Change the System — Not the Climate!


Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth has helped dramatize the enormity of the global environmental crisis.  The scale of the threat posed by industrially induced global warming, and the short time in which to take meaningful action to prevent catastrophic consequences, makes the question of how to combat global warming arguably the most urgent one facing humanity.

Globally, the 10 hottest years on record have been in the past 12 years.  The atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases — primarily carbon dioxide (CO2) from the burning of fossil fuels, as well as methane, nitrous oxides, water vapor, and other gases — is rapidly rising.  These gases trap heat and cause warming.

In 2001, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned that unless CO2 levels are stabilized at around twice the pre-industrial level, the Earth’s average atmospheric temperature will rise by up to 5.8°C by 2100.  To keep warming to below 2°C, at which it is hoped the worst effects could be avoided, the IPCC recommended that human-generated greenhouse gas emissions be slashed by at least 60-80% by 2050 at the latest.

If greenhouse gas emissions are not reduced, sea levels are forecast to rise between 20 centimeters and one meter by 2100, flooding some of the world’s most densely populated cities.  Global warming will trigger severe storms and floods, worse droughts and expanding deserts, severe shortages of fresh water and increased epidemics of dangerous tropical diseases.  The world’s impoverished majority will be, and already are, bearing the brunt.

Radical British columnist George Monbiot convincingly argues that the more accurate target for emission cuts by the advanced industrialized countries should be an average of 90% by 2030.  For the United States and Australia he urges a 94% cut.

The price of prolonged inaction could be catastrophic.  If the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets collapse, sea levels could rise by up to 10 meters; more moderate melting could slow or shut down the circulation of ocean currents responsible for the relatively mild temperatures of Northern Europe.

More recent studies reveal that warming could cause the abrupt release of large quantities of methane — a greenhouse gas 21 times more powerful than CO2 — stored in the frozen but thawing tundra.

Fiddling While Rome Burns

Yet as the scientific warnings have multiplied and become louder, governments’ response has been to opt for inadequate, voluntary, gradual measures that will cost big business as little as possible.

While scientists began warning of global warming in the 1980s, it was not until December 1997 that an international treaty, the Kyoto Protocol, was finally agreed.  The US, which emits 25% of the total industrial greenhouse gases, and Australia refuse to ratify the protocol.

Under the protocol the rich industrialized countries, the major emitters, are required to cut their average emissions by only 5.2% below 1990 levels.  They have until 2012 to achieve this.  There are no reduction targets or timetables for beyond 2012.

Figures released in October 2006 show that since 1990 annual greenhouse gas emissions from the richest countries have risen and, adjusted for the paper reductions following the collapse of the Eastern European economies, were more than 11% greater in 2004.  Of the 41 richest Kyoto ratifiers, 34 had increased emissions between 1990 and 2004.  US emissions are up 21.1%, Australia’s by 25.1%.  Emissions from transportation jumped 24%.

The World Meteorological Organization reported last November that CO2 concentration increased to 379.1 parts per million (ppm) in 2005.  To keep global warming to 2°C, CO2 concentration must be stabilized at around 450 ppm by 2050.

Gore focuses on individual actions, makes few serious demands on big business, and endorses the largely voluntary market-based measures, such as emissions trading, that are contained in Kyoto.  He, like most mainstream environmental groups and the major Green parties, place the onus of solving global warming onto individuals, while relying on the capitalist market, nudged along by so-called “green” taxes and legislative regulations.

Such views reflect a well-meaning but utopian belief that, if enough of us decide to drastically reduce our demand on the world’s resources, big business and governments will respond to “market signals” and adapt to a slow-growth or no-growth economy.

It is a good thing to organize our lives to live more ecologically.  But that alone will not be enough to halt the crisis.  It certainly cannot be the main strategy as it will let the real culprits off the hook and divert precious activist energy away from challenging the underlying systemic dynamic driving ecological degradation.

What is required is the rapid, far-reaching reorganization of industry, energy, transport, and mass consumption patterns and the massive transfer of clean technology to the Third World.  This is simply not possible under capitalism.

