche Polizei – the BBC has a great photo.

To say that I am skeptical of the 'capitalism is the root of all evil' argument is an understatement, although, not being an economic historian, it's often hard to find the right words to express why that is.  This article in History Reclaimed  by Jeff Fynn-Paul has helped a bit.  He writes:

"If Greta’s vision of exploitative capitalism sounds familiar, this is because some version of it has been seducing idealistic students (my own younger self included) for the better part of 100 years.  Reading her statement, I was reminded of a similar statement put out by the editors of the (Marxist) academic journal Social Justice on the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ voyage in 1992.  In an editorial called “Five Hundred Years of Genocide, Repression, and Resistance,” they prefigured Greta’s anti-capitalist environmentalism almost word for word:  “The merciless assault on indigenous peoples served as the bedrock upon which Western culture and the capitalist economy were built.”

After blaming Western colonialism and capitalism for the destruction of the ozone layer, they conclude:  “Simply put, today’s environmental crisis results from 500 years of unbridled capitalist exploitation.  Progress has not come without a staggering price, if it can be called progress at all.”

The key charges are, first, that Western prosperity is built on the backs of non-Europeans, second, that capitalism is racist, and third, that capitalism invariably exploits the environment."

The article then goes on to explore why each of these claims are equivocal at best, and touches on the merits of dark-green v. light green issues along the way.  This is how it ends:

"To Greta Thunberg and to everyone else who has imbibed the Left’s apocalyptic vision of economic history, I say this.  Environmental degradation is a serious problem, but “overthrowing capitalism” is an absurd, nineteenth-century way of looking at the problem and its possible solutions.  Racism and exploitation are red herrings that have nothing to do with solving our climate problems.  Only a nexus of democracy and capitalism have any hope of moving the world forward to the future that every sane person wants to see.  Concluding that “progress” is bad will eventually doom the world to a second Dark Age.  So please drop the 1970s “dark green” vision of environmentalism, encourage environmentalists to learn maths, and help us in the slow, thankless work that will create a truly sustainable future.  Europe has led the world in the reduction of carbon emissions over the past 20 years, even as GDP has grown.  Growth and greenness are not mutually exclusive.  Arguably, the development and implementation of advanced technology is the only practical way to avoid climate meltdown.  Meanwhile, before repeating any more shibboleths about imperialism, colonialism, genocide, and racism, please, take a class on Western Civilization—led by someone with a modicum of knowledge about economic history.  The things you learn there might just save the world."

I recommend the article, if only because we should all be willing, once in a while, to read the other side of what we know (or want) to be true.  As for me, I find much of it quite persuasive even though saying so risks putting me beyond the pale in these censorious times ...

Posted in: Comment, News and Updates


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  • An interesting post. This notion that we have to descend into an economic dark age to 'save the earth' seems to be the all-too-common theme pushed by an elitist economic system that thrived off the 'old economic capitalist' system. I have argued for many years that what is needed is not a removal of the old capitalist system but a complete rethinking of how we 'live within the world' - A totally different worldview of what it means to be human - a more thorough ecocentric worldview. A simple statement but one requiring deep discussions that seem oblivious to most at present.