This is a reconstruction from notes of a keynote address delivered to the Power Shift West Conference, Eugene, Oregon, November 5, 2011.
All of us here today, along with countless others around the world, are currently engaged in the collective struggle to save the planet as a place of habitation for humanity and innumerable other species. The environmental movement has grown leaps and bounds in the last fifty years. But we need to recognize that despite our increasing numbers we are losing the battle, if not the war, for the future of the earth. Our worst enemy is denialism: not just the outright denial of climate-change skeptics, but also the far more dangerous denial — often found amongst environmentalists themselves — of capitalism’s role in the accumulation of ecological catastrophe.1
Recently, climate scientists, writing in leading scientific journals, have developed a way of addressing the extreme nature of the climate crisis, focusing on irreversible change and the trillionth ton of carbon. Central to the scientific consensus on climate change today is the finding that a rise in global temperature by 2° C (3.6° F), associated with an atmospheric carbon concentration of 450 parts per million (ppm), represents a critical tipping point, irreversible in anything like human-time frames. Climate models show that if we were to reach that point feedback mechanisms would likely set in, and society would no longer be able to prevent the climate catastrophe from developing further out of our control. Even if we were completely to cease burning fossil fuels when global average temperature had risen by 2° C, climate change and its catastrophic effects would still be present in the year 3000. In other words, avoiding an increase in global average temperatures of 2° C, 450 ppm is crucial because it constitutes a point of no return. Once we get to that point, we will no longer be able to return, even in a millennium, to the Holocene conditions under which human civilization developed over the last 12,000 years. Many of you are aware that long-term stabilization of the climate requires that we target 350 ppm, not 450 ppm. But 450 ppm remains significant, since it represents the planetary equivalent of cutting down the last palm tree on Easter Island.2.
It is here that the trillionth ton enters in. In the last couple of years, climate studies have determined that once we emit the trillionth metric ton of carbon — counting all the carbon put into the atmosphere since 1750 — we will have exhausted our cumulative carbon budget. This means that if we burn no more than the trillion ton of carbon we will still have a reasonable chance (though this may not in fact be much more than 50-50) of not exceeding the 2° C, 450 ppm boundary. The trillionth ton of carbon is thus viewed as an absolute cutoff. Growing scientific evidence, however, suggests that it is essential to remain below the 2° C, 450 ppm level. Consequently, some prominent climate scientists, such as Myles Allen at the University of Oxford, have stipulated that we need to target 750 billion tons of carbon as the limit, which will give us a 75 percent chance of staying below a 2° C increase in global average temperature.
How far are we from emitting the 750 billion — or even the trillionth — ton? Since 1750, we have emitted 550 billion tons of carbon and the rate is accelerating. If present emission trends continue, we will reach the 750 billionth ton of carbon in 2028, that is, in sixteen years. In order to avoid emitting the 750 billionth ton by 2050 we will need to reduce our global carbon dioxide emissions by 5 percent annually. In order not to emit the trillionth ton of carbon by 2050, carbon dioxide emissions would have to drop by 2.4 percent per year. This is much greater than the 1.5 percent drop in global carbon dioxide emissions, resulting from the Great Recession in 2008-2009. The longer we wait to make the reductions the steeper the decline required.
Another way of putting this is that if we burn even half of today’s proven, economically accessible reserves of oil, natural gas, and coal, we will almost certainly reach/exceed the irreversible 2° C, 450 ppm, boundary. If we want a 75 percent chance of staying below a 2° C increase, we have to lock up all but a quarter of today’s proven economically accessible fossil-fuel resources.3
If all of this were not enough, climate change is only one of the rifts in planetary boundaries that scientists are now pointing to: the others include ocean acidification, ozone depletion, species extinction, disruption of the nitrogen and phosphorus cycles, land cover loss, freshwater shortages, (less certainly at present) aerosol loading, and chemical proliferation. Each of these has the potential of disrupting the global environmental order on catastrophic levels, and the trends for each (with the possible exception of ozone depletion) are presently a source of concern. Already we have crossed three planetary boundaries: climate change, disruption of the nitrogen cycle, and species extinction.4
Faced with such enormous environmental problems and the need for massive, urgent changes in society, our worst enemy, as I have indicated, is denialism. Here it is useful to look at what I call the “three stages of denial” with respect to the global environmental crisis.5 The first stage of denial is straightforward. It is the denial associated with Exxon-Mobil and climate skeptics — who say either that there is no such thing as climate change or that it is not caused by human actions. Sometimes they contradict themselves and argue both at once. This of course is the inevitable response of capital, which is invariably concerned, first and foremost, with protecting its bottom line — even at the expense of the earth itself.