As Marxist ecologist John Bellamy Foster explained in Monthly Review in 1995, behind most appeals for individual “ecological morality,” “there lies the presumption that we live in a society where the morality of the individual is the key to the morality of society.  If people as individuals could simply change their moral stance with respect to nature and alter their behavior in areas such as propagation, consumption, and the conduct of business, all would be well.  What is all too often overlooked in such calls for moral transformation is the central institutional fact of our [capitalist] society: what might be called the global ‘treadmill of production’.”

Foster draws from the scientific socialist analysis of capitalism, first made by Karl Marx and Frederich Engels, to illustrate how, despite the assertions of many environment movement theorists, Marxism not only provides essential insights into the fundamental cause of the environment crisis, but also offers the best political guide to its solution.

Consumption and Profits

Marx’s account of the essential operations of the capitalist system identifies its fundamentally anti-ecological trait.  During the long period of pre-capitalist simple commodity production, peasants and artisans sold their surplus produce for money to buy goods to meet their other immediate needs.  This circuit of commodities and money takes the form of Commodity-Money-Commodity (C-M-C) and usually ends with the consumption of the commodity.

However, under the capitalist mode of production — in which commodity production is now generalized — the circuit begins and ends with money.  The capitalist buys or produces commodities in order to sell them for a profit and then buys or produces more to sell more again.  The formula is now M-C-M’, in which M’ represents the original outlay to buy or produce the commodities plus the surplus value created by the workers’ labor during their production.

There is no end to the process because capitalists’ aim is to reinvest the surplus, or accumulate the capital, from the previous cycle.  Competition between capitalists ensures that each one must continue to reinvest their “earnings,” increase their production of commodities, and continue to expand.  Production tends to expand exponentially until interrupted by crises (depressions and wars).  It is this dynamic at the core of capitalism that places unsustainable pressure on the environment.

Because capitalism pursues accumulation and growth for its own sake, whatever the consequences, schemes based on the hope of a no-growth, slow-growth or sustainable-growth form of capitalism are pipe dreams, as are strategies based on a critical mass of individual consumers deciding to go “green.”

Since the days of Adam Smith, economists have conceded that capitalism is a system devoted to the pursuit of individual wealth, which only indirectly meets society’s broader needs.  But, as is becoming increasingly clear, the first goal entirely overrides and corrupts the second.

For capitalists, profit is an end in itself.  It does not matter whether the commodities they produce satisfy fundamental human needs or are devoted to pointless or ostentatious consumption, or are even destructive.  A buck is a buck whether it comes from mung beans, Lamborghinis, or cigarettes.

People are not “consumers” by nature.  A multi-billion-dollar industry — advertising — constantly plays with our minds to convince us that happiness comes only through buying more and more.  In 2003 alone, US big business spent more than US$54.5 billion on advertising to convince people to constantly consume more goods and services, compared to $76 billion spent on education.

Many argue that with the right mix of taxes, incentives, and regulations everybody would win: big business will have cheaper, more efficient production and therefore be more profitable, and consumers will have more environment-friendly products and energy sources.  They argue that, in a rational society, such innovations would lower the overall environmental impact.

Unfortunately, we don’t live in a rational society.

Capitalism approaches technology — in the production process and in the final product to be sold — in the same way as everything else: what will generate the most profits?  Whether it is efficient, clean, safe, or environmentally benign has little to do with it.

The technologies that could tackle global warming have long existed.  Despite being massively underfunded, renewable energy sources are today competitive with coal and nuclear power (if the negative social and environmental costs are factored in).  Public transport systems have been around since the late 1800s, yet huge private interests have ensured that the vastly more wasteful, inefficient, and polluting private motor vehicle dominates the industrialized world.

US Marxist economist Paul Sweezy describes how the “automobile-industrialization complex” — the major car companies, the oil industry, the steel, glass, and rubber corporations, the highway builders, the trucking combines, and the real-estate and construction interests tied to suburban sprawl — have been the axis “around which [capital] accumulation in the 20th Century largely turned.”  This remains at the heart of the major economies’ dependence on oil.

Fundamental to capitalism’s development has been its power to shift the cost of its ecological and social vandalism onto society as whole.  It does this by using the biosphere as a giant toilet: it’s cheaper to pour toxic waste into the air or the nearest river, rather than pay for the real costs of production.

