Mazzucato and “Climate Lockdowns”

“In the near future, the world may need to resort to lockdowns again — this time to tackle a climate emergency.” Certainly, Mariana Mazzucato has a taste for striking words. In her latest column for Project Syndicate, Mazzucato argues that

Shifting Arctic ice, raging wildfires in western US states and elsewhere, and methane leaks in the North Sea are all warning signs that we are approaching a tipping point on climate change when protecting the future of civilization will require dramatic interventions.


This is the scenario Mazzucato works with. What are the odds it will come by? When could that happen? What are the events that may trigger it? Mazzucato seems to assume that this is almost inevitable if things “go on” as they did in the past, namely if we continue to have economic growth dependent on fossil fuel. Still, more than a scenario this looks like the background story of the movie “Interstellar”: in that movie, a team of scientists was (treacherously) contriving to send some humans up in space in order to perpetuate humanity. Here we have Mazzucato suggesting governments should work to “limit private-vehicle use, ban consumption of red meat, and impose extreme energy-saving measures, while fossil-fuel companies would have to stop drilling.”

That the private sector can cope with such a challenge is a hypothesis Mazzucato does not even consider. Such a sad scenario cannot possibly be affected by human ingenuity, at least if supported by private shareholders.

Mazzucato’s piece is simply an exercise in “never letting a good crisis go waste”. She maintains that Covid-19 is “itself a consequence of environmental degradation: one recent study dubbed it the disease of the Anthropocene.” Moreover, she says, “climate change will exacerbate the social and economic problems highlighted by the pandemic. These include governments’ diminishing capacity to address public-health crises, the private sector’s limited ability to withstand sustained economic disruption, and pervasive social inequality.”

The key sentence in the article is: “These shortcomings reflect the distorted values underlying our priorities.”

Virtually all problems, in Mazzucato’s worldview, reflect the fact the priorities in the world of production are attuned to people’s demands. In a capitalist system, there are no other “values underlying our priorities” than the perceived necessities of people which become demand for goods and services.

This is the essence of Mazzucato’s view:

Addressing this triple crisis requires reorienting corporate governance, finance, policy, and energy systems toward a green economic transformation. To achieve this, three obstacles must be removed: business that is shareholder-driven instead of stakeholder-driven, finance that is used in inadequate and inappropriate ways, and government that is based on outdated economic thinking and faulty assumptions. Corporate governance must now reflect stakeholders’ needs instead of shareholders’ whims. Building an inclusive, sustainable economy depends on productive cooperation among the public and private sectors and civil society.

This nicely summarizes the evolution of Mazzucato’s views, from her first to her second book. In her first book, she advocates an “entrepreneurial state”. In the second she does call for going beyond capitalism founded upon “shareholder value”. I think this makes sense. If the state is going to fund or sponsor innovative companies, they will nonetheless have to compete in a world of private business seeking positive profits — and that may show either the virtues of government-led capitalism or its weaknesses. So, why not allow both the government and the private sector reject the profit motive, which means the traditional metrics of success and failure too?

Note that in Mazzucato’s piece there are no words of concern for low-income countries, where relatively more “polluting” technologies may be the only ones available, let alone economical, for the time being.

I think this piece is very useful. It perfectly epitomizes an attitude which is spreading in some intellectual quarters: use the Covid19 crisis to make some changes permanent, hoping for a world in which people travel less, trade less, rely more on the government. Those on the other side of the debate should take any available opportunity to emphasize that the quarrel is not between those who want to use government capital to satisfy people’s needs, and those who want to use private capital to satisfy people needs: but between those who want the economy to serve the needs of the people, and those who want the economy to supply those goods and services some rulers believe the people should consume.