Promoting an effective discussion: Capitalism causes climate change

Published online 3 August 2014.

(crossposted at Humanitarian Left and at Firedoglake)

When I see headlines like this on my Facebook feed:

“Even if a small fraction of the Arctic carbon were released to the atmosphere, we’re fucked,” he told me. What alarmed him was that “the methane bubbles were reaching the surface. That was something new in my survey of methane bubbles,” he said.

What comes to mind, for me here, is the issue of argumentative appeal.  Should we be trying hard to get everyone’s attention merely by producing ever-scarier stories about global warming?  Separate this, if you will, from the actual and ongoing catastrophe of climate change, which merits our full attention.  The truth may be scary.  But is that all we’ve got?My question, more exactly, is pointed at those who would continue to scare us without proposing anything radically new.  See for instance “Climate Tipping Requires Precautionary Accumulation of Capital and an Additional Price for Carbon Emissions,” as posted on Naked Capitalism yesterday.  Its initial analysis wrong-foots the whole idea:

Climate policy aims to internalise the social cost of carbon by means of a carbon tax or a system of tradable permits such as the Emissions Trading System set up in the EU. But how do we determine the social cost of carbon?

Answer: we don’t.  Climate change is not going to be solved by further entrapping people in a system of “costs,” i.e. commodities exchange.Moreover climate change is not going to be mitigated if you place all of the onus for “doing something” (i.e. doing something effective — there are plenty of Panicky Petes out there shouting “DO SOMETHING!!!” without having anything effective in mind to do) upon wealthy and powerful capitalists, who are still not likely to care.  Capitalists don’t care about the social cost of carbon, and more panic won’t make them do so.  Capitalists don’t care about some ostensibly “far off” future (and that future will remain “far off” until it actually happens!) in which the social cost of carbon shows up on their balance sheets.  Capitalists live in an extremely attenuated time horizon.  The future is the next quarterly report, and the next interoffice memo.  Capitalists struggle with questions like: should I sell today?

Talk about ending capitalism doesn’t change this reality either: the capitalists’ standard reaction to that kind of talk is “omigod my current privileges!”  That would of course explain one important thing: why you aren’t going to get the capitalists (and their clients in government) to care about the future.  You aren’t, at any rate not to the extent you want.  This of course explains the current dilemma.  I’m imagining a roundtable meeting in a corporate office, with the climatologists on one side and the business leaders and their officials-in-tow on the other.  Here’s the deal, explain the business leaders: first you guarantee us a profit rate, and then we’ll “do something” about your whatever it was.  ‘Kay?

No wonder things have gotten so much worse.  This thinking goes all the way down to James Hansen, whose populist attitudes are otherwise admirable.  John Bellamy Foster argues:

Hansen’s climate-change exit strategy thus has definite limitations. Despite its progressive features it is mostly a top-down, elite-based strategy of implementing a carbon tax with the hope that this will spur the introduction of necessary technological changes by corporations. To be sure, Hansen stresses the democratic nature of the plan, and has argued that Obama could have mobilized the population around such a tax at the height of his popularity in his first term through a series of fireside chats.  He also suggests that the 100 percent redistribution element in the fee-and-dividend strategy must be backed up by the threat of the wider public to “fight” if this is interfered with. And he has himself joined in mass mobilizations against coal and tar sands oil. Yet, his plan includes no call for a general ecological-cultural revolution against the U.S. power structure

In other words, Hansen’s idea looks nice on paper but it should be pretty easy to shut down unless the public can be roused to support something even more radical.  When we debate Hansen we are still in the paradigm that asks us to plead our cases before people who aren’t likely to mitigate climate change.  What is the alternative?

The climate change debate has not achieved popular traction for the idea of mitigation so far.  It doesn’t persuade because the proposals for “what to do” aren’t persuasive.  Here are some of the attempts:

“The Earth’s human population is too high.”

This slogan is based on a false equivalence: the Earth’s population all cause climate change in some “equal” way, so we can put all people under the category of “population.”  What’s distinctive about the capitalist world-system is that it busies itself with this enormous productive apparatus, regarding both society and nature as “free gifts,” to dominate the planet with the circulation of commodities while separating planetary geography (as Paul Prew pointed out) into zones of accumulation and zones of extraction.  When dedicated to profit, this apparatus is called “capital.”  “Population” does not cause “capital” in any automatic, nor in any equal, way.

