Terzi thoughtfully engages with the “degrowth movement,” whose followers argue that societies must transition away from economic growth in order to avoid climate catastrophe and address other ills of the market system, notably pervasive and growing inequality. Although he acknowledges the urgent need to attend to climate change and income inequality, he makes the case that only the resources made available by an expanding market economy will suffice to address these problems. Containing climate change requires extensive investments on multiple fronts. But rather than being viewed as a cost to be borne, the needed projects should be seen as strategic investments with the capacity to boost growth in both the short and the long run. Firms and governments should move in this direction sooner rather than later (if only they can figure out how to work together), because the returns on green investments will be greatest for the first movers in developing and producing new clean technologies. Unavoidably, the turn away from fossil fuels will leave behind carbon-intensive sectors and their workers, amplifying concerns about inequality and creating resistance to the green transition. Governments will have to address simultaneously the two challenges of greening the economy and curbing excessive inequality for either to be successfully met.
Growth will inevitably collapse the environment; “sustainable development” cannot solve
John Feffer, September 14, 2022, , ISN’T IT TIME TO CHALLENGE THE GROWTH PARADIGM?, https://fpif.org/isnt-it-time-to-challenge-the-growth-paradigm/
Economic expansion remains the yardstick of success at the global and national levels. Robust growth garners positive headlines; anemic growth and contraction generate anxious forecasts. This remains the case despite the widely acknowledged link between economic growth and the climate crisis, a connection reinforced during the COVID pandemic when carbon emissions dropped considerably as a result of the economic shutdowns in many countries. “The goal of almost all economists and politicians is continued economic growth,” explains Josh Farley, a professor in Community Development & Applied Economics and Public Administration at the University of Vermont, in a Zoom seminar sponsored by Global Just Transition. “For anyone who knows anything about complex systems, exponential growth is always ephemeral. It cannot be sustained in any finite system. Exponential growth must always collapse.” One way of postponing collapse, and to combine growth and environmental protection, has been “sustainable development.” But as Ashish Kothari, the co-founder of Kalpavriksh Environmental Action Group in India, points out, “even sustainable development is a very superficial way of trying to deal with the multiple crises that we are in. It doesn’t address the structural roots of the crises, which can be found in much older systems of racism and patriarchy or new systems of capitalism and nation-state domination.” More recently, the “Green New Deal” has been an effort to combine decarbonization with an economic shift to clean energy that nevertheless promises a growth in jobs and benefits to disadvantaged communities. “The Green New Deal faces opposition and also resistance from movements and governments in the Global South because it is seen as a northern approach,” says Dorothy Guerrero, the head of policy and advocacy at Global Justice Now in the United Kingdom. “It is indeed a big task for Green New Deal politics to counter that view that it’s a northern alternative and break down the prevailing neo-liberal politics that pits workers and jobs against environment.” More radical attempts have been made to identify economic models that are not predicated on exponential growth. Some of these are national-level models of a “steady-state” economy. Others focus on local alternatives that stress more democratic politics and a more integrated approach to nature. But as Katharine Nora Farrell, an associate professor in the Faculty of Natural Sciences at the Universidad del Rosario in Bogota, notes, the challenge is not just theoretical or even practical, but moral as well. “We need to take responsibility in social and economic contexts for our role in stipulating how systems function,” she notes. “The failure to face up to this is part of the problem. It’s embarrassing to say that ‘I have these good things because you are being exploited.’ It’s hard to be moral toward someone when you discover that you have your heel on their neck.” Unsustainable economic growth relies on just such a heel: on the necks of workers, marginalized communities and nature itself. But that growth is now coming under enhanced scrutiny and greater criticism, from within the status quo and from those who have suffered the most from its effects. The Problem with Growth For 3,000 years, until 1750, economic growth per person averaged about .01 percent per year. After 1750 and the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, however, that rate went up to 1.5 percent. To express this radical change a different way, the global economy took 6,000 years to double before 1750. Afterward, the economy doubled every 50 years. “When the World Bank says that there’s 3.2 percent economic growth, that doubles the size of the global economy every 24 years,” Josh Farley notes. “In the past 100 years, we’ve quadrupled the human population and increased the per capita consumption nine-fold for a 36-fold increase in the size of the economy. That can’t be sustained.” One popular image of economic growth is a rising tide that lifts all boats. But in reality, economic growth lifts yachts much higher than dinghies. “All forms of monetary wealth grow much faster than the economy as a whole,” Farley continues. “Not only is this unsustainable, we’re systematically transferring our resources to the owners of capital.” Similarly, the growth in interest-bearing debt “shifts resources from debtors to creditors, the people that the government gave the right to create money out of thin air.” Farley uses two comparisons to drive home the unsustainability of growth. “If your lilies are doubling in a pond every few days so that in 30 days it’s full, when is the pond half full? In 29 days. So, if we use up half our oil, it’s all used up after one more doubling period,” he says. “I was growing exponentially until I reached 18 and then I stopped growing. We’ve all reached maturity and we need to stop growing,” Economic growth is also unsustainable because it requires enormous inputs of resources, and those resources are limited. The climate crisis is one indication of many that economic growth has outstripped the resource capacities of the planet. “The Biden administration’s plan calls for a shift to electric cars,” Ashish Kothari points out. “That sounds good but where will all the mining take place to get all the materials for those cars? Again, this is based on the inequality between north and south, including patterns of consumption.” Yet, as Dorothy Guerrero adds, a consensus is emerging that humanity has to reduce its reliance on these resources. “The idea of leaving fossil fuels in the ground has gained legitimacy as the most viable response to climate change,” she explains. “The political consensus among climate activists and scientists is that renewable energy must now be fast-tracked and developed where it is not developed.” “We need to develop an economy whose main goal is not growth but secure sufficiency for all,” concludes Josh Farley. “Our planet is too small to achieve much more than sufficiency. More and more consumption can no longer be our goal. We should instead be focusing on systems in which production is fun. Collaborating with others to meet our basic needs should be our reward.” The Role of Markets Economic growth is at the heart of capitalism, and markets have played a central role in generating growth. “Capitalism is defined by private property rights, individual choice, competition, and pursuit of individual profit,” Josh Farley points out. “But for the social dilemmas that we’re facing—global climate change, loss of biodiversity, loss of the ozone layer—private property rights are not worth talking about, and individual choice is impossible..” The capitalist system encompasses much of the world, north and south. But markets, despite the ideology of a disinterested “invisible hand,” favor certain parts of the world over others. “In addressing the current climate emergency, who will reap the benefits and who will pay for the costs of the adjustment?” asks Dorothy Guerrero. “There has been an unequal ecological exchange between core countries and countries on the periphery. We need to address the issue of monopoly capitalism where, in the case of vaccines, corporations have introduced life-saving vaccines for their own profit. The transition to clean energy—whether it’s orderly or destructive, peaceful or violent, market-led or regulated—will be determined by the conflicts between north and south, between core and periphery as well as the balance of forces within societies.” Like it or not, globalized capitalism is the system “we are dealing with today,” Katharine Nora Farrell points out. “Unregulated markets can and do generate enormous damage, human and environmental. But it’s a poor musician that blames their instrument. Markets are created by human societies, relying on norms and customs established by humans. Sometimes those norms are consolidated into law, sometimes not. Rather than say that markets are all bad or all good, we have to determine when and how and under what conditions markets work or do not work.” The market economy is not the only game in town. “I ask my students, ‘what type of economy has most affected your life,’ and they say, ‘Oh, we’re a market economy,’” says Josh Farley. “And I reply, ‘Oh, really? Your parents charge you for room and board?’ Your main experience is the core economy, the economy of reciprocity and gifting and providing for your close kin and community, which is totally outside the market.” The market with its emphasis on self-interest, he continues, is not well-suited to the social dilemmas that humans currently face. “If I catch all the fish, I get all the benefits even if I wipe out the population and future generations suffer,” he continues. “If I spew carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, I get the benefit while others suffer. Instead of the invisible hand that Smith talked about, social dilemmas create an invisible foot that kicks the common good to pieces.” Moving toward Transformation Many of the proposed solutions to the climate crisis are market-driven, such as carbon trading systems. Some are even predicated on growth strategies. “We are confronting so-called solutions that are coming to us from the systems that created the problems in the first place,” explains Ashish Kothari. “These are mostly Band-Aids, such as techno-engineering solutions or the ‘net zero’ that most countries have said that they will achieve in terms of carbon emissions by 2050 or 2060 or 2070. These so-called solutions tend to sustain these structures and even greenwash them.” The origin of many transformative solutions, on the other hand, come from resistance on the ground to mining, large-scale hydroelectric plants, and similar efforts to generate the electricity and inputs to sustain economic growth at unsustainable levels. Kothari recalls the movement in central India 30 years ago against two large hydroelectric projects. “We didn’t want these projects not just because they would displace our villages and destroy our livelihoods, but because the river on which these dams are built is our mother and we won’t let our mother be shackled by your dreams of progress,” he says. “You can see in this resistance movement alternative ways of being, acting, dreaming, and relating to each other and to nature.” This alternative way of relating to nature challenges the anthropocentrism that lies at the heart of unsustainable economic growth. “In Western modernity, there is a divide between humans and nature,” he continues. “You can see it even in the way we speak. We don’t say ‘humans and the rest of the nature.’ At school we learned about a pyramid in which humans are on top. Actually, there is a circle of life in which all species have equality.” This different approach to nature, he continues, can be found “in the solidarity economy, in movements for food and energy sovereignty, and among those fighting for self-determination like the Zapatistas who say that we will be the ones who will govern our communities in ways that are more equitable and just.” The challenge is to inject this kind of thinking into the efforts to address global challenges. “What we lack–and what ecological economics is trying to promote—are economic institutions that preserve, enhance, and restore the biotic community of which humans are a part,” Josh Farley adds. “Over the last 50 years, we have been through a neoliberal revolution that has taken everything from the care economy and the public sector economy and put it all into the market. We’re now trying to put the natural resource base into the market. This is the wrong approach because of the physical characteristics of the resources. We need to flip the dialog around and start taking things out of the market economy and put them into other sectors of the economy.” Mechanisms of Change The current economic system is ill-suited to handle challenges like climate change and biodiversity loss. Worse, it is directly responsible for these problems in the first place. Alternatives exist, but are they replicable and scalable? “While we have amazing examples of alternatives around the world, we need to create scale to challenge the mega-problems,” Ashish Kothari explains. “We need much greater horizontal networking among these amazing initiatives. It’s not about upscaling but outscaling across horizontal networks of solidarity, then creating the critical mass to affect those larger problems.” Alternatives like the Zapatista struggle, he adds, “are not replicable. You can’t copy them in India and make them successful. But we can learn and exchange these values and ethics and principles and create horizontal solidarity networks around the world. We can become more resilient based on the understanding that there is a pluriverse of politics, ideologies, ecologies, and economies, all of which are important and worth respecting in so far as they do not undermine other ecologies, ideologies, and so on. These are expressed in different languages as swaraj, ubuntu, buen vivir, and so on.” The role of cooperation—as opposed to the competition fostered by markets—will prove critical in any response to the climate crisis. “Mainstream economists argue that humans are inherently selfish, that we always act in our own self-interest and can’t cooperate, which is absolutely absurd,” Josh Farley argues. “Humans are the most cooperative species ever to evolve. Think about what you had for breakfast. How many people were involved in getting the food to your plate, between truckers and farmers and producers of fertilizers and farm machinery. Think about how many people were involved in developing the knowledge necessary to do that—agronomy, metallurgy, geology. The knowledge required to meet your basic needs every day was generated by billions of people over thousands of years. Humans cannot live apart from society any better than a cell can live apart from an individual body.” Farley sees culture as the medium through which cooperative ideas and approaches can evolve at a rapid pace. “Within a society, the most selfish individuals outcompete other individuals,” he notes. “But the most cooperative and altruistic group outcompetes other groups. So, we have dual forces selecting for self-interested and cooperative behavior. We need to evolve to cooperate at larger and larger scales, at the scale of problems like climate change.”
The perm solves
John Feffer, September 14, 2022, , ISN’T IT TIME TO CHALLENGE THE GROWTH PARADIGM?, https://fpif.org/isnt-it-time-to-challenge-the-growth-paradigm/
Humans pass on their genes to successive generations. Bacteria, on the other hand, “swap genetic information called plasmids horizontally,” he continues. “At times of stress and difficulty, they do so more quickly. For humans it’s culture where we swap ideas horizontally. We’re at a time of crisis. We need to grab ideas from other cultures. That’s this pluriverse idea. There is not one idea; different cultures and ecosystems need different solutions. A socially just, sustainable transition is the goal, and we need to test all our policies against that goal. If the policies work toward that goal, we accept them; if not, we reject them.” Species evolution takes multiple generations. “Cultural evolution can be astonishingly fast,” Farley adds. “Look at World War II. The United States went from being a capitalist economy to a form of state capitalism very quickly. How many cars did we produce in Detroit in World War II for the public? Zero. The government just took over the industry. We suddenly rationed everything—food, gasoline—and people accepted it. We faced a serious challenge, we stopped focusing on individual needs and started focusing on collective needs, and we did this very fast.” Ashish Kothari agrees. “There are elements in the Green New Deal or some of the other programs around the world that we can encourage,” he says. “Which of these transitions will lead to systemic transformations and which ones will entrench the current system? A shift from fossil fuel to electric cars only entrenches the system of inequality between north and south. But if we’re talking about a transition from private cars to public transportation, that would lead toward a more transformative system. A transition also has to move toward radical forms of democracy or self-determination (swaraj or ubuntu). It has to move toward economic democracy, worker control, cooperatives, and a social economy that does not use GDP as yardstick of progress.”
Degrowth useless and kills us – we’ll eventually re-grow and we can’t survive without new technologies
Macaskill, September-October 2022, WILLIAM MACASKILL is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Oxford University and a Senior Research Fellow at the Global Priorities Institute. He is the author of the forthcoming book What We Owe the Future., Foreign Affairs, The Beginning of History” Surviving the Era of Catastrophic Risk
INNOVATE TO SURVIVE One response to this daunting challenge is retreat. If it is so difficult to safely govern emerging technologies, some argue, then why don’t we simply refrain from inventing them in the first place? Members of the “degrowth” movement take precisely this stance, decrying economic growth and technological progress as the main culprits behind alienation, environmental destruction, and all kinds of other harms. In 2019, 11,000 scientists from more than 150 countries signed an open letter demanding that the population of the world “be stabilized—and, ideally, gradually reduced” and that countries turn their priorities away “from GDP growth.” Despite its intuitive appeal, this response is unrealistic and dangerous. It is unrealistic because it simply fails to engage with the interdependence of states in the international system. Even if the world’s countries came together temporarily to halt innovation, sooner or later someone would resume the pursuit of advanced technology. Humanity must avoid the fate of Icarus—but still fly. Be that as it may, technological stagnation is not desirable anyway. To see why, note that new technologies can both exacerbate and reduce risk. Once a new technological danger has been introduced—such as by nuclear weapons—governments might require additional technologies to manage that risk. For example, the threat nuclear weapons pose to the survival of the human species would be greatly reduced if, during a potential nuclear winter, people were able to produce food without sunlight or if early warning systems could more reliably distinguish between intercontinental ballistic missiles and small scientific rockets. But if societies stop technological progress altogether, new technological threats may emerge that cannot be contained because the commensurate strides in defense have not been made. For instance, a wide variety of actors may be able to create unprecedentedly dangerous pathogens at a time when people have not made much progress in the early detection and eradication of novel diseases. The status quo, in other words, is already heavily mined with potential catastrophes. And in the absence of defensive measures, threats from nature might eventually lead to human extinction as they have for many other species: to survive to their full potential, human beings will need to learn to perform such feats as deflecting asteroids and quickly fighting off new pandemics. They must avoid the fate of Icarus—but still fly. The challenge is to continue reaping the fruits of technological advancement while protecting humanity against its downsides. Some experts refer to this as “differential technological development,” the idea being that if people can’t prevent destructive technology or accidents from happening in the first place, they can, with foresight and careful planning, at least attempt to develop beneficial and protective technologies first. We’re already in a game of what Richard Danzig, the former U.S. secretary of the navy, has called “technology roulette.” No bullet has been fired yet, but that doesn’t change how risky the game is. There are many more turns to pull the trigger in the future: a bad accident and perhaps a fatal one is inevitable unless our species changes the game.
The liberal international order and the academic enterprise that supports it promotes racist imperialism driven by capitalism.
