The word “environmentalist” usually conjures images of dreadlocked campaigners in tie-dyed T-shirts who eat only organic muesli and never travel by car. Or of that painfully PC couple from Park Slope who carry their kids marsupial-style and make monthly donations to NPR. Or of earnest Greenpeace activists denouncing big corporations for killing polar bears and claiming that “The Science” shows we’re all doomed —Greens always use the definite article in relation to science.

Those views are so 1970s. Or at best 1980s. Environmentalism may still have a somewhat edgy, down-at-heel public image, but going green has become big business, and there are buckets of cash to be made from “saving the planet.” In fact, we are witnessing the emergence of a Green-Industrial Complex—an alliance between national governments, enormous corporations, and powerful individuals that uses the politics of fear to procure public money.

This new axis discourages healthy debate (accusing those who question it of being “climate-change deniers”); thwarts individual initiative (treating saving the planet as something that can only be done by central bankrollers); and helps to keep the Third World in poverty (encouraging it to remain “carbon-lite” in order to offset the “carbon heaviness” of the West). It’s time to toss an intellectual hand grenade into this network.

For a snapshot of the federal and business interests intertwined in the rise of green capitalism, consider the best-known environmentalist, Al Gore, director of the film that has informed so many people’s views on the future of our planet, “An Inconvenient Truth.” To many, especially those still convinced that he was robbed of the 2000 presidential election, Gore is simply a super-committed individual determined to make the planet a better place. But there is far more to him. Gore is getting rich from environmentalism, not just by being paid a whopping $175,000 per speech but by using political pressure to force government policy in a direction that benefits his business interests.

Gore is founder and chairman of the Alliance for Climate Protection, an outfit that seeks to “persuade people of the importance, urgency and feasibility of adopting and implementing effective and comprehensive solutions for the climate crisis.” It has launched a $300 million advertising campaign to coax Americans to embrace the carbon-lite lifestyle and to put pressure on their political leaders to lower national carbon emissions.

But Gore is also chairman of a green investment firm called Generation Investment Management, which is a member of the Copenhagen Climate Council, an international collaboration of businesses and science bodies that promotes climate-change mitigation strategies and invests in companies that are environmentally friendly—including firms that produce renewable energy and low-carbon technology. So Gore uses one of his multimillion-dollar organizations—the Alliance for Climate Protection—to put pressure on government to promote the low-carbon lifestyle, which furnishes one of his other multimillion-dollar organizations—General Investment Management—with booming business.

Gore is also at the forefront of a very vocal effort to encourage the Obama administration to put a price on carbon. That is, to follow in Europe’s footsteps by creating a carbon-trading scheme whereby the wasteful byproduct of everyday manufacturing would be priced. Only those who pay for the “right” to emit carbon would be allowed to do so. When this was first introduced in Europe in 2005 under the European Union Emissions Trading Scheme, a “pass” cost 30 euros per ton of CO2. When you consider that a large coal-fired power station can produce 20 million tons of CO2 per year, you see how the carbon levy works as a Big Government tax.

Gore and other members of the Copenhagen Climate Council, including the world’s largest producer of wind turbines, Vestas, present their demands for carbon-trading schemes as altruistic efforts to clean up the planet. In truth, these green-leaning profit-making machines stand to gain significantly if the activities of their less green competitors are hampered by government demands.

Gore’s activities provide only a glimpse into this new collusion between the green lobby, business interests, scientific research, and government policy. So speedily has this network come together that according to one critic of the politics of environmentalism—Bjørn Lomborg, author of The Skeptical Environmentalist—it is not going too far to liken the new Green-Industrial Complex to the Military-Industrial Complex that President Dwight Eisenhower warned of in the 1950s. “[T]he potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist,” said Eisenhower, referring to the close relationship between weapons-makers, military researchers, and the U.S. military itself. He said of the resulting complex: “[T]here is a recurring temptation to feel that some spectacular and costly action could become the miraculous solution to all current difficulties.” This is also the core belief of the Green-Industrial Complex, that collection of green activists, scientific researchers, and federal officials. It believes that government investment in narrow green concerns—“green jobs,” “a green New Deal,” “carbon trading”—is the simple and spectacular answer not only to the recession but to the future of capitalist society itself.

