And now a financier weighs in on global warming

Published online 6 November 2013.

and in (of all places) Nature magazine (though at this point it’s been reposted in numerous places throughout the Web).  Generally I associate Nature (magazine) with a piece called “Petit et al.” or “Climate and atmospheric history of the past 420,000 years from the Vostok ice core, Antarctica.”  This is the research paper on the ice cores in Antarctica which established the long-term correlation between carbon dioxide levels and average Earthly global temperature (following the mathematical relation predicted by Svante Arrhenius).  It’s firewalled on the main site but you can find it in PDF format here.

Anyhoo, the piece under scrutiny here is by Jeremy Grantham, who claims to be a “chief investment strategist.”  I guess he’s got a foundation too.  I like his title: “Be persuasive. Be brave. Be arrested (if necessary),” with its tentative call to civil disobedience.  His main concern is that the world is in ecological trouble and that the worst of it is climate change, which puts the human species in peril.  One of his arguments, though, is that resources are “running out” — a partial analysis of a symptom, but fair enough.  To wit:

The price index of 33 important commodities declined by 70% over the 100 years up to 2002 — an enormous help to industrialized countries in getting rich. Only one commodity, oil, had been flat until 1972 and then, with the advent of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, it began to rise. But since 2002, prices of almost all the other commodities, plus oil, tripled in six years; all without a world war and without much comment. Even if prices fell tomorrow by 20% they would still on average have doubled in 10 years, the equivalent of a 7% annual rise.

This is interesting, but not merely as a matter of “running out.”  We can imagine commodities that might replace the commodities that are becoming more expensive — the problem is in what Jason W. Moore, following Marx, calls the “organic component of capital.”  As the organic component of capital, the sheer “to-do” of putting the resources together to make a profit, rises, so the options for profit decline.  When this trend becomes irreversible it attains what Moore calls “peak appropriation.”  Thus in an essay titled “Transcending the Metabolic Rift,” Moore argues:

It is not that the oil business has somehow become unprofitable; rather, production is increasingly financialized in ways that undermine the world oil sector’s capacity to deliver the goods – to deliver enough cheap oil to capital as a whole to check the rising organic composition of capital.

We could solve the problem of the rising organic composition of capital through the sort of technological innovation that would open up new reserves of cheap resources, thus pushing the organic component of capital downward.  Technological innovation in this era is indeed opening up new access to resources, namely sunlight, through solar power.  But this innovation, or rather the whole of technological innovation in this era, doesn’t appear to be sufficient to solve the overall problem as Grantham has described it (and indeed as Moore has described it elsewhere).  This, then, is the real problem, the problem Grantham hints at — capitalism is a danger both to the world and to itself, because technological innovation is not (in this era) producing any new era of cheap resources to overcome its own movement toward ecological depletion.But Grantham’s real emphasis is upon global warming, and he mentions James Hansen and Bill McKibben and Gus Speth, appropriately at a time when the IPCC is about to tell us that the world as we know it is over.  Thus his conclusion befits his title, with a tentative call to action:

It is crucial that scientists take more career risks and sound a more realistic, more desperate, note on the global-warming problem. Younger scientists are obsessed by thoughts of tenure, so it is probably up to older, senior and retired scientists to do the heavy lifting. Be arrested if necessary. This is not only the crisis of your lives — it is also the crisis of our species’ existence. I implore you to be brave.

There it is, folks.  Even the capitalists are starting to get it.  As the character “Linda Richman” would say, “talk among yourselves.”(reposted at Firedoglake)


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