Hardly a day passes without new reports on the growing severity of the ongoing ecological crisis. Global temperatures are currently rising 1,000 times faster than at any other time in the geological record. According to Stanford climate scientist Ken Caldiera, “in the middle latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere, average temperatures are increasing at a rate that is equivalent to moving south about 10 meters (30 feet) each day.”
And the situation is at serious risk of spiraling even further out of control. In 2019, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels rose by three parts per million. This might not sound like a lot, but if we continue at this pace, 2°C warming is only about a decade away. And it’s at that level that scientists predict climate catastrophe: extreme heat, more frequent droughts and floods, a poverty explosion, etc.
But how do we avert this impending doom? Proposals abound, but one in particular is nowhere to be found in the mainstream narrative. This is because it threatens the assumptions that lie at the very core of the capitalist system.
Studies show that, to stay under 2°C warming, rich countries like the United States will have to reduce emissions by 8-10% annually. Those same studies demonstrate that emissions reductions greater than 3-4% annually are incompatible with a growing economy. The implication is clear, in order to meaningfully fight climate change, we must tamp down on superfluous economic activity — a concept some refer to as “degrowth.”
What does this look like in practice? Of course, we can’t just ask folks to stop generating an income. Combating environmental collapse via working class immiseration is a losing proposition; it only adds insult to injury. Anyway, it would be unreasonable to expect people to just voluntarily choose to lower their living standards.
Rather, we need to make it such that people can maintain their current quality of life with less income. One easy way to do this is through universal programs, like free college and healthcare. Providing basic services like these free-of-charge means that people will need less income — thereby, having to work less — to maintain the same quality of life.
This works because universal programs are generally cheaper and more efficient than private alternatives. For example, with its private system, the United States spends roughly 17% of its GDP on healthcare. Turkey, which has universal healthcare, spends only about 4%. The United Kingdom, which has fully nationalized its healthcare sector, spends under 10%.
According to a study out of Yale, Medicare for All would save $450 billion per year over the current system. The average middle-class American family is estimated to enjoy around $3,000 in yearly savings. That saving represents time bread winners don’t have to spend working. Universal programs like Medicare for All take pressure off the planet because they allow people to produce less while still having access to a high quality of life.
This insight can be extended to debt cancellation. Since we punish people for pursuing an education, student loan debt has reached nearly $1.8 trillion. Since we punish people for getting sick, nearly 140 million Americans struggle with medical debt. Just think of how many overtime shifts have been worked to try to pay off debts like these, incurred unnecessarily. And as those workers clock in, the planet weeps.
The way we get these crucial policy prescriptions is by letting true democracy run its course. The aforementioned reforms already enjoy huge levels of popular support. 70% of registered voters want Medicare for All, 63% of Americans favour making public colleges and universities tuition-free, 58% support forgiving all student loan debt, and only 39% oppose canceling medical debt.
The reason we don’t have these social rights now is because the United States is only a democracy in namesake. In reality, it functions far more like an oligarchy. A small group of plutocrats exercise almost complete control over the American political system.
In elections, voters are typically given a false choice within the confines of what the ultrawealthy find acceptable. The popular will is not reflected in any meaningful sense. According to a Princeton study, “preferences of the average American appear to have only a miniscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact on public policy.” Therefore, the struggle against climate change ultimately requires a paradigm shift away from oligarchy and toward a genuinely democratic system.