Climate Change and the Politics of Interdependence


Climate Change and the Politics

of Interdependence

by Benjamin R. Barber





Introduction by Jessica Brackman

The first time I heard our next speaker I was in my car. When I turned on the radio to listen to NPR, he was midway through his lecture. I had no idea whom or what I was listening to, but within moments I was riveted, exhilarated to happen upon this articulate messenger, this renegade soul mate, despairing like me of the direction our culture has taken: democracy compromised, capitalism gone awry, consumerism run entirely amok. Harsh in his criticism, hopeful in his message, incredibly intelligent and insightful, and able to communicate the most complicated political, social, and economic interrelationships clearly, concisely, and with a passion that was contagious, I asked myself, “Who is this man?” And even then, after I’d pulled into my driveway and parked, I stayed behind the wheel to hear the last few minutes, unwilling to tear myself away, and more important, determined to learn this extraordinary person’s name. I grabbed a pen and a scrap of paper so I’d be poised when the announcer came on to reveal the man’s identity, and finally I learned just who this feisty visionary was. It was Benjamin Barber.

Of course I ran inside to get the story on him, and this is what I learned: He’s a highly respected political theorist, a professor at the University of Maryland and a senior fellow at Demos, a public-policy-and-advocacy organization committed to shaping a more equitable economy, a more vibrant democracy, and an empowered public sector that works for the common good. He is the author of 17 books, including his 1996 bestseller, Jihad vs. McWorld: How Globalism and Tribalism Are Reshaping the World and his most recent Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults and Swallow Citizens Whole. A frequent contributor to The New York Times, The Washington Post, Harper’s, The Atlantic Monthly, and The Nation, among other publications, he has received numerous honors and served as advisor to a number of politicians in this country and abroad. But perhaps of even greater interest, I’m told that he is an accomplished singer, actor, and magician. If we’re a really good audience, maybe he’ll show us a few tricks.

I’m especially gratified to have this chance to hear Benjamin Barber again—this time live with all of you.



Thank you for that introduction. As for ”magician,” to still be here after appearing as a speaker for so many years is the only magical act I think I’ve been engaged in. I’m glad to be here with the Schumacher Society and in Stockbridge. My wife Leah and I live in Richmond part of the time, and I grew up in New York and the Berkshires, so this area is home to me.

What I want to do today is take the powerful and important message Bill McKibben delivered this morning and complicate it a little as well as raise some issues from the perspective of politics and political science that I think we also need to deal with. At the same time I’ll try to answer the question raised after Bill’s lecture, What does the climate-change crisis have to do with capitalism, and couldn’t we deal with it quickly by getting rid of capitalism?

I want to talk about climate change and its challenges in relation to the reality of our economy and our politics today because when you put climate change in the economic and political context, it becomes more complicated and difficult to cope with than when we simply sit together and talk about what we need to do on the upcoming International Day of Climate Action, what we need to do to support the movement, and what we need to do to create a greener world. The questions I want to raise have to do specifically with the problem of how to find the political will to do it.

Bill said quite rightly that the issue here is not what kind of compromises politicians can reach with other politicians. The real debate is between politicians and scientists. Science has an intractable and unchangeable agenda; it doesn’t compromise. There’s another problem with science, however: it doesn’t vote. It should, but it doesn’t, and politicians don’t listen to science per se but to the voters, as they should in a democracy. Simply to say, “Science has the truth in these matters so let’s just get on with making the changes it recommends” is in a sense to reject not just politics but democratic politics. We have to find solutions that accommodate themselves to politics, or we will merely be whistling in the wind. It’s not enough to address the crisis caused by the use of fossil fuels and their impact on climate change, because they are only one part of the problem. Methane, which stays in the atmosphere far longer than CO2 and comes primarily from the world’s livestock, is an equally large challenge. If we were to stop using fossil fuels today, methane would still be there, which means that how we eat, whether we have a grain or meat economy, becomes relevant as well.

The world’s tropical forests and forests generally are the lungs of our planet. They breathe in CO2 and breathe out oxygen, which allows animals then to breathe in oxygen and breathe out CO2. Twenty percent or more of the current CO2 levels, which have far surpassed the maximum allowable 350 parts per million, comes from deforestation. The fact that we’re cutting down too many trees leads to a different set of issues from the use of fossil fuel. People like toothpicks in Japan, for instance; the Indonesians cut down their rain forests to produce toothpicks for the Japanese. We like soft toilet paper; we cut down the rain forest to get wood-pulp-based toilet paper. Those are issues that will not be addressed by eliminating fossil fuel alone, which is not to say we shouldn’t take the situation seriously. It’s to say, that is not enough. There is a parallel set of problems that need to be addressed, which is why I want to turn to what I believe underlies the crisis of climate change, of global warming, of fossil fuel, and that is our economic and political system. Let’s try to see what the connections are and then look at—I won‘t say solutions, that’s too strong— some potential remedies, some potential approaches that enable us to challenge climate change by altering the way we engage in politics and in economics in addition to what car we drive and how we drive.

 Let me start by suggesting that among the crises we face that are politically important and that our politicians rightly care about are not just global warming but obviously also the collapse of the global financial economy, the coming bankruptcy of Medicare and Social Security, the deep inequality of both the national and the international economic systems. We must remember here in Stockbridge and Massachusetts and New England that the reason people don’t always respond to our urgency about global warming is in part that their interests seem threatened by the solutions we offer. It’s easy enough for us to say we should stop using fossil fuel, but if you’re a trucker, if you’re a farmer in the Midwest, then pushing the cost of fuel up to $4 or $5 a gallon, which is a great solution economically, can be ruinous for you. If you talk to union people about this, they’re going to ask, “What about the jobs?” Growth is in part an aspect of modernization ideology and its restless striving for change, but growth and development are also about jobs and people making a living and having an adequate income.

To assume people who believe in growth are just plain stupid is to misunderstand how climate change and curbs on climate change may impact our fellow Americans and people elsewhere, as well as to misunderstand the politics of it. Members of Congress are going to be talking to people who are losing their jobs and are worried about $4 or $5 a gallon gas. Electric vehicles are fine, but they aren’t yet available, and in the meantime people have to drive to make a living. If you make the cost of gas so expensive, how can they make a living? I have a very simple solution to fossil-fuel use, and it is available. It’s even better than a higher price for the gas you use. That solution is a global economic recession or depression! And it’s already had an impact. In fact, for the first time we are seeing a slight downturn in the relentlessly upward pressure on CO2 emissions as a result. Just from the point of view of global warming, you might well ask what we can do to sustain and deepen the global depression. I’m serious, because that would probably do the trick. Now, if you raise the price of oil to $8 per gallon, that would be a big incentive for people not to use their cars or drive their trucks. But clearly that’s a trade-off we can’t afford economically or in terms of economic justice, and it’s politically impossible in any case. Imagine saying to President Obama: “You can’t get people to understand this whole matter of carbon emissions; just prolong the recession as long as you possibly can. That will have a profoundly good effect on warming.” If he took that advice, he wouldn’t even make it to the next election, and the Democratic Party would be right out of office, with good reason. It’s not a reasonable trade-off.

I agree with science. Science says: “You don’t want people to lose their jobs, and you don’t want the global economy to go broke, but if you don’t do something, you’re all going to be out of work and a place to live. You’re going to be out of air to breathe. You’re going to be living under water if you don’t do something soon, but raising the price of gas and deepening the recession are not solutions that will work in the U.S. Congress or with President Obama.”

The same political challenges apply for the developing world. The Western world is sending a message to India, to China, to Brazil, to Russia, to Indonesia, and saying: “We just spent 200 years developing and modernizing without any concern for what happened to the environment. But guess what. You can’t do that. We know what we’re talking about when we say you’re not allowed.” That’s actually the message we gave to China and to India. And their message back to us is: “Go to hell. You did it, we’re going to do it, and if you want us not to do it, you’re going to have to share the costs of not doing it,”—which would mean massive east-west and north-south wealth transfers, which again are politically almost impossible. A questioner this morning referred to the trade and dividend campaign that works so nicely because checks are sent directly to people, but what we’re calling for in terms of north-south transfers is raising taxes—not to pay for services for ourselves but to help the Chinese and the Indians modernize and develop on a non-fossil-fuel basis. You try to sell that to Americans as part of your campaign to get elected to Congress. Try to sell that even in Stockbridge, let alone in Detroit and Cleveland and Atlanta.