Mampillly, September-October 2022, ZACHARIAH MAMPILLY is the Marxe Endowed Chair of International Affairs at the Marxe School of Public and International Affairs at Baruch College and is an affiliate faculty member at the Graduate Center, CUNY. He is a co-author of Africa Uprising: Popular Protest and Political Change, The Du Bois Doctrine: Race and the American Century, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/united-states/web-du-bois-doctrine-race-america-century
It’s hard to argue that Du Bois, perhaps the most celebrated Black intellectual of all time, is underrecognized. His work remains a standard on syllabi across disciplines; prizes from academic associations bear his name. Despite the acclaim, however, Du Bois remains underappreciated—especially when it comes to his thinking on international politics. For a time, Du Bois was a regular contributor to Foreign Affairs, publishing five essays during the interwar period on topics ranging from European colonialism in Africa to the United States’ role in the League of Nations. But Du Bois was an exception in this regard: during his lifetime, this magazine published very few Black voices—and its founding involved acquiring an existing journal that had occasionally trafficked in the racist pseudoscience that shaped the early years of international relations theory. Then, during World War II and amid the hysterical anticommunism of the early Cold War, Foreign Affairs joined the rest of the white American establishment in casting out Du Bois; partly as a result, his contributions to the field have received little attention from scholars in recent decades. Du Bois is rightly still venerated for his work on civil rights. But the erasure of his contributions to debates on U.S. foreign policy and international order represents an enormous loss. By discarding him, the American foreign policy establishment robbed itself of one of the twentieth century’s most perceptive and prescient critics of capitalism and imperialism. His now forgotten texts on world politics prefigured many of the ideas that later shaped international relations theory. They brim with insights on the importance of race, the effect of domestic politics on foreign policy, the limits of liberal institutions, and the relationship between political economy and world order. Revisiting them today reveals how racism marred the dawn of the so-called American century and the liberal internationalism that drove it—and the role of establishment institutions (including this magazine) in that history. And because many of the ills that Du Bois diagnosed in the imperial and Cold War orders persist in today’s putatively liberal international order, rediscovering his work serves more than a purely historical purpose. A better order demands a more complete reckoning, and restoring Du Bois’s rightful place in the international relations canon would be a step toward that goal. STAMPED FROM THE BEGINNING? Du Bois was born in 1868 in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, and his lifespan overlaps almost exactly with the Jim Crow era, a period during which Black Americans faced severe restrictions on their ability to participate in political, economic, and social life. Du Bois’s youth also coincided with a period of domestic expansion after the Civil War, as the U.S. government, newly triumphant over the single greatest threat to its sovereignty, sent its armies west to put down various indigenous insurgencies. The enlargement of the U.S. military that accompanied the pacification of rebellious southern whites and the defeat of Native American resistance did not recede once those projects were complete. Instead, the colonial projects that European countries were pursuing in Asia and Africa galvanized an envious United States to carve out its own colonies. In 1898, a year before Du Bois published his first major sociological study, The Philadelphia Negro, the United States’ imperial ambitions produced the annexation of Hawaii and the acquisition of Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines as spoils of the Spanish-American War. At around that time, as the United States began to emerge as a leading global power, modern international relations theory started to take shape. As the political scientist Robert Vitalis has written, “The central challenge defining the new field of ‘imperial relations’ was the efficient political administration and race development of subject peoples.” Most early theorists, such as John Hobson, Alleyne Ireland, and Paul Reinsch, saw as major concerns two interlinked subjects: first, the question of whether the United States should secure a global empire in the manner of its European rivals, and second, the role of race in U.S. foreign policy. Writing in Political Science Quarterly, Hobson, for example, argued that the clear biological advantages enjoyed by the Anglo-Saxon race not merely justified colonial occupation but demanded it: “It is desirable that the earth should be peopled, governed and developed as far as possible by the races which can do their work best, that is, by the races of highest ‘social efficiency’; these races must assert their right by conquering, ousting, subjugating or extinguishing races of lower social efficiency.” Du Bois remains underappreciated—especially when it comes to his thinking on international politics. Today, many scholars dismiss the imperialist, racist logics propounded by the founders of modern international relations theory as merely reflecting the prejudices of an unenlightened era: sins not egregious enough to diminish the value of the sinners’ good works. Vitalis, however, maintains that the origins of modern international relations theory cannot be cleaved from the junk race science and dubious anthropology that were, at the very least, present at its creation. The same could be said about this magazine. In 1922, the Council on Foreign Relations launched Foreign Affairs after acquiring the future publication rights for an existing quarterly called the Journal of International Relations—which, until just a few years earlier, had been known as the Journal of Race Development. Established to be what its editor, George Blakeslee, described as a “forum for the discussion of the problems which relate to the progress of races and states generally considered backward,” the Journal of Race Development published plenty of quackery: for example, articles that considered whether white people could adapt to the tropics and that explored the evolutionary origins of blond hair. But it was hardly a bastion of white supremacism. Indeed, one of its most prominent contributors was Du Bois; in one contribution in 1917, he argued that World War I had its origins in colonial exploitation. And when the publication changed its title, dropping “race development” in favor of “international relations,” Du Bois was skeptical: “I am much more interested in the old name than in the new name of your journal,” he wrote to Blakeslee. And despite Blakeslee’s interest in publishing him, Du Bois did not contribute to the short-lived Journal of International Relations. But a few years later, after Foreign Affairs had launched, Du Bois submitted an article titled “Worlds of Color,” which revisited his concept of a global “color line” in light of the events of World War I. In a letter to Du Bois accepting the piece, the magazine’s managing editor, Hamilton Fish Armstrong, praised “the admirable restraint with which you have expressed yourself.” The essay was published in 1925, a quarter century after Du Bois had initially developed the concept, and it garnered a good deal of attention. In that piece and four others that he published in Foreign Affairs over the following two decades, Du Bois offered a real-time assessment of the emerging world order, decrying the yawning gap between its proponents’ putatively liberal values and the order’s actual consequences for the colonized world. “BLACK AND POOR IN A RICH, WHITE WORLD” One of the central questions that motivated Du Bois was why the white working class in the United States refused to align with formerly enslaved Black Americans to challenge their common oppression. His solution to this puzzle rested on his views about the nature of race and the tensions between democracy and capitalism. Unlike most of his white contemporaries, Du Bois did not see race as an immutable characteristic but as a social construct. “Humanity is mixed to its bones,” he wrote in a 1935 article for Foreign Affairs. Race was not a product of primordial competition among different groups of humans but a useful fiction of sorts, employed by economic elites to justify hierarchies that served their interests. “The medieval world had no real race problems,” he noted in the same article. “Its human problems were those of nationality and culture and religion, and it was mainly as the new economy of an expanding population demanded a laboring class that this class tended . . . to be composed of members of alien races.” And later, writing on European colonialism, he argued, “The belief that racial and color differences made exploitation of colonies necessary and justifiable was too tempting to withstand. As a matter of fact, the opposite was the truth; namely, that the profit from exploitation was the main reason for the belief in race difference.” Du Bois saw this dynamic clearly at work in the United States, where white elites avoided economic redistribution and retained political power by offering white workers “a public and psychological wage” in the form of control over police forces, access to politicians, and flattering media portrayals. But white American elites did not rely solely on such tactics to secure the allegiance of the white working class: beginning after the collapse of Reconstruction in the late 1870s, global capitalism and imperialism improved the living conditions of poorer white Americans by providing resources for their segregated schools, parks, and neighborhoods, all without meaningfully transferring power to them. In this way, Du Bois argued in his seminal 1935 work, Black Reconstruction, white elites in the United States had created a double proletariat divided by a racial line. On one side were poor and working-class whites, afforded some material gains but no genuine social mobility or political power. On the other were Black Americans, bereft of any hope for either economic or political gain. Through imperial war and capitalism, the United States—in concert with the European powers—had created a global system for upholding white supremacy. In the interwar period, Du Bois initially placed his faith in the emergence of international institutions to redress these inequities. In 1921, he presented a petition to the newly created League of Nations on behalf of the Pan-African Congress, concluding that the league might spark a “revolution for the Negro race.” But over the next decade, his views soured as the league failed to live up to its liberal ideals and became a tool of the superpowers. The National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution In a 1933 Foreign Affairs essay on Liberia, he detailed an unholy alliance between the Firestone corporation, the league, and the U.S. government. Despite a league-commissioned investigation that found that Firestone, in connivance with Liberian elites, had used forced labor, the United States sided with the company against the league’s plan for reform. The result was Liberia’s indebtedness and loss of sovereignty. As Washington debated whether to increase its military involvement to resolve the consequent crisis in Liberia, Du Bois asked, scathingly: “Are we starting the United States Army toward Liberia to guarantee the Firestone Company’s profits in a falling rubber market?” Long before such charges became a staple of left-wing criticisms of American hegemony, Du Bois foresaw the troubling effects of commingling U.S. military power with private interests and the ease with which major powers could employ international organizations to hide their imperialist agendas under a veneer of legitimacy. The exploitation that Du Bois detailed in his report on Liberia was something of a blueprint for how, long after the end of direct colonialism, global superpowers would use debt to guarantee the subservience of countries in Africa and elsewhere in the developing world. By the time he published his Foreign Affairs piece on Liberia, Du Bois had come to see the promise of Western liberal internationalism as hollow. “Liberia is not faultless,” he wrote. “She lacks training, experience and thrift. But her chief crime is to be black and poor in a rich, white world; and in precisely that portion of the world where color is ruthlessly exploited as a foundation for American and European wealth. The success of Liberia as a Negro republic would be a blow to the whole colonial slave labor system.” In his final essay for Foreign Affairs, in 1943, Du Bois rejected the idea that World War II was a fight between liberal and illiberal powers, arguing that it was competition for colonies that produced the fighting instead. “Is it a white man’s war?” he asked, rhetorically, on behalf of Africans and Asians. And by the time of the San Francisco Conference that birthed the United Nations in 1945, which he attended on behalf of the NAACP, Du Bois’s skepticism of the emerging liberal order had calcified. Afterward, he wrote a letter to Armstrong, who had become the editor of Foreign Affairs in 1928 (and would stay in the position until 1972), pitching a critique of the nascent organization. In his estimation, the conference “took steps to prevent further wars” but “did not go nearly far enough in facing realistically the greatest potential cause of war, the colonial system.” The magazine rejected the pitch, and Du Bois would never again publish in Foreign Affairs. AGAINST EMPIRE, FOR DEMOCRACY In exploring the relationship between race relations inside the United States and the country’s quest for power in the international system, Du Bois anticipated the ways in which, in the mid-twentieth century, scholars of international relations would increasingly focus on domestic politics to explain countries’ foreign policies. And he applied this lens to cases besides the United States. In trying to understand the costs of European competition for control over Africa, for example, Du Bois argued that domestic factors would undermine the clear military advantage European countries had over their colonial subjects. As a keen observer of emergent anticolonial struggles in India and elsewhere, Du Bois deduced how the occupation of foreign lands would engender resistance among the colonized. But Du Bois also saw another dilemma that imperialism created for European countries: colonial domination abroad often required the sacrifice of democracy at home. Imperialism inevitably led to increased racial and economic inequality at home: military adventures and opportunities for extracting natural resources empowered the capitalist class (and its favored segments of the underclass) and stoked racial prejudice that justified further interventions in foreign lands. As Du Bois put it in “Worlds of Color” in 1925: “One looks on present France and her African shadow, then, as standing at the parting of tremendous ways; one way leads toward democracy for black as well as white—a thorny way made more difficult by the organized greed of the imperial profit-takers within and without the nation; the other road is the way of the white world, and of its contradictions and dangers English colonies may tell.” Du Bois’s increasing engagement with international politics also shaped his evolving views of the United States and its racial and class hierarchies. Early in his career, Du Bois developed the concept of “the talented tenth,” the idea that marginalized groups require their own internal elite to pull the rest of the group out of poverty. But his study of European colonialism in Africa forced him to reassess his faith in minority elites as a vehicle for racial uplift. In Liberia, Du Bois had initially supported Firestone’s investment as a way to buttress the legitimacy of the ruling Americo-Liberian community. But by the 1940s, he had grown disenchanted with the idea of the talented tenth, warning that it would empower “a group of selfish, self-indulgent, well-to-do men.” This change in his thinking dovetailed with the fact that, in his personal life, he was becoming increasingly estranged from Black elites in the United States, who he felt had not supported him during his investigation by the United States government. Du Bois argued that Washington’s quest for a liberal order could never be reconciled with a Jim Crow system at home. Eventually, Du Bois embraced the strategy of “assigning transformative responsibilities to the international proletariat,” as the political scientist Adolph Reed has put it. His change in thinking was reinforced by his interpretation of how international capitalism was developing: instead of a tool to uplift the darker races, it was the cause of their exploitation. As a result, long before he fully embraced communism, he had moved toward a form of democratic socialism. Yet even as he developed a theory of working-class agency, Du Bois could never fully shake his faith in the idea of a chosen few leading the way toward emancipation or in the potential for global cooperation. But it would not be Western elites, with their attachment to racial and economic hierarchies, who would lead the way. Rather, he believed, it was the rising powers of Asia, as well as the Soviet Union, that would upend the global system of white supremacy and liberate Black Americans. This view is palpably present in one of his most personal works, the novel Dark Princess, which Du Bois wrote in 1928. Inspired by his participation in the First Universal Races Congress in 1911 and in other forums, such as the League Against Imperialism in 1927, Dark Princess tells the story of Matthew Townes, an African American medical student in self-imposed exile in Germany, where Du Bois had conducted some of his graduate studies. An obvious surrogate for Du Bois, Townes encounters elites from multiple African and Asian countries who seek to overthrow colonial rule but whose own prejudices prevent them from recognizing the potential of the Black working class in the United States. One of these characters is the Indian princess of the novel’s title, who overcomes her prejudices and commits a form of class suicide, giving birth to a child fathered by Townes. Du Bois positions the child as a messiah figure who will someday rescue the oppressed darker races of the world. Because of their historic prejudices, Europe and the United States—as well as rich elites elsewhere—were denying not only themselves but all of humanity of the potential benefits of lifting up marginalized groups. WHAT DU BOIS SAW That Du Bois died a member of the Communist Party is no secret. But his journey to the left took decades. Du Bois first encountered socialism as a student in Germany in the 1890s, but it was not until the 1930s that he began to seriously engage with leftist politics. Given Du Bois’s stature as the predominant Black intellectual of his time, his leftward drift was a source of suspicion for the U.S. government. The FBI began investigating Du Bois in 1942, following his visit to imperial Japan, where he delivered a speech praising the country as a potential friend to Black Americans. Despite concluding that there was “no evidence of subversive activity,” the FBI continued to investigate Du Bois for the rest of his life, derailing his career and strengthening his anti-Americanism. During the McCarthy era in the early 1950s, U.S. authorities arrested Du Bois and charged him with being a secret Soviet agent after he circulated a petition calling for a ban on nuclear weapons. At his trial, a federal judge summarily acquitted Du Bois as soon as the prosecution rested its case, citing a lack of evidence. But the controversy rendered Du Bois persona non grata—and penniless. The State Department refused to issue him a passport in 1952, a harsh blow for a man who had spent his entire adult life visiting and studying foreign countries. In 1957, Du Bois sought to regain his passport to attend Nkrumah’s inauguration. Du Bois sent a personal appeal to Vice President Richard Nixon, who was scheduled to attend on behalf of the United States. But the State Department denied the request. The following year, the Supreme Court declared the policy of denying passports to suspected communists unconstitutional. Du Bois secured a new passport—although, in Ghana just a few years later, he would be unable to renew it—and immediately embarked on a ten-week trip to China, where he met with both Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai. Having last visited the country in 1936, Du Bois was amazed by China’s progress, praising its rising industrial prowess and calling the changes nothing short of a “miracle.” The success of American democracy required that political and economic equality be extended to all people around the world. Du Bois’s admiration for authoritarians such as Nkrumah and Mao, and his fulsome praise for the Soviet tyrant Joseph Stalin were inconsistent with his lifelong support for democracy. But his unfortunate embrace of such figures arguably represents a misapplication of his well-founded belief that democracy was incompatible with racial and economic inequality. His decades-long persecution at the hands of the United States also fed his misgivings about Western liberalism’s ability to foster racial and economic equality. In his writings on international politics, Du Bois argued that the domestic could never be divorced from the global, and that Washington’s quest for a liberal order could never be reconciled with a Jim Crow system at home. Although American society has changed since Du Bois’s time, that fundamental tension has never been resolved: from the Cold War to the “war on terror” and beyond, the United States has cast itself as a champion of freedom and equality, despite never meeting its own standards in its treatment of American citizens and despite routinely enabling and empowering authoritarians and other enemies of liberal values when doing so has served U.S. economic or national security interests, as defined by establishment elites. Realists often excuse or even demand such inconsistency and hypocrisy, suggesting that liberals are naive to believe that domestic values should guide foreign policy. Meanwhile, hawks of all stripes—from neoconservatives to liberal interventionists—refuse to acknowledge the inconsistency and hypocrisy at all, claim they are transient aberrations, or insist that they don’t really matter. By linking his devastating insights into the realities of American apartheid with his analysis of Western imperialism, Du Bois charted a unique course through this perennial debate. His work upends the liberal fantasy of the United States’ inevitable progress toward a “more perfect union” that would inspire a just global order and gives the lie to the realist fantasy that how the country behaves internationally can be separated from domestic politics. For Du Bois, the success of democracy in the United States required that political and economic equality be extended not only to U.S. citizens but to all people around the world. It is an uncompromising and inspiring vision; embracing it cost Du Bois dearly. But it may be just what the country needs as it faces the waning of American imperium
Socialism wouldn’t stop climate change
Leigh Philips, August 11, 2022, Would there still have been climate change under socialism?, https://www.newstatesman.com/ideas/2022/08/would-there-be-climate-change-under-socialism
It is common to come across the notion, especially on the climate left, that humanity and the rest of the planet would not be staring down the threat of climate change if it were not for capitalism – from Naomi Klein’s best-selling This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate (2014) to the growing number of activists identifying themselves as “eco-socialists”. There is however no evidence that this is the case. On the contrary – and I say this as a committed socialist – while a retreat from market-based allocation and an expansion of economic planning offers us the best hope for rapidly decarbonising our economy today, paradoxically, a maximally socialist 20th century would have resulted in global warming at least as bad as we are currently experiencing, probably worse. And the reason why would actually have been a very good thing. There are of course countless examples of fossil fuel companies persistently working to deny the reality of global warming and delay climate action in order to protect their profits, by lobbying and spreading misinformation. But this only tells us that the profit incentive can hinder the clean transition. It doesn’t explain why humanity started burning fossil fuels (or producing steel, cement, fertilizer, and so on) in the first place. So why did humanity turn to fossil fuels? The environmental humanities scholar and climate activist Andreas Malm has argued that the adoption of fossil fuel, beginning with the shift from water power to coal-fired steam in the early 19th century, was not an inevitable development – the result of coal being an objectively superior energy source as the orthodox narrative of industrial revolution has it – but rather arose out of capitalist property relations. Since coal was mobile unlike water power – which was tied to rivers and constrained by their flows – it enabled a docile labour force, concentrated in factory towns, to work around the clock, maximising profits. For Malm, capitalism and fossil fuels are inseparable. But there could have been another path: socialism, being a classless society, does not require docile workers, and so might have had no need for fossil fuels. But Malm, Klein and others are wrong. Socialism may not need docile workers, but its publicly owned hospitals certainly need the 24/7 electricity that powers their ventilators and dialysis machines and need to be built where there are population concentrations, not where weather-dependent energy services such as water power are optimal. Until the development of large-scale hydroelectric and nuclear power, fossil fuels were indeed objectively superior to their fair-weather and geography-dependent precursors. Socialism would have needed fossil fuels too. Consider this thought experiment. Let’s imagine that the 1918-19 socialist German Revolution that failed in the real world had in fact been successful. Rather than being attempted in semi-feudal, largely agrarian Russia, in our counterfactual history socialism emerges instead in the modern, democratising, industrial societies that Marx had predicted would be its birthplace. From Germany, socialism spreads across Europe and thence the world. To simplify matters for the sake of the thought experiment, let us define socialism as a global economy that allocates goods and services through democratic planning on the basis of need, not, as with capitalism, primarily via markets on the basis of profit. Furthermore, in our thought experiment, let’s give our socialists an additional, temporal advantage and say that capitalism is vanquished everywhere by, say, 1930. Democratic socialism is triumphant across the globe. There is no Soviet disaster. No Maoist famines. No Second World War. No Cold War. Colonialism is willingly, rapidly unravelled in the 1920s rather than reluctantly, incompletely, violently, in the 1950s and 1960s. There is no crisis of profitability in the early 1970s and thus no 1980s neoliberal revolution. Even had all this occurred, it would still probably not have been until the 1980s that the full scale of the threat of climate change with respect to fossil fuel combustion was understood by scientists – around the same time as it was under our existing capitalist system. Even though the heat-trapping effects of carbon dioxide had been the subject of scientific speculation since the mid-19th century, it wasn’t until the 1980s that the full climatic consequences of burning fossil fuels began to be widely recognised. (Remember, the fact that ExxonMobil’s internal researchers knew about the scale of the problem caused by their lucrative product in the 1970s before much of the rest of the scientific community did is central to what made their actions such a scandal.)
Identity politics diverts attention from correcting inequality and reifies corporate dominance
We need policy action; not virtue signaling
Eve Ottemberg, August 4, 2022, Counterpunch, How the Elites Use Identity Politics to Wage Class War, https://www.counterpunch.org/2022/08/05/how-the-elites-use-identity-politics-to-wage-class-war/
Identity politics got a bad name in recent years. This happened because the Democratic party abandoned its base of ordinary working people for Wall Street, and as it did so, made a big fuss about its progressive cred by appointing token women, Blacks, gay and trans people to various high perches. But not surprisingly, working people of all colors and genders concluded the Dems didn’t care about them anymore and either abandoned voting, or masochistically defected to the GOP, which meanwhile started having a field day treating Dem tokenism as proof of the Great Replacement in action.
So everyone got riled up about identity politics, while the one identity never mentioned, and possibly the most important, though assiduously elided in the public sphere, is class identity. Both political parties ignored working people’s economic concerns, to the delight of their mega-corporate donors. The public’s desire for single-payer health care, increased minimum wage, affordable higher education, decent infrastructure, an end to foreign military adventures and other such social benefits couldn’t be ditched fast enough by Dems and a GOP both utterly beholden to Big Money.
The role of identity politics in any sane attempt to fight back against the power of obscene wealth is discussed in Elite Capture, a new book by Olufemi Taiwo. It asks at the outset, what is identity politics? It is, according to Dominic Gustavo at the World Socialist Web Site and quoted by Taiwo, “an essential tool utilized by the bourgeoisie to maintain its class domination over the working class by keeping workers divided along racial and gender lines.” Hard to argue with that. But then alternatively, Taiwo asks, is identity politics “as embodied in critical race theory, a dangerous ideology and threat to the established order that the powers that be aim to stamp out?”
Possibly it is both. But personally, I fail to perceive how this ideology menaces an established order that its identity-activists have unctuously and sedulously wooed. Worse, identity politics weakens worker solidarity, because it never mentions class. And class very much divides the population. There’s even a class war, being waged by a vast clan of financial titans against the rest of us hoi polio. Class consciousness usually leads to class war, but identity politics is a different animal, a chameleon happy on either side of the class divide, and quite noticeably eager to seduce the rulers of swankier realms. It pays to keep a watchful eye on this slippery ideology.
At the same time, however, one might leave the door open and say that identity politics could conceivably threaten the status quo. Conceivably. And it has certainly helped win critical rights, from the female vote to affirmative action to gay marriage and more. But in recent years, overall, in practice it rarely menaces the established order and, as far as anyone can tell, has been pretty much co-opted by our rulers. So overall, the World Socialist Web Site seems to hit closer to the truth. Identity politics splintered the working class, and it’s hard to see how to undo the damage.
What does elite capture of identity politics mean in practice? Well, Taiwo writes, “when elites run the show, the interests of the group get whittled down to what they have in common with those at the top, at best.” So feminists supporting Hillary Clinton might fret about glass ceilings, while female home health aides just worry about making the rent. When these two cohorts join in politics, the concerns of women high up on the career ladder dominate. “At worst,” Taiwo continues, “elites fight for their own narrow interests using the banner of group solidarity.” Again, to use the HRC example, at worst women might find their feminism pressed into support of, say, U.S. imperialism, toppling foreign governments that are too left-wing (Manuel Zelaya’s Honduran presidency) and advocating the murder of leaders disliked by their feminist icons in Washington – think Libya’s Gaddafi.
Or say a young progressive congresswoman like Alexandria Ocasio Cortez goes to Washington, having campaigned on Medicare For All and a Green New Deal. But well, there’s House speaker Nancy Pelosi, and the new congresswoman soon learns that it’s “my way or the highway” with centrist Dems. And so, before too long, she’s voting for billions of dollars for military aid to Ukraine, which also happens to enrich puissant defense contractors. And then maybe she yammers about freedom in Taiwan, as the military industrial complex expects her to do, while subsidized health care and the climate catastrophe slip ever further into the shadows. So what’s left? She stays passionate when it comes to bathrooms and the latest me-too tumult, but really, look at the priorities here. They seem to be that she can continue to flaunt her leftwing bona fides while ignoring other issues that just so happen to be life and death matters. And not just ignoring. In the case of Washington’s potentially globally lethal proxy war in Ukraine, she chooses the side of mass death over screaming for peace negotiations, which was, after all, the sort of thing she was elected for.
Thus goes subordination to the elites. But Taiwo’s new book, at times elliptical, highlights other oddities of identity politics. It makes clear that leftists spend far too much energy virtue signaling and not enough out there, organizing. This distracts from constructive politics. As Taiwo observes, when Flint, Michigan residents noticed that their water smelled and was yellowish brown, “in that moment what they needed was not for their oppression to be ‘celebrated,’ ‘centered’ or narrated in the newest academic parlance…What Flint residents really needed, above all, was to get the lead out of their water.” Celebrating and centering amount to deference politics. While they may have their time and place, clearly that’s not when there’s a crisis. Constructive politics, Taiwo argues, deals with the problem: it gets the lead out of the water.
It’s ridiculous that this even needs to be spelled out. But so many leftists waste so much time with well-intentioned virtue signaling that it’s no wonder so little gets done. And that’s a problem. Because there are mammoth issues out in the world that people need to address, like, to repeat that which cannot be repeated enough, the class war, and why several billion ordinary people are losing that class war.
After all, ours is a world in which “1.6 billion people live in inadequate housing (slum conditions) and 100 million are unhoused, a full third of the human population does not have reliable drinking water.” Taiwo also cites an example from Africa, where “82 million Nigerians…live on less than a dollar a day.” These people’s carbon footprints are negligible. Yet they’re the ones climate change, caused by rich countries, will kill first – with famine due to drought, or drowning in floods, or expiring from heat stroke. The only way to change this is to organize, not to quarrel over pronouns.
So yes, continue with identity politics and virtue signal if you feel so compelled. But try to keep the outcomes of politics in mind. Of course currently raging right-wing persecution of trans people is horrible and should be opposed, and of course trans rights are human rights, but the right to an abortion is a woman’s right, as is a female prisoner’s right not to be raped by her trans-woman cellmate, and if we spend all our time fidgeting and hedging over such matters, whose truth is obvious, and fighting about them, we’re doing the enemy’s work for him. Because as I’ve heard labor leaders holler at union meetings – “The enemy is strong!” Carping at feminists for using the word “woman” just makes the enemy stronger. And so does pretending that the first Black president was anything other than a tool of the billionaire oligarchy. The elites have “a big [slightly diverse] club,” as comedian George Carlin said, “and you ain’t in it!” And you ain’t in it for one main, rock-solid reason: you belong to the wrong class.
