Brakes & Accelerator

News and commentary lately are devoting a lot of ink and air time to two topics — the global economy and climate change. What’s odd is that we’re talking out of both sides of our collective mouths at once, saying two diametrically opposed things and not making the connection.

On one hand, our global leaders are trying to stimulate the economy. We need renewed economic growth (or so it’s claimed) to lift us out of a deep recession.

On the other hand, we’re being told to use less fuel, less energy, fewer natural resources.

Does anybody but me see a fundamental contradiction here? Is it possible that an economic recession — and the deeper the better — is precisely what’s needed to slow climate change and other forms of environmental degradation?

We’re driving our cars less because of the recession. Therefore, fuel emissions are reduced. This is not rocket science; anybody can see the connection. Yet the government is proposing to bail out the auto industry. Why? So they’ll build more cars, thus speeding up climate change.

If the recession goes on for so long that people’s cars break down and they can’t afford new ones, what happens is, more people will be relying on public transit. And that’s a good thing.

Of course, if you’re near the bottom of the heap economically, a recession may mean that you end up homeless. Or maybe you can make the house payments, but you have to drop your health insurance, and then when your kid gets sick, that’s when you end up living in a cardboard box. There are real hardships out there, I’m not denying that.

But the hardships are not caused by the recession! The hardships are caused by unequal access to goods and services. Unequal access is easier to ignore in boom times, but it’s always with us. Capitalism guarantees that access to goods and services, even of the most basic kinds, will be unequal, because in a capitalist economy some people get very, very rich, while a lot of other people don’t.

If we could somehow provide decent food, housing, and health care for everybody at a purely nominal cost to the individual, then the depth or staying power of the recession wouldn’t matter, would it? Only to the pigs at the top of the pyramid, I suppose.

Okay, you wouldn’t get to take that Hawaiian vacation. But you’d get to know your neighbors better, because you’d be borrowing their lawn mower instead of buying a new one.

Why does everybody need their own lawn mower? You use it maybe one hour a week, if that. A whole city block could share one hand-push lawn mower. That would be great for the environment, and it would promote social cohesion at the same time.

But of course, that would be socialism. So we’re not allowed to talk about it.

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