Memo to #OccupyWallStreet: It's Not Just Neoliberalism That's Destroyed the Environment

epSos.de/CC BY 2.0

In the middle of last night's standoff in Liberty Plaza over cleaning of the quasi-private space that Occupy Wall Street has been occupying for four weeks (thankfully and sensibly defused), a call to action was issued, blaming economic neoliberalism (colloquially today, globalization) for much of the socioecologiconomic problems we're facing.

Note: Based on a email thread started in reply to the release of this latest addition to OccupyWallSt.org, it seems the announcement is really coming from one person and there was some dissent about its contents. For the sake of discussion, I'll take it on face value and address it on the merits.

It begins:

Over the last 30 years, the 1% have created a global economic system - neoliberalism - that attacks our human rights and destroys our environment. [...] It is the reason you no longer have a job, it is the reason you cannot afford healthcare, education, food, your mortgage. [...] Neoliberalism is everywhere, gutting labor standards, living wages, social contracts, and environmental protections.

The direct connection between neoliberalism and the lack of affordable healthcare, high education prices, and the housing crisis is a bit thin. But the rest of it is pretty much right on -- though not entirely.

When it comes to protecting the environment, it is true that the current neoliberal globalized economy hasn't done a very good job at protecting nature, at all. But historically speaking, neither have the communist economic systems over the past century (Cuba's organic transition a fluke and frankly a good reaction to circumstances); nor did the mercantilist economic models that dominated a century before that do a very good job at living within ecological boundaries, at least locally.

Part of the reason why neoliberalism seems so bad at environmental protection simply stems from the fact that, in the last few decades of the 20th century and even more so in the first decade of the 21st, human population levels combined with increasing natural resource consumption (aka consumerism) have created a new paradigm, where there is simply no place over the metaphorical next hill or across the next ocean to go for more resources or dump waste. That could always be done in the past, up to a generation or two ago -- and that thinking unfortunately still dominates political and economic discussion of our environment.

There's not really room on TreeHugger to go into all the nuances of why these different visions of economic planning have failed to protect Mother Earth from her rapacious creation known as homo sapiens doing its darndest to commit matricide, but the quick version is this: There has been no major economic system to date that has properly valued the environment, incorporating the true and full costs of depleting natural resources into the price paid for those resources. There is no economic system with a good grasp of ecology, or one that has adequately internalized social and environmental damage.

Which isn't to say there aren't economists today trying to do that very thing, but unfortunately for all of us they are still the outside voices.

So, Occupy Wall Street, I'm right there with you in calling out neoliberalism for a whole litany of social and economic problems -- both not being solved by it as its proponents always envisioned but also being exacerbated in many places -- but at least when it comes to the environment, the critique isn't fully accurate.

Tags: Ecological Economics | Occupy Wall Street