Can we solve the climate crisis under capitalism?

Published online 10 November 2013.

(crossposted at Firedoglake)

Can we solve the climate crisis while the capitalists roam the Earth, terminating ecosystems here and there?  Christian Parenti, in full knowledge of the system and its urgent critique, seems to think so, and he has a piece out in Dissent titled “A Radical Approach to the Climate Crisis.”  Parenti suggests that the problem with climate change is so urgent, and any sort of post-capitalist revolution so far off, that activists should focus upon climate change now before any sort of revolution has any serious momentum.

As much as I might be sympathetic to Parenti’s thinking, I have four concerns about his approach, as enumerated below.  Overall, I will suggest that the boundary between “reform” and “revolution” approaches has shifted in a way which appears to have caught Parenti off guard, thus making it appear as if some sort of effective mitigation of the climate crisis can occur “under capitalism.”  Instead, effective organizing for climate change should produce revolution through its own momentum.  So here are my concerns:

1) Parenti’s article implies that revolution is to be conceived as something to be achieved atop capitalist industrialization, rather than as something conceptually new.  With the idea of revolution we might do best to adopt the concept of revolution that David Graeber attributes to Immanuel Wallerstein:

   (Wallerstein) argues that for the last quarter millennium or so, revolutions have consisted above all of planetwide transformations of political common sense (274)

Will capitalism really bring us to the threshold of socialism before the revolution happens?  The formula one sees in the Marx/ Engels early (1847) “Communist Manifesto” is that the momentum of capitalist industrialization will bring us to socialism.  The bourgeoisie, Marx and Engels speculated, were their own gravediggers.  But I don’t think capitalism really prepares human society for socialism.  Capitalism prepares human society to be a set of chance meetings between consumers, which is no way to begin socialism.  Rather, the capitalist failure to deal with environmental problems should suggest a whole new society, one in which we heroically protect nature and society from catastrophic harm.

In his piece, Parenti asks us to “consider the vexing complexities facing the left social democracies of Latin America. Bolivia, and Ecuador, states run by socialists who are beholden to very powerful, autonomous grassroots movements, are still very dependent on petroleum revenue.”  This, then, is the problem.  The socialists in Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador can advocate socialism all they want — but the problem of global warming is not mitigated by more capitalist oil commerce.

As for “21st-century socialism,” since the movements in South America are still at this early stage reform movements hoping to remedy powerlessness and poverty in underdeveloped nations, we should focus upon that time when they can demand “ecological rights,” which I will discuss below.

2) Green development will only supplement fossil-fuel consumption unless there is a powerful restraint upon fossil-fuel production.  Parenti, bowing to what he imagines as a consensus of climate scientists, wants the restraint upon fossil-fuel production to be a carbon tax, which I will discuss in concern #3.  But what we are probably going to see at first is a few attempts by privileged nations to stock up on solar panels while everything else about the system remains the same.  And that won’t mitigate climate change.

The idea of “green development,” moreover, challenges the current elite consensus on austerity.  To get the US government to adopt some sort of heroic World-War-II-style effort to convert America to solar power, one of the first things that would have to go would be the budget sequester, and a Grand Bargain would definitely have to be put out of the question.  That having been said, wouldn’t an emphasis upon more government spending inflate the economy and incite more fossil fuel consumption?  Since capitalist development is a variety of social chaos in which the impulse to earn profits is supposed to drag all parties forward, it’s hard to say.

3) Carbon taxes might be an impediment to profit.  Now, I don’t really care about whether or not the corporations make a profit.  But profit is the raison d’etre of the capitalist system, and so the elites care.  Has any capitalist society really tried a heavy global, inescapable carbon tax before?  High profit, as Jason W. Moore points out in his essays, depends upon a relatively low organic composition of capital, which depends upon access to cheap resources.  In targeting the fossil-fuel industry, Parenti,, and other such advocates of climate-remedy reformism need to wonder if strenuous taxes upon carbon (as will be necessary for immediate mitigation of climate change) won’t negatively affect the profit rate, thus hastening class conflict between a profit-hungry investor class and a working class which must either suffer a global depression or take control of the means of production for the sake of its own collective survival.  Carbon taxes, then, might offer a meaningful mitigation of climate change, but not in the reformist way Parenti imagines.