We have to look at the political realities across the world and figure out how to proceed. I suggest that we go back and re-examine our economic and political foundations. This means looking briefly at capitalism and its role, returning to this morning’s question about the adequacy of capitalism and to Michael Moore’s question in “Capitalism: A Love Story”—is it a love story or a hate story? Then go back to something even more essential to democracy itself: there are many political scientists and political leaders who say democracy is ill-suited to meeting the urgency of climate change. If you think about it, President Hu Jintao of China is in a much better position, if he wants to make a decision in this regard, to do what he wants to do than we are, because whatever government tries to do in this country and in Europe and in Japan has first of all to be sold to the voters, who then have to vote into office people willing to do what the voters want. It’s not a matter of just snapping one’s fingers and saying, “Here’s what science dictates, let’s do it.”

Mr. Bush didn’t believe in science, which was probably the most dangerous thing about him. We had a president who quite literally did not believe in or understand the nature of science, the methodology or epistemology associated with it. To him science was another set of opinions. There were religious opinions and there were science opinions, all equally valid, and he was essentially saying, “Sure I respect people who believe in science, but as for me, I don’t believe in science.” Bush was actually right in saying it doesn’t really matter what science says—as long as people who vote for their representatives and for their president cannot be persuaded that the science option is the right one and they will not have costs that come back to haunt them—because here’s the problem: 10 or 15 years from now, when there are 450 or 500 parts per million of carbon in the atmosphere and we’ve lost the battle for 350, if you say to an auto worker living in Detroit: “You can help stop global warming or you can stay employed for the rest of your life. Which would you rather do?” you tell me what the auto worker is going to say and what he’s going to vote for. He’s going to say, “Give me a job so I can take care of my family and send my kid to college and have medical insurance. Then I’ll worry after that about what I can do to stop global warming.” He will not make that trade.

Politicians understand this. That’s why President Obama has not taken a strong, intractable stand on climate change and has not said the United States of America is going to do x, y, and z in Copenhagen, no matter what. He knows he’ll be lucky if just a little health care without any public option is passed by Congress, and there’s no way he’s going to get even a moderate market-based cap and trade bill, certainly not by December in time for the meeting in Copenhagen. He also knows, by the way, that if anything comes out of Copenhagen, it will depend entirely on the good will of those who sign whatever protocol is there to pursue. The United States never signed the Kyoto Agreement; Canada did sign, but do you know that Canada has fallen 35 percent short of its obligations under Kyoto? Nobody can do anything about it, and no one knows how much any other government has fallen short because there’s a serious problem of measurement and monitoring. When a state says, “We’re going back to a 350 parts per million standard for CO2 emissions,” how do you measure that? Measured by whom? And how? And in what places? How do we know where the excess carbon is coming from in order to punish those who are out of line? Those are the questions that politicians, bureaucrats, and presidents face.

We need to think in these terms; otherwise we will constitute ourselves as a small, self-congratulatory group that knows what’s right and knows what needs to be done, and when it isn’t done, we can say, don’t blame us. In the 1972 presidential election when the only state won by George McGovern was Massachusetts, bumper stickers appeared saying: “Don’t blame me. I’m from Massachusetts.” Similarly, we will say: “Don’t blame us for global warning. Not our fault. We’re from Massachusetts, and on October 24 we were in Times Square supporting; we did the right thing.” That’s fine for your own sense of salvation, and if we believe what the folks who attend this church believe, we’ll do very well in the afterlife, which will be coming up pretty quick if global warning continues. But if what we’re interested in is genuine political and economic change that creates a context and a foundation in which responsible, thoughtful, science-heeding politicians and economists can do what needs to be done, then we have to understand fully the underlying politics and economics and figure out how to make what we know is right—and it is right, no doubt about that—work under conditions of democracy.

We could concede our sovereignty to the Chinese and let President Hu decide for the United States as well as for China. That would actually work. Forty percent plus of carbon emissions come from the United States and China combined. We’re 20 to 22 percent, the Chinese 20 to 21 percent. The Chinese pollute at a rate exacerbated by the scale of their population; we do it by the amount that each of us is responsible for. If the Chinese ever reach the point where we are in terms of the carbon footprint of individuals, the game will have been long over, and that’s counting only their 1.4 billion people. India has another 1.3 billion, and Indonesia… This brings us back to the question Bill McKibben was asked: What about capitalism? Bill, you may have noticed, was nicely oblique in his response. He said it may be that capitalism is to blame, but we can’t change it in time, so we’ve got to find a solution that works within the system. On the one hand I disagree with Michael Moore, who says that capitalism is the problem because it’s a corrupt, defective, degenerative system based on greed, but I also disagree with Bill that you can’t change it, because I think the kind of capitalism we have today is the problem, and that is not capitalism as New England theologian Jonathan Edwards, the pastor of this very church, understood it in the 18th century when an extraordinary mixture of capitalism and Puritan Protestantism helped create this country.

I’d like to talk about how capitalism itself has changed in ways that make it much more dangerous, much more corrupt, much less able to respond to a sustainable economy than it might once have been able to do. I suggest that capitalism over the past century has been changing slowly in ways that make it much less compatible than it once was both with the Protestant values that Jonathan Edwards represented and with sustainability. One of the problems today is that we tend to divide people into altruists, who want to do good, and selfish people who want to make money. Well, most human beings want to do both. They say: “I want a good life for myself, and I also want to make some profits and take care of my family, but I don’t want to do that at the expense of my community, my family, or my nation.” Capitalism in its origins had a formula that went something like this: If you can take your energy and resources, invest them, and come up with entrepreneurial solutions that meet real human needs, whether it’s with goods or services, you will be rewarded for doing that by making a profit. But here’s the kicker: society will prosper as well. There will be new inventions to satisfy people’s needs and create not just capitalists but capital, new wealth.

 It isn’t hard to defend capitalism as it used to be. That odd yoking of selfishness and the public good, of narcissism and altruism, worked very well, given what we are as human beings, which is people who live in communities and believe—often in God, certainly in society and the community. But we also live in individual bodies and the narrow circles described by our families, and we want to make sure we survive and prosper and flourish inside those small families and communities. We don’t want to give up family or community, and capitalism once tried to say we don’t have to make that choice. You can do well for yourself by doing good for the world if you address real human needs in an ingenious and inventive and productive way, particularly if you then take the profits and put them back into your firm and continue to create new wealth. The firm will grow, productivity will grow. This is a formula that worked very well. It worked from the 15th into the 18th century, and by the time capitalism had reached America, it had developed a deep practical connection with the Protestant ethic. About a hundred years ago Max Weber wrote a book called The Spirit of Capitalism and the Protestant Ethos in which he noted that the values of Protestantism—deferred gratification, hard work for the good of God, support of the community—were consistent with the values of capitalism—investment, hard work for the good of men, doing for others but also prospering yourself. Many historians argue that this country, marked by theologians like Jonathan Edwards, was destined for greatness because it brought together a powerful and productive Protestant ethos and a powerful and productive economic system.

