Nature may ‘not discriminate’, but capitalism does. It will be the social classes – and countries – with the least responsibility for climate change will be hit first, and hardest. In 2004 the British government’s Office of Science and Technology produced its report, Future Flooding, which predicted up to 3.6 million Britons at risk of severe flooding by 2080 thanks to rising sea levels and rainfall. ‘Socially disadvantaged people will be most adversely affected’ it admits, because ‘the poor are less able to take out insurance against floods or to pay for the damage.’
This logic applies far more drastically to the global South. Even a 2°C rise in temperatures will create a global refugee crisis and hit agriculture internationally – a food system centralised, standardised and rendered utterly inadequate by the profit motive. Our capacity to adapt is reduced every day the free market has the run of food production. This has already undermined biodiversity to the point where three quarters of all cultivated plants are now extinct and their inferior, genetically modified substitutes are locked up in highly profitable intellectual property rights and free trade deals. Food prices will skyrocket and people will starve.
There has been a tendency in this debate to lay climate change at the feet of humanity as a whole and ‘progress’ as a concept. ‘Anthropological climate change’, they call it. But most of human history has been shaped by a world of scarcity, not the hyper-consumerism and over-production that we see around us in rich industrial nations. And let’s not forget, for 3 billion people on this planet, scarcity and deprivation still define the world. The climate change narrative of the global North is not the only story; the under-development of the South and exploitation of the poor in every country are as much a part of the system as wasteful consumerism.
Capitalism is different from what came before. No previous society has accumulated and concentrated wealth on a comparable scale. The ecological crisis is a symptom, the most deadly symptom, of a social crisis in human beings’ relationship to our environment. It makes more sense to talk of capitalist, rather than anthropogenic climate change.
In contrast, the culture of general responsibility that’s been cultivated by environmentalists like Hans Jonas has undermined the green movement in some very significant ways. In zeroing in on ‘consumer culture’ it fails to strike a chord with many. Millions of us living in this wealthy, competitive, consumerist society are working hard and still have to choose between eating and heating our homes. In that context, ‘consume less!’ is not a rousing carrion call. Particularly not when the carnival of consumption at the top of society has just rolled right over its own global financial crisis and wastes resources at an industrial rate. It is an argument utterly insensitive to the realities of working class life. At its worst, it scapegoats the poor while protecting the sensibilities of wealthy benefactors like Coca-Cola and Unilever.
Whenever it is articulated as a matter of personal moderation or asceticism, the campaign against climate change draws a curtain over the very worst of the capitalist system. It obscures the starring role corruption, inequality and exploitation. It creates confusion, helplessness and guilt. The political culture of neoliberalism has a gift for that. You can see it in the shame people are made to feel when driven to food bank in their thousands, in a rich free market where anyone can succeed if they deserve to. The neoliberal art is the individualisation of social problems. And well it might be, because it has to answer for an 80% increase in global emissions since 1970.
This is not about whether small actions by individuals – recycling the rubbish, cycling to work – have value, they do. But the value is symbolic. In an act like that we can advocate transition, but we can’t achieve it. The systemic wastage of our entire economic system, from production and construction to energy and consumption, play the overwhelming and decisive role in destroying the planet. To be clear: system change will require everyone to accommodate changes in the way we live, travel and consume. But it’s not an annual Ryanair flight to Costa Rica that’s blowing holes in the ozone layer. The really inconvenient truth is that individual acts count for nothing unless the system changes too. And pretending otherwise has crippled the campaign to stop climate change.
As Howard Zinn said, “you can’t be neutral on a moving train.” No matter how small you make your carbon footprint, this train is still speeding over a cliff. We have to start talking about the system, or there is no hope for change. Already what use was ever made of renewable energy has been almost eradicated by standardising production for bigger profits. Yet that exact capacity of human beings to make conscious changes to the way we reproduce our existence is what makes change possible.
On the other hand, obfuscating the power of wealth and class not only divides the movement, it naturalises climate change. It is not natural law that productivity or population growth threatens the environment. Natural fertilisers that make farm land more productive without damaging the ecosystem were a historic discovery of the 15th century. Whether every ounce of profit is squeezed out of an innovation or it’s used to more efficiently meet the real needs of the population and minimise deforestation – that’s a choice we make collectively, as a society. The insanity lies in thinking that activity which harms our environment or our species can be classified as ‘growth’ of any kind.
Reactionary arguments from the likes of Jeffrey Sachs about population exceeding the ‘carrying capacity’ of the earth are a direct result of this refusal to look capitalism in the eye. Non-coercive population reduction strategies such as improving women’s living standards, education and access to contraception have proved successful and should be valued on many counts. But demographic change is slow, and the need to curb our carbon emissions is immediate.
Given that context, challenging the right to life for millions should not come before challenging capitalism. This is the tone of discussion in Washington memos that describe the US as a ‘fortress’ amongst the anarchy of a world consumed by flood, fire and war that re-balances the earth’s ‘carrying capacity’ through mass-extinction. Yes we live on a finite planet and no, it can’t support an infinite amount of life. But that capacity is determined first now by how many life, but how we live. At present we live in a society that produces far more than we need it to and still manages to deprive most of us of the basics.
‘Productivism’ – production for its own sake, for profit – prevails in this world because capitalism is a system based on accumulation. In such a system, innovation in productivity will only ever mean more production, market expansion and the manufacture of consumer demand to meet it. This is an inevitable consequence of the private ownership of the means of production. As the renowned economist Joseph Schumpeter observed: “A stationary capitalism is a contradiction in terms.” We cannot obtain meaningful environmental regulation within capitalism for the same reason we can’t achieve meaningful financial regulation. As Marx wrote in his Critique of Political Economy, “capital cannot abide a limit.” It will always seek to circumvent or transcend it in pursuit of greater profits.
Steady state theorists who argue for an end to population and economic growth, have been miles ahead of the Left in identifying the immediate significance of the planet’s natural limits. But the tradition has a frightening right-wing current. It has done since it began with Thomas Malthus in the 1700s. Thanks to this political lineage, too often those who focus on population and consumption ignore poverty and the ‘consumerist’ struggles for better pay and conditions that it breeds. There are honourable exceptions, like George Monbiot, Peter Victor and Caroline Lucas, who incorporate a respect for ecological limits within a relevant political perspective and broader concern with social justice. Still, not only would any movement that relied on the panacea of no-growth have little relevance for the global South, which demands its right to development; it excludes millions in the North blighted by poverty, unemployment and exclusion. We could build a growth-less system with a static population, at peace with the earth but characterised by all the inequality and oppression of today; but that’s not sufficient to inspire the mass-participation required to get us there.
At the end of the day the steady state is not a complete social project, or even a campaign – just a (vital and urgent) quantitative constraint. Capping growth is not enough; we need all sections of society drawn into a complete, collective re-definition of what we mean by ‘economic progress’. That means extending a critique of capitalism to its very heart: its law of value which makes money the aim and the measure of all life on earth.
I would put the case, as Naomi Klein, Daniel Tanuro and others have done, that climate change is the best illustration of where the capitalist system is heading and the most powerful case against it. Any kind of reconciliation with the climate would require the abandonment of $20 trillion existing fossil fuel infrastructure and 80% known fossil fuel reserves (all owned by corporations), de-centralisation, reduced production and working hours and a massive equalisation of wealth – all entAllirely opposed to the interests of the capitalist system. Only a society which puts the economy under democratic control and recognises equality as a pre-condition for such democracy, can move beyond the paradigm of commodity production and even identify – let alone protect – that which is priceless.
You can read Part I here
Originally published by the Huffington Post
All photography my own