Failure to arrest growth-driven climate change triggers societal collapse, resilience and adaptation won’t solve
Masters, 7-28, 22, Jeff Masters, Ph.D., worked as a hurricane scientist with the NOAA Hurricane Hunters from 1986-1990. After a near-fatal flight into category 5 Hurricane Hugo, he left the Hurricane Hunters to pursue a safer passion – earning a 1997 Ph.D. in air pollution meteorology from the University of Michigan, Yale Climate Connection, The future of global catastrophic risk events from climate change, https://yaleclimateconnections.org/2022/07/the-future-of-global-catastrophic-risk-events-from-climate-change/
Four times since 1900, human civilization has suffered global catastrophes with extreme impacts: World War I (40 million killed), the 1918-19 influenza pandemic (40-50 million killed), World War II (40-50 million killed), and the COVID-19 pandemic (an economic impact in the trillions, and a 2020-21 death toll of 14.9 million, according to the World Health Organization). These are the only events since the beginning of the 20th century that meet the United Nations’s definition of global catastrophic risk (GCR): a catastrophe global in impact that kills over 10 million people or causes over $10 trillion (2022 USD) in damage. But human activity is “creating greater and more dangerous risk” and increasing the odds of global catastrophic risk events, by increasingly pushing humans beyond nine “planetary boundaries” of environmental limits within which humanity can safely operate, warns a recent United Nations report, “Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction – Our World at Risk: Transforming Governance for a Resilient Future” (GAR2022) and its companion paper, “Global catastrophic risk and planetary boundaries: The relationship to global targets and disaster risk reduction” (see July post, “Recklessness defined: breaking 6 of 9 planetary boundaries of safety“). These reports, endorsed by United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, make the case that the combined effects of disasters, economic vulnerabilities, and overtaxing of ecosystems are creating “a dangerous tendency for the world to tend toward the Global Collapse scenario. This scenario presents a world where planetary boundaries have been extensively crossed, and if GCR events have not already occurred or are in the process of occurring, then their likelihood of doing so in the future is extreme … and total societal collapse is a possibility.” Global catastrophic risk (GCR) events Human civilization has evolved during the Holocene Era, the stability of which is now threatened by human-caused climate change. As a result, global catastrophic risk events from climate change are growing increasingly likely, the U.N. May 2022 reports conclude. There are many other potential global catastrophic risk events, both natural and human-caused (Figure 2), posing serious risks and warranting humanity’s careful consideration. But the report cautions of “large uncertainty both for the likelihood of such events occurring and for their wider impact.” (Note that there is at least one other type of Global Catastrophic Risk event the report omits: an intense geomagnetic storm. A repeat of the massive 1859 Carrington Event geomagentic storm, which might crash the electrical grid for 130 million people in the U.S. for multiple years, could well be a global catastrophic risk event.) Five types of GCR events with increasing likelihood in a warmer climate 1) Drought The most serious immediate global catastrophic risk event associated with climate change might well be a food-system shock caused by extreme droughts and floods hitting multiple major global grain-producing “breadbaskets” simultaneously. Such an event could lead to significant food prices spikes and result in mass starvation, war, and a severe global economic recession. This prospect exists in 2022-23, exacerbated by war and the COVID-19 pandemic. The odds of such a food crisis will steadily increase as the climate warms. The author of this post presented one such scenario in an op-ed published in The Hill last year, and insurance giant Lloyds of London detailed another such scenario in a “food system shock” report issued in 2015. Lloyds gave uncomfortably high odds of such an event’s occurring—well over 0.5% per year, or more than a 14% chance over a 30-year period. 2) War In his frightening book Food or War, published in October 2019, science writer Julian Cribb documents 25 food conflicts that have led to famine, war, and the deaths of more than a million people – mostly caused by drought. For example, China’s drought and famine of 1630-31 led to a revolt that resulted in the collapse of the Ming Dynasty. Another drought in China in the mid-nineteenth century led to the Taiping rebellion, which claimed 20-30 million lives. Since 1960, Cribb says, 40-60% of armed conflicts have been linked to resource scarcity, and 80% of major armed conflicts occurred in vulnerable dry ecosystems. Hungry people are not peaceful people, Cribb argues, and ranks South Asia – India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka – as being at the most risk of future food/water availability conflicts. In particular, nuclear powers India and Pakistan have a long history of conflict, so climate change can be expected to increase the risk of nuclear war between them. A “limited” nuclear war between India and Pakistan, 100 bombs dropped on cities. would be capable of triggering a global “nuclear winter” with a death toll up to two billion, Helfand (2013) estimated. 3) Sea-level rise, combined with land subsidence During the coming decades, it will be very difficult to avoid a global catastrophic risk event from sea-level rise, when combined with coastal subsidence from groundwater pumping, loss of river sedimentation from flood-control structures, and other human-caused effects: A moderate global warming scenario (RCP 4.5) will put $7.9-12.7 trillion dollars of global coastal assets at risk of flooding by 2100, according to a 2020 study by Kirezci et al., “Projections of global-scale extreme sea levels and resulting episodic coastal flooding over the 21st Century.” While this study did not take into account assets that inevitably will be protected by new coastal defenses to be erected, neither did it consider the indirect costs of sea-level rise from increased storm surge damage, mass migration away from the coast, salinification of fresh water supplies, and many other factors. A 2019 report by the Global Commission on Adaptation estimated that sea level rise will lead to damages of more than $1 trillion per year by 2050. Furthermore, sea-level rise, combined with other stressors, might bring about megacity collapse – a frightening possibility with infrastructure destruction, salinification of fresh water resources, and a real estate collapse potentially combining to create a mass exodus of people, reducing the tax base of the city to the point that it can no longer provide basic services. The collapse of even one megacity might have severe impacts on the global economy, creating increased chances of a cascade of global catastrophic risk events. One megacity potentially at risk of this fate is the capital of Indonesia, Jakarta, with a population of 10 million). Land subsidence (up to two inches per year) and sea-level rise (about 1/8 inch per year) are so high in Jakarta that Indonesia currently is constructing a new capital city in Borneo. Plans call for moving 8,000 civil servants there in 2024, and eventually move 1.5 million workers from Jakarta to the new capital by 2045. 4) Pandemics As Earth’s climate warms, wild animals will be forced to relocate their habitats and increasingly enter regions with large human populations. This development will dramatically increase the risk of a jump of viruses from animals to humans that could lead to a pandemic, according to a 2022 paper by Carlson et al. in Nature, “Climate change increases cross-species viral transmission risk.” Bats are the type of animal of most concern Note that in the case of the 1918-19 influenza GCR event, a separate GCR event helped trigger it: WWI, because of the mass movement of troops that spread the disease. The U.N. reports emphasize that one GCR event can trigger other GCR events, with climate change acting as a threat multiplie 5) Ocean current changes Increased precipitation and glacial meltwater from global warming could flood the North Atlantic with enough fresh water to slow down or even halt the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), the ocean current system that transports warm, salty water from the tropics to the North Atlantic and sends cold water to the south along the ocean floor. If the AMOC were to shut down, the Gulf Stream would no longer pump warm, tropical water to the North Atlantic. Average temperatures would cool in Europe by three degrees Celsius (5.4°F) or more in just a few years – not enough to trigger a full-fledged ice age, but enough cooling to bring snows in June and killing frosts in July and August, as occurred in the famed 1816 “year without a summer” caused by the eruption of Mt. Tambora. In addition, shifts in the jet stream pattern might bring about a more La Niña-like climate, causing an increase in drought to much of the Northern Hemisphere, greatly straining global food and water supplies. A study published in August 2021 looked at eight independent measures of the AMOC, and found that all eight showed early warning signs that the ocean current system may be nearing collapse. “The AMOC may have evolved from relatively stable conditions to a point close to a critical transition,” the authors wrote. Ocean acidification process Figure 4. A pteropod shell is shown dissolving over time in seawater with a lower pH. When carbon dioxide is absorbed by the ocean from the atmosphere, the chemistry of the seawater is changed. (image credit: NOAA) 6) Ocean acidification The increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is partially absorbed by the oceans, making them more acidic. Since pre-industrial times, the pH of surface ocean waters has fallen by 0.1 pH units, to 8.1 – approximately a 30 percent increase in acidity. Increased acidity is harmful to a wide variety of marine life, and acidic oceans have been linked to several of Earth’s five major extinction events through geologic time. Under a business-as-usual emission scenario, continued emissions of carbon dioxide could make ocean pH around 7.8 by 2100. The last time the ocean pH was this low was during the middle Miocene, 14-17 million years ago. The Earth was several degrees warmer and a major extinction event was occurring. 7) A punishing surprise In 2004, Harvard climate scientists Paul Epstein and James McCarthy conclude in a paper titled “Assessing Climate Stability” that: “We are already observing signs of instability within the climate system. There is no assurance that the rate of greenhouse gas buildup will not force the system to oscillate erratically and yield significant and punishing surprises.” Hurricane Sandy of 2012 was an example of such a punishing surprise, and climate change will increasingly bring low-probability, high impact weather events – “black swan” events – that no one anticipated. As the late climate scientist Wally Broecker once said, “Climate is an angry beast, and we are poking at it with sticks.” Climate change can also be expected to reduce the likelihood of one type of global catastrophic risk event: the impacts of a massive volcanic eruption. A magnitude-seven “super-colossal” eruption with a Volcanic Explosivity Index of seven (VEI 7) occurred in 1815, when the Indonesian volcano Tambora erupted. (The Volcanic Explosivity Index is a logarithmic scale like the Richter scale used to rate earthquakes, so a magnitude 7 eruption would eject ten times more material than a magnitude 6 eruptions like that of Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines in 1991.) The sulfur pumped by Tambora’s eruption into the stratosphere dimmed sunlight so extensively that Northern Hemisphere temperatures fell by about 0.4-0.7 degree Celsius (0.7-1.0°F) for 1-2 years afterward. The result: the famed Year Without a Summer in 1816. Killing frosts and snow storms in May and June 1816 in Eastern Canada and New England caused widespread crop failures, and lake and river ice were observed as far south as Pennsylvania in July and August. Famine and food shortages rocked the world. Verosub (2011) estimated that future eruptions capable of causing “volcanic winter” effects severe enough to depress global temperatures and trigger widespread crop failures for one to two years afterwards should occur about once every 200-300 years, which translates to a 10-14% chance over a 30-year period. An eruption today like the Tambora event of 1815 would challenge global food supplies already stretched thin by rising population, decreased water availability, and conversion of cropland to grow biofuels. However, society’s vulnerability to major volcanic eruptions is less than it was, since the globe has warmed significantly in the past 200 years. The famines from the eruption of 1815 occurred during the Little Ice Age, when global temperatures were about 0.9 degree Celsius (1.6°F) cooler than today, so crop failures from a Tambora-scale eruption would be less widespread than is the case with current global temperatures. Fifty years from now, when global temperatures may be another 0.5 degree Celsius warmer, a magnitude seven eruption should be able to cool the climate only to 1980s levels. However, severe impacts to food supplies still would result, since major volcanic eruptions cause significant drought. (To illustrate, in the wake of the 1991 climate-cooling VEI 6 eruption of the Philippines’ Mt. Pinatubo, land areas of the globe in 1992 experienced their highest levels of drought for any year of the 1950-2000 period.) Unfortunately, the future risk of a volcanic global catastrophic risk event may be increasing from causes unrelated to climate change, because of the increasing amount of critical infrastructure being located next to seven known volcanic hot spots, argued Mani et al. in a 2021 paper, “Global catastrophic risk from lower magnitude volcanic eruptions.” For example, a future VEI 6 eruption of Washington’s Mount Rainier could cost more than $7 trillion over a 5-year period because of air traffic disruptions; similarly, a VEI 6 eruption of Indonesia’s Mount Merapi could cost more than $2.5 trillion. Commentary Complex systems like human cultures are resilient, but are also chaotic and unstable, and vulnerable to sudden collapse when multiple shocks occur. Jared Diamond’s provocative 2005 book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, described flourishing civilizations or cultures that eventually collapsed, like the Greenland Norse, Maya, Anasazi, and Easter Islanders. Environmental problems like deforestation, soil problems, and water availability were shown to be a key factor in many of these collapses. “One of the main lessons to be learned from the collapses of the Maya, Anasazi, Easter Islanders, and those other past societies,” Diamond wrote, “is that a society’s steep decline may begin only a decade or two after the society reaches its peak numbers, wealth, and power. … The reason is simple: maximum population, wealth, resource consumption, and waste production mean maximum environmental impact, approaching the limit where impact outstrips resources.” Some of Diamond’s conclusions, however, have been challenged by anthropologists. For example, the 2010 book, Questioning Collapse: Human Resilience, Ecological Vulnerability, and the Aftermath of Empire, argued that societies are resilient and have a long history of adapting to, and recovering from, climate change-induced collapses. But a 2021 paper by Beard et al., “Assessing Climate Change’s Contribution to Global Catastrophic Risk,” argued, pointed to “reasons to be skeptical that such resilience can be easily extrapolated into the future. First, the relatively stable context of the Holocene, with well-functioning, resilient ecosystems, has greatly assisted recovery, while anthropogenic climate change is more rapid, pervasive, global, and severe.” To paraphrase, one can think of the nine planetary boundaries as credit cards, six of those nine credit cards charged to the hilt to develop civilization as it now exists. But Mother Nature is an unforgiving lender, and there is precious little credit available to help avoid a cascade of interconnected global catastrophic risk events that might send human society into total collapse, if society unwisely continues its business-as-usual approach. Avoiding climate change-induced global catastrophic risk events is of urgent importance, and the UN report is filled with promising approaches that can help. For example, it explains how systemic risk in food systems from rainfall variability in the Middle East can be reduced using traditional and indigenous dryland management practices involving rotational grazing and access to reserves in the dry season. More generally, the encouraging clean energy revolution now under way globally needs to be accelerated. And humanity must do its utmost to pay back the loans taken from the Bank of Gaia, stop burning fossil fuels and polluting the environment, and restoring degraded ecosystems. If we do not, the planet that sustains us will no longer be able to.
Climate change due to instrialization will collapse the biosphere, no recovery
Bercker, 7-23, 22, William S. Becker is a former U.S. Department of Energy central regional director who administered energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies programs, and he also served as special assistant to the department’s assistant secretary of energy efficiency and renewable energy. Becker is also executive director of the Presidential Climate Action Project, a nonpartisan initiative founded in 2007 that works with national thought leaders to develop recommendations for the White House as well as House and Senate committees on climate and energy policies. The project is not affiliated with the White House, The Hill, Climate change: The global Jenga game, https://thehill.com/opinion/energy-environment/3571612-climate-change-the-global-jenga-game/
It has been 34 years, an entire generation, since the U.S. government’s top climate scientist warned Congress the planet was warming with potentially dire consequences. “It is already happening now,” Dr. James Hansen testified in 1988. “It is time to stop waffling.” Scientists have struggled ever since to communicate this to the public and government officials. Scientists and their translators have explained the pollution from burning fossil fuels is collecting above the Earth, where it acts like the glass in a greenhouse and holds the sun’s heat close to the planet’s surface — the “greenhouse effect.” Or they have described the gases as an invisible blanket covering the Earth and getting thicker with every ton of carbon dioxide (CO2) civilization emits. But before metaphors and analogies can explain climate change, audiences must be open to hearing about it. Unfortunately, the message is not good news. Many people with the power to do something about global warming have not listened because it’s easier to deny a harsh reality than it is to fix it. Those of us who try to break through the communications barrier about climate change get fixated on that crisis and fail to point out an even harsher reality: Climate change is only one manifestation of adverse human impacts on nature. What’s really at risk is the biosphere — the atmosphere, the hydrosphere (oceans), and the lithosphere (the Earth’s solid surface). These are where all life on the planet exists, working together like the organs in our bodies. The best metaphor for this is the popular game Jenga. Players build a tower out of blocks, then take turns removing them one at a time. The loser is the person who removes the block that topples the tower. With industrialization and population growth, civilization has been pulling blocks out of the Jenga tower for centuries, including many vital to the structure’s integrity. The disturbing reality that many people don’t want to accept, or even hear about, is that the hospitable Earth we have known for the last 10,000 to 12,000 years is on the verge of collapse. Some years ago, the Stockholm Resilience Center at Stockholm University convened 28 renowned scientists to identify the planet’s “safe operating spaces” and the boundaries humankind can’t cross without creating large-scale, abrupt, irreversible changes in the biosphere. The team came up with nine critical spaces. Only one is climate change. Others include ocean acidification, ozone depletion, land-use changes and freshwater losses. Geologists believe the human impact on the biosphere is so extensive that it has created a new era in the planet’s 4.5-billion-year history. They have proposed calling it the Anthropocene, a term signifying that humankind is now the most influential and destructive force on Earth. The evidence, which ranges from plastic pollution to the fallout of nuclear weapons testing, reads like an indictment of modern civilization because that’s what it is. Humanity is on trial, with little time left to fix things before the verdict is in and the planet imposes its most severe penalty. We must answer some questions if we are generous enough to care about the future. What happens if we remove the biodiversity block, the freshwater block or the block representing fertile soils? What if we remove the blocks representing the Earth’s carbon and water cycles or the oceans’ chemistry? For that matter, how many blocks do we dare add to the tower’s top to represent the human population’s growth? If the U.S. Congress, other world leaders and the general population had heeded Hansen’s warning about climate change 34 years ago, we could have made the necessary corrections with much less expense and disruption. Instead, the use of fossil fuels over the last three decades has made the blanket thicker, while urbanization, agriculture, deforestation and pollution have moved us closer to the planet’s boundaries. The Jenga tower is teetering while we blithely remove its blocks. Its loss of stability is too gradual to shock us awake. But all life will suffer when it collapses. Here the Jenga analogy falls apart because, unlike the game, we will not be able to rebuild the structure and start over. This is not a message that political leaders, policymakers or friends and neighbors want to hear. It’s the ultimate inconvenient truth. And yet, pulling civilization back from collapse would be the present generation’s most precious gift to our progeny, the biosphere and the incredibly beautiful web of life.
Tech won’t solve climate change
Poast, 7-29, 22, World Politics Review, Climate Diplomacy Might Be a Dead End, https://www.worldpoliticsreview.com/global-diplomacy-cant-tackle-mitigation-climate-change/?utm_source=Active+Subscribers&utm_campaign=2b470a4505-081922-insight-subs&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_35c49cbd51-2b470a4505-64365485&mc_cid=2b470a4505&mc_eid=c25e092f7c
As for new technologies, even if they could eliminate greenhouse gas emissions, it might not be enough. Consider, for instance, that we already have such a technology: nuclear energy. But rather than embrace it, most states are moving in the opposite direction. For example, in response to the current energy crisis due to the fallout from war in Ukraine, Germany is reconstituting coal-fired power plants, rather than bringing nuclear power plants back online. While many nations use nuclear power for part of their energy mix—France depends on it to generate most of its electricity—only 10 percent of global energy is produced from nuclear power. To be sure, nuclear power is not cheap. But it is within reach for many of the industrialized nations that also produce the most greenhouse gases. But stigma against its use—notably due to fears of reactor meltdowns like those at Three Mile Island in 1979, Chernobyl in 1986 and Fukushima in 2011—feed into popular aversion to such facilities, even as coal-powered plants continue to operate in close proximity to residential areas.
As with nuclear power, there’s no reason to believe that any other technological solution will come free from trade-offs. So while technological innovation will surely be part of the solution to climate change, it will not be the whole solution. Humanity can’t simply “tech its way” out of the problem. Instead, a sustainable and more realistic solution will require global cooperation. But that is difficult to achieve even under the best of circumstances. And unfortunately, cooperation on climate change does not face the best of circumstances.
Only socialism can prevent ecological overshoot; reform fails, only a complete overthrow of the capitalist system solves, and only socialism can solve for the impacts of the environmental crisis it is too late to stop
John Bellamy Foster and Brett Clark, July 1, 2022, Socialism and Ecological Survival: An Introduction, https://monthlyreview.org/2022/07/01/socialism-and-ecological-survival-an-introduction/
Capitalism has brought the world to the edge of the abyss. We are rapidly approaching a planetary tipping point in the form of a climate Armageddon, threatening to make the earth unlivable for the human species, as well as innumerable other species. Such an absolute catastrophe for civilization and the human species as a whole is still avoidable with a revolutionary-scale reconstitution of the current system of production, consumption, and energy usage, though the time in which to act is rapidly running out.2
Nevertheless, while it is still possible to avoid irreversible climate change through a massive transformation in the mode of production, it is no longer feasible to circumvent accelerating environmental disasters in the present century on a scale never seen before in human history, endangering the lives and living conditions of billions of people. Humanity, therefore, is facing issues of ecological survival on two levels: (1) a still reversible but rapidly worsening Earth System crisis, threatening to undermine civilization as a whole and make the planet uninhabitable for the human species, and (2) accelerating extreme weather and other ecological disasters associated with climate change that are now unavoidable in the coming decades, affecting localities and regions throughout the globe. Social mobilization and radical social change are required if devastating near-term costs to people and communities, falling especially on the most vulnerable, are to be prevented.
Six decades after the threat of accelerated global warming was first raised by scientists, the situation has only gotten worse. In August 2021, UN secretary general António Guterres declared that it is “Code Red for Humanity.”3 His warning coincided with the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) release of the Physical Science Basis report of Working Group I of its Sixth Assessment Report (AR6). In this report, five primary scenarios were provided with respect to climate mitigation. Among the most significant findings was that even in the best-case scenario (SSP1-1.9), requiring at this point nothing less than a rapidly escalating transformation of the entire global system of production and consumption, the world will surpass a 1.5°C increase in global average temperature after 2040, and will not get below that temperature again until the very end of this century.4
The second scenario (SSP1-2.6) points to an increase in global average temperature at the end of the century of 1.8°C (still well below the guardrail of 2°C). The threat of irreversible planetary catastrophe is represented by the next three IPCC scenarios. The fifth scenario (SSP5-8.5) points to an increase in the global average temperature of 4.4°C (best estimate)—spelling the collapse of civilization and absolute disaster for the human species. To avoid such a prospect, given the direction in which the world is now headed, it is necessary to reverse “business as usual,” transcending the prevailing logic of an “unsustainable” capitalist system.5
At the same time, the IPCC report makes it clear that it is no longer conceivable to prevent accelerating climate disasters this century, even in the best-case scenario, in which an irrevocable planetary tipping point would be avoided. The decades immediately ahead will therefore see the proliferation of extreme weather events that will compound one another: heavy precipitation, megastorms, floods, heatwaves, droughts, wildfires, and failing monsoons. Sea-level rise will continue throughout this century and beyond, regardless of the actions taken by humanity—though the rate of sea-level rise can still be affected by the world’s actions. Massive global crop failures are to be expected.6 Climate refugees will be in the hundreds of millions.7 All of this is further complicated by the fact that climate change is not the only planetary boundary that capitalism is currently crossing or threatening to transgress. Others include: the loss of biological diversity (marking the sixth extinction), ocean acidification, disruption of the nitrogen and phosphorus cycles, loss of ground cover (including forests), loss of freshwater resources, chemical pollution, and radioactive contamination.8
Up to now, the ecological, including ecosocialist, strategy with respect to climate change has focused almost entirely on mitigation, aimed at stopping greenhouse gas emissions, particularly carbon emissions, before it is too late. Yet, this general approach has all too often been rooted in a type of reformist environmentalism that does not seriously challenge the parameters of the present system, allowing the ecological crisis to deepen and expand. Mitigation—but today necessarily of a far more revolutionary character—still has to play the leading role in any global climate strategy, since it is essential for the continuation of civilization and survival of the human species (and most of the known species on Earth). However, it is now also necessary, given the inevitable degradation of the earth this century, to mobilize immediately for survival at the level of communities, regions, nations, and whole peoples. The harsh reality is that during the next few decades, which according to even the IPCC’s most optimistic scenario will involve breaching the 1.5°C threshold—at least for a time—humanity will inevitably see the proliferation of environmental catastrophes at all levels and throughout the planet. This requires that populations organize, plan, and create spaces of ecological sustainability and substantive equality designed to protect what Karl Marx called “the chain of human generations.”9
Self-mobilization of populations in order to protect lives, communities, and local and national environments, while carrying out revolutionary changes at all levels of existence as part of completely reorganizing production, consumption, and energy usage, now constitutes the pathway to ecological survival. Yet, this new strategic moment, in which mitigation has to be accompanied by environmental disaster management aimed at protecting populations in the community in the present as well as future, has not yet been fully mapped. A broad revolutionary ecological and socialist strategy has to be articulated that transcends the dominant liberal refrains of individual “adaptation” and “resilience,” which largely deny the realities of class, race, gender, and imperialism—along with the metabolic rift between capitalism and the environment.10
The only meaningful, radical approach to these unprecedented challenges and multiple levels of catastrophe is that of socialism as a pathway to ecological survival. It is now widely understood within natural science that the Holocene Epoch in the geological history of the earth of the last twelve millennia has ended and that the planet entered into the Anthropocene Epoch around 1950.11 The Anthropocene Epoch is defined as the geological epoch in which anthropogenic, rather than non-anthropogenic factors (as in the entire prior history of the earth), now largely determine the rate of Earth System change. In what might be called the Capitalinian Age, the first geological age of the Anthropocene, the world is characterized by an Anthropocene crisis associated with “anthropogenic rifts” in the biogeochemical cycles of the planet, brought on by the Great Acceleration of the human impact on the planet under mature monopoly capitalism.12 What is needed in these circumstances is the creation of a novel mode of production ushering in a new geological age of the Anthropocene (since the Anthropocene itself is now a permanent feature of geological history, as long as human civilization continues).