Capitalism was very good at production, at meeting real human needs, and at producing wealth, but it was less good at producing jobs, and it was really bad at producing justice and equality. As a result, from very early on it was clear to most people that capitalism worked best when it was linked with democracy and democratic oversight, with a philosophy of the public good, and with people watching, regulating, and overseeing it. Although capitalism was first introduced in a form that was relatively unregulated, so that after the Civil War, for example, it was a pretty wild and anarchic affair, capitalism was so inefficient when left to its own devices that it not only didn’t produce jobs well or produce equality but didn’t even produce competition, which was supposedly its great strength. Within 20 years of the end of the Civil War, what had started out as rival firms working in oil and coal and railroads and barrel making all were owned by Standard Oil alone. Capitalism left to its own devices tends to destroy the underlying premise of its operation—competition. It was Teddy Roosevelt, a Republican, who understood that. If you’ve been watching the Ken Burns television series about our national parks, you know that Roosevelt also understood the role of the public good in defining a democratic nation. He didn’t say that capitalism is an evil system, although he did talk about the great malefactors of wealth; what he said is that for capitalism to work it has to be regulated and overseen by a democratic government, by the people, for the sake of the public good.

If we want the public good to be a guiding light for private markets, then we need anti-trust laws, we need regulatory laws, we need to be looking over the shoulder of capitalists. They can do their own thing: invest, produce new goods, try to find out where the needs are, and make money based on meeting those needs. Thus, it was not just a matter of Protestant values and meeting real needs with real goods and services; capitalism also had a vital relationship with democracy, although it did not always acknowledge this. It has always worked best in states that are deeply democratic and deeply engaged in oversight; it has worked least well when left to its own devices. Think of Moscow in 1995 or China in 2008. China is remarkable as the last standing totalitarian one-party state in the world that has yielded its command economy to capitalism in order to create extraordinary productivity and rapid development, all the while ignoring major problems of inequality and environmental pollution. A weird set of disconnects. First, there is the disconnect between capitalism and its originating Protestant ideology (if you do well providing goods and services, you will be rewarded and you’ll do good for your society); second, there is a disconnect between capitalism and democracy and the intimate relationship required between them. Franklin Roosevelt was accused, just as Obama is today, of being a socialist. Roosevelt insisted he was saving capitalism, which he did. Saved it from itself, because the contradictions of capitalism when left to its own devices are such that they not only undermine democracy, they undermine capitalism itself. This is what has happened with the collapse of the global financial economy.

In the past 30 or 40 years we have seen a deep disruption between capitalism as a real- economy producer of goods and services to meet real needs and capitalism as a paper economy devoted to making paper profits without any particular relationship to the real economy, which is why today the banks and the stock market have made a comeback while the economy has not and jobs have not. Wall Street is thriving. The banks that were bankrupt just a year ago are doing terrifically well, and you all know that the bonuses are back too, but that’s because there’s no relationship between the paper economy and the real economy.

There was a story in The New York Times last week about Simmons Mattress Company, which in the 1960s was a genuinely successful, first-rate, old-style capitalist company that made fine mattresses. The company paid its employees well, and they all had health insurance and pensions. Many of them had been working there 20 or 30 years. Best of all Simmons had no debt. Then, along came the new paper capitalists, interested not in providing comfortable beds for people to sleep in but providing profits for their shareholders. They made an offer that the original owners of Simmons, who were growing older, could not refuse. One imagines a conversation something like this:

            “We’ll buy you for how about $20 million.” (Prices for purposes of illustration only.)

            “We’re getting ready to retire. That’s a good price. We’ll sell. Where’s the $20 million?”

            “Oh, we have only $2 million.”

            “Well, where are you going to get the other $18 million?”

            “ After we buy you, we’ll borrow it, based on the collateral of a debt-free Simmons.”

That’s the new paper economy. Buy creditworthy firms, and then use their creditworthiness as collateral for paying far too high a price. The firm that put down only $2 million for Simmons but actually paid $20 million, resulting in $18 million in debt, offered it for sale a year later for double or more, maybe $40 million. The buyer this time around said: “We have only $4 million in cash. We’ll keep the $18 million mortgage, and then we’ll take another $18 million in debt.” Now Simmons, bought a second time and with its stock value way up, was in deeper debt. Six sales later, in the summer of 2009, just weeks ago, the company declared bankruptcy, fired half its workers, and discontinued its health plan, not because Simmons wasn’t making a product Americans liked—it was still a terrific company—but because, bought and re-bought repeatedly, the debt put on the company by people who were taking paper profits out of it bankrupted it. That’s the new capitalism.

It’s the same with the banks. Buy up the derivatives market, facilitated by deregulation. The federal government as part of its democratic oversight had long regulated the banks, regulated stocks, to make sure capitalism didn’t go off the deep end, so the bankers responded with new instruments that the government couldn’t regulate, “derivatives.” In the derivatives market, if 10 or 15 people can’t pay their mortgages, those bad debts are put in a pouch and sold to investors. The houses were originally worth $10 million, but today they may be worth only $5 million or less, perhaps much less, because the owners have defaulted. Given their uncertain value, banks sell them for $4 million. If the price goes up, the investors will have made a million; if it goes down, that’s too bad, but they can average things out. Banks were once prevented by law from doing this kind of business. No more.

During the period when the bubble was collapsing in real estate, literally trillions of dollars in derivatives and toxic debt were put on the market. The bankers didn’t just make themselves a little pouch of bad debt; from time to time they’d unpack it and say: “We have 600 bad mortgages from Tennessee here and 6000 from New York there. Let’s repackage them and resell them.” Then maybe they repackaged three debt packages and put them into a secondary derivative and sold it. Today nobody, including the bankers, has the slightest idea of what all those derivatives—many times removed from an original set of defaults—are worth. When the government gave the banks money in last year’s TARP bail-out, it didn’t know either. “Here’s a lot of money,” said the Fed, “hope you’re covered. But don’t worry, if you’re not and the derivatives turn out to be worthless, we’ll put more money in and cover it; if they’re worth more than you thought, you keep the profit.” That’s how the government bailout of the banks worked. Privatize profit, but socialize risk!

Part of all of this comes from the new notion that capitalism is exclusively about making paper profits from paper buying and sales from leveraging. You probably saw Jimmy Stewart in “It’s a Wonderful Life” about the good old days when the local bank made nice loans to people in the name of a healthy community. But then there was a run on the bank, money had been lost, and the bank couldn’t cover it. This happens in a big way nowadays. Originally, leveraging was such that bankers might have to keep 20 or 25 percent of what was in the bank to cover customers who might want their money back, and the rest they lent out again at a slightly higher rate than they paid customers. That’s how banks make their profit. That’s okay, you can’t expect them to keep all their money under the mattress. They’ve got to buy and sell the money you deposit to make their profit. But they started thinking: “Why keep 20 or 25 percent in the vault? Why not 10 percent? Or how about 5 percent? Or how about no percent? Just lend it all out because we can make money, and depositors won’t want it back since it’s a growing economy.” Then you’ve got a problem. Slowly the economy goes bad, and people start saying, “Give me my money,” and the banker says: “Sorry, but I lent it out to somebody else. She defaulted, that debt was resold as a derivative, and now I just don’t have the money anymore.”

That’s called overleveraging, and the global financial market became deeply overleveraged. Banks began to be in danger of falling apart. That’s the point at which government said: “We have a choice. We can either let capitalism work the way it’s supposed to—i.e., you took your chances, now you go under—or we can say that certain banks are too big to fail. Too much is at stake. If Lehman Brothers fails, maybe that’s acceptable, but we can’t let the next ones go.” Chase can’t fail, Citibank can’t fail. Citibank in particular can’t fail because Obama advisors Tim Geithner and Larry Summers and Bob Rubin were deeply involved in it. If you wonder why it was that Citibank, which was in worse shape than Lehman, survived and Lehman didn’t, just look at who’s Secretary of the Treasury right now.

The point is the new capitalism is no longer interested in looking out at the world and addressing need. Capitalism used to be deeply connected to invention and entrepreneurship. That was one of its strengths, because people could see that’s how you made money. You found out what people need. If it’s transportation, invent the automobile; if it’s illumination, invent the light bulb. Nowadays the only thing you’re looking for is how to make a profit. It doesn’t have anything to do with what the companies are producing, and indeed, very often you put people out of business who are actually making the goods that people need. The move from a real economy to a paper economy and the decoupling of the capitalist economy from real human needs, from servicing what people need, are obviously connected.