The second stage of denial — often advanced by self-designated environmentalists themselves — is to admit that there is a problem, and even to factor in the proximate causes. Most of you are no doubt familiar with the environmental impact or IPAT formula. Environmental Impact = Population X Affluence X Technology. This is a mere truism, where the drivers of environmental impacts are concerned. It frequently leads to the notion that the solution is a simple matter of promoting sustainable population, sustainable consumption, and sustainable technology. Nevertheless, this conception doesn’t actually take us very far, since we then need to explain what drives population, consumption, and technology themselves. In fact, such multiple-factor analysis is all too often used as a way of denying the underlying background condition: the capitalist treadmill of production.6
The third stage of denial has the look and feel of greater realism, but actually constitutes a more desperate and dangerous response. It admits that capitalism is the problem, but also contends that capitalism is the solution. This general approach emphasizes what is variously referred to as “sustainable capitalism,” “natural capitalism,” “climate capitalism,” “green capitalism,” etc.7 In this view we can continue down the same road of capital accumulation, mounting profits, and exponential economic growth — while at the same time miraculously reducing our burdens on the planetary environment. It is business as usual, but with greater efficiency and greater accounting of environmental costs. No fundamental changes in social or property relations — in the structure of production and consumption — are required. This is the magical world view advanced by such diverse figures as Al Gore, Amory Lovins, L. Hunter Lovins, Paul Hawken, and Jonathon Porritt — if not Thomas Friedman, Newt Gingrich, and the Breakthrough Institute, as well.
From a policy perspective, this normally divides into two streams, one state-centered and the other market-centered. Green Keynesians like to think that we can ameliorate our environmental problems (and our economic problems too) by having the state promote economic growth through the creation of green jobs. Green Schumpeterians, like Friedman, Gingrich, and the Breakthrough Institute, offer as a solution green technological innovations, supposedly a natural outgrowth of the market — but usually seen as requiring additional subsidies to corporations to harness its full strength. Here too the promise is one of heightened economic growth on greener terms, equated simply with greater energy efficiency.
The main problem, which all of this denies, is the nature and logic of capitalism itself. Capitalism, as its name suggests, is quite simply, the system of capital. Its sole purpose is the accumulation of capital through the exploitation of human labor. It is a grow-or-die system dominated by the 1% (the capitalist class) and giant corporations. It is prone to periodic economic crises, and constant — and today deepening — unemployment. Capital accumulation and economic expansion occur by means of gross inequality and monopolistic competition, generating a war of all against all and a world of waste. The wider public/social/natural sphere is an object of theft — a realm in which to dump “externalities” or impose unpaid social costs, which then fall on nature and humanity in general.
Endless capitalism requires unlimited economic growth. Economists generally consider a 3 percent average rate of economic growth over the long run as absolutely essential for the stability of the capitalist system. Yet, if we were to have a continual 3 percent rate of economic growth, world output would expand exponentially by around sixteen times in a century, 250 times in two centuries, and 4000 times in three centuries. Already we are overshooting planetary limits — consuming resources as if we had multiple planets at our disposal, undermining the very basis of our existence.8
What then is the alternative? The answer is a cultural-power shift — opening up the world to the creative efforts of hundreds of millions, even billions of people, and unleashing a process of sustainable human development. Today the world Occupy movement is showing the way. It is time, as Noam Chomsky contends, not simply to Occupy Wall Street but to go on to “Occupy the Future.”9 As the 99%, we need to take direct action with respect to the environment: locking up the three-quarters of the proven, economically available oil, natural gas, and coal (remembering always that the poorest countries have to be allowed to develop while the richer countries need disproportionately to pay the cost); blocking the Canadian-U.S. tar sands pipeline; and imposing a carbon fee at the point of production (i.e. at the oil well, mine shaft, and point of entry) — the funds from which would be returned immediately to the population on a per capita basis, so that those with the largest carbon footprints, predominantly the corporate rich, would be the ones that paid. (This is the proposal of U.S. climatologist James Hansen.)10 In the end we will need to go on and culturally Occupy the system itself through a long-term ecological and social revolution, opening the way to democratic planning at all levels of society from the local community on up.11
Under twenty-first century capitalism the world is being buried in commodity waste. We are compelled, simply in order to live and breathe in this society, to engage in useless and alienated labor directed at satisfying artificial wants through the production of mere “stuff,” the bulk of which ends up being disposed of soon after it is purchased. This all takes places simply so that the whole process can start up again, more commodities can be generated, and more profits can be made by the 1%. As radical economist Juliet Schor says, we have lost any sense of “true wealth.”12 In the United States today we spend about $1 trillion on the military spending each year, far more than all the rest of the world put together.13 U.S. corporations and businesses today spend more than $1 trillion on marketing annually, simply in order to persuade people to buy things that they don’t want or need.14 Our very cultural apparatus is shaped so as to conform to the imperative of marketing — not democratic communication. If we are to save the earth, this gargantuan waste and destruction which dominates our lives needs to be brought to an end, so that we can focus on the real issues: making sure that everyone in every part of the world has enough of life’s basic needs; building community; promoting substantive equality; and creating the basis for sustainable human development. Some have called this a socialism for the twenty-first century.
