Using green capitalism to save the planet

20:39, May 19 2014
Chris Trotter
Chris Trotter

Do you shout at the television? Indulge in lengthy harangues at the radio? I'm afraid I do. Increasingly so, given that it's an election year and there's a growing number of things to shout at the television about.

Time was when I'd have attributed this habit of berating inanimate objects to advancing years. But young people assure me that nowadays they do it, too.

Last Sunday I gave my lungs a good workout during TVNZ's current affairs programme Q+A. Bryce Edwards, the University of Otago's peripatetic commentator on all things political (and compiler of that utterly invaluable compendium of political news and commentary, NZ Politics Daily) was criticising the Greens for attempting to use Green Capitalism to save the planet.

"Awh, jeez, Bryce, give us a break!" I yelled at the offending collection of electronic circuitry, "How many viewers do you suppose are going to hold that against them? And how many extra votes do you reckon they'll attract by decking out Karl Marx in a green suit?"

Later that morning, however, after my blood pressure had returned to normal, I began to think more carefully about Bryce's criticism. By mid- afternoon I'd already half-convinced myself that the young political studies lecturer was right.

If even the Greens aren't prepared to call things by their true names - who is?


Can you really prefix "Green" to the global phenomenon that's pouring more and more carbon dioxide into the Earth's atmosphere?

From Brazil to Indonesia: in all the world's denuded tropical rainforests, what else but capitalism is powering the chainsaws of the tree-fellers?

Could the gaunt and exhausted construction workers recruited from across the Muslim world really distinguish between the capitalism that vomited up their squalid shanty towns and the capitalism that's erecting Dubai's towering "eco-friendly" architecture?

And, much closer to home, can Green Capitalism really displace the cow- cockey capitalism pouring nitrates and phosphates into our waterways? Or the carbon capitalism sinking drill-shafts into our deepest seas?

Green Capitalism? You might as well speak of green cancer. But, if you're looking for alternatives - why not "Man Crusher"? Or, "Earth Eater"?

I'm old enough to remember when the first whispers began to spread about the limits to capitalist growth.

When individuals like Rachel Carson and groups like the Club of Rome first connected the insatiable appetites of industrial capitalism with the gaping rents that were appearing all around the globe in the fragile webs of life we were only just beginning to call ecosystems.

It was around the time when, in the manner of a glittering cosmic cue, the Apollo astronauts began sending back to humankind the first images of its tiny blue planet floating - so beautiful, so vulnerable and so alone - in the infinite reaches of space.

And it was here, in New Zealand, that those whispers first cohered into an audible political voice.

Formed in 1972, the Values Party was the first to openly question the idea that economic growth could be pursued endlessly and without cost.

It was heresy, but it stuck. Tens-of- thousands had just signed the "Save Manapouri" petition. The Labour Party's election ads depicted the environment in an Agee preserving jar!

Tantalisingly close to the surface of the voters' minds, not only in New Zealand but all across the developed world, a realisation of extraordinary power was taking shape. That humanity had reached a crossroads.

Down one road lay something new, something transformative. A new, lighter and less destructive way of being human. Charles Reich called it "The Greening of America". New Zealand Values promised to take us "Beyond Tomorrow".

Down the other road lay more: much more; unbelievably more. Waiting for us was a cornucopia of technological wonders that also offered something new and transformative. A human society increasingly wired to its machines, and those machines becoming more and more human.

But such magic technology could only ever be the distillation of processes fatally destructive of the planet's capacity to maintain ecosystems conducive to human survival.

Capitalism's technological fix, founded upon the shifting sands of cheap energy, finite resources and cheap labour is, ultimately, unsustainable. Its alchemy can only be sustained by cannibalising its own children and heating up the planet's atmosphere.

These are unglad tidings for any political party to bear. Values tried to warn New Zealand about the ultimate cost of capitalism but only succeeded in splitting itself apart. Values' members (and now the Greens') have found it easier to believe in the power of science to resolve all contradictions.

Hence Russel Norman's promise that Green Capitalism, wielding green technology, will rescue us from the twin threats of global warming and critical resource depletion. I suspect he knows this is nonsense. The devil is not defeated by weapons manufactured in Hell.

From the road we've chosen there is no turning.

The Press