That is connected to another feature, the privatization ideology, which in the past 30 or 40 years has taken hold of the imagination of Democrats, Republicans, Tories, and Socialists the world over. People began to think that if they had to choose between markets and government, they trusted markets more. At least up to two years ago that was the case, not just among Republicans but among Democrats, including Presidents Clinton and Obama. Because markets are decentralized and plural, they represent real people. Government is a big bureaucracy. Who knows, it may become a monopoly, with no real competition. So even today, when government is playing a weak role in pushing a pluralistic health system that will cover only about 32 million out of the 45 million Americans who need it, God forbid there should be a public option, even a modest one, to compete with the private insurance companies. Obama himself yielded without a fight, a hostage to privatization ideology—the notion that the private is what counts, the private is more important than the public, the private is more important than the state, consumers are more important than citizens. Consumers making private choices about what they want count much more than citizens discussing together what society and community need.

Think back to our discussion of global warming. Addressing global warming and climate change and putting curbs on CO2 emissions have to do with the public not the private sphere. Sure I want to lower CO2 emissions, but am I going to wait around for the local bus to take me home at the end of the day? Anyway, didn’t they discontinue that bus? There used to be one that serviced Great Barrington and Stockbridge and Lenox. But in a megacity like Los Angeles I have a set of choices at the airport. I can rent a Hummer, a Cadillac, a Prius, a Mercedes, or a Ford Focus. I can rent any number of cars. I have endless private consumer choices, but if what I’d like to do is take public transportation so that I don’t have to drive, and it’s also safer and gets me where I’m going faster, the response is, “You want to take what?” Public transportation doesn’t exist. That public choice has been taken off the table, and we celebrate our freedom exclusively in terms of what kind of car we can rent. We’re free if we can rent a Jeep Liberty, but we don’t see ourselves as unfree if there’s no public transportation.

That public choice was made right after World War II. Europe and America weren’t so different up to the war although we were starting to look different with our individualist, wild-west kind of mentality. Then after the war we faced the fundamental choice of whether to build a fast interstate rail system like Europe’s or to build an interstate highway system. During the first term of Eisenhower’s presidency the Congress was faced with that choice. The decision, which might have gone either way if the rubber and steel and oil and auto industries weren’t also voting, was to build an interstate highway system. That decision secured the future of the automobile and also, of course, the future of the rubber, steel, oil, car, asphalt, and cement industries in America. The more fundamental and important choice between public and private transportation was taken off the books.

It wasn’t the automobile itself but rather the interstate highway system that made the suburbs possible. They grew quickly because the highways meant you could use your car to get places quickly. This mobility allowed people to move more easily from one place to another, which contributed to the destruction of social capital that Robert Putnam talks about. It wasn’t only disposable diapers that became available, we had disposable lives and disposable cities as well. If you wear out a city, then you get in your car, drive to another one, and start over. That’s how the Sunbelt—the South and the Southwest—developed. Our interstate highway system made that development possible, and ever since it was introduced we haven’t had a public decision to make about transportation that’s worth anything. All we have a choice about is what kind of car to drive. That’s a private choice.

The same situation applies to where we shop, although New England’s a little different; so are New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. They have resisted big-box stores like Wal-Mart, but for most of America people opted to be consumers at Wal-Mart instead of the downtown shopping areas, and understandably so. Why? Because they go where they can get cheaper goods and a much wider diversity of goods. So they go to Wal-Mart—or Home Depot or Lowe’s—as ordinary American consumers (although maybe not as Stockbridge or Massachusetts consumers), looking for cheap buys for the whole family. Sam Walton knew what he was doing. You can find what you need to feed your family, clothe your children and get all their supplies, build your sunroom, take care of your automobile. As a private consumer you have to like it, but here’s the problem: There are hidden public costs in every private decision you make as a consumer. If you go to the Wal-Mart in, say, Mason City, Iowa—my family came from there—someone may say: “It’s really too bad. Mason City used to have a wonderful little downtown, with retail shops, mom and pop stores, a movie theater. That’s all gone now. Stores boarded up. No more picture show.” What happened? Wal-Mart happened. The local retailers could not compete because they couldn’t afford to offer Wal-Mart’s prices. Every time you shop at Wal-Mart, you are condemning another American town with a population of between 5,000 and 50,000 to a quick death. You are undermining the social capital of America.

People love living in New England because of its wonderful towns like Stockbridge, but such towns continue to exist in part because we’ve kept out the big-box stores, and when we let them in, the towns go under. When I was a kid here in the 1950s, Pittsfield was a great place, vital exactly the way Great Barrington is today. But no longer. Pittsfield has been struggling for 30 years now. It’s not only that GE left, it’s that a mall opened in Cheshire, and the minute that mall was there, the little shops and big department stores like England Brothers started closing down. People said, as if it had nothing to do with them: “Oh dear, tsk, tsk, it’s terrible. What happened?” What happened was they made a choice with their public licensing and zoning laws and private consumer interests to allow a big-box mall there, and that helped destroy Pittsfield by undermining community and creating all the problems we face today.

Here again is a private consumer choice that makes a lot of sense for us one person at a time, but for us as a community there are social consequences that we neglect to measure. Economists have an absurd word for the social costs of private decisions: externalities. Nothing external about them, however; they are deeply internal to everything that happens to our society, but it’s a nice diversionary word. Milton Friedman helped to introduce that use of the word, casting every value that was not strictly economic as an “externality.” The interstate highway system brought economic returns, but it was a cultural disaster, its “externalities” destroying our cities, destroying our families, destroying our communities.

You’ll see this replicated again and again if you look at the kind of decisions we make as consumers. There are externalities involved with the automobile and with climate change. As consumers we make a whole series of decisions that make all the sense in the world for us in terms of our personal desires but make no sense in terms of the public cost, the social cost. Warming has a social cost, but it doesn’t get reckoned into the price. A lot of people in Detroit and elsewhere—workers, union people, politicians—say it’s too expensive to deal with warming. As if there weren’t social costs built into warming that are far more expensive, but those aren’t calculated. Gas would be $12 a gallon if you calculated the impact on the environment of the emissions caused by its use and then said that’s part of the price. Economics itself would take care of this, but we’d have to find all sorts of alternatives that don’t make economic sense because they’re too expensive. Eight dollars a gallon, say, may still be cheap compared to $12 for the equivalent in alternative energy.

The economics of living in a country where people see themselves as consumers and not as citizens, where they make private choices without thinking about the social or public consequences of those choices, is part of what’s wrong. It’s part of what makes it so hard for the members of Congress and our President to make the wise decisions that, as Bill McKibben said, science dictates but that make no sense politically in a world where all the social costs are called externalities and all the things we pay for have a price that isn’t factored into those externalities, which makes the goods seem cheap. Were we to include the cost of externalities in the cost of fossil fuel, it would become absolutely uncompetitive, even against the most expensive forms of alternative energy. What we need is a new metric, a new way of measuring true cost, and then making both citizens and politicians understand why we need it. In some ways that seems to me the most realistic way to go.

Privatization plays a major role here. Even “cap and trade,” which is the only concrete step we’re contemplating right now, means putting a price on carbon, means saying to people who emit carbon, “You’ll have to pay something, and you can actually buy from someone else who is not emitting carbon the right to pollute—for a price.” That would be fine if they really did pay, but what this administration wants to do is give the big companies the right to pollute the first time around for free and then introduce a system by which they gradually start paying for it. Subsidize the initial caps. In effect, of course, it’s not the government that’s doing the giving, it’s us, the taxpayers, who gives. We are paying those companies to pollute for a while to make it easier for them to buy into the notion that eventually they should pay some price for the pollution they’re causing and the carbon emissions they’re responsible for. That’s the best we can do under present circumstances.

We need to begin thinking about how to get back to a world in which citizens, not consumers, are making choices, a world in which we understand the public consequences and public costs of our private choices. If I have to name a villain behind the scenes, it’s the unchallenged ideology of privatization and its belief that markets take care of everything. It’s not that markets don’t do a lot of things more efficiently than the state, it’s that the privatized and consumerist thinking behind markets is deadly for the public good and public interest, which are not even part of the political calculation.

