Greens, Gas and Capital

By Cockburn, Alexander | The Nation, February 26, 1990 | Go to article overview

Greens, Gas and Capital


Cockburn, Alexander, The Nation


Because George Bush has the plumage and distinctive markings of a Connecticut Yankee, people sometimes foolishly imagine that he is imbued with some of the traits of upper-class Republicanism, including reverence for the conservationist ethic articulated back in the nineteenth century by Gifford Pinchot, father of the Forest Service. Pinchot's goal was to manage resources on a sustainable basis and to nourish nature as an amenity by rational state planning. By psychological bent and intellectual disposition Bush is actually a slash-and-burn man who spent his formative business years in Texas prospecting for oil. For him the lily had less appeal than the gusher, outshining Solomon in all his glory. Bush sets true north by the imperatives of the oil industry, so it's foolish to imagine that when you draw the verbal drapery aside, Bush is anything other than a zealot for oil drilling off the California coastline, in the Arctic wilderness or in and around the environs of his granny's grave.

On February 5 environmentalists pronounced themselves disappointed by the President's address to an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Bush's speech was a soothing signal to business that it need not fear unpalatable edicts in the immediate or even medium future. The bottom line was solidly drawn: "Wherever possible we believe that market mechanisms should be applied and that our policies should be consistent with economic growth and free-market principles." When it was over, the environmentalists in the audience repined. In the words of a Sierra Club executive, "It was a gross disappointment."

But why was it a gross disappointment? That's like saying that Nero gave a "disappointing speech" about religious tolerance for Christians. Bush's invocation of the free market was solidly in line with bipartisan theory on capitalism and the environment, as formulated by liberal Democrats in the late 1970s. Greens should study the evolution of this theory closely, as it holds many lessons for them. The best recent outline may be found in an essay by Daniel Faber and James O'Oconnor in the second issue of Capitalism, Nature, Socialism, published last summer out of Santa Cruz (Box 8467, Santa Cruz, CA 95061; send $5 for individuals and $15 for institutions).

By the mid-1970s, as Faber and O'Connor recount it, the environmental movement that had begun to swell at the start of that decade had spawned thousands of groups fighting for conservation and preservation of natural resources. In 1975, 5.5 million people contributed financially to nineteen leading national organizations, with perhaps another 20 million contributing to more than 40,000 local groups. By the end of the decade Congress had passed more than twenty major laws regulating consumer products, the environment and workplace conditions.

What many environmentalists do not admit is that all those legislative triumphs for the environmental movement in the 1970s imposed real constraints on capitalist profitability. Faber and O'Connor write:

"It is important to stress that when environmental regulation raises the cost of capital in raw materials (such as copper) and capital goods industries (i.e. industries producing inputs for other industries) higher costs are generalized throughout the economy for all industries. The same regulations applied to consumer goods industries affect the cost of only one or a handful of commodities. In the 1970s, nearly one half of all capital investment was made in polluting industries-e.g. oil, petrochemicals, electrical power, strip mining, metal working-supplying inputs to other industries. …

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