“Humanity’s ecological footprint is too high.”

By this measure the function of the human race is to create an ecological footprint, without consideration for the good things we can do.  Au contraire, if we are to solve the problem of climate change, we’re going to have to use our versatile brains to figure out how to allow people to become proper ecological stewards, managing the planet for long-term sustainability.  Now, one might be able to show as an arithmetical calculation that “humanity’s ecological footprint is too high.”  But this calculation would itself show us nothing about how to “reduce the footprint” — and we’ll still be stuck with the knowledge that we’ll have to do a lot more “footprinting,” still, before we figure out how to be proper ecological stewards.

“We need to reduce consumption.”

This is, once again, more arithmetic leading to a dead end.  The consumer is not to be blamed for consumption — the fact of consumers depends upon the enormous productive apparatus I’ve described above.  Consumer society was an industrial artifact from the get-go — industrialists created the manufacturing apparatus, the agricultural apparatus, the proletarian workforces, and the suburbs.  We are to blame mere consumers for the “ecological footprint” behind all this?

Foster, Clark and York’s book “The Ecological Rift” is pretty good in dealing with this argument — productive consumption is the prerequisite of, and far outpaces, consumptive consumption.  It’s the whole system that needs a change, not just the part we see in the supermarket.  Our planet has enough for humanity, but not for a world-system based on capital accumulation.

“We need more alternative energy.”

Alternative energy will only supplement fossil-fuel energy unless fossil-fuel energy is curbed, which means stopping its production.  And, as Bill McKibben pointed out, this means reducing the commodity-value of fossil-fuel reserves to zero.  Will capital ever allow that to happen?  Even if we say “pretty please with sugar on top”?  Buying a solar panel or two makes us well-off solar panel owners in a world-system still controlled by fossil energy.


As an alternative to all of these argumentative dead-ends, let me suggest a singular slogan:

“Capitalism causes climate change.”

The advantage of this proposition is that, besides it being true, that it cuts through all of the exclusive appeals to the wrong set of people, through the marshaling of fear resources, and through the attempts to blame the masses for what is in essence a problem of people-power and social design.  To change the climate change situation, we need to change capitalism.  With the human race caught in an indefinite yet always immediate struggle to produce commodities and market labor-power for a manifestly-wasteful “global market,” with world hunger at monstrous proportions, and with vast global disparities in wealth and power, climate change will persist as a low-priority afterthought until it wipes us out.

Now, of course, the competing reality has yet to be created.  Perhaps we can see it in what Jason W. Moore calls “food sovereignty” — if you want to hear it explained out loud, Moore did a wonderful recent interview with Sasha Lilley on KPFA which merits your attention — “food sovereignty” is explained at about 18:25.  Or there’s this essay, in which “food sovereignty” is discussed on page 49, with approving reference to the organization Via Campesina.

Here I would add that, beyond “food sovereignty,” we need a whole raft of other sovereignties, “sleep sovereignty” (meaning the right to sleep at night without paying someone for the right to do so) and so on.  At any rate, sovereignty — local and autonomous — as a solution to the world-problem.  Kees van der Pijl suggests something along these lines in his book Nomads, Empires, States as well.

Now of course when we open this discussion along the lines of “capitalism causes climate change,” we can expect in response a whole raft of arguments in favor of capitalism.  What to do?  As Immanuel Wallerstein points out:

The question before the world today is not in what way governments can reform the capitalist system such that it can renew its ability to pursue effectively the endless accumulation of capital.  There is no way to do this.  The question therefore has become what will replace this system.  (32)

The likelihood, I believe, is that for some time we will struggle along with a system which will pretend to be capitalism in much the same way in which “Communism” pretended to be communal.  The more fervently we believe in capitalism, the more likely a system of faux-capitalism will continue.  Our obligation in this light is to continue to suggest that such a system is not all its advertisers have promised it would be.  It’s becoming easier, now, to see that four decades of declining global growth are going to culminate in the end of the bubble economy.So certainly we can do better.  New ways of life need not follow old models.  Once capitalism is in the rear-view mirror we start to create a new infrastructure, one not so predatory.


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