I have been talking about the impact of cars and gasoline on carbon emissions, yet there are other perilous consequences: every time we drive a car we are opting for the war in Afghanistan. If we buy a Hummer, we’re saying, let’s send more troops to Iraq. We all know that the United States isn’t dependent just on fossil fuel, it’s dependent on foreign fossil fuel, and that means we are going to have to be interested in the parts of the world where those fuels are produced, whether it’s Venezuela or Russia or the Middle East. And of course no responsible President can walk away from that. It’s easy to say that we shouldn’t be involved in such places, but we are involved, for our whole economy depends on the oil coming out of, for instance, Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is a country that actually upholds the Wahabist ideology behind Al Qaeda, and thus the dollars we pay for that oil are also dollars going to Al Qaeda. If you want to cut off the source of funding for Al Qaeda, go after the Wahabists in Saudi Arabia. That can’t be done because the Saudis produce a quarter of the gasoline we use. We need them, so never mind Al Qaeda! Neither can we walk away from Iraq because that’s another big producer of oil, and Iran presents a problem because that country controls a lot of oil too. Instead of asking ourselves whether we should buy from those countries, we ask only whether we want to drive our cars. Of course we do! But driving our cars means we are committed to a foreign policy that is interventionist, whether it’s for military or state-building purposes or whatever else it’s for.

Again and again, by thinking as consumers and thinking that markets are the solution, no matter if they are inefficient sometimes, we opt out of making public choices that would give us the ability to actually create the framework in which we live, the framework that would enable us to say no to carbon emissions, to say no to an oil-dependent economy. Instead, we say that our politicians are stupid or they don’t like science. But the truth is that in a market economy the logic of consumers trumps the logic of citizens, and to get elected, politicians have to go along with the consumers. As consumers Americans are right to believe that fossil fuel is good, that cars are good. Of course cars are good. There’s no public transportation in this country. How are we going to get around if we don’t have a car? That’s the situation we’re stuck with into the near future, yet those are the very political issues we need to be dealing with.

Of course, the best way to deal with carbon emissions in economic terms is to suspend global economy permanently. Create a permanent recession, a Great Depression for the next 40 years. We wouldn’t have to do anything else. No changes in behavior. It just would mean that people don’t have jobs, they don’t have money, they can’t go anywhere, they can’t afford their cars. (The recession has actually had some impact in slowing warming!) But obviously this isn’t viable, so President Obama is saying exactly what President Bush said after September 11, 2001: “If you want to help America, go back to the malls and go shopping”! Would you believe that the Secretary of the Treasury is complaining that Americans are saving too much? This is after 20 years during which we had a negative savings rate. We saved nothing and spent everything; we spent ourselves into this hyper-consumerist economy that then collapsed, and the best that our leaders in Washington can recommend is that we go back to where we were. If we can just fix the market and get people shopping again, won’t that be great? All over the world the mantra is, “Let’s restore the global economy of yesteryear, with people spending more than they have.” Except that now we need to be joined by the Chinese. They have to start spending too because they’ve been saving too much and sending all their stuff to us to buy. They should at least buy some of their own stuff. They can produce enough for export to get rich and still buy their own goods.

Here I come back to where I started, with the dilemma of capitalism. Capitalism started out by manufacturing goods to meet our needs, but long ago in this country, and in many other middle-class parts of the world, most of our reasonable needs have long since been met. I don’t mean only food and shelter. I mean a car, a house, a hi-fi set. All the things that contribute to a decent middle-class life have been purchased. And then come the capitalists, saying: “Hold on. That doesn’t mean you’re going to stop shopping, does it?” Well, yes, you capitalists have done so well that you’ve met all our basic needs. Then they say: “That’s not good news for capitalism. What are we going to make? How are we going to make profits? What if we can figure out some new needs you didn’t know you had? What if we can create a capitalism that doesn’t manufacture goods to meet your needs but manufactures needs to sell all the goods we have?” That’s been capitalism for the past 40 or 50 years, the capitalism of marketing. Not advertising but marketing, the capitalism that sells us what we don’t need, what we can’t afford, and what often we don’t even want, at least not until we hear about it from the advertisers and the marketers.

 I’ll bet that those of you who have an iPhone didn’t know six months before it went on the market that you “needed” it. You probably thought the phone you had was okay. You didn’t know you needed something that was a not very good camera, a not very good browser, a not very good iPod, and a not very good telephone, all rolled into one, but nevertheless with a very classy, cool interface. By the time Apple was through marketing it, however, we—especially young people—believed that we really needed that iPhone! I went on line to read about it before it came out, and you should have seen what people were saying: “I don’t know quite what it is, but I need one.” “I’ve got to have one.” “Where can I get one?” That’s marketing.

Marketing makes people want and even need something although they don’t know exactly what it is. Or how about this example: Almost everywhere I go to speak about these issues, I am given a small bottle of water. I mention this even though the Schumacher Society has robbed me of my prop by putting a glass of water on the podium. The water in this glass came fresh out of the tap. Well, the water in the bottle comes out of the tap too. I’m not talking about boutique water; I’m not talking Perrier or Pellegrino. I’m talking just plain water, the kind of bottled water sold all over this country. Is that because tap water isn’t safe to drink? No, this country has a fine aquifer and aqueduct system, and it’s one that uses almost no energy to transport the water. Yet there are externalities here too. The reservoirs and aqueduct system had to be built. Because they are long since paid for, we have the equivalent of free water. Do you know what we spend on bottled water every year? Twenty-five billion dollars! Utterly unnecessary. In fact, it’s the plastic that causes the carbon imprint of these bottles: their manufacture and recycling as well as transporting them instead of just taking water from the tap. Twenty-five billion dollars has created a new faux need. If you go to a restaurant, you are asked whether you would like tap water or bottled water. Many of us say, “Oh, I’ll take the bottled water.” New York, with its wonderful reservoir system, has a reputation for some of the best water in the country, yet restaurants do a terrific business selling bottled water. We don’t need it, but we buy it because we’ve been made to think we need it, with all sorts of rationales for why we need it. Here’s the irony: we spend $25 billion annually because Coca Cola and Pepsi noticed that people weren’t buying soda when they were thirsty because soda actually made them more thirsty. They wanted water instead, so the companies figured out that they should bottle water and sell it, making their profits that way.

While we’re spending $25 billion on bottled water, about three billion people around the world don’t have access to clean, potable water; indeed, about two billion don’t have access to water they can even wash their clothes in without contaminating them. If I’m a young capitalist, wouldn’t you think I might exclaim: “Wow! There’s a need. Why don’t I figure out how to get clean water to these people?” Well, a little firm in Denmark did just that by making something called the Life Straw. Here’s my other prop: the straw I have here is just a mock-up, but the Life Straw is about this size, and it has nine filters. For a family of four, drinking daily all the water they need, it lasts a year and a half, and it costs about two dollars to manufacture. This little firm is doing very nicely. Being a good old-style capitalist firm, it recognized a need, and it created an inexpensive, easy way to manufacture a product that it is using to address the real human need for clean water. Same thing for hi-tech mosquito nets: new products to meet old needs. Right now a big campaign is underway to provide low-cost antiretrovirals for AIDS and cures for malaria, both very important. With simple little mosquito nets certain health problems can be addressed very cheaply. Jeffrey Sachs has a campaign, as does Bill Clinton’s foundation, to promote the use of mosquito nets. By the way, the people who make the netting do very well too because they’re providing something people really need.

Someone may say: “That works in the Third World, but there isn’t much money to be made there. What about here?” Then I come back to alternative energy. There’s a ton of money to be made in developing alternative energy. Initially you have to invest without an immediate return. It was ever so. You have to defer your gratification. But if you keep working, keep being inventive—whether it’s in geothermal or wind turbines or tidal energy or the electricity that comes from waves—eventually you’re going to find a good way to do it, and whoever figures it out is going to do very well. That’s the way capitalism works. Not by making huge profits with destructive forms of carbon-emitting fossil fuels but by meeting a real need with new products. We have an essential need for alternative energy that capitalism ought to be able to meet.