In a previous analysis, we dubbed this potential future geological age of the Anthropocene the Communian Age, standing for community, communal, and the commons. The advent of the Communian Age would mark the historical development of a new, higher, more sustainable human relation to the earth, one which could only come about through ecological, collective, and socialist action. This transition to the second age of the Anthropocene, transcending the present Capitalinian, must begin as soon as possible to protect lives, coordinate environmental disaster management strategies, and undercut the momentum associated with the accelerating trends of ecological disaster.13 Such revolutionary, socialist transformations constitute the necessary foundation for survival, moving forward in this century.
The Great Acceleration and the Great Ecological Revolt
The advent of the Anthropocene Epoch is associated in natural science with the Great Acceleration of economic impacts, energy use, and pollution, marking the changed physical relation to the environment arising from anthropogenic factors. However, the Great Acceleration and the advent of the Anthropocene also corresponded to the emergence of the modern environmental movement in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, which might be seen as signifying the beginnings of a Great Ecological Revolt, still emerging on a planetary level in the present century.14
Modern environmentalism, or the ecological revolt of the post-Second World War years, is usually said to have begun in 1962 with the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. It is more accurate, however, to see its point of origin in the response to the disastrous U.S. thermonuclear test carried out under the code name “Castle Bravo” at Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands on March 1, 1954. The Castle Bravo hydrogen bomb test was intended to have a yield of no more than six megatons, but, due to an error of the scientists involved, it had an explosive power of fifteen megatons, about two and a half times what was expected and a thousand times that of the atomic bombs that the United States dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The detonation resulted in ten million metric tons of coral being radiated and absorbed into the fiery mushroom cloud that climbed over 100,000 feet into the air and spanned over seventy-five miles.15
The Castle Bravo test released an enormous, unexpected level of radiation, with the fallout extending over 11,000 square kilometers. Traces of radioactive materials, which had entered the atmosphere and stratosphere, were detected all over the globe. Marshall Islanders on the inhabited atolls were covered with a fine, white-powdered substance (calcium precipitated from the vaporized coral) containing radioactive fallout. Decades after the Castle Bravo test, most of the children and many adults on Rongelap Island had developed thyroid nodules, some of which proved malignant. The crew of a Japanese fishing boat, the Lucky Dragon, which at the time of the test was some eighty-two nautical miles from Bikini, well outside the official danger zone, were coated in radioactive fallout. By the time the boat reached Japan, members of the crew were already exhibiting radiation sickness, setting off a world alarm.16
The Dwight Eisenhower administration refused to release information on the effects of radioactive fallout and exposure in the face of the Castle Bravo disaster, downplaying the issue for almost a year. However, the veil that hid the fallout problem fell. Alarmed scientists immediately began to research the effects of radioactive fallout and how it was distributed by air, water, and living organisms throughout the global ecosystem. This work revealed how the operations of the Earth System resulted in fallout being concentrated in the Arctic, despite this region being far removed from where nuclear testing was taking place. It documented how iodine-131 adversely affected the thyroid gland. It detailed how plants and lichen absorbed strontium-90, which then moved throughout the food web, where this radioactive isotope was incorporated into bones and teeth, increasing cancer risks. These studies raised fears of a planetary ecological crisis, whereby the world’s population would share a common environmental fate from the spread of radiation, threatening survival everywhere, as dramatized in fictional form in Nevil Shute’s 1957 dystopian nuclear holocaust novel On the Beach.
All of this was to contribute to the inception of the Great Ecological Revolt or worldwide development of environmental movements. Disturbed by the spread of radionuclides in the biosphere, scientists began protesting against above-ground nuclear tests, led by such left/socialist figures as J. D. Bernal, Virginia Brodine, Barry Commoner, W. E. B. Du Bois, Albert Einstein, H. J. Muller, Linus Pauling, and Bertrand Russell.17 Reflecting on these issues, Leo Huberman, the editor of Monthly Review, remarked in 1957 that “time is running out.… The tests [of these bombs] are dangerous to the health of the world. We must make the movement to ban the bomb encompass not just the Left who are already aware of the dangers, but all of our countrymen.”18
Commoner, a biologist and a pioneer in ecological thought, helped organize in 1958 the St. Louis Citizen’s Committee for Nuclear Information (later the Committee for Environmental Information) that brought scientists and citizens together to share accurate information regarding nuclear issues and concerns, including the dangers of exposure to radioactive fallout. This group famously initiated the baby tooth study in 1958, which involved coordinating with community organizations to recruit participants to collect teeth from young residents in the region to examine the absorption and prevalence of strontium-90. By 1970, approximately 300,000 teeth had been analyzed, revealing that the presence of strontium-90 in teeth rose in direct correspondence to an increase in atmospheric bomb tests, only to decline following the end of such above-ground tests. Given the rich findings, similar studies were done in other parts of the United States, Canada, and Germany, further documenting how radioactive isotopes were readily incorporated into specific parts of the body, contributing to an increase in childhood cancer.
Carson herself entered into this ecological movement initially through her concern over bioaccumulation (concentration of contaminants like radionuclides and other toxins within organisms) and biomagnification (the magnified concentration of contaminants at higher levels within the food chain). She offered an extensive analysis of the dangers that accompanied the widespread use of synthetic pesticides, explaining that the “chemical war,” poisoning, and ecological degradation were driven by “the gods of profit and production.”19
In the context of the Great Ecological Revolt, both before and after the publication of Carson’s Silent Spring, socialist environmentalists were generally distinguished by their more thoroughgoing critiques and far-reaching analyses of the fundamental threat that the capital accumulation system posed to the global environment, and by their insistence on the need for the formation of a revolutionary ecological movement for human survival.20 Three classic works in this respect are Commoner’s Science and Survival (1963); Charles H. Anderson’s The Sociology of Survival: Social Problems of Growth (1976); and Rudolf Bahro’s Socialism and Survival: Articles, Essays, and Talks 1979–1982 (1982).21 Commoner’s and Anderson’s books both addressed the multiple critical ecological thresholds, such as climate change, that were being crossed as a result of the profit-driven production system.22 The red-green theorist Bahro, building on the analysis of British Marxist historian E. P. Thompson, insisted in “Who Can Stop the Apocalypse?” that capitalism was leading to “exterminism,” or the systematic death of multitudes. He called for the mobilization of a massive, global ecological “conversion movement” aimed at transcending the system of capital accumulation.23
As Commoner, Anderson, and Bahro all emphasized, there were two existential crisis tendencies facing humanity—a reality that remains true today. One is associated with the nuclear arms race and the threat of a global thermonuclear exchange, ushering in nuclear winter.24 The other is the crossing of planetary boundaries, constituting a direct threat to ecological existence, due to the inherent drive of the system of capital accumulation in the Anthropocene. Six decades after the danger of accelerated global warming was first raised by scientists in the Soviet Union and the United States, the situation has only gotten progressively worse and more threatening, marking the complete failure of the capitalist environmental state in checking fossil capital.25 The only answer is to build a strong socialist and ecological, or ecosocialist, movement locally and globally, that ensures the survival of populations and communities in the present while safeguarding the future of humanity and the earth.
Ecosurvival and Ecosocialism
Born in 1917, Commoner was a child of the Great Depression and of the socialist and communist movements of the time. He was strongly influenced by the mass movements supporting the Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War and by protests against lynchings in the U.S. South. Drawn early on to socialist, dialectical-materialist approaches to science, he was a close reader of Frederick Engels’s Anti-Dühring and the Dialectics of Nature. He was to be a lifelong ecosocialist. He once declared, ironically, that “the Atomic Energy Commission made me an environmentalist.”26 In “To Survive on the Earth,” the closing chapter of Science and Survival, Commoner warned:
As a biologist, I have reached this conclusion: we have come to a turning point in the human habitation of the earth. The environment is a complex, subtly balanced system, and it is this integrated whole which receives the impact of all the separate insults inflicted by pollutants. Never before in the history of this planet has its thin life-supporting surface been subjected to such diverse, novel, and potent agents. I believe that the cumulative effect of these pollutants, their interactions and amplification, can be fatal to the complex fabric of the biosphere. And, because man is, after all, a dependent part of this system, I believe that continued pollution of the earth, if unchecked, will eventually destroy the fitness of this planet as a place for human life.… I believe that world-wide radioactive contamination, epidemics, ecological disasters, and possibly climatic changes would so gravely affect the stability of the biosphere as to threaten human survival everywhere on the earth.27
Commoner was deeply concerned with “the assault on the biosphere.” Already in Science and Survival, he presented the basic nuclear winter hypothesis in which a general thermonuclear exchange would result, due to the lofting of smoke and soot into the stratosphere, in a drastic reduction in global average temperatures imperiling all of humanity.28 In the same work, he pointed to climate change, warning of the effects of accelerated carbon dioxide accumulation in the atmosphere, the consequences of this on the biosphere, and the “catastrophic floods” arising from sea-level rise. “Control of this danger,” that is, global warming, he observed in the mid–1960s, “would require the modification, throughout the world, of domestic furnaces and industrial combustion plants.… Solar power, and other techniques for the production of electrical power which do not require either combustion or nuclear reactors, may be the best solution. But here…massive technological changes will be needed in all industrial nations.” Nevertheless, technology itself was not the answer. As Commoner went on to state, “technology has not only built the magnificent material base of modern society, but also confronts us with threats to survival which cannot be corrected unless we solve very great economic, social, and political problems.… Science can reveal the depth of this [ecological] crisis, but only social action can resolve it.”29
In 1971, in the chapter on “The Question of Survival” in The Closing Circle, Commoner made a similar declaration, writing:
My own judgement, based on the evidence now at hand, is that the present course of environmental degradation, at least in industrialized countries, represents a challenge to essential ecological systems that is so serious that, if continued, it will destroy the capability of the environment to support a reasonably civilized human society.… One can try to guess at the point of no return—the time at which major ecological degradation might become irreparable.… It is now widely recognized, I believe, that we are already suffering too much from the effects of the environmental crisis, that with each passing year it becomes more difficult to reverse, and that the issue is not how far we can go to the brink of catastrophe, but how to act—now.30
For Commoner, the ultimate problem was the mode of production itself. As he stated in the introduction to the 1992 edition of Making Peace with the Planet, “If the environment is polluted and the economy is sick, the virus that causes both will be found in the system of production.”31
Anderson, who was deeply influenced by Commoner’s work, was a Marxian sociologist and political economist, author of The Political Economy of Social Class (1974). In the mid–1970s, he developed a powerful ecosocialist degrowth analysis, focusing on the planetary environmental crisis and issues of human ecological survival. His major work, The Sociology of Survival, argued that the alienated capitalist growth economy was destroying the environmental conditions of human existence. “The stakes involved in this crisis of survival,” he wrote, “are in the extreme sense nothing less than the physical continuation of human beings on the planet.”32
Operating in the tradition of Paul A. Baran and Paul M. Sweezy’s Monopoly Capital, Anderson saw capitalism in its mature state as prone to economic stagnation, manifested in a tendency toward slower growth and higher levels of unemployment/underemployment and excess capacity. But stagnation (what Herman Daly was to call a “failed growth system”) in many ways only served to intensify the system’s thrust against the environment, since a “stagnating capitalism is a doomed system and everything must be directed toward restoring growth, including industrial and technological innovation and change, regardless of need or impact.” Hence, a capitalism, prone to stagnation, becomes more intensively destructive of “earthly life,” relative to the level of output.33 This has been partially confirmed by research on the effects of economic slowdowns on carbon emissions. Thus, empirical studies have shown that, as the capitalist economy declines in terms of overall output in recessions, carbon emissions do not decrease proportionately, but rather increase in intensity.34
Focusing on the core ecological problem posed by the exponential accumulation of capital, Anderson argued: “With ever increasing speed and force, humanity presses forward upon the unknown limits of its own life-support systems. The breaking point, or a point of irreversible ‘no return,’ approaches in such major life-giving systems as the atmosphere, hydrology, nitrogen cycles, and photosynthesis. It is the nature of living systems to have threshold levels, meaning that things may appear to be going quite all right until virtually all of a sudden the system is in a state of irreversible decline.”35
An important part of Anderson’s argument was the danger to human survival represented by climate change, in which he argued that “a mere two degrees centigrade increase” in average global temperature due to the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere “could destabilize or melt the polar ice caps, raising the ocean 50 meters and flooding coastal populations and agricultural areas.”36 He insisted that in the rapacious capitalist growth economy “nothing grows faster in the growth of society than energy consumption”—a view that continues to be borne out in the twenty-first century, with the U.S. Energy Information Administration projecting in 2021 that world energy consumption will rise by 50 percent from 2020 to 2050, despite the urgent need to reach zero net carbon emissions by 2050.37
A crucial aspect of Anderson’s argument was his emphasis on “environmental debt.”38 Inherently unable to adopt a sustainable approach to nature, requiring relations of ecological reciprocity incompatible with its economic expropriation of the planet, capitalism was in effect drawing down the resources of the earth needed for human survival. As he cogently explained, referring to what is now known as Marx’s theory of metabolic rift: “Modern agriculture, charged Marx, is as guilty of soil exploitation as it is of labor exploitation; the capitalist extracts a fictitious surplus from the soil by taking more wealth out than he restores. Thus, just as workers produce more value than they are paid in return, and thus perform unpaid labor, so has nature been forced to yield up its capital stock at a rate far in excess of actual or restorative costs. The unpaid costs to the environment underlie the ecological challenge to survival.”39
For Anderson, the extraction and depletion of resources was even more evident in the underdeveloped nations of the third world or Global South, given imperialistic relations. Resources in the periphery of the capitalist world system were expropriated without any concern for restoration or reciprocity, at the same time that the economic surplus generated in those countries was siphoned off by the rich countries in the capitalist core. In the case of poor, underdeveloped countries, therefore, growth remained necessary, but it was also crucial to implement a more “balanced growth” in the periphery and internationally, organized on a socialist, equitable, and sustainable basis aimed at addressing real needs. Here, growth is related to advancing human social development, establishing social relations with nature that mend ecological rifts, and preventing further “environmental debts.”40 Such a transformation necessitated strongly confronting capital.
Monopoly capitalism, for Anderson, was a system of economic and ecological waste in both production and consumption. It included a massive sales effort, which penetrated into the production process, high levels of military spending, and financial speculation—all of which reinforced its unsustainable tendencies and intensified its wasteful operations. Science and technology themselves took alienated forms. This generated “an openly exploitative and destructive science and technology geared toward the maximization of surplus wealth and the minimization of immediate financial cost.”41 The result was an anti-ecological system, which became more unecological the further accumulation proceeded. Growth beyond a certain “point, particularly artificially forced growth, may be seen to reverse previous progress, destroying the foundation upon which a socialist society and culture could be constructed.” Nevertheless, there was no possibility of a shift away from growth/accumulation by capitalism itself, since to “give up growth” would be to “give up everything that really matters to the capitalist class qua class.”42
The critique of unlimited capitalist economic growth, for Anderson, did not mean that “social growth” or human development could not continue. “Growth becomes what it must become: social growth.… True socialism provides the conditions for growth in knowledge, art and literature, music, science and technology, ties with nature, sociality, individuality, bodily activity and spiritual appreciation—available for all and pursued with everyone’s well-being and personal dignity in mind.”43
“Socialism and survival,” in Anderson’s view, were “in effect, synonymous.” But survival was not simply about preserving human existence; it was also about the quality of that existence, and for this too socialism was required. Such a view stressed not only the “danger inherent in existing economic, technological, environmental, resource, population, and agricultural conditions…but also…the kind of social reconstruction” crucial to overcoming capitalism’s existential ecological crisis. Ecological survival means a thoroughgoing transformation of the mode of production. “The manner in which people organize their materially productive activities,” in other words, their metabolic relations with nature, he explained, constitutes “the crucial linkage between the social quality of life people experience and the reproductive viability of the physical life-support system.” Above all, this requires the “liberation of time,” both work time and leisure time, so they promote human development and sustainability, and neither are aimed at profits. The breakdown of the “work-leisure dichotomy” is essential since it is “the heart of the growth system.”44
A socialist dissident from East Germany who became a leader of the red-green movement within West Germany, Bahro articulated in his Socialism and Survival a sense of real urgency associated with the need to stop the planetary devastation and deepening social contradictions brought on by the “so far unstoppable process of capital accumulation.”45 Capitalism, he contended, raises the question of survival, which only an ecological, socialist, peace movement, involving a new material and spiritual relation to the earth, can solve.46
For Bahro, following Thompson’s earlier analysis, exterminism meant the destruction of industrial civilization along with human multitudes. “To express the extermination thesis in Marxian terms,” he wrote: vone could say that the relationship between productive and destructive forces is turned upside down. Like others who looked at civilisation as a whole, Marx had seen the trail of blood running through it, and that “civilisation leaves deserts behind it.” In ancient Mesopotamia it took 1500 years for the land to grow salty, and this was only noticed at a very late stage, because the process was slow. Ever since we began carrying on a productive material exchange with nature, there has been this destructive side. And today we are forced to think apocalyptically, not because of culture-pessimism, but because this destructive side is gaining the upper hand.47
Capitalism, precisely because its motor and purpose are found in the process of endless, exponentially increasing capital accumulation, can only proceed down the exterminist path. Hence, there is “no Archimedean point [no place to stand with which to move the world] within existing institutions which could be used to bring about even the smallest change of course.” Turning to G. W. F. Hegel, Bahro explained that the prevailing “economic principle of surplus-value production” means that social advance is defined in the narrowest of quantitative criteria associated with the gains of capital. Significantly, “Hegel used to speak in such cases of a ‘bad infinity,’ by which he meant a process which involved no more than adding 1 to 1, and did not lead in its own context to a decisive qualitative leap. This kind of progress must cease for the share of the earth’s crust that can be ground up in the industrial metabolism is limited, despite all possible and senseless expansion, if the planet is to remain habitable.”48
For Bahro, “the enormous ecological destabilisation” in the Global South “is primarily a symptom of western structural penetration into ‘indigenous’ social and natural conditions.”49 The result of this global capitalist exterminist expansion is “a crisis of human civilisation in general. There has never been anything comparable in the whole past history of our species on the earth.” In fact, “exterminism is expressed in the destruction of the natural basis of our existence as a species.”50 The control exerted by the system over the working class is a product of capitalism’s ability constantly to create an internal dependence of workers on the system, which the combined ecological and economic crisis is now weakening. But the movement of resistance that is needed has to be organized primarily through the merger of the ecological and peace movements and their relation to the working class, rather than on traditional productivist grounds. Ecology, given the scope and depth of the planetary crisis and the undermining of the conditions of life, becomes the common material ground “affecting more people in their existential interests than in any other contradiction.”51
To advance on a path of sustainability and survival therefore would mean a revolutionary break with the logic and institutions of capitalism, out of which the ecosocialist transition was to emerge. Capitalism, in Bahro’s view, was not all inclusive, in the sense that it is often depicted in contemporary ideology as constituting the entirety of the present-day world. It continued to have an external area, which, as in the conception of Arnold Toynbee, gave rise to an “external proletariat” occupying the periphery and precarious parts of the capitalist world. This existed alongside the “internal proletariat” of the advanced capitalist world, which, by definition, was never fully incorporated within the system.52
“The oldest stratum of civilisation involved in the present crisis,” Bahro argued, following Engels, “is that of patriarchy, with ten millennia behind it.”53 Many of the distinctive tendencies of contemporary civilization, including forms of oppression, thus run deeper than present-day capitalism. There were cultural and spiritual resources that were resistant to capitalist exterminism. All of this created the potential that “the capitalist industrial system” could be “driven back and destroyed by an unstoppable manifold movement of humanity,” defined in ecological and socially reproductive more than “purely economic terms.”54
A central reality of capitalism, in this view, was the inability of the capitalist state itself to change course or to reverse the ecological devastation generated through its own operations. The capitalist state governed by industrial and financial interests, Bahro wrote, “is obviously so very much wedded to exterminism that it doesn’t permit itself to be used as an emergency brake.… No government which could be constituted on the present ‘place’ of the state [within the existing socioeconomic order] could be anything but a bad emergency government.”55 The essence of the problem was the juggernaut of capital itself, which the capitalist state only sought to accelerate, never to apply the brakes, heading therefore toward a collision with the earth. This, he said, would especially impact “the marginalised and excluded, those with their backs to the wall, [who] now [however] have an unbeatable ally in this very wall that they have their backs against. This wall is formed by the limits of the earth itself, against which we really shall be crushed to death if we do not manage to brake and bring to a halt the Great Machine that we have created before this finally bumps against it.” The answer clearly could not be seen as lying in a capitalist “emergency state,” which would only make things worse for the vast majority, and for the earth itself, but in a revolutionary “salvation government” in which the material struggle for survival coupled with the struggle for human liberation—the end of alienation and the focus on essential human needs—would generate a new emergent reality.56
However, this revolutionary ecological critique offered by socialist ecologists, premised on the rejection of capitalism’s relentless destruction of humanity and the earth, and therefore on the linking of the struggle for survival to the struggle for human freedom, did not come to dominate the environmental movement—even though it played a critical role in the ecological struggles of the time. The environmental movement, and even much of ecosocialist thought, in the tamer periods that followed the initial revolt, gravitated toward a radical reformism, in which the full urgency of the struggle for survival was forgotten, despite the rapidly accelerating planetary ecological crisis. A stage of environmental denialism—not of the whole environmental problem but of its worst threats and their inherent relation to capitalism—set in on the left. Hence, the understanding of the existential crisis stemming from the ecological deficits of capitalism that thinkers such as Commoner, Anderson, and Bahro raised—not apocalyptically, but in terms of an ecosocialism of survival demanding revolutionary social change—is now needed more than ever.
Existential Crisis Now!
The IPCC reports, representing the world scientific consensus with respect to climate change, serve to illuminate how the imperatives of capitalism are pushing the world into the inferno looming before us. The more optimistic IPCC scenarios, those resulting in a growth of global average temperature this century of well below 2°C, point to the actions necessary to reach net zero carbon emissions (as well as reducing other greenhouse gas emissions), thus avoiding irrevocable climate change. The remaining scenarios, representing the continuation of “business as usual,” depict how the ongoing accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere will drive an increase in the average global temperature, resulting in abrupt changes in the Earth System that undermine the conditions of life for humanity and other species. Unfortunately, the capitalist “business-as-usual” trends persist, pointing to hellish consequences. Thus, with each new IPCC report, the situation is ever more dire, and the possibility of pulling away from disaster requires ever more revolutionary change, given both the increasing physical scale of the problem and the diminishing time scale. This represents the existential crisis that now lies before the entire world.
