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Can the market fix what the market has destroyed?


That’s one of the key questions of the moment in regard to climate change. In a review essay, Olufemi Taiwa points out that the entire cognitive frame that treats the planet’s ecology and people as resources to be exploited has turned out to be somewhat problematic:

n 1621, the Dutch East India Company—the Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie, or V.O.C.—arrived at the Banda Islands with a formidable navy. The global spice market was fiercely competitive, and a number of European powers had already sailed to this Indonesian archipelago and tried to strong-arm the locals into accepting various treaties. The V.O.C. had recently sought a monopoly on the spice trade with the islands, home to the precious nutmeg. Nutmeg, valued for its culinary uses and its medicinal properties—rumor had it that it could cure the plague—had long been traded across vast networks that traversed the Indian Ocean and linked Africa and Eurasia. At one point, a handful of the seeds could buy a house or a ship. But the V.O.C. couldn’t secure a deal. The islands lacked a central authority; instead of kings or potentates, they merely had respected elders.

Frustrated, the Dutch turned to a military tactic of extortion they called brandschattingen—threatening an enemy with arson—and swiftly delivered on the threat, torching the villagers’ houses, food stores, and boats. Dutch forces captured and enslaved as many of the Bandanese as they could, and murdered the rest. Soon after the massacre, the V.O.C. became, by some measures, the largest company in human history, worth more than ExxonMobil, Apple, and Amazon combined.

“Like a planet, the nutmeg is encased within a series of expanding spheres,” Amitav Ghosh writes in his illuminating new book, “The Nutmeg’s Curse” (Chicago), which begins with this grisly episode. Surrounding the nutmeg core are other layers, notably a lacy red mantle called mace, which is itself traded as a precious commodity, while the exterior of the dried seed is grooved with ridges that evoke geological structures. Ghosh carves through the historical layers of the global exploitation of nutmeg and the genocide and domination that made it possible. “No trade without war, and no war without trade,” Jan Pieterszoon Coen, the fourth governor-general of the Dutch East Indies, declared.

Ghosh has a larger point. Extraction, violence, empire: all these perennials of human history tend to march together. The global marketplace, created and shaped by forays like the V.O.C.’s in Indonesia, is fixated on growth in ways that have led to an era of depredation, depletion, and, ultimately, disruptive climate change. Ghosh wonders whether our planet, after four centuries of vigorous terraforming, has begun to turn against its settlers, unleashing wildfires, storms, and droughts. It sounds like nature’s own version of brandschattingen.

So far, technocratic tweaking has gotten us only so far:

One very big problem with market-based solutions is that many market actors have become far more sophisticated about engaging in what might be called soft climate denialism, as opposed to the crude old-fashioned Okie idiot with a snowball on the floor of the Senate kind:

If you’re wedded to market solutions, you’ll insist that our failure to act arises simply from suboptimal legal rules and market conditions. Maybe all we need are a few technical adjustments in pricing or institutional design. But our paralysis didn’t arise from happenstance. Every decade that we delay comprehensive climate action is another decade that certain companies can profit from their stake in the world’s energy system. Activists and reporters have exposed well-funded and elaborate misinformation campaigns sponsored by these companies. The revelations haven’t made much difference.

What Kate Aronoff shows, in her timely book “Overheated” (Bold Type), is that the “old-school” approach to corporate climate denial has given way to new, subtler strategies. Yesterday’s denialists insisted that climate change was a hoax, funding dodgy science and blitzing coöperative media outlets such as Fox News with industry “experts.” But under mounting public pressure many companies have withdrawn their support from denialist think tanks like the Heartland Institute; those companies are now funding academic research at big-name universities that shy away from overt climate-change denial.

One of the new strategies is to acknowledge climate change but to put polluters in charge of remedying it. Aronoff describes a 2018 proposal by Royal Dutch Shell, billed as a pathway to two degrees Celsius, that would have maintained similar levels of fossil-fuel production for decades. The scenario depended on carbon removal deployed on an immense scale—orders of magnitude above our current capabilities, and with potentially dangerous implications for food, energy, and water security. Earlier this year, Shell was rebuked by a Dutch court, which ordered the company to reduce its carbon emissions by forty-five per cent by 2030.

The biggest problem of all — bigger than all the collective action difficulties created by trying to ameliorate the degradation of the biggest public good of all (the ecosphere) — is that “we” have to find a way to get people now to care enough about the world 20 and 50 and 75 years from now that “they” are willing to make some sort of significant sacrifices in the present for the sake of the future, which as a great philosopher once noted is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives.

This is just one of the many excellent reasons not to have 80-year-olds running anything important, although I’m legally prohibited from pointing this out because doing so would be Ageism.

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