We are living in a period of intense ecological crisis. Climate change caused by human activity is at the forefront of this crisis, which extends throughout the natural environment and threatens the very future of humanity as a species.
Global warming caused by industrial production has pushed us to a tipping point beyond which lie untold disasters. We have seen a rise in sea level, melting of glaciers, severe weather, and changes in the composition of the oceans. Our current level of atmospheric carbon dioxide is around 391 parts per million, while 300 or less would actually be sustainable. As temperatures rise we can expect more super-storms, more flooding and droughts, and extreme changes in the oceans that are the cradle of life on earth.
But we know today that our world’s ecosystems are interlinked in hundreds of visible and invisible ways. One alarming harbinger of crisis is the growing rate of species extinction. The background rate of extinction is around 5 species per million, but now the rate is up around 100 per million. This is a level only seen in periods of mass extinction. Warming is destroying habitat at an unprecedented rate; many species are dying off as a result, and others are invading new areas. This extinction is only one of many crises that are spiraling out of control.
Humanity faces water crises and shortages on an unprecedented scale. Changes in the flow of rivers as glaciers melt and weather shifts are causing devastating droughts. As climate change intensifies, this problem will become a desperate one for large parts of the earth’s population. Water shortages are a pressing reality or a grim future for much of humanity.
Climate scientists such as James Hansen have estimated that we have perhaps 10 years to make a major change before the most drastic effects of climate change will become difficult or impossible to avoid. We are losing precious time for action.
The cause of ecological devastation today is industrial activity. This is driven onward by the capitalist system, an economic order that demands relentless and unceasing growth. In a world of finite resources and finite ability to absorb the impact of human production, capitalism has a ceaseless demand for more. As Karl Marx put it in his masterpiece, Capital, “Accumulate, accumulate! That is Moses and the Prophets!” Capitalism is a machine of unrelenting accumulation and growth.
In the modern era, capitalism has found itself in periodic crises of overproduction, where it has simply produced more than it can sell and finds itself in crisis because of over-abundance of goods. At the same time it faces a decline of its rate of profit, which has fallen as more and more capital has to be poured into modern technology. Desperate to revive its profits, the ruling class attacks more and more openly at the source of its value.
In the 19th century a socialist slogan said that “labor is the source of all value.” In his Critique of the Gotha Program, Marx corrected this, and said that labor and nature were the sources of value. And just as capital has made an all-out assault on labor to bring itself back to profitability, it has also waged war on nature. We see this in the attempt to draw natural resources out of the earth no matter how devastating, whether it is oil miles beneath the ocean or in tar sands, blowing off the tops of mountains for coal, or fracking—which drills miles beneath the earth and injects a stew of toxic chemicals to break up rock and extract natural gas.
This rapacious demand for more knows no limits, and capital fights any attempt to impose boundaries on it tooth and nail. Denial of climate change is a severe form of this. We can look at the spectroscopic signature of heat escaping earth and see that warming is due directly to atmospheric carbon and other greenhouse gases. The isotopes of carbon entering the atmosphere link it directly to human activity. Denial is a strategy of capital to continue accumulation no matter what.
But even ecologically minded capitalism cannot solve the crisis. Nicholas Stern, an economist who wrote a major review of climate change, cautioned strongly against any attempts to reduce carbon below 550 parts per million. Beneath that level, he said, economic growth would be directly impacted. At 550 ppm, we are essentially left crossing our fingers and hoping that the catastrophe is only moderately devastating. This is capitalism’s last best offer—we must choose between economic growth and climate change.
Since the Kyoto Protocol, the mainstream opposition to climate change has focused on cap-and-trade schemes. These are not only inadequate but counter-productive, since at best they create stabilization rather than reduction of carbon output. These schemes are deeply corrupt and have proven ineffective where implemented, and need to be rejected in favor of a cap and a tax on carbon.
Another market solution that has been presented is green consumerism. The market is flooded with “green” products, but over 98% of them make vague, false, or misleading claims about their sustainability. The classic example is the greenwashing cards that hotels leave to let guests opt out of having their sheets washed. This does not save water, but it saves a bit of money for the hotels.
Likewise, natural gas is touted as “cleaner-burning” and buses are refitted to run on it, but the overall process of fracking gives methane a larger carbon footprint than coal. Individual usage counts for at most 30% of energy consumption and is not a realistic target for environmental change. Industrial use is where major change needs to happen.
Capitalism’s rapaciousness has a disproportionate effect on the underdeveloped world. It is countries in Africa and generally the global South that face water insecurity, super-storms, and drastic ecosystem changes. As Hurricane Katrina showed, the poorest in the developed imperialist countries likewise suffer the worst effects of climate change and environmental destruction. Many environmentalists are also much too quick to blame the growing population of underdeveloped countries for environmental devastation, when in fact the poorest people on the planet have tiny carbon footprints. It is industry and not people that needs to be the focus of the environmental movement.
The system is incapable of innovating its way out of ecological crisis. William Stanley Jevons, a 19th century British economist, can be called a “peak coal” theorist. He forecast an end to British capitalism from the depletion of coal, but thought that the industrialists needed to push onward to the end. Yet Jevons, who was no ecologist, made a unique observation: more efficient devices for burning coal—better boilers and engines—did not decrease the actual usage of coal in Britain. Instead, the more efficient the technology, the more coal was burned in absolute terms. This is a reflection of the logic of capitalism: efficiency leads to higher resource usage. There is no way that we can avoid climate catastrophe simply by making capitalism more efficient.
In order to contain climate change and prevent disaster, we need a total overhaul of the energy and transportation infrastructure. Shipping and personal transit need to become radically different, and all energy for human activity needs to come from renewable sources. This would require a massive, worldwide mobilization of resources and people on a scale that is truly unprecedented. Keeping energy use at sustainable levels will be a monumental task, but one that is necessary for our survival.
The changes that need to happen are of the kind that requires a planned economy, democratically run by the working class. The task facing us cannot be left to chance and the chaos of the market, but it also cannot be imposed from above by a bureaucracy. Planning is the only realistic way to restructure the whole infrastructure of society, from top to bottom, in the radical way that is necessary.
When the Soviet Union fell, Cuba faced a sudden need to reduce its energy consumption. It responded by becoming virtually carbon neutral. Energy taxes were increased to rates that discouraged usage. Efficiency was prioritized, with old appliances being phased out in mass numbers. It became the second country in the world in distributed energy generation, which reduces loss along power lines. Cuban agriculture became almost entirely organic, without either gasoline-powered tractors or fertilizers derived from fossil fuels. Harsh necessity made Cuba the most ecological country on the planet.
If we cannot follow in the footsteps of Cuba, if we cannot permanently change our whole energy infrastructure, we face a grim future of water wars, flooding, and super-storms. A century ago, as imperialism pitched the world into war, the great Polish socialist Rosa Luxemburg warned that mankind faced a choice—socialism or barbarism. Today we face the same challenge; if we do not create eco-socialism we face catastrophe.
> The article above was written by Wayne Deluca, and is based on a talk given by the author at a forum at Occupy Philadelphia.