Posted on 30 April 2024 in climate change, finance, political economy

Protest and Paradigm Shifts

In this monthly Director’s Note, Christopher Newfield asks what it’s going to take to effect a paradigm shift on climate knowledge.

Christopher Newfield

Image by Priscilla Gyamfi
(via Unsplash).

This was supposed to be the great decade for the green transition. But now things seem to be moving in reverse.

For example, Pilita Clark reports that “JPMorgan, State Street, Pimco and Invesco have all quit Climate Action 100+”, while the UN-sponsored Net Zero Insurance Alliance “suffered an exodus after threats from right-wing politicians in the US and anti-ESG [environmental, social, and governance] activists that the insurers could be in breach of antitrust laws.” Governments in the UK, the Netherlands and elsewhere have backpedalled on various climate commitments.

I think about this frequently, not least because the ISRF is running an internal seminar on “Green Finance and Its Alternatives.” Most of the members have done important research on the limits of green finance. They’ve also highlighted the alternative systems that would work better to decarbonize at the necessary speed, which is “five times faster” than we’re currently going.

A leading alternative to the existing model of private finance is the “big green state”, as Daniela Gabor has called it. This involves “massive public investments” and the state increasing its control over capital investments in climate-related projects. 

Mariana Mazzucato has long demanded that the state get back in the driver’s seat and start piloting the blimp of environmental strategy. J.W. Mason has nicely classified the varieties of industrial policy that can be brought to bear, while Gabor and Benjamin Braun have outlined green macrofinancial regimes. Pilita Clark has said that the West is stuck on climate policy while Adam Tooze has shown how unnecessary that is, citing the example of China. And that’s just the reading for our first three discussions.

The problem is that none of us in the seminar thinks the financial system that emerged from the neoliberal era will save the planet—it steers capital towards its returns, not towards long-term public benefits. And few believe that today’s governments are up to the challenge either. As Antonio Gramsci’s proverb warns, “The old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born.” Gramsci was writing about the period that began around 1910, but Slavoj Žižek cited it to describe the “permanent economic emergency” in 2010. Little, it seems, has changed. 

Gramsci’s birth metaphor understates both the political battling and the institutional building required to transition from one world to another. But Gramsci himself ignored neither of these factors, and focused on the equally important need for cultural and conceptual change. The new world must be constructed, and constructed by us. 

I first learned about revolution in conceptual frameworks as an undergraduate, not through Gramsci but through Thomas Kuhn’s concept of “paradigm”—an explanatory framework, worldview or model. Paradigms maintain conventional wisdom long after it has been undermined by anomalous data. Then suddenly the paradigm collapses into a new model through what Kuhn called a “paradigm shift.” 

One famous example is Einstein’s theory of relativity replacing Newtonian mechanics. But Social and cultural shifts can occur in a similar way. Take marriage equality in the United States. Support for marriage equality was politically dangerous when Bill Clinton was suggesting “don’t ask, don’t tell” as the rule for “gays in the military” in the mid-1990s. Barack Obama also opposed it in his 2008 presidential campaign. But attitudes shifted enough during Obama’s first term in office, for Obama to move with it to support marriage equality in 2012. 

A similar shift may be underway on trans rights. A 2023 story headlined, “Most Americans support anti-trans policies favored by GOP, poll shows,” also showed that 40% think gender is not assigned at birth and that 75% oppose discrimination against trans people.

Is marriage equality the exception that proves the rule that big shifts happen too slowly and come too late? In the first five minutes of the first seminar, someone mentioned the 1944 Bretton Woods conference as one example, at which elite policymakers from the Global North designed the post-war monetary system. Someone else mentioned the Bandung Conference of 1955, which led to the Non-Aligned Movement. These examples show that nations are capable of transformative international cooperation. But such instances do seem to be the exception. 

 So what would make exceptional global climate cooperation happen now? 

The logic goes something like this. We need a new international governance system for climate investment. That requires moving power over resources from private finance to public entities. Finance will not hand over authority voluntarily, so political pressure will be needed to force finance’s hand. That pressure will have to come from mass mobilisation: none of us thought it would come from an elite consensus of the kind that led to Bretton Woods. 

Meanwhile, mass mobilisation depends on popular understanding of the alternatives to the finance-led system that most people take for granted. Popular understanding in turn depends on education and communication efforts that create a common sense; on social movements that adopt, change and redirect ideas; on an emergent culture in Raymond Williams’s sense (121-35); on an evolving intellectual hegemony in Gramsci’s sense. And those changes depend on the ongoing theorisation of an alternative model that can be communicated to the widest possible international public, and retheorised as that public talks back. 

All the arrows here run from right to left, back to front. The end is actually the beginning. There will be no “mission economy” or green transition without popular clamour for it—and no popular clamour without clearer and more complete visions for effective green transition.

But this is not an impossible catch-22. The clamour for greener systems already exists. And if history is any guide, the theorisations and the social movements will coexist and feed each other. To be between paradigms is never to be at the beginning, but somewhere already fairly far along. 

Our shorthand for where the seminar is heading is “Green Bandung”. And we all know more about what that means than we think we do.

Christopher Newfield

Christopher Newfield is the Director of Research at the Independent Social Research Foundation in London. He is a Distinguished Professor Emeritus of English at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Newfield has recently published two books on the metrics of higher education: Metrics That Matter: Counting What’s Really Important to College Students (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2023) and The Limits of the Numerical: The Abuses and Uses of Quantification (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2022). He is currently conducting research on the nature and effects of literary knowledge.