Climate movement must tackle profit system


The struggle against climate change is registering real signs of progress. The rise of indigenous struggles in Canada, including the “Idle No More” movement, and the two national mobilizations against the Keystone XL pipeline in the U.S. are particularly significant. Bipartisan backing for the acceleration of the most vile extraction methods in the face of persistently growing extreme weather is birthing new activists in the climate movement.

As these new forces take their first collective step onto the stage of history, their motion will bring the contradictions of this social system—and the limitations of their own movement’s prevailing orientation—into bolder relief.

In an interview at the Feb. 17 march in Washington against the Keystone XL pipeline, Stan Heller (of asked founder Bill McKibben what he thought about public seizure of fossil fuel companies in the name of a global emergency. McKibben responded, “I don’t see any particular appetite in Congress at the moment for taking over and nationalizing companies.” He added graciously, “But I could be wrong. You never know.”

McKibben’s own opinions on nationalization appear to be irrelevant to him. The bounds of politics in Congress are what matter in his eyes.

Indeed, major organizers of the Feb. 17 march were unmistakably attempting to organize an appeal to Obama to do the right thing. Yet stopping the flow of greenhouse gas from the earth to the atmosphere will require going against the most powerful interests in world capitalism and even the motive force of their social order—the relentless drive for private profits. Attempting to forge a coalition with one capitalist party or another against the fossil fuel industry will fatally hamstring the movement.

McKibben has pointed to one key aspect of the problem, which alone places solutions to climate change beyond the abilities of capital and its servants. He has pointed out that proven fossil fuel reserves currently under the ground, if burned, would produce five times the amount of CO2 necessary to wreak disaster beyond which all international agreement considers tenable. Although these proven reserves are still underground, they nevertheless make up an estimated $27 trillion in the assets held by their respective owners. Any solution that successfully keeps four-fifths of this fuel underground would eliminate $20 trillion in corporate assets. To this should be added some portion of the $10 trillion in fossil fuel infrastructure.

The fossil fuel industry is tied to numerous banks, states, corporations, and other powerful bodies through stocks, insurance, loans, agreements, and many of the other relationships and financial devices that have proven their relevance in this age of economic crisis. A write-off of some $30 trillion of value in the energy sector would take with it many other sectors of the economy, and would be opposed by nearly every major economic power on earth.

What’s more, the creation of an ecologically sound society would simultaneously require enormous projects that promise either little or no profit, and would curtail future investment opportunities. Reorganizing urban life to accommodate walking, public transit, and bicycling would mean radically reducing the market for automobiles and all related industries.

Transitioning from industrial agriculture to eco-agriculture would eliminate many markets for steel, petroleum, plastics, petroleum, seeds, and numerous chemical compounds.

Furthermore, eco-agriculture (like similarly sustainable approaches to production) requires a more highly skilled workforce whose members must constantly adapt to changes in the ecosystem, and thus must have a detailed familiarity with their plots of land, and must continuously learn about their field. Such a workforce is much harder to replace and thus far harder to maintain on starvation wages.

Big business cannot lose so much value and in the same stroke make such transformative investments with so little promise of financial return. The difficulty has nothing to do with physical limitations. Humanity could make these shifts in a matter of years, if not months.

The limitations exist only in the social relations organized by private property, wage labor, the market, and the profit motive.

The alternatives to fossil fuel have existed far longer than most modes of fossil fuel consumption. The first photovoltaic cell was invented in 1839 by a 19-year-old messing around in his dad’s laboratory. This was decades before Edison’s lightbulb, and even before much railroad track had been laid anywhere. Whale blubber was still the big deal in energy at the time. Water electrolysis (one viable method for storing energy created by solar and wind power) had been discovered in 1800.

Capital’s failure to promote less hazardous (and more renewable) sources of energy is not due to any serious technical difficulties; the technical feats in fossil fuel extraction and nuclear power outdo wind turbines and solar power any day of the week. The centrality of fossil fuel to the world capitalist economy clearly says something about the nature of capitalism itself.

Part of the answer lies in the relative prospects for profit in the development of one resource over another. Scarcer resources are more easily monopolized. The control over production and sale allowed by a monopoly allows the owner to acquire super-profits, which attract higher than average investment.

To any sensible working person, the fact that a resource cannot be replenished within any meaningful amount of time means it should be used sparingly, if at all. Generally, it’s best not to base anything important upon such an element if it can be helped.

But to an investor, “unreplenishable” is the Promised Land. Investors who own land can prevent others from growing crops, or building things, or capturing energy on that land. But they can’t prevent them from doing it elsewhere. They might grow coffee. But if everyone else grows coffee the market can be easily flooded. They might invent the best solar panel ever, but tomorrow, someone might invent a better one or the market might again be flooded with cheap knock-offs.

Land with oil is a different story. There is oil elsewhere, but only so much. The competition is inherently more limited than for other products. And expensive extraction and refining technology only further limits the field of competitors. When a small group obtains access to all of this technology, and virtually all the access to oil (as happens under market competition), they can band together and extort everyone else.

Even a corporate giant like Wal-Mart can’t beat the profit rate of Big Oil. Wal-Mart’s revenue of $421.8 billion compares favorably to Exxon-Mobile’s Revenue of $354.7 billion. Yet Exxon-Mobile’s annual profit comes in $14 billion higher, at $30.46 billion, compared with Wal-Mart’s annual profit of $16.39 billion.

Such a higher margin of profit allows an industry to shape the rest of the economy so that other industries and consumers become more dependent upon their resource, which expand the demand for their product. Thus automobile and oil companies buy up trolley-car lines and replace them with less efficient buses in order to expand the market for cars, and petroleum becomes more important to food production than soil. These resources have become central to our society in part because they are limited and nonrenewable.

Steering away from climate disaster will require such “despotic inroads on the rights of property” as seizing some $30 trillion in corporate assets. Big business and its parties will never develop the appetite for such a move. That appetite will only grow among the masses of working and oppressed people, who are not the owners of that $30 trillion, but its slaves. And its victims.

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[Editor’s note: We reprint this article by the Committee for the Abolition of Illegitimate Debt (CADTM). In 1989, the Bastille Appeal was launched, inviting popular movements throughout the world to unite in demanding the immediate and unconditional cancellation of the debt of the so-called developing countries. This crushing debt, along with neo-liberal macro-economic reforms imposed on the global South, has led to an explosion of worldwide inequality, mass poverty, flagrant injustice and the destruction of the environment.


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