In the best-case scenario (SSP1-1.9) provided by the Physical Science Basis assessment in part 1 of AR6, written by Working Group I, global average temperature, as we have seen, is expected to surpass a 1.5°C increase above pre-industrial levels after 2040, rising to 1.6°C, and not declining below the 1.5°C threshold again (returning to 1.4°C) until the end of the century. But in order for this scenario to hold, global carbon emissions must peak within a few years, with net zero emissions achieved by 2050. Still, even in this scenario—the most optimistic one now provided by the IPCC—the world will continue to experience the propagation of extreme weather events, heavy precipitation, flooding, drought, heatwaves, wildfires, glacial melting, and sea-level rise, which will affect every region of the earth, while threatening billions of people.57
The IPCC’s Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability assessment, written by Working Group II of AR6, released in February 2022, documents the observed consequences of climate change so far, detailing the vulnerabilities and projected risks in the coming decades. The “Summary for Policymakers” of Working Group II highlights the range of changes in the Earth System, which have already increased the risks that much of humanity experiences and which are decreasing the quality of existence in general. Among the “observed impacts,” it is emphasized that “human-induced climate change, including more frequent and intense extreme events, has caused widespread adverse impacts and related losses and damages to nature and people, beyond natural climate variability.… Across sectors and regions, the most vulnerable people and systems are observed to be disproportionately affected. The rise in weather and climate extremes has led to some irreversible impacts as natural and human systems are pushed beyond their ability to adapt.”58
Heat- and drought-related conditions have increased tree mortality and wildfires. The warming of the ocean has resulted in “coral bleaching and mortality” and the “loss of kelp forests.” Half of the species considered are already migrating toward the poles or moving to higher elevations. Climate change is also increasing irreversible conditions such as species extinctions. In comparison to previous estimates in prior assessments, “the extent and magnitude of climate change impacts are [now] larger.”59
Climate change is negatively affecting both the physical and mental health of people. For example, “extreme heat events have resulted in human mortality and morbidity”; “the occurrence of climate-related food-borne and water-borne diseases has increased”; “the incidence of vector-borne diseases has increased from range expansion and/or increased reproduction of disease vectors”; and “animal and human diseases, including zoonoses, are emerging in new areas.” Populations around the world are experiencing greater trauma from extreme weather events. They are also contending with “climate-sensitive cardiovascular and respiratory distress” due to “increased exposure to wildfire smoke, atmospheric dust, and aeroallergens.” Heatwaves are amplifying air pollution events. Climate change and extreme weather events are reducing “food and water security.” It is estimated that up to 3.6 billion people currently reside in places “that are highly vulnerable to climate change,” which is contributing to the overall humanitarian crisis.60
The “Summary for Policymakers” report of Working Group II of AR6 is clear that the current socioeconomic system that organizes production and consumption is unsustainable, “increasing exposure of ecosystems and people to climate hazards.” In fact, “unsustainable land-use and land cover change, unsustainable use of natural resources, deforestation, loss of biodiversity, pollution, and their interactions, adversely affect the capacities of ecosystems, societies, communities and individuals to adapt to climate change.” Short-term interests, focused on increasing profits, drive poor management of resources, habitat fragmentation, pollution of ecosystems, and overall ecological degradation.61
Between now and 2040, it is absolutely necessary to keep warming below the 1.5°C threshold (or at the very worst well below 2°C), otherwise the climate-related “losses and damages” to both ecosystems and society will dramatically multiply. Surpassing this threshold will result in extreme and high risks associated with biodiversity loss, a dramatic decline in snowmelt water availability for irrigating crops, a severe reduction in above-ground and groundwater availability, declining health of soils, widespread food insecurity, flooding of “low-lying cities and settlements,” accelerated proliferation of disease risks, even more intense and frequent weather events, and extensive heatwave conditions. “Many natural systems are near the hard limits of their natural adaptation capacity,” whereby additional warming will result in irreversible changes that undermine essential ecosystem services that support life. The overall damages, threats, and problems “will continue to escalate with every increment of global warming.” It will only become more and more difficult to intervene and manage the compounding risks that will cascade throughout the world, depending on the magnitude of the overshoot.62
Hence, the “Summary for Policymakers” of Working Group II in AR6 focusing on Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability concludes that “there is a rapidly narrowing window of opportunity” to forge a radically different future. It warns that
It is unequivocal that climate change has already disrupted human and natural systems. Past and current development trends…have not advanced global climate resilient development.… Societal choices and actions implemented in the next decade determine the extent to which medium- and long-term pathways will deliver higher or lower climate resilient development.… Importantly climate resilient development prospects are increasingly limited if current greenhouse gas emissions do not rapidly decline, especially if 1.5°C global warming is exceeded in the near term.63
The leaked scientific-consensus draft of the “Summary for Policymakers” by Working Group II of AR6, received by the French news agency Agence-France Presse in June 2021, included the following statement: “We need transformational change operating on processes and behaviours at all levels: individual, communities, business, institutions and governments. We must redefine our way of life and consumption.” This transformation requires coordinated action, massive public mobilization, political leadership and commitment, and urgent decision-making to change the global economy and support an effective and accelerated mitigation-adaptation strategy.64 Unfortunately, such action has been consistently thwarted by capital and global political leaders, who managed to remove the statement from the final published Working Group II report, where it is nowhere to be found.
In May 2022, the carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere measured 421.37 parts per million, marking a new high. Peter Tans, a climate scientist at the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, explained that in “this last decade, the rate of increase has never been higher, and we are still on the same path. So we are going in the wrong direction at maximum speed.”65 As climate breakdown accelerates, the conditions of life are rapidly deteriorating, creating numerous health problems, some of which manifest as corporeal rifts, undermining bodily existence.66
Corporeal challenges, which could be viewed as indications of a corporeal rift in which climate change disrupts human bodily functions, have received additional attention given the brutal heatwaves and record-breaking temperatures in India and Pakistan in spring 2022. On May 1, the temperature in Nawabshah, Pakistan, was 49.5°C (120.2°F). What made this heatwave, along the coasts and the Indus River Valley in these countries, particularly unbearable was that it was accompanied by high levels of humidity.67 Together, these can create dangerous levels of heat stress, which can result in death. This issue is particularly important to consider in regard to global warming, as climate change increases heat and the amount of water vapor in the atmosphere. Furthermore, warmer air holds more moisture, making humidity worse. Heat and humidity are additive, generating conditions in the form of wet-bulb temperatures (combining both normal, dry-bulb temperature and humidity) that exceed the capacity of people to survive. One of the important issues, under such conditions, is that nighttime temperatures are also high, making it difficult or impossible for the body to recover partially overnight—worsening the situation. This is part of the reason that, as heatwaves progress, it becomes increasingly difficult for people to function physically.
In the article “The Emergence of Heat and Humidity Too Severe for Human Tolerance,” published in Science Advances, Colin Raymond, Tom Matthews, and Radley M. Horton explain that what are called dry-bulb temperatures, measurements obtained from an ordinary thermometer, are not adequate in ascertaining the dangers to human health associated with heat stress.68 Instead, it is necessary to measure the wet-bulb temperature—heat and humidity. This is obtained by placing a wet cloth on the thermometer and blowing air on it. Human beings cool themselves or shed their metabolic heat at high temperatures via sweat-based latent cooling. But once the wet-bulb temperature reaches 35°C (or 95°F), this cooling mechanism ceases to be effective. Under such conditions, human beings are not able to cool themselves by sweating, even if they are in the shade, wearing little clothing, and drinking plenty of water. When outside and exposed to such wet-bulb temperatures for six hours, even young, healthy individuals will perish from this heat stress. In humid regions, and for populations whose physical conditions are less than optimal, it is possible for lives to be threatened even with lower wet-bulb temperatures, between 26°C and 32°C, as was the case in the heatwaves that hit Europe in 2003 and Russia in 2010, killing thousands of people, especially the elderly and other vulnerable populations.69
Raymond and his colleagues stress that “extreme heat remains one of the most dangerous natural hazards” and “a wet-bulb temperature…of 35°C marks our upper physiological limit.” Thus, it is not possible simply to adapt to progressively warmer temperature, when heat and humidity surpass the point of what is survivable. These worrying wet-bulb temperature conditions are occurring a few hours at a time in coastal and major river regions of South Asia, the Middle East, Mexico, and Central America. Such conditions are likely to become more regular and to last longer in these regions over the next few decades, or even years, with even more deadly consequences, while spreading across larger terrestrial stretches, rendering parts of the world uninhabitable. In the second half of the century, if “business-as-usual” trends continue, the likely consequences are too horrific to imagine.70
Nevertheless, in the opening scene of The Ministry for the Future, the science-fiction novelist and socialist Kim Stanley Robinson tries to imagine what could happen to human beings under the unbearable heat and humidity associated with wet-bulb temperatures. The population of a town in India is suffering from an intense heatwave. People are panicking, immersing themselves in the lake, trying to cool down, but to no avail, as the water provides no relief. It is noted that the people are being poached. Before too long, the lake is filled with corpses—”all the children were dead, all the old people were dead.”71 It is a hellish scene, but it captures the gravity of exterminism that is unfolding and the urgency of the fight for survival. This is the sobering reality of the current ecological moment, as the leaked draft of the “Summary for Policymakers” of Working Group II stated (though this was removed, probably by governments, from the published report): “Life on Earth can recover from a drastic climate shift by evolving into new species and creating new ecosystems. Humans cannot.”72
The Structural Crisis of Capital and the Failure of Environmental Reform
The failure of capital to face up to the rapidly increasing ecological crisis, even as the earth as a home for humanity is fast approaching an irreversible tipping point, is often attributed to the growth of neoliberalism, as if this were simply a contingent fact of history determined by political swings and policy changes.73 The advance of neoliberalism, however, was itself a response of the capitalist system to the insurmountable structural crisis of capital that first emerged in the mid–1970s, leading to the restructuring of this system. This included not only the reduction of the relative autonomy of the state, but also the restructuring of the capital-labor relation through the globalization of production and the financialization of the system.74 In these changed circumstances, the centrality of what was dubbed the “environmental state,” introduced as the capitalist system’s response to the deepening environmental crisis, experienced an early death. It was to be replaced under neoliberalism by a more diffuse system of “environmental governance,” involving both the private and public sectors, ensuring that the accumulation of capital always took complete precedence over the sustainability of the natural environment.75
The initial Great Ecological Revolt of the early post-Second World War years was largely radical in inspiration, strongly critical of capitalism, drawing its strength from the grassroots, and raising the essential question of human survival. However, these radical environmental challenges to the system were soon contained and co-opted through the rise to prominence of the capitalist environmental state, allowing the Great Acceleration of economic impacts on the environment to expand largely unhindered. The notion of the environmental state stood for a patchwork system of environmental regulations and statutory laws introduced by the state within the limits allowed by the powers that be, thereby precluding any major challenges to the process of capital accumulation. The dominant state-directed environmental reformism that emerged in these years, combating isolated cases of extreme pollution and environmental degradation at the local level, was commonly presented in received ideology as a logical outgrowth of capitalist modernization, viewed as an extension of the logic of the welfare state. Capitalism, it was claimed, followed a path whereby environmental spending increased at higher levels of economic development, ameliorating the negative effects of growth.76
All of this has proved to be a dangerous illusion. The environmental state as a central actor within the system was at best a very short-term affair, soon overshadowed by the structural crisis of capitalism that emerged only a few years later by the mid–1970s. The economic restructuring of the late 1970s and early ’80s was a response to the deepening stagnation of capital accumulation, evident in a slowdown in economic growth and rising unemployment/underemployment and idle capacity.77 Although there was no solution to the economic malaise of the mature capitalist economies, the ruling class was able to extend its power, in a context of “disaster capitalism,” through the promotion of a more predacious system that brought the state more firmly within the rules of the market.78 These developments were accompanied by the globalization of production and the financialization of the economy, ushering in a new phase of globalized monopoly-finance capital, made possible in part by new systems of communication and surveillance.
By the 1990s, even those proponents of capitalist ecological modernization, who were the most enthusiastic cheerleaders of the environmental state, were forced to point to the counter-pressures being imposed on it by capital; while more recently, they have acknowledged its virtual demise.79 In the context of this rapid decline of the state-directed system of environmental regulation (the environmental state), the notion of environmental governance was introduced as the new reform-oriented concept to take its place. Environmental governance was meant to refer to the much greater role assumed by private interests, including corporations, corporate foundations, non-governmental organizations, international financial institutions, and intergovernmental organizations in determining the realm of environmental regulation, which, in many areas, such as various certification processes, carbon markets, and the financialization of nature/conservation, generated new markets for capital accumulation, legitimated in terms of so-called green capitalism.80 The environmental nation-state (a notion that in the international context represented a further distancing from the concept of the domestic environmental state) was seen as subject to intergovernmental agreements such as the 2015 Paris Accord on climate change.81
Nonetheless, the phases of limited environmental reform, presided over initially by the capitalist environmental state and more recently by so-called environmental governance under direct corporate and ruling-class dominance, have seen the acceleration of the destruction of the earth as a home for humanity. According to the world scientific consensus, ecological catastrophes, on scales never before seen by humanity, are now fast approaching. Marginal attempts by the present political-economic system to address the planetary ecological emergency have proven entirely ineffectual since the capitalist juggernaut always takes priority. The world is now on a runaway train to disaster, rapidly approaching the edge of the cliff. As Engels once remarked, capitalism is ruled by “a class under whose leadership society is racing to ruin like a locomotive whose jammed safety-valve the driver is too weak to open.”82 The ruin, when it comes, will be ecological as well as political-economic and will fall most heavily on the vulnerable and future generations.
This deadly trajectory is evident everywhere, underscoring the failure of capitalist ecological reform. According to the UN Emissions Gap Report 2021, the present voluntary national climate pledges of countries in accordance with the Paris Agreement would generate a 2.7°C increase (66 percent probability) in global average temperature this century, as opposed to the well-below 2°C increase, which is the goal of the accords, and far above the scientific-consensus goal of 1.5°C, which is the most important threshold for planetary climate security.83 Presently, there are more than four hundred ongoing fossil fuel extraction projects in process in the world (40 percent of which have not yet commenced extraction), currently advanced by corporations and supported by governments, known as “carbon bombs.” Each of these represents at least one gigaton of carbon emissions, which, if they are all carried out, “will exceed the global 1.5°C carbon budget by a factor of two.”84 There is no sign anywhere that the necessary limits will be imposed by capitalism to protect the planetary environment. Rather, the signs all point to the opposite as a frenzy for fossil fuels is developing. The G7 leading capitalist countries, meeting in May 2022, agreed eventually to “phase out” “unabated coal” but put forward no date for doing so, with the discussion dominated instead by the need for vast new fossil fuel sources in the context of the Ukraine War, setting aside all climate objectives.85
Perhaps the greatest single example of the collective duplicity of governments within the dominant capitalist world system in the face of the planetary ecological emergency is the rewriting of the scientific-consensus “Summary for Policymakers” of Working Group III in the IPCC’s AR6 report on Mitigation, published in April 2022. A comparison of the scientific-consensus version of the “Summary for Policymakers,” leaked in August 2021, with the later published version, which was censored and completely rewritten by governments in consultation with corporate lobbyists—carried out in line with the IPCC process—demonstrates a complete betrayal of science and humanity. The collective pronouncements of the scientists on the need to: (1) eliminate all coal-fired plants worldwide this decade, in order to avoid greatly surpassing the 1.5°C target; (2) carry out immediate, rapid transformational change in the political-economic regime affecting production, consumption, and energy use; (3) shift to low-energy solutions; (4) implement plans for “accelerated mitigation”; and (5) support mass social movements against climate change rooted in the most vulnerable sectors of society, advancing a radical just transition—were all removed from the report. All criticisms of the “vested interests,” including the term vested interests itself, were erased from the report. Flatly contradicting the scientific-consensus “Summary for Policymakers,” the redacted governmental-consensus report went so far as to claim that the number of coal-fired plants could be increased due to the promise of carbon capture and sequestration—a view that the scientists had rejected.
Governmental leaders also eliminated statements in the scientific-consensus “Summary for Policymakers” regarding how: (1) the wealthiest 10 percent of the global population are responsible for around ten times the greenhouse gas emissions of the poorest 10 percent (despite the fact that this was a very conservative estimate of the emissions gap); (2) the top 1 percent of air travelers account for 50 percent of aviation-based emissions; and (3) some 40 percent of the emissions from developing countries are linked to export production for core nations.86
Indeed, the entire critique of the fossil capital regime presented in the scientific-consensus “Summary for Policymakers” was excluded by governments in the interest of keeping the accumulation process, the motor of the capitalist system, going. In nearly every line of the final, published “Summary for Policymakers” by Working Group III of AR6, the Mitigation report, the betrayal of the global population by the world’s governments is present, as the latter, operating together, eviscerated the IPCC’s scientific consensus, undermining any meaningful actions and policies. When the Mitigation report was published in April 2022, Guterres remarked that the current moment is one of “climate emergency,” marked by “a litany of broken climate promises,” constant “lies,” and “empty pledges [by the vested interests] that put us firmly on track towards an unlivable world.”87 The consequence of this is to further promote what Engels called “social murder,” but now on a planetary scale, threatening the entire chain of human generations.88
The U.S. federal government’s prioritization of capital accumulation, including that of the fossil fuel industry, over not only human lives in the present, but the future of humanity as a whole, is evident in the nonstop battles of the Barack Obama, Donald Trump, and Joe Biden administrations against the federal lawsuit of Juliana vs. the United States, in which twenty-one young plaintiffs have challenged the U.S. government for wrongfully promoting the fossil fuel industry in violation of what is known as the public trust doctrine within the common law, affirmed in a famous 1892 decision involving the Illinois Central Railroad company, as applicable to the U.S. Constitution. Applying the public trust doctrine to the federal government, the lawsuit declares that the executive and legislative branches in Washington knowingly violated the public trust with respect to climate change by allowing the undermining of the “survival resources” on which the lives of people in the present and future depend, putting human survival in question. As Oregon District Court judge Ann Aiken ruled in 2016, “I have no doubt that the right to a climate system capable of sustaining human life is fundamental to a free and ordered society.” Juliana vs. the United States is based on the presumption that statutory law with respect to the climate is too narrow and is not enforced, requiring that the federal government be mandated on constitutional grounds to cease its support of the fossil fuel industry.89
In response, successive Democratic and Republican administrations have done everything they could to stop this lawsuit, which has been subject to more “exceptional legal tactics” (including “six rulings on the notorious shadow docket,” where legal opinions are not published and the justice’s votes are not made public) than any other federal lawsuit in history. The Biden administration Department of Justice has made it evident that it will use every procedural tool available to arrest the progress of the lawsuit, killing it at the earliest opportunity.90 The goal is to allow the fossil fuel industry to continue to accumulate and expand by preventing any obligation of the U.S. federal government to protect the present and future of humanity.
Not only has the U.S. federal government put capital accumulation and the fossil fuel industry before human life as a whole, promoting social murder on a global scale, or exterminism, it has also neglected to take proactive and comprehensive action to protect the population, particularly the most vulnerable, in the face of accelerating ecological catastrophes. The U.S. government’s program of disaster relief is based in the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). But FEMA at present is underfunded and geared primarily to protecting high-end private property, thus leaving the mass of the population with little or no protection—and without any coordinated programs aimed at reducing risk associated with environmental disasters. Under the Obama administration, proposals were made, as articulated by FEMA director Craig Fugate, to put FEMA on a fully capitalist basis along the lines of the private insurance industry, complete with deductibles. FEMA assistance was thus to be determined largely by whether the private insurance industry had decided to ensure a given structure, an approach that would inevitably have a detrimental effect on the poor.91
With record-breaking hurricanes, wildfires, and other extreme weather disasters presenting themselves in 2020, coupled with the COVID-19 pandemic, FEMA and the U.S. government in general, as explained by Scientific American, proved itself utterly incapable of addressing the growing natural and epidemiological disasters. This brought “into stark relief problems of capacity and inequity—[with] people of color and low-income communities” getting “hit disproportionately hard.” “All emergency agencies” in the United States taken together do little in advance to prepare for disasters, while FEMA programs have been shown to “entrench and exacerbate inequities because they focus on restoring private property. This approach favors higher income, typically majority white areas with more valuable homes and infrastructure over people of color and low-income communities, which are disproportionately affected by disaster and least able to recover from it.” A precondition of FEMA disaster relief is “cost matching,” which systematically and structurally favors wealthier over poorer communities. The comprehensive failure of the United States to address the COVID-19 pandemic, resulting in more than a million deaths, is a manifestation of the complete lack of an infrastructure, including public health facilities, equipped to cope with disasters in general, particularly where the most vulnerable populations are concerned. Instead, the capitalist system has enshrined the principle of the devil take the hindmost.92
Ecological Civilization or Exterminism
In the 1860 edition of his Trades’ Unions and Strikes, the English Chartist and trade unionist Thomas Joseph Dunning wrote:
Capital is said by this reviewer [in the Quarterly Review] to fly turbulence and strife, and to be timid, which is very true; but this is very incompletely stating the question. Capital eschews no profit, or very small profit, just as Nature was formerly said to abhor vacuum. With adequate profit, capital is very bold. A certain 10 per cent. will ensure its employment anywhere; 20 per cent. certain will produce eagerness; 50 per cent. positive audacity; 100 per cent. will make it ready to trample on all human laws; 300 per cent., and there is not a crime at which it will scruple nor a risk it will not run, even to a chance of its owner being hanged. If turbulence and strife will bring a profit, it will freely encourage both. Smuggling and the slave-trade have amply proved all that is here stated.93
It is this innate drive of capital, trampling over all other social considerations, already depicted by Dunning in the nineteenth century, that helps explain why, even in the face of the certain ruination of contemporary civilization, humanity, and to a considerable extent life as a whole, capital nonetheless proceeds down that same road of creative destruction. It is not deterred from burning all existing fossil fuel reserves, and thus the heating up of the climate, as long as the short-term profits are ample. Its “solutions” to the environmental crisis increasingly take the form of the financialization of nature, aimed at buying up the “environmental services” of the entire planet, operating under the senseless presumption that if there is a global ecological crisis it is due to the failure to incorporate nature fully into the market.94
Consequently, a whole new revolutionary ecological civilization and mode of production, dedicated to sustainable human development, one in which the associated producers regulate the metabolism between humanity and nature, is now necessary for survival and for life. This requires revolutionary transformative actions to mitigate climate change, in order to protect the planet as a safe place for human habitation and life in general. But in seeking to protect the earth as a home for the future of the chain of human generations, it is also necessary to protect current generations. At issue today is not only the long-term issue of the survival of humanity as a species, but also the more immediate imperative of ensuring the lives and living conditions of twenty-first-century populations, including whole communities, nations, and peoples, and especially those whose lives and living conditions are most exploited, precarious, and vulnerable.
