Post 2022. Economic imagination lacking.

Provocation # 173.

I find that under the pressures of current event it is hard to develop coherent essays. Too many moving parts.  The result is more like a collage than a logical structure.   I think we are all feeling this.

People are stuck in their thinking about climate change  because the imagination fails to provide plausible scenarios. It would be terrific if economists could provide some imagination to flesh out  some good “what if” narratives.

For example,  for  greenhouse gas increase to stop (leaving still plenty I the air that will have effects), we would need for CO2 extraction and use  to go  to zero.

  • no planes.
  • No food transportation
  • No commuting..
  • House prices fall
  • foreclosures increase rapidly
  • forcing banks to fail
  • Air conditioning fails, office and factories unlivable.

These seem like serious possibilities with no plausible counter scenario. Where is economics in working this out? Economics is mostly part of the infrastructure for fossil fuel culture and corporate functioning, not part of the support system for society, nor a tool for analyzing the intractable nature of the problem.

Long term social needs are abandoned for short term elite needs for steady stare

Aug 2, 2018 JEFFREY D. SACHSwrites in Project syndicate

“This summer’s fires, droughts, and record-high temperatures should serve as a wake-up call. The longer a narrow and ignorant elite condemns Americans and the rest of humanity to wander aimlessly in the political desert, the more likely it is that we will fail”

  Andreas Malm in his essential book Fossil Capital, argues that the idea of the Anthropocene is an example of shifting the blame for climate change to  human nature, hence inevitable, rather than understanding the history of those seeking power when at every stage (differs, luddites) there were people who were resistors. If some resist than it can’t be human nature but rather power trough institutions and what is inevitable becomes negotiable (perhaps with the threat of violence).

He considers the shift to steam as a breakthrough to hidden resources (coal especially but later oil)  creating a new regime, the fossil economy, which serves “power (political)”by owning “power(burnable)”.  He says that the fossil economy is an understandable regime with a clear history, and a clear infrastructure . But are we locked in to the fossil economy?

Much writing about climate looks to technical solutions or economic rethinking – regulations, taxes. But all leave the capitalist mind-set and corporate institutions untouched, though they are probably the source of the problem (of killing the planet through burning coal and oil).

This article, applying elements of poststructuralist discourse theory, analyzes the narratives via a set of influential reports on climate-induced migration and argues that apocalyptic narratives on climate refugees, although not totalizing or uncontested, represent a case of the depoliticization of global climate governance. The convergence into such narratives favors the drive towards a post-political discursive configuration, which, by supplanting politics with governance, leaves underlying power relations untouched and (re)produces present forms of representational and material marginalization.It therefore argues that such narratives, although often employed with the aim of attracting attention to a pressing issue, are detrimental for an emancipatory approach to climate change.


So Andreas Malm is saying , returning to his book, that the problem is not human nature but the movement by a few to  exploit fossil fuels since the 1600’s and embedded now in a small number of corporations that want to hold to the current course to protect assets. There was a functioning society before the fossil fuel regime – does that suggest that we could do it again? Or must we live out what we have now?

That it is humanity that is responsible is the most pessimistic view. That it is the corporations gives us a leverage point.

There are many similar arguments that bypass real power relationships and corporations:  for example, that the answer is civil society, that the answer is technical changes in the atmosphere, that the problem is consumers. All avoid attacking the current arrangements of society through the instrumentality of capital and corporations.

Another example. on physical approaches to climate

No awareness of costs say to agriculture which needs the sunlight.

It is all limited to the “economic” analysis: total cost of the system in energy and planes, no consideration of secondary effects.

This can have a broad reach. Cormac McCarthy in his novel of apocalypse,  The Road, argues for increased personal responsibility (though Bill McKibbin when asked what an individual can do said stop being an individual, join something.)

“Changed by his new-found experiences of the countryside outside London, Dave (major character in the book) realises the bitterness of his previous views. In his second book he urges his son (and by implication us all) to:  strive always for RESPONSIBILITY, to understand that WE MAKE OUR OWN CHOICES IN LIFE, and that BLAMING OTHERS is not an option […] the ice caps may melt, the jungles shrivel, the prairies frazzle, the family of humankind may have, at best, three or four more generations […] yet there can be no EXCUSE for not trying to DO YOUR BEST and live right.

But the shift avoids corporate responsibility.

From a recent report on narratives:

Caspar Henderson – Much of my work over the last 21 years has related to climate change in one way or another, and during that time I have mainly lived with four stories.1 The first I call Pragmatist’s Dream. In this story, we live in a world where reasonable people of good will can work together to meet the challenges presented by climate change no matter how intractable and daunting they may seem. This story has a powerful driving force, and it informs much if not most of the progressive thinking and action in politics, business and society more generally.

I call the second story Nothing Changes. In this, the science of climate change is getting better all the time, the risks are, for the most part, becoming clearer, and the need for action more compelling, but the world is still heading, hell for leather, on a path of self-destruction. A glance at the trajectory of global emissions over the last 20 years and their likely future course seems to support this. But the story doesn’t end there: we have

to understand why nothing is changing. I remember going to a workshop organised by the group Platform [], some time around the millennium, in which we were presented with a large number of charts and graphics relating to climate change over the previous 20 years and asked to identify a trend — apart, that is, from the steady rise in atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases. We puzzled for some time before the organisers pointed it out: the share prices of oil companies had risen steadily throughout the entire period. They were making a killing. And this is the second part of Nothing Changes: the bad guys are still there, and still in charge. Privately owned corporations — as well as those controlled  by states in many parts of the world — will do almost anything to protect their profits from coal, oil and other enterprises that generate massive emissions. This kind of opposition cannot be moved by rational argument on the risks of climate change. We continue to live in societies dominated, in energy generation as much as in banking, by enterprises which will do almost anything to further their short-term profits.

The third story I will call Angel Heart after the 1987 movie starring Mickey Rourke and Robert DeNiro, in which (spoiler alert) when we finally meet the villain he is ‘us’. In this story, it’s not the corporations or the banks that are to blame (or at least not only them), but our civilisation or even our species as a whole. Something like this view (of industrial civilisation, though not necessarily humanity as a whole) informs the thinking — or perhaps the feeling more than thinking — of the Dark Mountain Project or someone like Roy Scranton, the author of a philosophical reflection titled ‘Learning How to Die in the Anthropocene’. There have been times when I have found some variant of Angel Heart compelling, but in the end I usually find it the least convincing of the four stories I’m outlining here.

The last story, I call Zhuangzi, after the ancient Chinese sage who lived in about the 4th century BC. You’ve probably heard his tale of the philosopher waking from a dream in which he was a butterfly, and then wondering could he perhaps be a butterfly dreaming he is man? The point here is that Zhuangzi was a bit of an anarchist. He allowed for unusual possibilities, and I use his name for a story in which, despite all the grim signs, surprise and radical, disruptive change for the better is possible. There’s a nice phrase from the economist and thinker Albert O. Hirschman. He talks of ‘the discovery of paths, however narrow, leading to an outcome that appears to be foreclosed on the basis of probabilistic reasoning alone.’ So even if things look really bad, they might not be as bad as you think, in spite of all the evidence. And those are the four stories.


Click to access NARRATIVES.pdf


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