Monday, March 1, 2010

Climate Change, Spirituality, and Neoliberalism

Bill Connolly
Johns Hopkins University

The evidence in favor of homo-economic sources of climate change is overwhelming, even if the details remain contestable. But, as we see every day on Fox News, resistance to it is intense. What fuels that intensity? There is the self-interest of oil, power and (some) auto companies. There is the desire to retain established habits of consumption. There is the conviction of many (but not all) evangelicals that it is sinful to say that man rather than God could change the climate. Tom Delay contends, for instance, that it is “arrogant” to say so.

But these self-interested and spiritual sources, while pertinent, do not suffice to explain the phenomenon. Enter neoliberalism, by which I mean a creed insisting that the market is a self-organizing, self-regulating system. It optimizes freedom and benefits IF the state confines itself to adjusting the money supply, waging war, and punishing crime, and IF it sets severe limits to the organizing power of consumers and labor. 

Neoliberals often treat the market as a unique self-regulating system. That is their first conceit. If you extend your gaze, however, it becomes clear that the world is full of open, self regulating systems of multiple types. All display some powers of self-maintenance, though to different degrees. And all--if you accept the time scale appropriate to each–-periodically pass into stages of sharp disequilibrium, often created by conjunctions between internal perturbations and new intrusions from outside. There is thus the self-sustaining habitat of animals, the systematic character of ocean currents, the self-maintaining magnetic field surrounding the earth and supporting its cloud cover. There is the self-maintaining capacity of a hurricane, after being organized from the confluence of weather, ocean currents and warm water. There is the interstate global system, with a degree of self-maintenance. There is the human organism, and, of course, there is the climate system itself.

The market is thus not unique. It is, rather, one of several open systems of different types, each with its own powers of self-maintenance. Each contains tendencies toward self-equilibration; all are imbricated with others; and all go through surprising shifts from time to time.

To say merely this much is already to blow neoliberalism out of the water. It paves the way for pursuit of a new ecology of politico-economic life. Not exactly pursuit of a deep ecology in which nature is assumed to tend toward a unique, stable harmony to which we must adjust. But an ecology of multiple open systems of different types, each periodically taking a new turn; with several interacting and intersecting in complex ways at this or that juncture. The connection between climate and economic life now becomes less shocking, when you think this way. And the spiritual and ideological stakes of the current struggle begin to be more clear. (I use the word “spirit” here to mean the most fundamental disposition to existence an individual or constituency adopts). 

So let’s skate past the existential resentment of a world of becoming discernible in the utterances of Tom Delay, Glen Beck, and Sean Hannity, while remembering how these extremists provide cover for more “reasonable” minimizers, evaders and deflectors. Consider Alan Greenspan. In The Age of Turbulence, 531 pages in length, two pages are devoted to the climate issue. Thus his first tactic is minimization of the issue. He has “little doubt” that climate change is real and human induced (p. 454. But he offers merely one proposal to address the issue: an increase in the gasoline tax to protect America’s energy “security”. No commitment about the need for state investments and subsidies to recast the infrastructure of consumption in the zones of transportation, housing, and power production; no urgency to cooperate with other states and international organizations to protect the earth’s forest and ocean systems, though both are key absorbers of carbon dioxide. No exploration of how changes on these fronts could also empower constituencies who seek to foster a positive and timely austerity of material desire. Hence, his second tactic is evasion, because a robust engagement would throw his key assumptions about market control of investment, consumption, and work into disarray, and he would have to think more carefully about the need for new relays between collective patterns of consumption and state policies. What is his explicit reason for such a tactic? He says that the worst climate effects are scheduled to occur after the period he has “selected” for analysis, from today to 2030! Hence, the third tactic: deferral. 

When you combine corporate self-interest, evangelical denial, and neoliberal minimization, evasion and deferral, the multiple forces ranged against an eco-nomic response to climate change become clear. They are as spiritual and ideological in character as self-interested. Indeed the quality of the first two elements slides into the very conceptions of self interest people and institutions elaborate. This spirituality displays a hubris about the unique powers of the market that would make Adam Smith blush; they also express resentment against any evidence that belies the beauty of their market model; and they express a spiritual willingness to run grave risks with the future of humanity to protect this image of the world today.  

A positive response to climate change will mean the demise of this spiritual-neoliberal combine. That is indeed why supporters of the combine are so intense in applying these strategies of denial, minimization, evasion, and deferral. The market model is the last refuge of those who insist that humans can master the larger world rather than seeking to enter into complex negotiations with it on several fronts. The defeat of this combine will require the emergence of a new pluralist assemblage, consisting of multiple constituencies who forsake hubris, cultivate positive spiritual affinities between themselves across numerous subject positions, and amplify their voices on the old and new media.


  1. Thanks, Bill. Let's hope the positive response to climate change happens, for the world's sake and for the demise of the spiritual-neoliberal combine. Maybe God has a plan after all.... ; )

    I think it is fascinating the global warming deniers and creationists have joined forces, and are employing similar tactics at the level of the classroom. See this article in yesterday's Times --

    Complexity and vulnerability -- the gut reaction to it is strong, strong.

  2. I think one way to erode or slow the momentum of this neoliberal evangelical machine is to highlight the way elites use the state not merely to enforce law, discourage worker or consumer collectives, and make war but also to override market outcomes when their own interests or financial position are threatened. Thus it is not enough to deregulate investment banking via Glass/Steagal. When the convoluted deals explode, bailouts protect the most economically and politically well positioned. Neoliberalism has become a tool to soothe amidst troubled times but at least in its pure form it is not a guide to the policy actions of the elites who profess it. And even before the bailout the state was used not merely to enforce "neutral" market rules that happen to benefit the most powerful but also to directly channel resources their way. Think no bid contracts with defense firms, the Medicare prescription drug program, media spectrum giveaways that bothered even Senator Dole, huge R and D subsidies to drug companies...Highlighting these programs and what they represent does point to a kind of hypocrisy that may open space with some of the evangelically minded. But the trick is to use such discussions not to endorse a purer liberalism but rather to push beyond it toward a social ecology that treats markets as only one of the complex and adjustable tools we employ in a world of open systems subject to the disturbances Bill has so ably described.

  3. Good points in general, but the definition of "spiritual" you use is one that does not exactly jump off the page. Also, to call for a new pluralism to "cultivate positive spiritual affinities" - again, the words wobble. "Spiritual" is a colonial term, loaded, and worthy of being fully discarded. I have found it much more truthful to arrive at basic principles (I see the neoliberal order as a "supersystem"), stick to them and never betray them with pie-in-the-sky accommodationism, and seek a new regulatory order. Market beliefs and religious beliefs and spiritual beliefs and academic beliefs - all reactionary nonsense in the face of the worthlessness of the supersystem.

  4. "the world is full of open, self regulating systems of multiple types" -- this is so true, everybody wants to be the leader and nobody wants to follow anymore.

    There's no other elementals walking the earth but us people so if nature is taking its toll on us, perhaps we've abused her generosity which I doubt we deserved in the first place.