4) Ecological rights movements can be a lever to restrain the massive economic waste of the capitalist system.  “Ecological rights” is a concept discussed in Joan Martinez-Alier’s “Environmentalism of the Poor” — a book I reviewed in 2008 — our “ecological rights” are our rights to live, as part of nature, in a livable ecosystem.  Ecological rights are the foundations of the environmental justice movement.  The concept of “ecological rights” offers us a direct connection between our collective desire to live and proper ecosystem management, unmediated by concepts of “nature” that compromise with extractive capitalism or wilderness romanticism.

The problem with efforts to mitigate climate change that leave capitalism as it is is that capitalism as it is is massively wasteful.  We do not really need to burn 89 million bbls. per day of crude oil, or for that matter an equal carbon-equivalent of coal.  World society, even with its current, enormous human population, does not have to generate its current energy regimen because far too much of that energy consumption is made “necessary” by business-as-usual under capitalism within a government regime of paranoid, jealous nation-states.  We don’t need the sort of global networks of transportation, distribution, “security,” exploitation, and so on, that we have, if our goal is survival, or even survival at a reasonably good standard of living.

Part of this waste is implicated in what the anthropologists call our “status system.”  Victor Wallis published a piece in Capitalism Nature Socialism back in 1997 in which he detailed all of the jobs that would be unnecessary if we could establish a union of free producers instead of everyone being dependent upon capitalism.  (I discussed this in a diary back in 2009.)  So here’s a list of wasteful professions which could be eliminated with an end to capitalism:

  * The advertising industry, together with private insurance, banking, and associated communications, acounting, and legal services;
* The construction, resource-use, and services arising from the automobile/ shopping mall/ suburban sprawl complex;
* Excess energy use arising from the global integration of production processes and from over-reliance on long-distance trade;
* The development of a highly specialized fuel-intensive agriculture with heavy reliance on chemical fertilizers and pesticides;
* Certain fuel-intensive, typically macho recreational activities giving their users an artificial sense of power (car-racing, snowmobiles, jet-skis, speedboats, etc.);
* A growing sector of purely status-related luxuries, defined as such by (a) their frivolity — including pandering to sexist or racist norms (e.g. cosmetic surgery to disguise age or ethnicity) — and (b) their highly restrictive prices;
* The police, private protection, penal, and military services built up in response to the threat and/or the reality of challenges — whether individual (delinquent) or collective (revolutionary) — to concentrated private wealth;
* Whatever proportion of general production (and construction) or ancillary services — including health care — is accounted for by demands placed upon the system, or upon individuals, by the abovementioned practices. (49)

Capitalism’s waste equation complicates at the very least the alternative energy equation.  It would be much easier to save energy by ending capitalism than it would be to try to make up the capitalist system’s energy diet by manufacturing alternative energy devices.

Against this waste, there is no reason to believe that a successful revolution would merely reproduce the same wasteful system on different distributive grounds.  By this I mean that a successful revolution would have a far more serious connection to the land and would be far more likely to pursue ecological management than any revolution conducted in a previous era.  This means that revolutions will have to have an agrarian component, involving a right to live off of the land.

If they are to be successful in confronting the capitalist transformation of the natural world, resistance movements around the world are going to have to conduct a “green turn” and organize for the “ecological rights” of all.  If they can do this, we can expect to worry less about whether we will have to mitigate climate change while capitalists still rule the world.

As for having a revolution, there are two ways: 1) we can take over the system, something which the present crop of “more and better Democrats” appears incapable of helping us do, or 2) we can create a system of our own, which won’t start with electoral politics.  The third option is to do nothing, a non-solution tailor-made for a society “with no functioning democracy.”


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