This two-level movement, to protect the earth both as a home for humanity (and innumerable other species) well into the future and for the defense of human communities in the present, is most fully addressed in the world today, though not without contradictions, in those societies with a more socialist bent.95 It is socialist, post-revolutionary societies that are better able to resist the logic of capital, despite the continuing dominance of the capitalist world economy, by introducing ecological as well as economic planning, and facilitating alternative forms of social metabolic reproduction. We can see this in Cuba, which has developed an ecosocialist model of degrowth, in the sense, designated by Don Fitz, of a society that embodies “a reduction of unnecessary and destructive production by and for rich countries (and people),” that “exceeds the…growth of production of necessities by and for poor countries (and people).”96
Cuba has not only repeatedly been designated by international indicators as the most ecological nation on the earth, but also as the one most prepared for disasters. Cuba in 2017 was “the only country in the world with a government-led plan (Project Life, or Tarea Vida) to combat climate change” based on a century-long projection. In September 2017, Maria, a category 5 hurricane, hit Puerto Rico, a U.S. colony, resulting in almost three thousand deaths. In that same month, Irma, another category 5 hurricane, hit Cuba, causing only ten deaths. Cuba’s low mortality was the result of comprehensive disaster protection measures introduced from the beginning of its revolution and built into the entire structure of the society. Cuba put in place a national plan to protect the population from COVID-19 prior to the first death there from the pandemic. It has developed highly effective COVID-19 vaccines, which have been used to vaccinate its entire population and to help other countries at low cost.97
In terms of the wider issues of climate change, Cuba, rather than following the dominant capitalist strategy of promoting maximum energy usage and simply converting to “alternative” energies (which are also extremely damaging to the environment at higher levels of energy generation), has chosen energy conservation, seeking to minimize both energy usage and the resultant negative effects. As Cuban energy advisor Orlando Rey Santos has observed: “One problem today is that you cannot convert the world’s energy matrix, with current consumption levels, from fossil fuels to renewable energies. There are not enough resources for the panels and wind turbines, nor the space for them. There are insufficient resources for all this. If you automatically made all transportation electric tomorrow, you would continue to have the same problems of congestion, parking, highways, heavy consumption of steel and cement.”98
In “Cuba Prepares for Disaster,” Cuban analyst Fitz explains that “a poor country with a planned economy can design policies to reduce energy use. Whatever is saved from [energy efficiency] can lead to less or low-energy production, resulting in a spiraling down of energy use. In contrast, in accordance with the well-known Jevons Paradox, competition drives capitalist economies toward investing funds saved from EE [energy efficiency] toward economic expansion resulting in perpetual growth” and mounting ecological contradictions. As Fitz goes on to observe: “What is amazing is that Cuba has developed so many techniques of medical care and disaster management for hurricanes and climate change, despite its double impoverishment from colonial days and neocolonial attacks from the U.S.,” including the permanent embargo imposed by Washington as a form of economic siege warfare.99 Cuba’s Special Period, following the demise of the Soviet Union and its fossil fuel subsidies to Cuba, forced Havana, faced also with a tightening U.S. embargo, to develop agroecology and urban farming at very high levels, resulting in Cuba’s eco-revolutionary transformation into a model of sustainable human development.100
Cuba’s successes in promoting sustainable human development fed the anti-communist ire of Washington. Relying on new means of financial warfare, the Trump administration introduced 243 additional financial sanctions directed at Cuba, while the Biden administration extended those further. This generated increased shortages in food and other basic items, made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic. In July 2021, popular protests emerged in Cuba for the first time in a generation. The increases in global food prices, accompanied by wheat shortages, in early 2022, associated with the pandemic, profiteering, and the Russia-Ukraine War, have only exacerbated these conditions.101 This crisis has resulted in critical debates in Cuban society that, while intense, are mostly taking place within the revolution rather than outside of it, suggesting that Cuba will continue to carry out a process of socialist construction and reconstruction that will defy all those who are seeking its demise.102
Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution, although in a different way than Cuba, has also moved toward an ecological society, promoting communes that put resources and production back in the hands of associated producers, ensuring that basic needs are met. Government resources are being transferred to communes and organized communities in both rural and urban areas with the objective of enhancing food security and sovereignty partly through such agencies as the Pueblo a Pueblo (or People to People) Plan, promoting an “assembly culture, planned consumption and participatory democracy.” All of this points in the direction of ecosocialism.103
Although still one of the world’s largest polluters, the Chinese economy has made rapid ecological advances, in line with its goal—outside the capitalist framework—of promoting an ecological civilization, a concept that originated with socialist environmentalists in the final decades of the Soviet Union, and that has now taken on Chinese characteristics.104 Although still a developing country in the sense of having a low per capita income relative to the developed capitalist states, China has set 2060 as its target to reach zero net carbon emissions. Meanwhile, it has become the world leader in solar power—both production and consumption—and in reforestation/afforestation. China was able to protect its population from the COVID-19 pandemic, with 4 deaths per million as of June 4, 2022, versus 3,087 deaths per million in the United States. With only 10 percent of the world’s arable land and 20 percent of the global population, China currently produces 25 percent of the world’s grain. In the decade from 2003 to 2013, China increased its total grain output by about 50 percent. Most farms are largely organized on a semi-communal, cooperative basis, with the land held in common and distributed among producers by the community. From 2013 to 2019, the number of towns with supply-marketing cooperatives in rural China increased from 50 percent to 95 percent, as part of the revitalization of the countryside, contributing to the elimination of extreme poverty in the country.105
The global struggle for sustainable human development can also be seen in places within the advanced capitalist core, including the United States, where considerable opposition is exhibited in some locations to the dominant logic of the political-economic system. Cooperation Jackson, based in Jackson, Mississippi, is engaged in a revolutionary, transformative project, as part of building ecosocialism, in order to protect and advance the survival of existing communities and to create an “ecologically regenerative,” sustainable future. Kali Akuno, the co-founder and co-director of Cooperation Jackson, explains that the continuing realities of racial capitalism have led to extreme forms of inequality, control of knowledge by private capital, and uneven development, whereby Jackson, Mississippi, has largely been organized around resource extraction to serve capital accumulation for distant vested interests. This exploitative system “is rapidly destroying all of the vital, life giving and sustaining systems on our planet.”106 Thus, it is urgent to forge an alternative productive system.
Through collectively organizing, mobilizing, and working with “structurally under- and unemployed sectors of the working class, particularly from Black and Latino communities,” Cooperation Jackson seeks to “replace the current socio-economic system of exploitation, exclusion and the destruction of the environment with a proven democratic alternative.” It promotes a radical form of social organization built on equality, cooperation, worker democracy, and environmental sustainability, aimed at providing meaningful work through living-wage jobs, while reducing racial and other inequities, and building the public wealth of the community. This is all seen as part of a “transition to ecosocialism.”107
Cooperation Jackson has as its goal collectively owning and controlling the means of production. Akuno explains that this involves “control over processes of material exchange and energy transfer,” including the “processes of distribution, consumption, and recycling and/or reuse” to ensure that the social metabolism operates within natural limits and advances “sustainability and environmental justice.”108 Through self-organization, self-determination, and self-management, human beings will gain social control over their productive lives, allowing them democratically and collectively to make decisions focused on how to meet human needs, rather than those of capital. This approach serves as the basis on which to “upend” the dictates of the exploitive class-hierarchical system. It seeks to eliminate the artificial scarcity, rooted in waste, destruction, and inequality imposed by capital, generating the potential for abundance, while remaining “within ecological limits.” Human interactions with nature need to be focused on conservation and “preservation of the environment and ecology,” fixing and “repairing the damage done,” while creating new efforts to “regenerate the bounty of life on our planet, in all its diversity.”109
Despite the extreme capitalism promoted by U.S. corporations, the wealthy, and the servile state, which constitutes its environment, Cooperation Jackson has begun and plans to implement a series of concrete, integrative projects that serve as the means to accomplish their larger goals. This includes forming a non-profit, community land trust, focused on removing as much land as possible from “the capitalist market,” in order to “decommodify” it. Under these conditions, the community serves as the steward. It also establishes a basis with which to help block gentrification processes that have been premised on expanding capital accumulation at the expense of the local community. This revolutionary transformation involves creating an alternative currency, a system of mutual credit, and “community-controlled financial institutions ranging from lending circles to credit unions,” in order to expand the overall capacity and support of citizens.
Building on these foundations, Cooperation Jackson has gone on to establish urban farm co-ops, a restaurant/grocery store, and a lawn-care team. Compost from the store and lawns is used as fertilizer on the farms, returning important nutrients to the soil as part of metabolic restoration. There are plans to create a series of cooperatives focused on housing, recycling, construction, child care, retrofitting homes, and solar energy. All of these efforts are organized as “non-reformist reforms” to improve the quality of people’s lives, expand the power of the citizens, and confront capital, by subverting its very logic and operations. The goal is to foster “the development of a non-capitalist alternative” that will “socialize every step of the productive process required to create, distribute, and recycle a product,” forging “collective ownership and democratic management,” and increasing “the effective scale and scope of the solidarity economy.”110 Rather than promoting fashionable ideas of “resilience,” which fail to challenge the dominant system, Cooperation Jackson can be regarded as a microcosm of ecological and social revolt, as part of the struggle for survival while advancing sustainable human development and ecosocialism.
The most radical and comprehensive strategy with respect to the planetary ecological emergency emanating from North America is the Red Nation’s The Red Deal: Indigenous Action to Save Our Earth. In the words of the Red Nation:
Rather than taking an explicitly conservationist approach, the Red Deal instead proposes a comprehensive, full-scale assault on capitalism, using Indigenous knowledge and tried-and-true methods of mass mobilization as its ammunition.… We must be straightforward about what is necessary. If we want to survive, there are no incremental or “non-disruptive” ways to reduce emissions. Reconciliation with the ruling classes is out of the question. Market-based solutions must be abandoned. We have until 2050 to reach net-zero carbon emissions. That’s it. Thirty years. The struggle for a carbon-free future can either lead to revolutionary transformation or much worse than what Marx and Engels imagined in 1848, when they forewarned that “the common ruin of the contending classes” was a likely scenario if the capitalist class was not overthrown. The common ruin of entire peoples, species, landscapes, grasslands, waterways, oceans, and forests—which has been well underway for centuries—has intensified more in the last three decades than in all of human existence.111
Survival in these terms requires the growth of what could be called an environmental proletariat, bringing together the global revolt against the capitalist expropriation of nature and exploitation of labor, thereby uniting the struggles over the economy and the earth. This means learning from Indigenous, colonized, and historically enslaved peoples while embracing issues of social reproduction. A revolt by the world’s environmental proletariat conceived in these terms, in which hundreds of millions, even billions, of people will inevitably take part, is destined to come about in the coming decades as a result of the struggle for ecological survival. It will lead to new microcosms of existence and an assault on the macrocosm of capital and its state. But this struggle can only succeed in the end if it takes the form of a revolutionary transformation directed at the creation of a socialist ecological civilization, drawing on the rich reservoirs of human knowledge and community. In the words of the great Irish revolutionary James Connolly: “We only want THE EARTH.”112
Ecological overshoot now, decoupling won’t solve. We need to take a chance on an alternative to avoid a complete collapse
Espinosa, July 1, 2022, The Limits to Growth: Ecosocialism or Barbarism, https://monthlyreview.org/2022/07/01/the-limits-to-growth-ecosocialism-or-barbarism/, Minister of Consumer Affairs of Spain
It has now been fifty years since the scientist Donella Meadows led the publication of a report titled The Limits to Growth, which aimed to analyze the physical impacts of economic growth patterns on the planet. A computer model was used for the assessment, which looked at, among other things, the effect of economic exploitation on soils, the exhaustion of non-renewable resources such as minerals, and the resulting climate distortions. Various scenarios were put forward, the worst case being that, if no action were taken to correct the trajectory being followed at the time, industrial society would collapse in the mid–twenty-first century. The report became an international reference point and highlighted the ecological consequences of the dynamics of growth that, until then, had been seen as positive. The scientific team’s model, together with its findings, was nevertheless fiercely contested by economists.1 Economic growth is indeed habitually seen as something desirable, limited in space and time, even as a reflection of the natural evolution of societies. The very notion of economic growth is intrinsically connected with the social notion of progress, both of which arise from the Enlightenment and have suffered from forced, equivocal analogies with the natural sciences, particularly based on Darwinist theory.2 In short, we have firmly internalized and naturalized the notion of economic growth. Thirty years later, Meadows herself maintained that economic growth should be understood as a tool and not as an end in itself, that it was necessary to question the rationale of such growth, who benefits from it, and whether there were sources and sinks on the planet to make it possible. This had similarities with what the economist Simon Kuznets had suggested when he designed the gross domestic product (GDP) indicator and put it forward to the U.S. Congress. According to Kuznets, it should not be inferred that this indicator, which measures the monetary value of production, could also be an expression of social well-being. More and more voices have been raised since then, warning that GDP is not a good tool for measuring human development and social well-being.3 The main problem underlying conventional economics is its reliance on a conceptualization of the economy that deliberately ignores the physical context of which it is necessarily part, including the most elementary laws of physics. This means combating the assumption that resources and energy are unlimited, without even considering the fallout of the activity or the planet’s limited carrying capacity. In view of the hegemonic nature of economic thought and its ability to mold the framework of social thought, this is crucially important, because it makes finding effective solutions to the eco-social crisis virtually impossible. Defective Economic Models Economic growth can be seen as the result of greater production capacity on the part of a particular society. To simplify, this means that a society that produces a larger quantity of product than it did in the previous year is said to have grown economically by an amount equal to the difference between the two levels of output. In this way, a country that produces ten units of food in a particular year and produces twelve units of food the following year is said to have experienced a 20 percent growth in food units. These two new food units are considered as economic surplus. The systematic buildup of economic surpluses lies behind the development of societies, inasmuch as historically it has enabled societies to become more complex.4 Capitalism as an economic system emerged around five centuries ago. It introduces a series of incentives, through competition, to discipline companies and force them to grow in each period, as well as to reinvest profits in order to raise their production capacity to a higher level, awarding a growing share of those profits to the people who supplied the capital. In this way, under capitalism, the whole entrepreneurial fabric is pushed toward boosting production capacity. This is what, under specific institutional arrangements, has driven the spectacular increase in economic activity, infrastructure, and the living standards of people over the past two hundred years. The historical reality of capitalism has, however, demonstrated that the process of economic growth is neither constant nor spared from serious upheavals (leading to phenomena such as unemployment and lack of paid work for large sectors of society). Economists have also devoted themselves to the task of untangling the difficulties of economic growth for more than two hundred years. Most of them, however, have used a set of theoretical instruments that neglect the ecological issue—that is, the ecological prerequisites for economic growth and the ecological consequences of that growth. Classical economists, the founders of political economy as a discipline, have nevertheless undoubtedly been aware of what we might call the social metabolism: the relationship between nature and the economy.5 Their predecessor, the physiocratic school, whose principal exponent was François Quesnay, had already interpreted the economic question in the eighteenth century on the basis of agrarian flows and concluded that any surplus is possible thanks to the gifts given to us by nature. David Ricardo, in turn, was aware of differing soil fertility and put together a theory of decreasing land yields that led him to think that capitalism could not grow indefinitely. Reverend Thomas Malthus introduced his now famous thesis on population growth as a constraint on economic growth. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, too, considered that capitalism would come up against limits to its own development due to the downward trend of the rate of return. Marx was extremely interested in the scientific advances of his time and accorded considerable importance to the concept of social metabolism, which he is widely credited with having introduced into social science.6 In the twentieth century, in striving to make the discipline more scientific, economic thinking moved further away from the physical and even social conditions under which any economy must necessarily operate. Neoclassical thought, as reformulated by Léon Walras, Alfred Marshall, and William Stanley Jevons, among others, permeated economic science as a whole and led to a break with the previous political economy, giving rise to notions of production and wealth completely disconnected from a natural base. Meanwhile, the search for theoretical explanations of economic growth and its possible failures continued with the economists Roy F. Harrod and Evsey Domar, who developed a model that concluded that economic growth was fundamentally unstable and that meeting the conditions for stability was extremely complicated.7 This Keynesian-inspired model provoked a response from neoclassical economists such as Robert Solow and Trevor Swan, who laid the foundations for the paradigm of economic growth and whose models are still being studied as a priority in every economics department around the world. These are the models that, in the end, define to a large extent economists’ scope of thought. The cornerstone of every model of economic growth is the aggregate production function. This function represents the economic production process and, in its most basic formulation, only involves capital and labor, while resources and energy are always considered as fully available. In this way, capital and labor are taken to be the only production resources that, together, generate the surplus of an economy. This surplus, in turn, makes up the amount to be distributed between wages and profits. This is the basis of a large proportion of policy discussions around accumulation and distribution in capitalist societies. Ethical and political issues as important as the level of wages or profits or, even more, their relative share of income, are addressed from the standpoint of the effects of those changes on economic growth. Each model belongs to a distinct school of thought due to its specific configuration, determined by different starting assumptions. In general, neoclassical models consider that restrictions on growth come from the supply side, so they suggest that profits must be increased to encourage accumulation, while post-Keynesian models focus on restrictions from the demand side and usually suggest changes in the distribution of income and increases in wages (or public expenditure) to support demand. The large majority of current discussions of economic policy fall within one or the other of these perspectives. Nevertheless, the general paradigm is always shared, and the debate really turns on ways to maximize economic growth. Students of economics are often surprised when studying these models, especially the most basic ones, that there is apparently no possibility of unlimited growth. For example, Solow’s model establishes that the production factors, capital and labor, have decreasing returns, which supposes that each additional unit provides an ever-smaller quantity of product. In its dynamics, the model tends toward a stationary state where there is no economic growth. Nevertheless, when technical progress, in whichever possible formulation, is incorporated into these basic models, it is then possible for potentially unlimited growth to exist. This is what happens with the AK growth or endogenous growth models, as well as all models incorporating growing returns in the aggregate production function. In effect, students soon learn that unlimited economic growth is technically possible thanks to technology and, in the case of certain heterodox models drawing inspiration from Allyn Young, Gunnar Myrdal, Nicholas Kaldor, and Anthony Thirlwall, also the central role played by the industrial sector.8 This brief review of the relationship between economic models and public policy should make it clear above all that economists, past and present, generally tend to think within analytical and conceptual frameworks defined on the basis of the search for maximum economic growth. The responses given are dependent on the use of a set of theoretical instruments that, whether explicitly or otherwise, are limited by their own deficiencies. Bearing in mind the fundamental role played by economists in framing public debate, disseminating their own ideas, influencing the decisions of public institutions, and, as in the case of central banks, directly holding absolute control of particular levers of power, it is necessary now more than ever to go to the source of these limitations. What all these trends and schools of thought have mostly ignored, both in their methodological foundations and in their policy proposals, is the connection between productive activity per se and the natural foundations on which it sits, and which it cannot do without. In other words, there is absolutely no vision of the social metabolism, which entails starting from a worldview where the economy is seen as a subsystem of the biosphere and not the other way around. This lack, wholly illegitimate in our times, relates to the physical aspects of the economic process, the use of energy and natural resources, and the ecological pressures and impacts of the production process. Natural Resources and Energy The economist Nicholas Georgescu-Rogen was one of the first to warn of the serious deficiencies in traditional ways of thinking about the economy. In particular, he highlighted the gap in economic models regarding the consumption of energy and materials. Both components restrict the possibilities of economic growth in ways that economics had ignored until just a few years ago.9 In fact, planet Earth is a closed system of materials so that, aside from the very exceptional arrival of a meteorite or the removal of a human artifact, neither of which are significant in quantitative terms, the mass of materials is always the same. In the case of energy, Earth is an open system inasmuch as we receive energy flows from solar radiation, but, even then, the laws of physics impose limits on energy use. These days, we accept that most of the products we use in our daily lives are made from a combination of energy, water, and other materials, and that we need energy sources in order to extract and process those materials for the production process. We also know that they come from the geochemical cycles of Earth and most originated millions of years ago due to plate tectonics, which not only generated but also geographically distributed resources across the planet, although obviously not uniformly.10 For this reason, some regions of the planet are rich in petroleum and natural gas, while others are rich in other minerals—all have clearly shaped the historical development of societies and, of course, have led to wars over resources as well. These resources are in large part non-renewable, meaning that they exist in fixed quantities and their natural regeneration occurs over a time frame inaccessible to human beings. Any resources that do renew themselves cyclically are limited by their own pace of regeneration. Moreover, every human process involves the use of a series of energy sources governed by the laws of physics, particularly the laws of thermodynamics. The second principle of thermodynamics establishes that the quality of energy usable by human beings is decreasing and that, in converting energy (for example, converting the energy from solar radiation through photosynthesis or generating electricity through photovoltaic panels), it is not possible to maintain 100 percent of the available energy. Much of the energy is dissipated as heat, so conversion presupposes the transformation of high-quality, low-entropy energy, such as carbon, into low-quality, high-entropy energy such as heat. The history of technological development is the history of a constant struggle to improve the energy efficiency of such conversions.11 Flows of materials and flows of energy can be understood as two distinct aspects of the same process. In fact, a continuous flow of materials is only possible if there is a continuous flow of energy at the same time. In addition, these two restrictions on economic growth interact in very diverse ways, and the ecological pressure and impact of productive activity also show up in the alteration of geochemical cycles. It is common, however, to differentiate between pressure and impacts deriving from productive activity. On the one hand, productive activity exerts pressure on the environment, for instance through the emission of carbon dioxide resulting from burning fossil fuels. On the other hand, the impact of productive activity on the environment shows up in phenomena such as climate change or global warming resulting from the sustained build-up over time of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Over the last few decades, the availability of information has significantly improved and many indicators have been put together with a view to measuring the level of pressure and impacts exerted by the production and consumption model on the natural environment. The Planetary Boundaries There is no doubt that human beings have lived on Earth for at least two hundred thousand years, although most of the time they did so in hunter-gatherer social groups. The end of the last ice age, which occurred some twenty thousand years ago, gave way to an extraordinarily warm climate that, in turn, enabled human beings to develop new economic and social practices, such as agriculture (developed some twelve thousand years ago). Scientists have agreed to call this warm era the Holocene, in which current civilizations developed. Since the Industrial Revolution, the use of resources and energy by humanity has, however, increased to a marked degree. Many studies on environmental history describe these transformations very well. This intensive use of resources and energy, especially energy from fossil fuels, has brought about a rise in living standards and with it an increase in population throughout the world. These trends have sped up, especially since the mid–twentieth century, as can be seen in Charts 1 and 2 in this article. The period beginning at that time has been called the Great Acceleration.12 In more general terms, the scientists Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stormer recoined the term Anthropocene more than two decades ago to refer to the change from one geological epoch to another, meaning that, these days, as a consequence of the development of the global economic system, humanity mobilizes more land and sediments than any other natural process.13 Other authors have used Capitalocene instead, to point to what is ultimately responsible for all of these transformations: the type of economic system.14 In 2009, a group of scientists developed the framework of planetary boundaries, with reference to the main ecological thresholds that, if lowered, could entail significant planet-wide alterations in natural cycles.15 The main virtue of this framework is that it extends the range of attention beyond global warming, much more generally recognized, to encompass other environmental impacts such as the loss of biodiversity, acidification of oceans, and contamination due to excess nitrates or plastics. Nine biogeological phenomena were identified that, if specific limits were exceeded, would trigger irreversible processes threatening life itself. This understanding is based on the existence of a safe space, with boundaries determined by the specific biogeological parameters of the Holocene, within which human beings could live with a degree of security. At the moment, five of the critical thresholds for life are thought to have been passed, highlighting the urgency of a forceful response to these imbalances. One of the main problems with the planetary boundaries framework, however, is that it looks at social metabolism in an essentially technical way. If the analysis is not broadened, the framework seems to place responsibility on abstract notions such as humanity or the human being, when it is obvious that neither the causes nor the consequences of the ecological impact are symmetrically distributed across class or geography. There is in fact no global ecological crisis that means the same thing for all people. Therefore, it is much more appropriate to talk of an eco-social crisis, because it helps to highlight the importance of sociopolitical relationships when assessing environmental degradation processes and seeking solutions.16 Some authors, such as the English economist Kate Raworth, have added a social dimension to the sphere of planetary boundaries. The result, popularly known as the circular economy, points to the need for people in modern societies to live above