The Obama administration sees “green jobs” as a route out of the recession. On the campaign trail, Obama spoke of a “green revolution” in which his administration would spend $150 billion to boost America’s energy efficiency and in the process create 5 million jobs. These “green-collar workers” would install insulation to make homes more energy efficient, build wind turbines and greener buildings, and improve the electrical grid.

So now the race is on among green-leaning businesses to snap up the new government contracts—and among not-so-green businesses to improve their Green-Industrial credentials in the hope of reaping government cash. This despite the fact that international evidence suggests that the attempt to create green jobs will hamper economic recovery.

Obama cited Spain as a country where the focused creation of green jobs has improved economic matters. In fact, according to a study by Gabriel Calzada, a professor of economics at Juan Carlos University in Madrid, for every green job created by the Spanish government in recent years, an average of 2.2 other jobs were destroyed to make way for it. Furthermore, green jobs tend not to be permanent: in Spain, only 1 in 10 green jobs exists for a significant period of time. “Spain’s experience cited by Obama reveals that the U.S. should expect a loss of about nine jobs for every four [green jobs] created,” said Calzada. He warned that his study demonstrates how the narrow focus on green jobs has “clearly hindered Spain’s way out of the economic crisis, even while U.S. politicians insist that rushing into such a scheme will ease their own emergence from the turmoil.”

In the UK, the Green-Industrial Complex is in full swing, seeing in the recession an opportunity to tighten its grip on public money. Activists have used their political clout and scientific research, much of it derived from studies that underpin the powerful business-science alliance of the Copenhagen Climate Council, to pressure the government to adopt a Green New Deal. The government has been keen to accommodate them. Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced in April, to much fanfare and nods of approval from the Obama administration, that he would create 400,000 green jobs and a “low-carbon economy.”

Yet as in Spain, Brown’s figures do not add up and actually reveal the deluded nature of the Green-Industrial Complex’s conviction—mirroring that of its military precursor—that “spectacular and costly action could become the miraculous solution to all current difficulties.” The Brown government imagines that by 2015, it will have created 39,600 new jobs in geothermal energy, 74,900 in the development of alternative fuels, 25,300 in solar power, and 69,300 in the construction of wind turbines. What this overlooks—fatally—is that as a result of Britain’s debilitating crisis of credit, the renewables industry, in which tens of thousands of new jobs are apparently going to be created in the next six years, is in a dire, if not collapsing state. Five of Britain’s biggest wind-energy projects have been abandoned or put on hold indefinitely, and British Petroleum recently cut 620 jobs in its solar-energy division because it wasn’t profitable. And we’re expected to believe that thousands more people will be employed in wind and solar power by 2015? As author Christopher Booker argues, Brown’s “green revolution” is “babyish make-believe.”

The Spanish and British experiences—fantasy figures; more jobs lost than created; “green-collar workers” on short, unpredictable contracts—suggest that Obama should not so enthusiastically sign up for the creation of a post-recession America informed by the politics and prejudices of the Green-Industrial Complex. But then, much of the to-ing and fro-ing over the allocation of public money, the vying for influence in a new green America, is not about taking practical measures to combat hardship and generate wealth. It is a political campaign designed to reinvigorate American society, and contemporary capitalism itself, with a new sense of purpose and values.

For Obama, it is the public impact of terms like “green jobs” and “green economy,” and the ability of such new terms to force corporations to compete in a new way, that is really key. His embrace of the Green-Industrial Complex is not about affecting real change, far less about restructuring the economy in a way that might make it more productive. Rather, it is about instituting a new political outlook, one in which government intervention on the side of science-exploiting, globally-conscious corporations becomes the solution to contemporary problems. It is an outlook that both evades responsibility for overhauling the economy in a meaningful way and demotes individual initiative in favor of this burgeoning business/ science/government alliance.

