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  • Pierre Smith Khanna

A Special Issue on... The Economist


Every now and then there comes a time when rhetoric coming out of the establishment starts to falter when faced with real life. Think of the Church asking Galileo to prove “beyond doubt” that the Earth orbits the Sun. Or Donald Trump’s response, when pressed on climate change (“I think it changes both ways”). Both are examples of what happens when one’s beliefs, values and actions are challenged by reality, causing a strange jarring effect.

Such was the feeling when reading The Economist’s leader on climate change. On the one hand, it acknowledges the depth of crisis that the world is facing: it is costing lives, will affect most the poor and least responsible for the crisis, solving it is a matter for the whole of government not simply the environmental department, and that the world economy needs to be decarbonised, a feat which, given its addiction to the burning of fossil fuels in ever bigger quantities, “requires a near-complete overhaul”. Climate change needs to be addressed now: “it is not a problem that can be put off for a few decades.”

On the other hand, it states that “it is foolish to think all this can be done in ten years or so, as demanded by many activists and some American presidential hopefuls.”

“What to do is already well understood. And one vital task is capitalism’s speciality: making people better off.” Now, just before this sentence, The Economist was a little more clear-headed when stating that “the changing climate of the planet and the remarkable growth in human numbers and riches both stem from the combustion of billions of tonnes of fossil fuel to produce industrial power, electricity, transport, heating and, more recently, computation”. In other words, that the very thing that made people better off is also the principle cause of climate change.

This uncomfortable fact might well have been omitted were it not so widely accepted. So too the growing discontent with the capitalist system The Economist finds itself scrambling in defence of, only to find themselves somewhat low on munitions. “In fact, to conclude that climate change should mean shackling capitalism would be wrong-headed and damaging. There is an immense value in the rigour, innovation and adaptability that free markets bring to the economies that took shape over that striped century.”

Damaging to whom exactly? The rigour, innovation and adaptability of capitalism has, without doubt, proven invaluable to the destruction of entire lands and civilisations and their subsequent subjugation to the demands of global capital. None of this would have been possible were it not for capitalism, which, we would do well to remind ourselves, requires perpetual movement and expansion to survive. That means endlessly seeking new markets, new terrains to colonise and new products to invent regardless of their value to human happiness or of their impact on the planet.

The objective of capital is to accumulate, not to ‘do good’, ‘tackle climate change’ or ‘make the world a better place’ — simply accumulate for the sake of accumulation. Everything else — the good the bad and the ugly products and by-products of capitalism — is peripheral because all that matters in the capitalist system is whether you’re making money or not. And in that capitalism reigns supreme, and leads The Economist to say things like “capitalism’s speciality is to make people better off”. Some people, at the expense of countless others.

Now that the expenses are racking up it is of little surprise that the world is turning against the high-spenders. It’s causing quite a stir. Read The Economist’s final words: “If capitalism is to hold its place, it must up its game.” It isn't uncommon, when nearing the end of a paradigm, for those who most extolled its virtues to cling on to it well past its sell-by-date. No evidence, no matter how clear, would be sufficient for them to admit defeat. Instead, they reinterpret it to fit their own language, their own logic. Think of Trump telling Prince Charles “Well, the United States right now has among the cleanest climates there are based on all statistics”.

That same work of interpretation is what enabled The Economist to simultaneously publish a graph showing GDP growth and CO2 emissions climbing hand-in-hand while stating “some claim that capitalism’s love of growth inevitably pits it against a stable climate. This newspaper believes them wrong.”

It took the Church 359 years to acknowledge its mistake.

We have less than 10.

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© 2020 by Pierre Smith Khanna