Image Credit: Ramachandra Babu/©Gulf News

People are the worst. Variants of that sentiment appeared all over social media when Coles [British supermaket giant] decided against phasing out plastic bags on the basis that shoppers needed “more time to make the transition”.

Then came the special climate edition of the New York Times Magazine putting essentially the same argument, albeit on a much grander scale.

In a long and fascinating essay, Nathaniel Rich explains that the key breakthroughs in climate science are not new. By the 1980s, scientists already understood how global warming worked — and how to stop it.

Today, so much carbon has been pumped into the atmosphere that, for Rich, “long-term disaster is now the best-case scenario.” But climate change could have been nipped in the bud. “Almost nothing stood in our way,” he explains, “except ourselves.”

The problem, in other words, was the populace.

The masses craved comfort, irrespective of the consequences. They insisted on their gas-guzzling cars and their air conditioning and their plastic Coles bags, even as increasingly desperate experts begged them to change their ways.

As a result, we are where we are, with, for instance, a new report suggesting that climate change might well render many parts of the planet uninhabitable.

But what’s the basis for this confident assertion of the population’s indifference to the planet?

“Human beings,” Rich says, “whether in global organisations, democracies, industries, political parties or as individuals, are incapable of sacrificing present convenience to forestall a penalty imposed on future generations.”

That sounds like a fact but it’s actually an argument, one associated with some fundamental controversies in political economy. As Shannon Osaka points out, Rich echoes Garrett Hardin’s The tragedy of the commons, an essay that argued that overpopulation and individual self-interest inevitably result in the despoliation of shared resources.

But Hardin’s thesis by no means constitutes the knock-down blow its proponents claim. The Marxist geographer David Harvey notes that the supposed impossibility of the commons only became an “irrefutable argument for the superior efficiency of private property rights” because right-wingers generalised from specific historical conditions into supposedly immutable laws.

In reality, though, as Elinor Ostrom demonstrated in her Nobel Prize winning research, many real world communities boast long track records of the cooperative preservation of shared resources and common property, in precisely the way that Hardin declares impossible.

That’s something of which Australians, in particular, should be aware, with important books by Bruce Pascoe, Bill Gammage and others chronicling how Indigenous people sustained “the biggest estate on Earth” for some 60,000 years. More generally, by blaming human nature, Rich’s piece naturalises and essentialists the specific political and economic conditions that made climate action so difficult in the 1980s.

“[O]ne could scarcely imagine,” writes Naomi Klein, in a powerful response, “a more inopportune moment in human evolution for our species to come face to face with the hard truth that the conveniences of modern consumer capitalism were steadily eroding the habitability of the planet. Why? Because the late 80s was the absolute zenith of the neoliberal crusade, a moment of peak ideological ascendancy for the economic and social project that deliberately set out to vilify collective action in the name of liberating ‘free markets’ in every aspect of life.”

This was, after all, the era in which the right and the left embraced the market as both inevitable and desirable, an institution of almost miraculous efficiency that needed to be forcibly introduced into every aspect of human behaviour. In came privatisation, deregulation and “user pays”; out went public ownership and planning. In the new environment, collective institutions — political parties, trade unions, community groups and even sporting clubs — inevitably withered, incompatible with a society of atomised individuals dealing with each other only through the nexus of the cash register.

Under such conditions, we can scarcely blame Joe and Jane Public for their failure to prioritise the future over the present. The whole point of neoliberalism was to universalise what economists call “rational profit maximisation”. We became a society of winners and losers, in which you grabbed what you could — or got trampled in the dust.

In any case, with the decline of traditional mechanisms of politics, ordinary people possessed almost no power to exert their will. The unions, parties and parliaments that once exerted at least some influence over the market became themselves increasingly marketised, with private consumption re-interpreted as the a more legitimate expression of preference than the ballot.

We can see the effects in Australia today — and the struggle over supermarket bags offers a prime example.

Punitive taxation

It shouldn’t be difficult to end the grotesque proliferation of plastic waste. As I’ve noted previously, American manufacturers adopted single use packing after the Second World War because of the enormous profits it facilitated. They then fought tooth and nail to accustom an initially hostile public to the resultant pollution.

A government serious about curtailing the epidemic of toxic microplastics could, fairly obviously, tax those who produce and sell goods coated in the stuff. Punitive taxation would both dissuade single use packaging and fund programmes to rehabilitate the already degraded ecosystems.

Instead, the debate about shopping bags places the onus on individual shoppers. The responsibility for stamping out plastic rests not with governments or multinationals or institutions with real power but rather the harried parent trying to sort out the family meal on the way home from work. By their nature, consumer-led campaigns make most sense to those in positions of relative privilege. If you’re in possession of a healthy disposable income, you’re probably already accustomed to picking and choosing what you buy, and so not at all discomforted by bringing your own recycled bag.

If, on the other hand, you’re barely getting by from week to week, even a tiny extra fee can feel like an insult added to an injury. A giant supermarket, whose executives draw salaries you barely imagine and whose entire business model rests on enticing consumers to buy more plastic wrapped goods, sanctimoniously implying that, despite your total lack of social power, you’re actually responsible for killing all the turtles: it’s not hard to grasp how that might rankle.

Should anyone be surprised, then, that the battle of the bags provided an opportunity for the culture war right to rile up sentiment against the inner city elite and their Political Correctness Gone Mad?

The anger that some shoppers displayed did not prove that ordinary Australians were grotesque monsters indifferent to the fate of the oceans. On the contrary, it showed how a particular kind of environmental strategy — one that targeted consumers rather than the institutions that shaped their consumption — could foster conditions for a right-wing backlash.

Yet here’s the thing. Coles might have claimed that customers drove its reversion to plastic bags. But an internal memo obtained by Fairfax tells a different story.

Whatever it said in its press release, the supermarket explained to its store managers that the backflip stemmed from the need to corral shoppers through the checkouts more quickly. You see, Coles wanted to capitalise on the success of its Little Shop toy promotion, a programme in which, as Fairfax put it, “customers receive small plastic-wrapped plastic replicas of everyday supermarket products”.

In other words, the reversion to the old policy was always about profit — and not about people at all.

And that matters. If we attribute the ruination of the planet to human nature, we’re essentially giving up. Likewise, if we blame everyone, we’re letting the real culprits of the hook, eliding the difference between the multinational pumping industrial quantities of pollutants into the atmosphere and the pensioner who simply forgets his recycled bag.

In a grim political climate, progressives can feel isolated. It’s easy to huddle in the spaces where left-wing ideas retain some purchase and bemoan the backwardness all around. Many liberals have, in fact, internalised right-wing ideas about the conservatism of the masses. They see the public as a dark reservoir of racism, sexism and bigotry; they present progressive politics, first and foremost, as a way of preventing the populace vomiting up their supposedly hateful prejudices.

Yet almost every principle that progressives now hold sacrosanct were established by ordinary people, usually in the context of fierce opposition from the wealthy, the educated and the powerful. Again and again — from the green bans to the Franklin River blockade to the Jabiluka protests — we’ve seen that when campaigners offer a meaningful way to take action for the environment Australians show just how much they care for the natural world.

People aren’t the worst. They’re the only hope for the planet — and it’s time that was recognised.

— Guardian News & Media Ltd

Jeff Sparrow is a Guardian Australia columnist.