Indeed, green activists now talk openly about the recession being a “good thing. ” Not only will it lead to less “destructive” human activity because people will be so financially restricted they won’t be able to consume and pollute in a wanton fashion, it will also elevate the policies of the Green-Industrial Complex to the center stage of public debate. A leading European scientist whose views inform the Copenhagen Climate Council recently said, “It’s a cruel thing to say … but if we are looking at a slowdown in the economy, there will be less fossil fuels burning, so for the climate it could be an advantage.” This captures both the Complex’s cavalier attitude toward individual hardship and its disdain for anything other than Big Government/Big Business solutions. This is about creating a new mission for the elite while enforcing a culture of low horizons, if not outright fear-induced paralysis, among the “little people.”

Far from offering salvation from our economic difficulties, the Green-Industrial Complex actually played a role in bringing on the downturn and damaging important public institutions. It’s worth remembering that the company whose collapse precipitated the credit crunch —Lehman Brothers—enthusiastically embraced the idea of “carbon trading,” or “carbon cap and trade” as it is sometimes known, that is now held up by green campaigners as a liberal, if not revolutionary, approach. In its 2007 report The Business of Climate Change: Challenges and Opportunities, Lehman expressed hope that it might become a “prime brokerage for [carbon] emissions permits”—meaning it aspired to make money not only from speculating in mortgages but also from trading in thin air.

Lehman was inspired by European carbon-trading schemes, the kind that many want Obama to introduce in America and the UN or the World Bank to enforce on a global scale. Under the plan first proposed in the Kyoto Protocol of 1997 and introduced in Europe in the early and mid-2000s, the European Union and UN allocate to industry legal titles to emit a certain amount of CO2. Because the titles are transferable, and because large numbers were allocated to large corporations when the licenses were first introduced, there arose a market in carbon-trading. Powerful businesses were able to sell their CO2 permits to smaller companies that needed to emit a certain amount of CO2. This created the bizarre, but apparently environmentalist, situation in which major corporations with extra CO2 titles were able to charge smaller organizations for the “right” to emit carbon.

In the UK, the University of Manchester, like so many other educational institutions, public buildings, and small businesses, had to pay up. It forked over £92,500 for CO2 permits—and when the carbon-trading market hit the recession and the value of CO2 permits fell, the university would be doing well, said one report, “if it managed to get £1,000 for the lot of them.” The Green-Industrial Complex’s transformation of CO2 into a tradeable commodity actually empowered large corporations and led to new forms of risky speculation.

Now, as well as demanding that Obama do something similar in the U.S., there are calls for an international carbon-trading regime. The World Bank has proposed that it broker “carbon rights” between the developed and developing world. This would recreate, in global dimensions, the restrictions on small-scale initiative and economic development that have already occurred in Europe. In the informal world of “carbon offsetting,” wealthy individuals in the West currently pay large sums to charities that fund “eco-friendly” farming and industry in the developing world. They can continue living carbon-heavy lives because “over there” some peasant is living a carbon-lite life. It was recently revealed that Prince Charles and David Cameron, leader of Britain’s Conservative Party, were making donations to a charity that encourages Indian farmers to use foot pumps rather than machinery to draw water for their crops. In short, guilt-ridden rich people are paying poor people to stay poor. Formalizing such an unequal relationship with international brokerage of carbon-emission rights would be a disaster—eco-slavery, as it were.

Far from ushering in a brighter future, the Green-Industrial Complex’s activities hinder economic experimentation, individual initative, and human aspiration. In problematizing the emission of CO2 to such an extent that one has to pay for the privilege, the Complex implicitly denigrates production, since all forms of modern manufacturing emit CO2. In racing to access green-allocated public money, it treats authorities as the solution to every problem. And how does it press the case for remaking society and the economy in its own image? Through the politics of fear, with science-tinged reports about imminent disaster if we do not take its advice.

This is a recipe for economic stagnation rather than recovery and for a new form of politics dominated by an elite green clique and closed off to us mere mortals.  
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Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked (www.spiked-online.com) and author of Can I Recycle My Granny and 39 Other Eco-Dilemmas, a satire on environmentalism.