In a 1962 speech to the National Maritime Union, Martin Luther King declared: “We are presiding over a dying order, one which has long deserved to die,” and he ended his speech with the words of the great American socialist Eugene Debs: “I can see the dawn of a better humanity. The people are awakening. In due course of time they will come into their own.”15 Now is the time of which Debs and King spoke, the time in which to create a new society where human beings no longer deny, but affirm, their connections to each other and to the earth.
1 On ecological denialism as a complex social construct see Kari Norgaard, Living With Denial: Climate Change, Emotions, and Everyday Life(Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2011).
2 Susan Solomon, et. al., Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 106, no. 6 (February 10, 2009): 1704-1709; Heidi Cullen, The Weather of the Future(New York: Harpers, 2010), 264-71.
3 Myles Allen, et. al., “The Exit Strategy,” Nature Reports Climate Change, April 30, 2009, and “Warming Caused by Cumulative Carbon Emissions Towards the Trillionth Tonne,” Nature 458 (April 20, 2009): 1163-66; Malte Meinshausen, et. al., “Greenhouse-Gas Emission Targets for Limiting Global Warming to 2° C,” Nature 458 (April 30, 2009): 1158-62; TrillionthTonne.org; Catherine Brahic, “Humanity’s Carbon Budget Set at One Trillion Tons,” New Scientist, April 29, 2009; Cullen, The Weather of the Future, 264-71; International Economic Agency, CO2 Emissions from Fuel Combustion (Paris: IEA, 2011), 7.
5 See John Bellamy Foster, “Capitalism and the Accumulation of Catastrophe,” forthcoming Monthly Review63, no. 7 (December 2011): 1-17, where the three stages of denial are put in the context of an overall accumulation of catastrophe under capitalism.
6 Allan Schnaiberg introduced the treadmill of production critique in his book The Environment: From Surplus to Scarcity(New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), based on earlier Marxian conceptions.
7 See Al Gore, Our Choice (New York: Rodale, 2009), 346; Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins, and L. Hunter Lovins, Natural Capitalism(Boston: Little Brown, 1999); L. Hunter Lovins and Boyd Cohen, Climate Capitalism(New York: Hill and Wang, 2011); Jonathon Porritt, Capitalism: As If the World Mattered(London: Earthscan, 2007); Thomas Friedman, Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution(New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2008); New Gingrich, A Contract With the Earth(Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007); and Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, Break Through(New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2007).
11 For a more developed argument on short-term, radical ecological changes and long-term revolutionary ecological change see Fred Magdoff and John Bellamy Foster, What Every Environmentalist Needs to Know About Capitalism(New York: Monthly Review Press, 2011), 123-44.
13 For the data on military spending see John Bellamy Foster, Hannah Holleman, and Robert W. McChesney, “The U.S. Imperial Triangle and Military Spending,” Monthly Review 60, no. 5 (October 2008): 9-13.
14 “U.S. Marketing Spending Exceeded $1 Trillion in 2005,” Metrics Business and Market Intelligence, June 26, 2006, http://metrics2.com; Michael Dawson, The Consumer Trap (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2005), 1.
15 Martin Luther King, Jr., “All Labor Has Dignity” (Boston: Beacon Press, 2011), 71.
John Bellamy Foster is the editor of Monthly Review. He is the author of What Every Environmentalist Needs to Know about Capitalism (with Fred Magdoff), The Ecological Rift, The Ecological Revolution, The Great Financial Crisis, Marx’s Ecology, Ecology against Capitalism, and The Vulnerable Planet.