Another area of need here in the United States is for housing that can withstand the growing weather extremes, such as those causing coastal flooding. A large part of the problem caused by hurricane Katrina in New Orleans was the destruction of coastal housing, often cheap, trailer-like buildings made like matchsticks, which were easily swept away. There are people in the housing industry who are now trying to develop relatively flood-proof buildings—housing that’s tethered to the ground differently, that floats, and that has a different kind of window so it can take hurricane-strength winds. It’s all right to profit from this human need. If I’m able to construct a house that can withstand a category three hurricane relatively inexpensively, I have a right to make good money for inventiveness and entrepreneurship. That’s how capitalism ought to be working, instead of concocting faux needs or making paper profits by buying and selling other people’s companies.

There may come a time, if we survive long enough, when capitalism does for the whole world what it’s done for New England. People will have everything they need, and then someone will have to figure out what we’re going to do next because capitalists will have very little cause to make anything. But we’re not there yet. There are plenty of needs even in middle-class places. Someone this morning was talking about weatherizing houses. Why not create a cheap, durable, easily applicable white paint? Then if you paint the top of every apartment building in every city in the world white, you can make an incredible saving in the energy needed to heat those buildings because the paint provides a kind of insulation. A great idea! Someone ought to develop that kind of paint and an applicator for the paint that can be applied easily and quickly to many different surfaces. It’s the kind of thing entrepreneurs thought about in the old days of capitalism, and it’s why so many early capitalists were inventors, trying to meet real needs with inventiveness. That’s something we know the state is not good at. You’re probably not going to the Department of the Interior to say, “Be inventive.” It does other things well but not that, whereas capitalism does it extremely well.

There are three things we need to do to address the challenges I have been talking about. We need to reconnect capitalism with real human need; we need to reconnect capitalism with democracy and democratic oversight; and we need to reconnect capitalism with nature itself, with sustainability. We don’t have to do away with capitalism, but we do have to put it back in its place. For the past 40 or 50 years we inverted the classical formula according to which the economy serves society, serves democracy, serves sustainability—with the result that politics and society have turned into servants of an economy devoted to assuring that private financial companies survive and make profits for their shareholders. But private profits are not the purpose of a public society. The capitalist economy should be subordinate to society, and democracy is how we guarantee that. Overseeing and regulating capitalism puts it in its proper place, as one of democracy’s many servers, certainly not as an end in itself.

As we’ve seen, capitalism can serve the green economy by being entrepreneurial in an inventive way and finding alternatives that will eventually make money for some people, as it should. If I’m right in what I’ve been saying, then it is our task first and foremost to restore democracy: the commonwealth, the public good, and citizenship. I’m suggesting that what’s wrong in the debate about greening and climate change is that we’re trying to meet the challenge of sustainability exclusively as consumers in a market economy; we’re acting in a way that doesn’t allow democracy to oversee the public good anymore. Science makes powerful arguments, but science doesn’t vote. What we need instead is a restoration of the role of the citizen, of public thinking, of the commonwealth, and of the public good. A green America is part of the commonwealth, not of private wealth or corporate wealth or shareholder wealth. Shareholders have their place too, but we mustn’t support private wealth at the cost of public wealth. We need advocates for the commonwealth, and yes, we have them—they’re called citizens. If citizens take themselves seriously, then they vote for politicians who uphold the public good. If we have only consumers involved in politics, then of course they vote for the people who uphold private interests and the lobbyists who represent them.

What I want to suggest here today is that to deal effectively with the urgent crisis of global warming—which, as Bill said, doesn’t allow us much time—we’ve got to do something that may seem harder but in a way is easier: restore our democracy, revive our sense of citizenship. There doesn’t have to be an argument between science and politics; the argument has to be between citizenship and the market, between public goods and private goods. The minute we put the debate on another level—Is it good for the public? Is it good for our communities?—then the green argument will win without people having to be scientific about it. But as long as we say that private trumps public, consumer trumps citizen, the economy trumps political democracy, then we lose. There will be no way to win the political battles that have to be fought. We can do that only as citizens, which in fact is the implicit condition of Bill’s movement. What many people in this room are already doing in their various organizations is obviously about citizen action, about citizens working together, working for the public good, the commonwealth, the “res publica.” The word “republican” comes from res publica, the “things of the public.” In a republic, the things of the public—the commonwealth—come first. If we restore our res publica, if we restore the commonwealth, if we restore our citizenship, then I think we can and we will meet the challenges of global warming.

Question & Answer Period

What are your thoughts on the politics of food if we think back to the latter half of the 19th century when the vast majority of people’s income was spent on meeting basic needs such as food? The slow food movement contends that cheap subsidized food has freed up money to advance the consumer culture. Given that you said raising gas prices would be too abrupt and painful, what role do you think the politics of food should play?

Your question is not easy to answer because on the one hand local food, slow food, and eating properly are obviously good for our health, good for the local community, and probably good for agriculture as well, but simply in political terms we never want to make an argument that suggests we go back to the way it was in the nineteenth century. It may make some of us feel good, or someone running a private dairy farm with 30 to 40 head of cattle might welcome the idea, but it won’t ever work for Americans in general, for an industrial society. I think we need to talk in terms of what most Americans care about. An example of where progress has been made is in improving nutrition for children by getting corporate-sponsored sweetened beverages out of schools. This is the only country in the world where many young people under 16 are simultaneously obese and malnourished, and that’s because of all the salt and sugar they get from industrial foods.

Without being able to fully answer your question I can say we need to ask the right questions about local agriculture and local food. Right now agribusiness, which in a certain sense has destroyed American agriculture, is being threatened. Before the Civil War 75 to 80 percent of Americans lived in rural communities or on farms whereas now only 2 percent do, if that, which means that most of our food is provided by massive agricultural enterprises. As my wife Leah, who is very involved in both buying and cooking local food, will point out, a large part of the problem with what agribusiness gives us is that it’s not food at all. It’s artificially constituted chemical stuff designed not to be eaten but to travel well and be kept on the shelf for a very long time. If those are the criteria, then there’s nothing to complain about, but unfortunately, you end up eating this pseudo-food, and that causes problems. In order to raise these issues we need to find ways to present what we know is desirable in terms that make sense to families who aren’t very green and who don’t know the science of nutrition.


I believe it’s conceivable that we can change the kind of capitalism we have in this country into something that is more connected with nature and with democracy. I think the unacknowledged villains in all of this, and it’s an issue you’ve dealt with often in your books, have been corporate globalization and international trade. One specific example of what we’re up against is that the low-carbon fuel standard which was part of the climate bill in California before it was edited out would have provided a productive and cost-effective market incentive for lower-carbon fuels, but it was challenged as a trade barrier by Canada, which was producing carbon-heavy fuels from tar sands. So no matter what we do, even if we’re able to achieve the political will to pass legislation in this country that would force capitalism in a better direction, how do we gain the political will to challenge international corporate globalization and the problems it causes?

You’re right. The IMF and the WTO have often been used to challenge California and other states that have tried to do something good, on the grounds that reforms interfere with free trade. If a state does something that’s “conservative” in the best sense of conservationist or devoted to health and safety, that’s regarded as an interference with free trade in terms of the treaties under the Bretton Woods institutions. It’s a very serious problem, but it points to an even more fundamental problem, which is the relationship between democracy and interdependence, democracy and globalization. Here’s the basic difficulty: every one of the challenges we face—including global warming, global health plagues, terrorism, drugs, labor markets, technology—is global in scale, yet all of our solutions are national or local. It means we are facing 21st century challenges that are all interdependent and across borders with 18th century nation-state solutions, which can’t and don’t work. As you point out, even if we solved our problems in this country in terms of health, of nutrition, of oil, it would affect only 20 percent of carbon emissions worldwide. The rest of the world accounts for 80 per cent, so we’ve got to get it right all together. But we lack the institutions to do that.