Society subsidizes corporate profit-making by cleaning up some of the mess or suffering the environmental and/or health costs.  In August, a Dutch company with revenues of $28 billion last year dumped 500 tons of toxic waste in the Ivory Coast, West Africa, because it did not want to pay the $250,000 disposal fee in the Netherlands.  At least 10 people died from the fumes, 69 were hospitalized, and more than 100,000 needed medical attention.

At the same time, the systematic polluting has been magnified by the development of synthetic chemicals associated with the growth of the petrochemical and agribusinesses.  The result is much more toxic wastes, such as those from chlorine-related (organochlorine) production, the source of DDT, dioxin, PCBs, and CFCs.  The degree of toxicity associated with a given level of production has risen steadily since the middle of last century.

There is no natural feedback mechanism that triggers the market to rein in this sort of vandalism.  Attempts to manage the damage by “regulating” capitalism with “green taxes” have had limited success, precisely because governments are run by corporate-funded political parties and politicians, with bureaucracies headed by establishment figures who see their role as defending the status quo.

Tax rates, charges, or fines are set well below the level that would impact seriously on profits; more often than not, it is cheaper for big business to go on polluting until the next scheduled refit than to immediately stop polluting.  Taxes also tend to be set at rates that can be passed on to consumers rather than a level that forces a fundamental redirection of investment into non-polluting or renewable technology.

Taking Control

A plethora of “blueprints” for an ecologically sustainable world fail, not because their proposals for a rapid conversion to renewable energy and the rational reorganization of production and consumption are far-fetched, but because they do not accept that capitalism is incapable of bringing them into being.

A socialist society run by and for the “associated producers,” as Marx described working people, would allow the controlling levers of the “treadmill” to be seized, bringing it to a halt so we can all get off and begin to rationally plan the best way forward.

Just a fraction of what is spent on global direct military spending — more than US$1 trillion a year, of which the US accounts for almost 50% — could eliminate starvation and malnutrition globally, provide education for every child, access to water and sanitation, and reverse the spread of AIDS and malaria.  It would also enable the massive transfer of new and clean technologies to the Third World to allow poor countries to skip the dirty industrial stage of development.

The end of capitalist domination would also end the plunder of the Third World, and genuine development could ensue.  With the cancellation of Third World debt, the poor countries would retain vast sums to kick-start their clean development.

The wealth of the former capitalist class would also provide immense resources.  According to a November 2006 United Nations report, the richest 2% of adults own more than half of all global wealth.  The poorest 50% of the world’s population own barely 1%.  Europe, the US, and Japan account for most of the extremely wealthy.

Genuinely democratic socialist planning could collectively redirect society’s wealth into research and development of existing and new technologies to meet society’s needs, while operating well within the environment’s capacity to absorb the waste.  We could rapidly bring forward the expansion of renewable energy, and speedily phase out coal and nuclear power stations.

With a huge boost to socially directed investment in research and development, reliable solar energy and wind power could soon become much cheaper than traditional sources.  We could begin to harness the Sun’s energy, which every day delivers to the Earth 17,000 times as much energy as the entire population uses.

Capitalism’s dependence on the private car and truck would begin to be reversed with the rapid proliferation of mass, free public transport systems.  In time, cities will no longer be designed around the private car, but around residential, community, and work hubs linked by efficient public transport.

In a society that is organized to work together to produce enough to comfortably ensure people’s physical and mental well-being and social security, and in which technological advances benefit everybody without costing the environment, a new social definition of wealth will evolve.  In the words of Marx and Engels, it will be defined by the degree to which it provides the means for “all members of society to develop, maintain and exert their capacities in all possible directions” so that “the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms,” is replaced “by an association [society] in which the free development of each is a condition of the free development of all”.

As society’s total disposable time expands, so too does the ability of its members to increasingly participate in running, planning, and solving its problems.  Lifelong theoretical and practical education, made possible by the expanding disposable time, Marx said, will “convert science from an instrument of class rule into a popular force”.

This article — excerpted from a presentation to the Democratic Socialist Perspective’s Socialist Summer School in Sydney, 4-8January 2007 — first appeared in the Green Left Weekly 696, 26 January 2007.  It is reproduced here with kind permission of the GLW.

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