decent minimum living standards (social floor) and below the planet’s biophysical limits (ecological ceiling), thereby establishing a safe, fair space for humanity. This contribution is useful in that it allows for the incorporation of aspects such as inequality, poverty, and decent work into an understanding of biophysical limits. The Impact of Consumption Since the publication of Limits to Growth, the close link between economic growth and the heavy ecological pressure and impacts threatening life on the planet has been generally acknowledged. For this reason, the United Nations developed the Sustainable Development Goals. Target 8.4, for example, is to “improve progressively, through 2030, global resource efficiency in consumption and production and endeavour to decouple economic growth from environmental degradation.” The European Union also adopted this agenda and has, since then, approved a large number of standards designed to achieve those goals. The scientific work built up over the last few decades has resulted in the proliferation of indicators to measure the impact of economic activity on the planet, which has facilitated the pursuit of these commitments. The general public, for example, has become familiar with indicators measuring carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and is even aware of the impact of their carbon footprint on daily life and consumption decisions. Nonetheless, as we have already noted, environmental impacts go beyond climate change and also require other indicators. One of the most advanced approaches in this regard has to do with the flow of materials involved in the production and consumption model. The extraction and processing of resources is responsible for approximately 50 percent of greenhouse gas emissions and more than 90 percent of the loss of biodiversity on the planet. It has been proved that there is a direct, close relationship between the consumption of materials and economic growth.17 This is basically the result of the impulse to consume. Consumption (referring here to aggregate economic demand, that is consumption plus investment plus government, and not simply consumer spending) is the main driver of global ecological impact, far ahead of other demographic factors such as age, household size, cultural capital, or housing structure. It must be stressed that consumption is required to close the capital cycle—that is, for production to be sold and economic growth to exist. Consumption and production are, in this sense, two sides of the same coin.18 After all, under capitalism, production is geared toward economic gain rather than satisfaction of human need, so that economic actors are disciplined to ensure that their production is sold and consumed, and the profits are reinvested in greater production (growth). If aggregate demand were insufficient to cover production and stocks in a particular period, the system would be facing a crisis. Thus, under capitalism, the incessant consumption spiral mirrors the incessant production spiral. It should be remembered that any product coming onto the market carries with it a baggage of both visible and invisible resources, meaning that any product involves the use of the materials it is made of, but also the materials necessarily consumed in manufacturing that product. For example, a single smartphone is made up of dozens of mineral substances such as lithium, aluminum, silicon, copper, and nickel, but its production also relies on the consumption of huge amounts of water—according to some estimates, twelve thousand liters of water per unit—and other materials, in addition to the waste generated due to its early obsolescence. With economic globalization and the development of global value chains, the material and technological complexity of products has increased and with it the commercial exchange of raw and other materials and waste between countries. This applies not only to the consumption of electronic products but also to food products (the world agri-food system is responsible for 34 percent of greenhouse gas emissions) and the global tourism industry (the cause of 8 percent of greenhouse gas emissions). All our daily activity is tied to a particular level of resource and energy consumption that exerts pressure on and impacts the natural environment.19 The extraction of material resources has in fact been stepped up throughout the world in recent decades, as is clear from Chart 1, which goes back to the beginnings of the last century. It can be seen, moreover, that there has been incredible growth since the second half of the last century, a good demonstration of the Great Acceleration period. In 2017, for example, the average person consumed 65 percent more resources than in 1970.20 The domestic extraction indicator is generally used to find out the precise impact of the production and consumption model on the use of natural resources in a particular territory. It measures natural resource use within the borders of a country. The drawback of this procedure, however, is that it does not record the impact of international trade and can lead to the belief that certain countries, traditionally net importers of products, are improving their indicators of the impact of resource use when this result might, for example, reflect the fact that they have relocated material-intensive industries. Another indicator used is domestic material consumption, which does take account of international trade, but only adds the physical weight of the apparent consumption of imported and exported goods. This means that no account is taken of the quantity of resources used to produce the imported and exported goods. To solve this problem, a much more accurate indicator has been developed. Known as the material footprint, it describes the consumption of both domestic natural resources and imported goods, also including the resources used in producing those internationally traded goods.21 The material footprint is therefore the best available indicator to assess the impact of the production and consumption model on resource use. At the aggregate level, the material footprint necessarily coincides with material extraction, due to the fact that imports and exports cancel each other out on a global level—which means that the growth of the material footprint has also been spectacular over the last fifty years. It has nevertheless been asymmetric, because not all regions are equally responsible for this growth in natural resource use. If we look at per capita resource use, we can see that North America, mainly due to the United States, is clearly in the lead with an average consumption of 30 tons per person in 2019. This is 1.5 times the consumption recorded in Europe and up to 7 times higher than the figure for Africa. This is somewhat similar to what happens with greenhouse gas emissions at a global level, given that the Global North has been responsible for 92 percent of cumulative carbon dioxide emissions since 1850. The United States alone accounts for 40 percent of those emissions, while the countries making up the current European Union are responsible for 29 percent.22 When we begin to look at the situation within different countries, we find that the upper income strata are the largest consumers of resources. As we have said, societies under capitalism are structured into classes and, insofar as resource consumption is linked to income, it is to be expected that the greatest ecological impact will come from the wealthiest social groups. Moreover, some research has shown that, internationally, the richest 10 percent are responsible for between 25 and 43 percent of carbon dioxide emissions, so it is clear that the ecological impact is driven by the richest citizens of each country.23 In the case of Spain, the country’s material footprint has grown in the last fifty years, although with two clearly differentiated sub-periods. Until the financial crisis, the trend was upward, speeding up at the beginning of the century with the housing boom, but the subsequent downward trend has continued ever since. This pattern points to possible dematerialization, that is, less resource consumption per year. This is due to a large extent to the economic crisis, but it may also reflect changes in the production structure—toward less resource-intensive sectors—or an increase in technological efficiency. The problem with the material footprint measurement, as well as all the other previously mentioned indicators, is that they only reflect the consumption of materials. To take account of other types of impacts, the European Commission has developed a new methodology based on the full product life cycle, which has led to the construction of two new indicators: the domestic footprint and the consumption footprint.24 The domestic footprint reflects the ecological impact (not of resources alone, but also a further fifteen aspects), taking account solely of what is produced within the country. As the consumption footprint also covers the effect of international trade, it incorporates the impact of all the goods produced abroad but consumed in our country (deducting the impacts of what we produce here for consumption in other countries). In the case of the European Union, the data show that in the period between 2005 and 2014 there was a relative reduction in environmental impacts, although with very different indicators from one country to another. The most significant environmental impact was felt in countries that are traditionally importers of fossil fuels, meat, minerals, and manufactured products, resulting in a higher consumption footprint.25 All in all, at this point, fifty years since the publication of Limits to Growth, the debate no longer centers on whether economic growth is associated with pressure and impact on the natural environment (there is an overwhelming consensus in this regard), but whether it is possible to decouple the two phenomena from growth sufficiently and quickly enough to prevent the social metabolism from reaching the point of no return in the crossing of planetary boundaries. This is, precisely, the debate between green growth and degrowth. Degrowth and Technological Efficiency According to the dominant view of international institutions like the United Nations and European Union, to avoid the worst ecological scenarios we must reconcile economic growth—which is considered essential to social well-being—with use of resources and energy remaining within the planetary boundaries. This would be possible if there were a decoupling of some variable used to measure economic activity (normally GDP) from the variables used to measure ecological pressures and impacts (such as carbon dioxide emissions, use of material resources, and so on). When the ecological pressure and impact variables grow at a slower rate than GDP, a relative decoupling is said to have occurred, whereas if GDP grows but the pressure and impact variables decrease, an absolute decoupling is said to have occurred. To achieve these objectives, great hope has been placed in technological efficiency, seen as the set of technologies that, applied to the production process, enable the latter to consume fewer resources and less energy per unit of product in monetary value. This is the technological optimism on which the whole narrative of green growth is based. Nevertheless, most of the analyses carried out have concluded that, in general, no decoupling between economic activity and environmental pressure and impact is happening, and, furthermore, is unlikely to happen at any point. In most cases, no kind of decoupling is taking place with regard to consumption of materials, energy consumption, water use, greenhouse gas emissions, or loss of biodiversity. Where studies have found some evidence of decoupling, it has been based on local analyses, restricted to specific countries or regions, for short periods of time (during a crisis, for example) or on an insufficient scale to tackle the ecological challenges.26 It is obvious that strategies to increase technological efficiency must be complemented with sufficiency strategies, that is, with a reduction in the material scale of production and consumption in many sectors so that economic activity can fit within the planetary boundaries. This is where the proposals for degrowth have emerged most forcefully. Degrowth began as a political and social movement and should not be understood either as an economic concept or as a consistently structured theory, but as a broad, heterogeneous stream of thinkers and proposals seeking to ensure development of the global economy within the planet’s biophysical limits. Quite simply, degrowth should be understood as a criticism of the theory of decoupling and green growth, and as an affirmation of the need to reduce the pressure of human beings and their economic model on ecosystems and the natural environment without betting everything on technological promises.27 Ecosocialist Strategies versus Barbarism Fifty years since The Limits to Growth, we are now fully aware that the production and consumption model is causing pressure and impacts on the natural environment to such an extent that life itself is threatened. What is lacking, however, is the political will to make decisions equal to that challenge, as the institutional policies followed to date have proven clearly insufficient. Despite the speeches and rhetoric from the governments of the most developed countries, the commitment in the Paris Agreement not to raise the global temperature by more than 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels is currently undeliverable. On the contrary, according to research by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the world is on a path toward a catastrophic rise of 2.7°C by the end of the century.28 This being the case, the key task of democratic societies should be to build resilient communities capable of prioritizing the well-being of their members without permanently damaging the natural environment that sustains them, as well as to prevent escalation of the social conflicts and wars increasingly linked to the eco-social crisis.29 As we have seen, however, achieving this eco-social-political objective necessarily entails scaling down the material dimension of the economy to bring it within planetary boundaries, with far-reaching political, social, and economic implications. To begin, a complete reframing of the realm of consumption is needed. Though it is true that consumers cannot make decisions concerning the supply side, such as the location of major production centers, they do have plenty of room to influence decisions on the demand side. It is not easy to take advantage of this capacity, because capital is a social relationship and, therefore, far more than a production and consumption model; it is a way of life. This means looking at the values and principles of capitalist consumption, which go beyond human needs and planetary boundaries, the ways such practices are socially reproduced, and what potential centers of resistance could be generated. When it comes to the necessary achievement of ecologically sustainable consumption, the starting point must be that the market is incapable of distinguishing between goods meeting basic needs and goods of a luxury nature. We need to move in the direction of an economy based on the satisfaction of human need.30 Approaches of this type, inspired by Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum and their influence on the UN Development Programme, together with the contributions of Manfred Max-Neef and Ian Gough, should replace the dominant paradigm of economic growth. The utilitarian tradition in economics maintains that there is a positive, infinite relationship between income growth and happiness/well-being. Specialist literature has nevertheless argued in favor of the existence of the Easterlin Paradox, according to which increased income does not, beyond a certain point, result in increased individual happiness.31 In adapting the production and distribution processes to be socially just, there must also be a significant flow of redistribution between social classes and a general reorientation of production toward activities that may be low intensity when it comes to ecological pressure and impact but significantly satisfy human needs. To this end, guaranteed work programs can help combat unemployment.32 Moreover, democracy will only survive the coming social tensions if it can put itself forward as a complete program of positive safeguards, meaning that it must be in the republican tradition, with an underlying positive conception of the notion of freedom. Consequently, consolidating and ring-fencing public services such as health, education, housing, and pensions, among others, is an essential part of a both ecologically sustainable and socially just society.33 These alternative policies must nevertheless start from a concrete analysis of reality. A large part of scientific research concerning the eco-social crisis has given us ever more accurate information on what is happening in the social metabolism. It is much harder, however, to find the reasons this is happening, which specific actors are responsible, and which obstacles stand in the way of changing direction. First, it is unusual to find research that, along with a technical analysis of the eco-social crisis, also provides a specific analysis of how power operates. When all is said and done, power is a social relationship that inevitably defines the limits of what is possible. At the same time, the possibilities of implementing policies that may look simple on paper move closer or further away. For example, although the need to reduce global meat consumption to combat climate change has been sufficiently documented, it is not easy to find an analysis that also incorporates thinking about how to put such notions into practice. In other words, analysis of the political ecosystem extending to power in its various guises (business lobbies, major production companies, productive system, mass media, political and trade union alliances, and the state itself) is lacking.34 Second, if power is missing from many current analyses, absence of thought about the ultimate causes of the eco-social crisis is even more marked. It is true that the drivers of environmental destruction are associated with the social pressures and impacts that influence the disproportionate use of resources and energy, greenhouse gas emissions, and more. But there is no use in reaching that point if no link is made with the ultimate, systemic causes of the persisting catastrophic process. In the end, without an understanding of how capital operates and how it pushes all actors (from the working class to major companies) to achieve economic growth ad nauseam, the analysis will be insufficient. If an analysis of the relationship between economics and the environment truly wishes to go beyond the frontiers of academia and, consequently, genuinely seeks to transform the material reality it is examining, it must be capable of drawing on dynamic approaches to the study of the system that currently links together economic, social, and environmental spheres—that is, capitalism. The central contradiction of this economic system, as we have already remarked, is that it functions and operates as if it were disconnected from the natural base on which it necessarily stands. As Marx suggested, the main problem with capitalism is its huge success in achieving its objectives. We now know that life simply cannot bear the costs associated with this “success.” The central ideological opponent of capitalism has historically been socialism, a sociopolitical movement without which even modern democracy itself could not be understood. But, as it arose in the nineteenth century, socialism has been characterized by a longstanding ignorance of environmental pressures and impacts. Most of the theoretical output concerning the economic measures to be taken in defense of the working class ignores its ecological consequences—even the most recent theoretical work. As I have already pointed out, the influence of the traditional way of thinking about the economy has seriously contaminated that of socialists and the left in general, as can be seen in uncritically productivist approaches from which economic policy proposals and measures often classed as leftist are derived. Some researchers even speak of the role played by these authors as protagonists of a passive revolution—a concept Antonio Gramsci used to describe the ability of the dominant classes to co-opt the leaders of the subordinate classes.35 These policies, however, are not just the result of a specific conception of the world but at the same time serve to educate entire generations of opponents of capitalism in a particular political culture. This longstanding weakness is not the only dangerous legacy from the past. The type of society we presently know, which has seen rapid development over the last two hundred years, is a result of intensive use of natural resources, especially fossil fuels. The predominant role of fossil fuels can hardly be exaggerated. The whole social architecture we see before us now is due to fossil capital, and not just in historical terms. Everything from productive activities through to the layout and design of our cities, not to mention the way of living imposed on working families, is shaped by the dynamics of fossil capital. Serving as an emblematic demonstration is the fact that, when there have been other upheavals in energy markets, as happened in the 1970s and is happening again now following the Russian offensive in Ukraine, the whole social system is transformed both materially and ideologically. The dependency on fossil capital is an expression of the fragility of the whole social system.36 The issue here is obvious. In a world with finite natural resources and fossil fuels reaching or exceeding their respective peaks, the crossroads at which we find ourselves should not be underestimated. We already have before us the first signs that one of the alternatives gaining ground in the face of this eco-social crisis is a new form of fascism, which promotes a type of closed, authoritarian social organization aimed at meeting the needs of select social groups to the detriment of the rest of the population. This type of social closure, characterized by insider/outsider dynamics, has fundamental sociopolitical implications. A growing proportion of international migratory flows are currently due to climate change and environmental crises and their effects on impoverished countries, while the neofascist response to migration brings traditional racism into line with climate denial and a commitment to authoritarian solutions to the eco-social crisis.37 This route can only lead to barbarism. It is not by chance that the rising tide of global reaction is happening at the same time as we have the best and most accurate information about the way humankind is running out of time under this economic model. Clearly, it is not sufficient to be correct. Currently, some of the social and generational frustrations of our time are being articulated politically through a reactionary solution that seeks to defend “our own” against the “foreign.” An ideological and material retreat of broad social sectors is taking place in the face of the fundamental uncertainties of the Anthropocene era. Old wine in new bottles. Taking up these challenges will not be a matter of simple political prescription, nor will it be a question of winning arguments. Rather, it will have to do with the ability to put together broad social and political alliances to prepare the ground for a whole historical and social bloc to emerge. Local initiatives and global proposals, classical traditions, and new ways of thinking, along with social and institutional action, must play a part in this broad community, in an effort to build a social fabric that looks toward a horizon of peace, justice, equality, and social rights within planetary boundaries. In the past, the idea of an alternative—socialism or barbarism—was popularized by Rosa Luxemburg against the bellicose backdrop of the First World War. The traditional Marxist conception of the time theorized that capitalism was at such an advanced stage of development, in its imperialist phase, that the only thing that could come out of the war was international socialist revolution or the destruction of every trace of civilization. In a way, there were indeed revolutions and a lot of destruction. Not only Europe but the whole world was devastated by two world wars and numerous repressive regimes, which swept away millions of human beings, including Luxemburg herself, who was assassinated in 1919 during the Spartacist uprising. Presently, that alternative is perfectly valid. Human civilization, any civilization, can only build horizons of justice and well-being if it can find a way to do so within the planetary boundaries. Fitting within or readjusting to those boundaries, if we may put it like that, can happen in either an organized or a chaotic manner, the worst-case scenario being ecological collapse. Any of the intermediate scenarios will in any event oblige us to reorganize ourselves through other rules. But we must not forget that the politics striving hardest to prevail in these situations of emergency and collapse is that of authoritarianism, discrimination, inequality, and militarism. It is, once again, barbarism. To avoid it, we must open an alternative road based on other principles and values, democracy, human rights, and social justice. It is a matter of ecosocialism or barbarism.
Shift to green tech won’t solve climate
Zelikow 22 – Professor of History at the University of Virginia. A former U.S. diplomat and Executive Director of the 9/11 Commission, he has worked for five presidential administrations (Philip, July/August 2022, “The Hollow Order,” Foreign Affairs, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/world/2022-06-21/hollow-order-international-system)
TALK IS CHEAP
In the 30 years since the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, the problem of how countries can source, supply, and pay for energy has become a defining planetary challenge. The main international response has been a wide commitment to decarbonization, expressed in international pledges. But these pledges are a façade. As the International Energy Agency recently pointed out, most of them are not underpinned by substantive policies, and if they were, they would still not be nearly enough to stop climate change. (Even Europe, the loudest voice for a green transition, has spent the last decade becoming more dependent on fossil fuels, particularly from Russia.) The world’s response to climate change, then, has been the geopolitical equivalent of a masque: a form of sixteenth-century aristocratic court entertainment, a dramatic performance featuring poetry and dumb allegorical shows, usually culminating in a ceremonial dance joined by the spectators.
Even the energy transition will not, by itself, stabilize the planet. It will shift dependence from fossil fuels to an even more pronounced reliance on certain metals used in green technology. In the relevant geology, mining, and mineral processing, China and Russia are in paramount positions. In the absence of any concerted action, the world is therefore trending toward addiction, and financial flows, to those new sources—China above all—in its carbon-free dreams. The architects of this system have done little to prevent such addiction.
It might seem that international economic management is a bright spot, an arena where there has been real action, not just a masque. To some extent, that’s true. In the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis, the main central banks jumped into action. Unlike in 1931, a financial panic that had earlier started in the United States and then spread to Europe did not lead to a world-crushing depression; instead, finance ministries and central banks coordinated to bail each other out. The G-20 was a genuinely useful forum to consider vital economic issues.
In the last ten years, however, the institutions for managing global capitalism have also become more stage than substance. The United States is unable to join new trade agreements because of domestic opposition. Countries across the planet have piled up debt, and the current international economic system cannot coordinate how to wind it down or provide necessary relief. The operation of the World Trade Organization is coming to a halt, both because it is unable to modernize its rules and because the United States has deliberately paralyzed the WTO’s dispute settlement system by refusing to confirm arbiters.
But nowhere has the hollowness of the current world order been more starkly revealed than in global health. After the SARS epidemic of 2003, amid concerns about China’s role in informing the rest of the planet about the outbreak, the nations of the world ceremoniously enacted a set of “international health regulations,” which defined the rights and duties of states to prevent and contain international public health dangers. The outbreak of COVID-19 revealed that the elaborate provisions for global surveillance and early warnings were a sham. The pandemic also showed that the planet’s main public health agency—the World Health Organization—was weak, and it demonstrated that the world’s major powers were far too self-interested to mount a truly global response. The most substantial investigation so far of the world’s reaction to COVID-19, by an independent panel with access to the WHO’s staff and documents, found it was “a preventable disaster.” As they wrote, “Global political leadership was absent.”
Revolution against capitalism needed to avoid human extinction
Michael Lowy, 4-1, 22, For an Ecosocialist DeGrowth, https://monthlyreview.org/2022/04/01/for-an-ecosocialist-degrowth/
Degrowth and ecosocialism are two of the most important movements—and proposals—on the radical side of the ecological spectrum. Sure, not everyone in the degrowth community identifies as a socialist, and not everyone who is an ecosocialist is convinced by the desirability of degrowth. But one can see an increasing tendency of mutual respect and convergence. Let us try to map the large areas of agreement between us, and list some of the main arguments for an ecosocialist degrowth:
Capitalism cannot exist without growth. It needs a permanent expansion of production and consumption, accumulation of capital, maximization of profit. This process of unlimited growth, based on the exploitation of fossil fuels since the eighteenth century, is leading to ecological catastrophe, climate change, and threatens the extinction of life on the planet. The twenty-six UN Climate Change Conferences of the last thirty years manifest the total unwillingness of the ruling elites to stop the course toward the abyss.
Any true alternative to this perverse and destructive dynamic needs to be radical—that is, must deal with the roots of the problem: the capitalist system, its exploitative and extractivist dynamic, and its blind and obsessive pursuit of growth. Ecosocialist degrowth is one such alternative, in direct confrontation with capitalism and growth. Ecosocialist degrowth requires the social appropriation of the main means of (re)production and a democratic, participatory, ecological planning. The main decisions on the priorities of production and consumption will be decided by people themselves, in order to satisfy real social needs while respecting the ecological limits of the planet. This means that people, at various scales, exercise direct power in democratically determining what is to be produced, how, and how much; how to remunerate different kinds of productive and reproductive activities that sustain us and the planet. Ensuring equitable well-being for all does not require economic growth but rather radically changing how we organize the economy and distribute social wealth.
A significant degrowth in production and consumption is ecologically indispensable. The first and urgent measure is phasing out fossil fuels, as well as the ostentatious and wasteful consumption of the 1 percent rich elite. From an ecosocialist perspective, degrowth has to be understood in dialectical terms: many forms of production (such as coal-fired facilities) and services (such as advertisement) should not only be reduced but suppressed; some, such as private cars or cattle raising, should be substantially reduced; but others would need development, such as agro-ecological farming, renewable energy, health and educational services, and so on. For sectors like health and education, this development should be, first and foremost, qualitative. Even the most useful activities have to respect the limits of the planet; there can be no such thing as an “unlimited” production of any good.
Productivist “socialism,” as practiced by the USSR, is a dead end. The same applies to “green” capitalism as advocated by corporations or mainstream “Green parties.” Ecosocialist degrowth is an attempt to overcome the limitations of past socialist and “green” experiments.
It is well known that the Global North is historically responsible for most of the carbon dioxide emissions in the atmosphere. The rich countries must therefore take the larger part in the process of degrowth. At the same time, we do not believe that the Global South should try to copy the productivist and destructive model of “development” of the North, but look instead for a different approach, emphasizing the real needs of the populations in terms of food, housing, and basic services, instead of extracting more and more raw materials (and fossil fuels) for the capitalist world market, or producing more and more cars for the privileged minorities.