We talk about the globalization of crime, of disease, of markets, of anarchy, of terrorism, of weapons of mass destruction. One thing we don’t talk about is the globalization of democracy. Unless we either democratize globalization or globalize democracy, we’re not going to be able to deal successfully with these problems, even if we restore our own democracy to good health. It’s not only about persuading American citizens, it’s about persuading people worldwide, and that’s why global governance becomes so important. There are numerous transnational organizations like Doctors Without Borders, but the one that’s missing is Citizens without Borders. It’s hard to figure out how to make citizenship without frontiers not just a slogan but something people believe in.

There’s a good reason why local food and local community make so much sense. Human beings want to be rooted: in families, in neighborhoods, in towns. Yet now I demand you become a global citizen? What does that even mean? It’s a great abstraction. I’m not a citizen of the world, I’m a citizen of Stockbridge or of Old Lyme or of Detroit or of Mason City, and maybe of the state of Massachusetts or Connecticut or Michigan or Iowa, and maybe even of the United States of America. But a citizen of the world? That doesn’t make any sense. How do we combine the need for rootedness and belonging in the local community with the need for global responsibility through global democratic oversight? That’s the biggest challenge we have politically. I’m working right now on a project on what global governance might look like and how we might internationalize it without losing democracy. It’s a real challenge.


As director of Fellowship of the Commons I’d like to know your opinion about the notion of a common sector of the economy as a countervailing force to the private sector. My organization is involved in creating a common sector of the economy to reclaim the commons and assert the autonomy of the American people. Peter Barnes, who gave a Schumacher Lecture in 2003, wrote the book Who Owns the Sky? There are other commons trusts, such as Habitat Trust, Fresh Water Trust, and Advertising Trust, but the Sky Trust in particular is pertinent to what you’ve been talking about because it would set up a cap and dividend program. The sole responsibility of its board of trustees would be to convey the atmosphere intact or improved to future generations. It would draw a line in the sky indicating how much CO2 would be allowed to be emitted in a year, and then it would auction permits to all of the industry—coal, gas, oil. The money made from those permits, trillions of dollars, would go into a trust, and that money would be used to pay a dividend to each and every citizen. This is a winner politically. Energy prices are going to have to go up to address the CO2 crisis, and the dividends would offset the costs for us all.

Thank you for the specifics, and let me say to begin with, I’m a pluralist. I believe that in our great civil society the larger the number of organizations and people that are working toward our goals, the better. That’s not to say we shouldn’t also from time to time coordinate and work together, and we certainly shouldn’t do alone what we can do better together, but there are many things that we do best when we put our own energy into it. I think your idea is a very good one. It responds directly to my distinction between citizen and private consumer, between public and private.

The word “public” has lost its resonance. I did a blog a couple of weeks ago on the Huffington Post after watching Ken Burns’s PBS series on the national parks, and in it I said that President Obama should watch that series to be reminded of the importance of public lands and public parks, because unfortunately in the health-care debate he gave up on what is public. He allowed the privatizers and the marketeers to define public as something bureaucratic and bad—“socialist.” Yet “public” is a great American word. It’s part of the word “republican,” and we should repossess that word and embrace the notion that there should be a public option for health care. Our health is a public good for all of us, so there needs to be a public option. Repossessing some of these terms instead of allowing them to be defined by enemies of the public sector is extremely important, and it sounds as though that’s part of what you’re doing.


I’m with the Common Good finance organization, and we’re trying to create a bank called the Common Good Bank to do some of the things you were talking about. Could you define further what you think needs to happen in the financial system to make it work for the common good?

There’s an easy answer to that, which is to apply to the financial institutions and some of the new instrumentalities like derivatives the regulatory laws that have applied traditionally to public commercial banks. Starting with President Clinton and worsening since then, secondary markets and securities and then derivatives were gradually exempted from regulation and were basically allowed to go their own way. The idea was that the markets understood these things and were going to profit from them, so they would do right by them. With all the talk now about the need for regulation there has been no re-regulation of the derivatives market among the changes the Obama administration has made, perhaps not surprising when you look at the personnel currently at Treasury and the Office of Management and Budget as well as at Citibank and other megaliths responsible for financial change.

I’m not an economist, but my simple answer is that what is needed is transparency and regulation. Make sure that a) you know what’s going on and b) it’s regulated in terms of simple public-interest standards already established. This isn’t reinventing the wheel, this is not introducing something new. The regulatory instruments of the two Roosevelts for the most part worked very well. What changed was the emergence of new institutions and instrumentalities that claimed they didn’t need regulation. But the present global financial crisis proves yes, they do. Restoring regulation will obviously require some changes because these institutions are novel.

The biggest challenge is to figure out how to do this internationally. One of the problems is finance capital. If it doesn’t like a national regulatory context in which it finds itself, it simply moves away, as has been the case with jobs. We’ve already seen a great deal of off-shore movement. Unless you have a system in which the regulations in place can be applied right across the globe, you get a “race to the bottom,” with finance capital finding those places where it is not regulated and then simply going there to continue doing the same devastating and anarchic things it was doing here.


Every internal combustion engine in the world can run on hydroxl gas, which is water separated into hydrogen and oxygen. Stan Meyers invented a combination of an electromagnetic frequency and a spiral, a vortex the size of a spark plug, to run his car on water. There are scientific papers documenting how it can be done. Well, the oil industry had Meyers murdered. So in addition to what you were describing as a systemic problem there is also a serious problem of criminality. Many other inventors have duplicated this method, and I’m working on it myself, so I know that the oil problem can be solved in the course of six months, which is how long it takes to ramp up the technology to do it. With this method it will take only two years at the most to completely solve the global warming problem.

My second point is that when Jonathan Edwards was developing the background to capitalism, people were using government-issued debt and interest-free money called colonial scrip. And in Pennsylvania during colonial times, you could go to the legislature and get a charter for your corporation, which the legislature approved because you wanted to do something the members of the legislature wanted, and so they gave you the money, which they just created.

In general what you say points to the fact that the corporation, which is the basis of capitalism, is a state-created, state-regulated entity, and there could not be capitalism without democracy. There is no capitalism in the state of nature. You’re right, the government plays a large role, as do currency systems, as do law systems; and enforcement of contracts too is crucial to capitalism.

Let me speak to your first point about inventiveness. When industry refuses to take—or finds way to avoid taking—advantage of new inventions, it not only harms the public good, it also harms capitalism. General Motors owned the hybrid technology behind the Prius 15 years ago, made a couple of cars, and decided it wouldn’t sell. The company sold it to the Japanese, who are making a fortune. Now we are busy trying to catch up to where we were 15 or 20 years ago. It turns out to have been a really bad capitalist decision, a bad investment decision. Good capitalists who know what they are doing are necessarily prescient. They look to where the market is heading, and they invent something in advance in order to be ready for the new direction. Those who were prescient, as some engineers at GM were 15 or 20 years ago, knew that carbon emissions and oil dependency were growing problems, and they wanted to find an alternative basis. In fact, the first electric car, which was very popular, was introduced in this country in 1903! It was actually a competitor with the internal combustion engine. What we’re seeing here is bad capitalism, a failed capitalism that neglected to take advantage of a very good thing.

On the way here this morning I heard mention on the radio of an organization whose name I didn’t catch, run by somebody named Cohen and the founder of twitter. They have an alliance of young people who are putting on a big gathering in South America. They’ve been tapping into countries like Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran. If anybody knows of that organization, please let me know the name of it.

