Saving capitalism for a dying planet: a theory

Published online 15 June 2007.

Here’s the theory, DKosers.  There is an elite consensus around the notion of “saving capitalism for a dying planet.”  The idea is that if “growth” (which we desperately want and need if we are to maintain our positions as representatives of capital) is to continue, planetary concerns for the future will have to be ignored, even with reckless oil and coal consumption levels causing a runaway greenhouse effect.  That is what is behind the G8 agreement, so wonderfully diaried by Devilstower.

(Crossposted at European Tribune and Booman Tribune)

OK, who are the actors?  First, you have the global warming deniers: at the top of the bill there should be the folks who run Exxon Mobil: they are the meat-and-potatoes behind the “scientific” cottage industry that is global warming denial.  Second, you have the Bush administration, correctly blamed by Al Gore for having made the G-8 agreement into a pledge to “seriously consider” greenhouse gas emission cuts.

Of course, there are various shades of denial on this one.  Outright attempts to debunk the global warming thang even exist among those on the so-called “left,” namely Alexander Cockburn, whose arguments are nicely debunked by Joshua Frank.  But then there’s the “acceptance-as-denial” crowd: asked by scientists to consider the prospects of massive environmental damage, they endlessly repeat: “We’ll think about it.”

We now have scientists claiming that the Earth’s climate is approaching a tipping point beyond which we have a runaway greenhouse effect.  And that’s not to mention the other “tragedies of the commons” which the capitalists have created.  Sure, there aren’t a ton of DKos diaries about overfishing, but that doesn’t mean it’s not going to happen.  Leakey and Lewin, in The Sixth Extinction, estimate that species are now disappearing about 1000 times as fast as they were before human beings existed (with the exception, of course, of other brief periods of mass extinction in natural history).  Today we are essentially urbanizing other creatures out of existence.  Eventually this stuff will catch up with us.

Meanwhile, there appears to be a correlation, hinted at in UN figures, between economic growth and increased use of fossil fuels.  This won’t be good news if, as Jerome hints, we are near the Peak Oil peak.  Once profligacy in oil use is not longer an option in economic growth, economies will see contractions, and this will be the primary form of “oil shock” that can be expected to occur.

Meanwhile, our Senate wastes its time on jokes like Coal-to-oil conversion.  I really dug the NYT chart that explains this issue so concisely.

The reader needs to take a look at this stuff and ask, long and hard, “what are they thinking?”  The fact of the matter is that capitalist growth is not consistent with rational policy about fossil-fuel burning.  The world burned 85 million barrels of oil per day in 2005, with a general 2% yearly uptick in that number.  More deeply, as Paul Prew pointed out, “capitalism must expand its operations if it is to survive”:

Capitalism is based solely on the logic of ceaseless accumulation of capital (Marx 1981b: 352-3; Marx and Engels 1964: 63; Wallerstein 1983b: 17-8, 1999: 78). Accumulation is the engine of dissipation. For capitalism, accumulation is the mechanism that orders the social world. It is the process around which the rest of the relations are organized. To argue that accumulation is the engine of dissipation is not to say that accumulation is unilinearly determinate, but the logic of capitalism, accumulation, is the singular process that all other relations are somehow forced to conform. The way in which accumulation occurs, or the speed at which accumulation takes place, etc. may be changed by social relations, but the logic remains the same – accumulate greater sums of wealth at the end of the working day than the capitalist had at the beginning. Although the logic of capitalism orders our existence, it at the same time is also the very same mechanism that generates tremendous amounts of entropy and waste. The amount of entropy generated by the capitalist system must, by its very logic, increase as a result of accumulation. Accumulation is not the accumulation of a steady state of materials and wealth, a finite pie so to speak. It is an ever increasing accumulation. The pie must always expand.

The pie must always expand; but the world stays the same size, and thus you have a conflict of interests here.  Capitalism or a habitable planet: you can’t have both.

This expansion will definitely mean “alternative fuels,” which vary in their ethicality, but it will also pose a real hindrance to the idea that the rest of the world’s oil shouldn’t be pumped and burned at its current 85-million-bbl./day rate.  Nobody is going to substitute “alternative fuels” for the CO2 burning type: they will simply be a supplement to what the world currently uses.

So what are they thinking?  They are caught in a conflict of interest.  The public must be shooed away with empty promises of action; and capital (which they really represent) must be placated with real-life inaction.  The industry perspective on this, industry being the dominant behind-the-scenes actor in this drama, is well-captured by Josee Johnston in her essay in the book Nature’s Revenge:

What the case of a “sustainable” mining industry reveals is how the sustainability discourse works to maintain and legitimize an overall system goal of economic growth.  Once a few minor adjustments are made to account for the most noxious externalities, such as untreated sulphur dioxide emissions, the global economy can feel free to grow exponentially.  Here the sustainable-development discourse works to facilitate commodification and capital accumulation by mandating sustainable profits over the long term. (45)

Here’s what readers need to take away from example industries like a “‘sustainable’ mining industry.”  If Earth is to be protected by a global, ecologically-sustainable society, then its current world government (never mind the propaganda that suggests that there is “no such thing“) is going to have to make a series of moves which will run directly counter to the “profit motive” that maintains its individual members in their positions of power.  In short, excess production will have to disappear, as it is too consumptive.  Mining industry executives want profit?  Too bad, the governments must tell them, look for other jobs — but they don’t.  Yeah, dig that coal-to-oil.

The political class’s current resolution of the role conflict that mandates of ecological sustainability place upon them is to ignore the mandates, and take the money, under the expectation that other, similiarly-coopted, political classes can be hired to take their places.  They are, in short, saving capitalism for a dying planet through their actions.  We should call them on it, in just those terms.

In a previous diary I suggested that, if we are to pursue a “war of position” against the Right, we must learn to distinguish leadership from membership in the political class.  And we need to be able to make this distinction, this crucial intellectual and social move, this year.  Otherwise we will spend all of next year doing nothing but cheering on (name your leading contender; okay, Hillary) against the evils of (name your favorite Repub fraud).  It will be a colossal waste of time, not to mention who knows how many billions of barrels of crude oil.  In short, people must stand up and be counted for the idea of NOT saving capitalism for a dying planet.

The eventual goal, of course, will be to create an economic system which satisfies real human need, as opposed to “effective demand.”  That will take awhile — for now, we need to know when our politicians are saving capitalism for a dying planet.


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