Twitter’s obviously wonderful new technology requires that you express yourself in 150 or 165 characters, and that’s something I’m constitutionally incapable of, so it will not work for me, but I hope it works well for others. Let me say a more serious word on the new technologies because there’s a lot of enthusiasm about them, and I think the architecture of the worldwide web and its international character are wonderful, but let’s not forget that democracy is about an encounters with strangers we don’t agree with, whereas a lot of social networking, a lot of the web, is about finding people just like us and talking only to them. The current uses of social networking are not necessarily as hospitable to the sorts of democratic exchange and argument and encounter with people you don’t agree with as I think some young people imagine it is. If you look at MySpace and Facebook and some of the other social networks, you’ll find that Bill McKibben is wrong. He said nobody has friends anymore. I have 365 friends on my Facebook site, and my daughter has 1320 friends. Now, psychologists have said you can’t have more than around 18 friends or maybe even seven or three who are close friends, so we have created a faux notion of friendship. It’s part of marketing friendship to people who have no friends; they think they can go online and suddenly have friends. So I’m saying, be a little bit skeptical and suspicious of the benefits of the web.

Bill McKibben and many others in this room are trying not only to think and write but to do something. If you go to or my website, you will see that for the past seven years on the day after September 11 we have held a Global Interdependence Day in a global city. We started in Philadelphia, the home of independence, the second year was in Rome, then Paris, Casablanca, Mexico City, Brussels last year, and Istanbul just last month. Next year September 12 it will be held in Berlin. We go to a global city and work with religious leaders, political leaders, students, scholars, and—very importantly—artists around issues of interdependence and cross-border forms of cooperation. It’s an attempt to create constructive forms of interdependence to counter all the destructive and brutal forms of interdependence—like AIDS and terrorism and financial markets—that we contend with today. Our belief is that if we can create a context of civic interdependence, of citizens without borders, then what we’re trying to make possible here in the United States will be possible on a global level. That’s my small contribution to actually doing something and not just talking about it., Interdependence Day, September 12 next year in Berlin.

Thank you so much for being here today.


Concluding Remarks

I want to say a little bit more about the issue of inequality that Bill McKibben raised this morning, specifically in terms of how inequality affects our capacity as a nation to respond to the urgency of climate change. Twenty years ago on November 9, 1989, the Berlin wall came down, and that was a symbol for walls around the world. What makes me interested in interdependence is the fact that it promotes a mantra which says walls don’t work and can’t work. Berlin proved it; the Soviet Union proved it. Walls don’t work. But as you know, since the end of the Berlin wall the country that helped to bring down the wall has been busy building its own. The United States is constructing a wall across the Mexican border in an effort to stem so-called illegal immigration. Indeed, immigration across that border is illegal with respect to political sovereignty. The problem is that the labor immigrants are following the logic of economics, not the logic of states, and according to the logic of economics they go where the jobs are. The jobs cross borders, so they cross borders, and the wall will not discourage them. I think they’ll go over it, they’ll go under it, they’ll go around it. They’ll come up the coast in boats, and if the coast is closed off, they’ll come in from Canada, or they’ll drop down by parachute, but one way or the other, they’ll find jobs here because that’s what the logic of the global economy dictates. Yet we still do have this notion of building a wall to be safe.

Similarly, Americans have pioneered the idea of gated communities, communities in which people secede from what seems to them to be a bankrupt public sector into their own private sector, where they pay for their children’s education, pay for their own police and their own sanitation. I have to say that there’s something slightly gated about Stockbridge and Lenox and Great Barrington. I see it if I look around at this particular audience. Usually when I speak, I see an audience that looks like America, but here we look like the America that was, not the America that is coming and within a few years will be a majority. California’s already there, Texas and Florida and New York are headed there, and in all those cases America is already highly multicultural. Even though gated communities don’t work, people still try to withdraw, to secede from the republic and then create their own solutions with their own resources.

I mention this because I think one of the reasons why a feeling of urgency is lacking politically is that so many privileged Americans think, “Yes, there’s global warming, but I’m not going to suffer from it.” It’s not just that the people who have been least responsible for it will suffer the most, it’s also that those who have the most resources and the most power have the wherewithal to build their own gated communities against the consequences of global warming. The Maldive Islands will, as Bill said, literally disappear if the oceans continue to rise, but we don’t live there. Indeed, we don’t live on Long Island, a lot of which may disappear as well, and even if we did live there, we know we could get out.

Think of Hurricane Katrina and what happened in New Orleans in 2005. Those with cars, with money, with relatives elsewhere found safety. The people who really suffered the consequences were those without resources or power, especially in Ward 9. There’s an aspect to the climate crisis that I call “Ward 9 World.” We live in a Ward 9 world, where the people who live near the ocean and who can’t get away, whether in Bangladesh or Indonesia or Lower Ward 9, are not going to avoid the consequences, but a lot of those who have the power and resources will find a way to escape. “If there’s a flood, we’ll build an ark,” or “If the water rises too much, we’ll build our own private dikes to close in our own private Holland,” or “We’ll go to our mountain chalet.” That mentality allows a lot of people who ought to be concerned to think the problem is less urgent than it seems because they are not going to have to pay, at least initially, the consequences.

How faulty that reasoning is, and why we have to make clear how faulty it is, occurred to me when I was writing an essay, “Ward 9 World.” I went to the statistics on New Orleans to find out for myself how many of the casualties had actually been in Ward 9. It turns out that Gentilly, a middle-class ward, had an equal number of casualties and Lakeview, an all-white neighborhood with million-dollar homes, had a lot too. The fact is that having wealth and resources did not save lives in those communities. The walls of the gated communities didn’t really work, although the media led us all, including me, to think they did. They won’t work in other places either, and that’s why one of the lessons I think we need to teach is that the interdependence of our world is here to stay. Even with all the resources and power and money in the world, you can’t escape from the disease and crime and drugs and war that will result from global warming. You can’t build a gated community against them or wall them out.

There is a certain implicit complacency that says we are good citizens and we care about what’s happening, but when push comes to shove we’ll get into our cars and drive somewhere that’s safe. Well, that won’t work this time. We live in a world so interdependent that the rampant consequences of global warming are going to affect us all, just as the folks in Lakeview and Gentilly, as well as those in Ward 9, were affected by Katrina. It could be that by emphasizing this and making people think about it, we can create a more compelling politics for people in the middle class, who as good citizens do care about what’s happening but think deep down that it doesn’t ultimately apply to them privately, and therefore it may not be quite as urgent as deciding what car to buy next time around. Starting to think about the equality issue, realizing that walls don’t work any better today than they did in 1989 for the Soviet Union, recognizing that we are in this together and there’s no such thing as a private dike or private ark that’s going to save us from the rising seas may be the way to arouse a sense of urgency in political terms and create a broader movement than we can hope for just from the kinds of vital and important civic enterprises we are all currently engaged in. 


Benjamin R. Barber, a political theorist with a focus on civic participation and civic education who advances the role of robust democratic citizenship, is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at Demos, where he is president and director of the international NGO CivWorld. He is Walt Whitman Professor of Political Science Emeritus at Rutgers University, where he taught from 1970 to 2001 and founded as well as directed the Whitman Center for the Culture and Politics of Democracy. He has held the chair of American Civilization at the École des Hautes Études in Paris. In 2001 he joined the faculty of the University of Maryland as a principal of The Democracy Collaborative.

Prior to completing his undergraduate degree from Grinnell College, Barber studied at the Albert Schweitzer College in Switzerland and the London School of Economics and Political Science. He received his M.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard University.

Barber's 17 books include Strong Democracy (1984, reissued in a new edition in 2004), Jihad vs. McWorld (1995, with a post-9/11 edition in 2001), and Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole (2007). Writing frequently for many scholarly and popular publications in America and Europe, he was founding editor and for ten years editor-in-chief of the international quarterly Political Theory. All of his writings, from academic studies to more popular articles in newspapers and magazines of opinion, have stressed the need to think practically about ways to foster a more democratic political life in America and abroad.

Consulting regularly with political and civic leaders around the world, Barber brings his strong concern for democracy and citizenship to issues of politics, culture, and education.

His honors include a knighthood (Palmes Academiques/Chevalier) from the French Government (2001), the Berlin Prize of the American Academy of Berlin (2001), and the John Dewey Award (2003).




Schumacher Center for a New Economics and Benjamin R. Barber