Ecosocialist degrowth also involves transformation, through a process of democratic deliberation, of existing consumption models—for instance, an end to planned obsolescence and nonrepairable goods; of transport patterns, for instance, by greatly reducing the hauling of goods by ships and trucks (thanks to the relocalization of production), as well as airplane traffic. In short, it is much more than a change of property forms, it is a civilizational transformation, a new “way of life” based on values of solidarity, democracy, equaliberty, and respect for Earth. Ecosocialist degrowth signals a new civilization that breaks with productivism and consumerism, in favor of shorter working time, thus more free time devoted to social, political, recreational, artistic, ludic, and erotic activities.
Ecosocialist degrowth can only win through a confrontation with the fossil oligarchy and the ruling classes who control political and economic power. Who is the subject of this struggle? We cannot overcome the system without the active participation of the urban and rural working class, who make up the majority of the population and are already bearing the brunt of capitalism’s social and ecological ills. But we also have to expand the definition of the working class to include those who undertake social and ecological reproduction, the forces who are now at the forefront of social-ecological mobilizations: youth, women, Indigenous peoples, and peasants. A new social and ecological consciousness will emerge through the process of self-organization and active resistance of the exploited and oppressed.
Ecosocialist degrowth forms part of the broader family of other radical, antisystemic ecological movements: ecofeminism, social ecology, Sumak Kawsay (the Indigenous “Good Life”), environmentalism of the poor, Blockadia, Green New Deal (in its more critical versions), among many others. We do not seek any primacy—we just think that ecosocialism and degrowth have a shared and potent diagnostic and prognostic frame to offer alongside these movements. Dialogue and common action are urgent tasks in the present dramatic conjuncture.
Capitalization of nature means extinction; decoupling is impossible and green markets will only accelerate environmental decline
John Bellamy Foster, April 1, 2022, Monthly Review, Nature as a Mode of Accumulation: Capitalism and the Financialization of the Earth, https://monthlyreview.org/2022/03/01/nature-as-a-mode-of-accumulation-capitalism-and-the-financialization-of-the-earth/
The expropriation of the commons, its simplification, division, violent seizure, and transformation into private property constituted the fundamental precondition for the historical origin of industrial capitalism. What Karl Marx referred to as the original expropriation of the commons in England and in much of the world (often involving the expropriation of the laborers themselves in various forms of slavery and forced labor) generated the concentrations in wealth and power that propelled the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Industrial Revolution.1 In the process, the entire human relation to nature was alienated and upended. As Karl Polanyi wrote in The Great Transformation, “What we call land is an element of nature inextricably interwoven with man’s institutions. To isolate it and form a market for it was perhaps the weirdest of all the undertakings of our ancestors.”2 It is hardly surprising in this context that the first references to “natural capital” and to the “earth’s capital stock” arose in this same period in the work of radical and socialist political economists, who sought to defend nature and the commons against the intrusions of the market. Here, the notion of “natural capital” was viewed in terms of the stock of physical properties and natural-material use values constituting real wealth and was seen as opposed to the growing “sense of capitalism” as a system of mere exchange value or cash nexus.3 This nineteenth-century notion of “natural capital,” conceived in physical, use-value terms, was to be revived in the 1970s and ’80s as part of an emerging ecological critique. In more recent decades, however, mainstream neoclassical economics (sometimes with the help of ecological economists), together with corporate finance, have completely separated the concept of natural capital from its original use-value-based critique, the memory of which has long receded, conceiving natural capital instead entirely in exchange-value terms, as just another form of financialized capital. This is then used to reinforce the view that the solution to the current ecological crisis of the planet is to make a market out of it. A turning point in the financial expropriation of the earth occurred from September to November 2021, overlapping with the 2021 UN Climate Change Conference negotiations in Glasgow. Three major interrelated developments occurred at this time: (1) the creation of the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero embracing most of global capitalist finance; (2) approval of key elements of Article 6 of the Paris Agreement, creating the unified financial rules for global carbon trading markets; and (3) the announcement that the New York Stock Exchange together with the Intrinsic Exchange Group (IEG)—whose investors include the Inter-American Development Bank and the Rockefeller Foundation—was launching a new class of securities associated with natural asset companies (NACs). As the IEG told its investors, while the asset value of the world economy is $512 trillion, the asset value of the earth’s natural capital is estimated at $4 quadrillion ($4,000 trillion), all potentially for the taking.4 Together these developments represent a sea change in the capitalization of nature, such that all natural processes that involve ecosystem services to the economy are now increasingly seen to be subject to exchange on the market for profit—all in the name of conservation and climate change. This represents the culmination of a theoretical shift in the dominant economic paradigm aimed at the unlimited accumulation of total capital, now seen as including “natural capital.” The result is to reinforce the Great Expropriation occurring in this century aimed at what Charles Darwin called the earth’s “web of complex relations.”5 In order to develop a critical analysis of the current capitalist expropriation of world ecology, it is necessary to explore the concept of natural capital in the work of Marx and other early radical critics within classical political economy. It will then be possible to contrast this to current approaches in neoclassical economics, which views natural capital in purely exchange-value terms, offering this as a solution to the environmental problem. If, in Marx’s analysis, the human economy existed within what he called “the universal metabolism of nature,” in today’s dominant neoclassical economics, according to Dieter Helm, Chairman of the UK Natural Capital Committee, “the environment is part of the economy and needs to be properly integrated into it so that growth opportunities will not be missed. Integrating the environment into the economy is hampered by the almost complete absence of proper accounting for natural assets.”6 Here, the whole of the Earth System is conceived as a largely unincorporated “part” of the capitalist economy. In Helm’s conception, the capitalist economy faces no outer boundaries but is capable of subsuming all of nature, which then simply becomes part of the overall capitalist system. Classical Political Economy and Natural Capital as Use Value Most accounts of the origin of the term natural capital trace it to economist E. F. Schumacher’s book Small Is Beautiful in 1973.7 However, the notion of natural capital and the related concept of the earth’s capital stock were, in fact, widely used in nineteenth-century classical political economy, particularly among radical and socialist critics, appearing in the works of thinkers as various as Victor P. Considerant, Marx, Frederick Engels, Ebenezer Jones, George Waring, Henry Carey, and Justus von Liebig.8 Considerant was a utopian socialist, Charles Fourier’s leading disciple, who did much to establish the Fourierist tradition. In his Theory of the Right to Property and the Right to Work (1840), Considerant insisted that there were two forms of capital: (1) land, which in classical political economy stood for all forms of nature, and which he referred to as natural capital, and (2) created capital, produced by human labor (utilizing natural capital).9 Property rights to nature and natural resources according to Considerant are mere rights to usufruct or to the temporary use of that which belongs to the chain of human generations. Thus, natural capital was to be redistributed to each generation on an equal basis. However, under bourgeois civilization, natural capital had been usurped by a minority of private landholders, who had established land monopolies violating the principles of usufruct applying to all of humanity.10 Later in the same decade, the British poet and radical political economist Ebenezer Jones in The Land Monopoly provided a similar argument to that of Considerant. For Jones, the principal evil affecting the welfare of the population of England and Ireland was the land monopoly exercised by landlords, who appropriated “natural capital, God’s gift to all men.” In the next century (the twentieth), Jones indicated, the inhabitants of the land may have difficulty understanding “how the land they have come to live on [and its natural capital] could have been thus sold, not only (to use an expressive phrase) over their heads, but actually over their cradles, or even before they were born.” In these terms, natural capital was treated as the annual “produce of the land” (nature), or, in today’s terms, ecosystem services. Jones provided estimates of what the land was capable of generating in terms of the number of people it could support.11 He punctuated his argument on the land monopoly by pointing to the English colonial exportation of the proceeds of the land from Ireland during the Great Famine of only a few years before, amounting to sufficient food to have fed half the Irish people.12 With great acuity, he queried: “Suppose a body of men should consider the air of London to be in need of cultivation, and should unsolicitedly establish round the metropolis a circle of aerial purification—what would be conceived of their sanity, if they should in consequence consider themselves air-lords, with the air of London for their private property, for them to do what they like with, even to the exclusion of people from the use of it…?”13 Marx studied Considerant’s political-economic work in October 1842.14 In The German Ideology of 1845, Marx and Engels employed the term natural capital to refer to capital as it emerged in the towns of the Middle Ages, and then in the Mercantilist putting out system, tied to estates, and to natural resources, such as the cotton and wool fibers used, for example, in textile production. The growth of textile production, they wrote, required the “mobilization of natural capital through accelerated circulation.” They contrasted “natural capital,” rooted in the land, estates, and concrete use values to “movable capital” associated with the “beginning of money trade, banks, national debts, paper money, speculation in stock and shares, stockjobbing in all articles and the development of finance in general,” resulting in capital losing “a great part of the natural character that still clung to it.”15 The natural capital concept, as used by Marx and Engels in The German Ideology, was thus tied to the natural-material use-value structure of the economy and to landed capital and estates, as opposed to the greater mobility and fungibility of capital as pure exchange value or finance, which evolved under mercantilism and became dominant in industrial capitalism. If capital could originally be seen primarily in physical terms, it increasingly became measured in exchange-value forms. Marx and Engels’s overall emphasis here corresponded to the classical political-economic conception that real wealth consisted of natural-material use values while private riches were based on exchange value, that is, purely monetary claims to wealth. Yet, since reference to natural capital seemed to naturalize capital, Marx was to drop all direct reference to the term in his subsequent work.16 Nevertheless, the basic distinction was reflected in his contrast between the “natural form” of the commodity, related to natural-material use values, and the “value form” associated with exchange value, as well as his distinction, as we shall see, between earth matter and earth capital.17 For classical political economists in general, including such figures as Adam Smith, Thomas Malthus, David Ricardo, and John Stuart Mill, nature, as distinct from labor, created no value, and was treated as a “free gift” to capital—long before Marx pointed to the ecological contradictions that this entailed for the capitalist economy.18 As the Ricardian John Ramsay McCulloch put it, “in its natural state, matter is always destitute of [exchange] value.”19 Or, as Marx wrote, “value is labour, so surplus-value cannot be earth.”20 Nevertheless, the notion of natural-material use values, if no longer referred to as natural capital, remained integral to Marx’s conception of the capitalist economy and its ecological basis, including conceptions of the expropriation of nature and of natural processes turned into capital. The decisive shift in his analysis, in this respect, was already evident in The Poverty of Philosophy in 1846. Here in his critique of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s System of Economic Contradictions: Or the Philosophy of Misery, written earlier in the same year, Marx, as he later recounted in volume three of Capital, introduced “the distinction between terre-matière and terre-capital,” or between earth matter and earth capital:21 Land, so long as it is not exploited as a means of production, is not capital. Land as capital [terre-capital] can be increased just as much as all the other instruments of production. Nothing is added to its matter, to use M. Proudhon’s language, but the lands which serve as the instruments of production are multiplied. The very fact of applying further outlays of capital to land already transformed into means of production increases land as capital without adding anything to land as matter [terre-matière], that is, to the extent of the land. M. Proudhon’s land as matter is the earth in its limitation. As for the eternity he attributes to land, we grant readily it has this virtue as matter. Land as capital is no more eternal than any other capital.22 In this passage, Marx draws a distinction between land, viewed on the one hand as eternal earth matter (terre-matière, or mere matter), and, on the other, as historically generated earth capital (terre-capital). He is already pointing to the contradiction between capitalism and its natural conditions of production, a historical and materialist view that will govern his developing ecological critique, leading eventually to his metabolic rift concept. Although natural capital, now called earth capital, exists, it is seen as an alienated product of capitalism and by no means eternal. In Capital, Marx writes: “Capital may be fixed in the earth, incorporated into it, both in a more transient way, as is the case with improvements of a chemical kind, application of fertilizer, etc., and more permanently, as with drainage ditches, the provision of irrigation, leveling of land, farm buildings, etc.” This is connected to “ground-rent…paid for agricultural land, building land, mines, fisheries, forests, etc.… Ground rent is…the form in which landed property is economically realized, valorized.”23 By incorporating capital into the earth, Marx explained, capitalists “transform the earth from mere matter into earth-capital.”24 In this conception, the earth as matter (terre-matière) remained the basis of all life and production, while the valorization of portions of the earth as earth capital represented a fundamental contradiction between the eternal laws of nature and the law of value of capitalism. In some cases, Marx noted, the monopolization of a “force of Nature” could be enormously profitable, as in the case of ownership of a waterfall, providing waterpower to industry. Here, “a monopolisable force of Nature, which, like the waterfall, is only at the command of those who have at their disposal particular portions of the earth and its appurtenances,” generates surplus profit potential. This then allows those who own the waterfall or other forces of Nature to impose rents on their use. The rent is not a product of the waterfall itself—that is, does not derive from its “natural value”—nor does it derive directly from labor, but rather emanates from the owner’s private monopoly of a limited natural force (with the rent ultimately coming out of total surplus value).25 Marx argued that it was only the title to a particular natural resource that allowed monopoly rent to be applied, despite the fact that owners believed they were entitled to rent simply by purchasing the land or natural resource, particularly as the price of the land contained this capitalized tribute. But it was not the purchase or transfer of title that created the rent, but rather the title itself, which was a product of social relations that created the monopoly position and the power to enact rent—whether it was the title to a waterfall, a coal deposit, or other natural resources, the common inheritance of all humanity. Such rents, he argued, were being imposed “in ever greater measure” as capitalism developed.26 It is worth noting that the works of classical political economics in general, and Marx’s analysis of production in particular, were permeated with the treatment of environmental services, or what in ecosocialist theory are known as the eco-regulatory aspects, which supersede human labor. Such a view was inherent in Marx’s conception of the “universal metabolism of nature” as underwriting the “social metabolism” of the labor and production process. Thus, we find innumerable discussions in his work of the soil metabolism and of other “physical, chemical, and physiological processes” and “organic laws” associated with natural reproduction, operating on different time scales from human production. “The economic process of reproduction, whatever may be its specific social character,” he writes, “is in this area (agriculture) always intertwined…with a process of natural reproduction.”27 In 1855, a 22-year-old George Waring, already recognized as an eminent agriculturalist in the United States, later to be seen as one of the great ecological figures in U.S. history for his contributions in fighting urban waste and disease, presented an extensive address, entitled “Agricultural Features of the Census of the United States for 1850,” to a meeting of the Geographical Society in New York, subsequently published in the Bulletin of the American Geographical Society in 1857. Waring, who like other progressive agriculturalists had been influenced by the German chemist Justus von Liebig’s Organic Chemistry in its Application to Agriculture and Physiology (1840, better known as Agricultural Chemistry), used census figures for agriculture to estimate the loss of fertilizer agents within the U.S. economy. This was at a time when the capital invested in agriculture in the U.S. economy was seven times the amount invested in manufacturing, mining, the mechanic arts, and fisheries. In depicting the enormous losses of nutrients to the soil, he wrote: What with our earth-butchery and prodigality, we are losing the intrinsic essence of our vitality.… The question of economy should be, not how much do we annually produce, but how much of our annual production is saved to the soil. Labor employed in robbing the earth of its capital stock of fertilizing matter, is worse than labor thrown away. In the latter case it is a loss to the present generation; in the former it becomes an inheritance of poverty for our successors. Man is but a tenant of the soil, and he is guilty of a crime when he reduces its value for other tenants who are to come after him.28 Waring’s statement was taken up by Henry Carey, the foremost U.S. economist of the day, who had previously sent Marx The Slave Trade, Domestic and Foreign, a work that at one point characterized “man as a mere borrower from the earth.”29 Carey quoted extensively from Waring on “the robbing of the earth of its capital stock” in both his Letters to the President: On the Foreign and Domestic Policy of the Union (1858) and Principles of Social Science (1858). This was, in turn, to influence Liebig, who drew on Waring via Carey in his own Letters on Modern Agriculture (1859), which marked the beginning of his major attack on industrialized capitalist agriculture as a “robbery system.” Liebig’s critique in this respect was to culminate in the famous introduction to the 1862 edition of his Agricultural Chemistry that inspired Marx’s theory of metabolic rift. Significantly, in the same paragraph in which Marx made the crucial distinction between land as earth matter and as earth capital in volume 3 of Capital, he also referred to the classic criticisms of the degradation of the soil by James Anderson and Carey, pointing to the ecological contradictions of capital.30 In classical political economy, the logic of which in this respect was brought out most fully by Marx, nature and labor (itself a natural force) were the sources of real wealth as use values, while exploited labor power under capitalist production was the source of (commodity) value.31 It was the conflict that this set up between natural-material use values, treated as free gifts to be expropriated by capital, and the system of exchange value, that generated the fundamental ecological contradiction of capitalist production, associated with the robbing of nature.32 As James Maitland, the eighth Earl of Lauderdale, declared in An Inquiry into the Nature and Origin of Public Wealth and into the Means and Causes of Its Increase (1804), the system of commodity production destroyed public wealth (natural-material use values), generating scarcity and monopoly, thereby enhancing private riches (exchange value), with negative consequences for human society as a whole.33 Neoclassical Environmental Economics and the Valorization of Natural Capital In sharp contrast to classical political economy, neoclassical economics beginning in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries has sought to exclude nature and use value altogether from its analysis, reducing everything to exchange value and denying the distinctiveness of the natural world (as well as of human labor). It has defined capital in nonsocial, transhistorical terms, as any asset of any kind producing a stream of income over time—a definition that leads to an endless series of contradictions, derived from the fact that it sees capital as a kind of “social black box.”34 Nature and land were thus lumped together with other forms of “capital” and were, in effect, eliminated from the analysis, with the neoclassical production function reduced to two abstract factors of production: capital and labor. Inherent in this view was the postulate that natural resources were entirely reproducible or substitutable by human-made capital. A “weak-sustainability” postulate, representing the dominant neoclassical view, contends that all natural resources can be economically substituted by human-made or renewable resources—that is, there are no irreplaceable natural resources or processes that have to be maintained. This is counterposed by a “strong-sustainability” postulate, associated with ecological economics, arguing that certain “critical natural capitals” are irreplaceable and cannot be replaced by human-manufactured capital.35 The dominant weak-sustainability conception is well captured by economic growth theorist Robert Solow’s claim: “If it is very easy to substitute other factors for natural resources, then there is in principle no ‘problem.’ The world can, in effect, get along without natural resources, so exhaustion is just an event, not a catastrophe.… At some finite cost, production can be freed of dependence on exhaustible resources altogether.”36 Based on such assumptions, the liquidation of natural assets with the development of capitalism is not “an obstacle to further progress,” since such natural resources and processes are simply substituted for by the human economy with a zero net loss of capital overall. The concept of natural capital was reintroduced into the economic discussion in the 1970s and ’80s, beginning with Schumacher’s Small Is Beautiful, to highlight the “liquidation” of “natural capital” stock as a failure of the first order of the modern economic system, representing the view of ecological economics.37 Thus, the use of the concept up through the 1980s was directed mainly at the idea of maintaining a constant biophysical stock of natural capital. It was at this point that the notion of weak sustainability was formally introduced by some of the same figures, such as British economist David W. Pearce, who had first insisted on maintaining a constant stock of natural capital, but then argued, in line with neoclassical economics generally, that such natural capital could be easily replaced in the human economy and thus that no strict natural constraints on the economy existed. According to the weak-sustainability postulate, the notion of natural capital became largely indistinguishable from the neoclassical category of capital in general, insofar as it could be viewed as constituting productive assets providing an income stream.38 In response to the neoclassical weak-sustainability argument, ecological economists—initially inspired by Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen’s The Entropy Law and the Economic Process (1971), which emphasized the importance of the second law of thermodynamics in any realistic economics—embraced the notion of natural capital as a key concept, while wedding it to the notion of “critical natural capital” in conformity with the strong-sustainability postulate.39 Critical to the notion of strong sustainability were the three principles of sustainability introduced by Herman Daly: (1): “For a renewable source—soil, water, forest, fish—the sustainable rate of use can be no greater than the rate of regeneration.” (2) “For a nonrenewable resource—fossil fuel, high grade mineral ore, fossil groundwater—the sustainable rate of use can be no greater than the rate at which a renewable resource, used sustainably, can substitute for it.” (3) “For a pollutant, the sustainable rate of use can be no greater than the rate at which the pollutant can be recycled, absorbed, and rendered harmless by the environment.”40 This approach established limits to growth and determined sustainability in biophysical/use-value terms, rather than in terms of exchange value. The whole issue of natural capital, from the standpoint of the strong-sustainability postulate, thus became one of maintaining a net zero decrease in natural capital, viewed in biophysical terms, in which reductions in the stock of nonrenewable forms of natural capital, like fossil fuels, were offset by corresponding increases in renewable natural capital, such as the harnessing of solar energy and biomass.41 Ironically, it was economists associated with the International Society of Ecological Economics and the journal Ecological Economics who were to do the most to expand the notion of natural capital as a monetized economic category. Although ecological economists defended the notion of strong sustainability and some, such as Daly, continued to insist on treating natural capital simply in use-value terms, the majority yielded to the temptation of putting a price on the world’s ecosystem services—if only for pedagogical purposes, with the intent of establishing their importance from the standpoint of the economy. From there, it was a slippery slope toward the actual financialization of the world ecology. Moreover, the conception of what constituted critical natural capital was often watered down, while the principles of sustainability came to include the substitutability of human-made products for nature. Hence, the distinction between the weak- and strong-sustainability approaches tended to fade. In this general slippage within ecological economics, in which much of the tradition was brought back into the dominant neoclassical fold, natural capitals/ecosystem services were increasingly reduced to a strictly economic or imputed “commodity” value basis, to the point that there emerged what Marxian ecological economist Paul Burkett called an “artificial ecumenicism” between ecological economics and the hegemonic neoclassical economic tradition.42 Outside the relative few who stuck to the thermodynamic-based analysis of Georgescu-Roegen, or who were associated with the Marxist tradition, ecological economists found it difficult to resist the almost total dominance of the neoclassical tradition and the closely aligned corporate world.43 Once the natural capital concept was generally affixed to neoclassical economics—on the basis of the recognition in some way of weak/strong sustainability, with critical natural capital representing an exception and subject to change under the force of technology—it was quite possible to water down the environmental analysis altogether, to the point that the potential threat such ideas posed to capitalist accumulation could be downplayed. In practice, this meant reducing the conception of strong sustainability to the extent that it simply constituted a footnote to weak sustainability. Here, the treatment of natural capital was no longer seen as an actual limit on the expansion of the system. Thus, as the World Bank stated in its 2003 World Development Report: Limits-to-growth type arguments focus on strong sustainability, while arguments in favour of indefinite growth focus on weak sustainability. So far the former arguments have not been very convincing because the substitutability among assets has been high for most inputs used in production at a small scale. There is now, however, a growing recognition that different thresholds apply at different scales—local to global. Technology can be expected to continue to increase the potential substitutability among assets over time, but for many essential environmental services—especially global life support systems—there are no alternatives now, and potential technological solutions cannot be taken for granted.44 The World Bank statement subtly suggested that substitutability was high for all natural-resource inputs, except in the case of production at higher thresholds, particularly where this affected “global life support systems” (downplaying that this was precisely the issue in a globalizing economy within a limited planetary environment), while technological solutions to such scale effects, if not available now, were seen as potentially available in the future. The relation of the economy to natural resources should thus be one of promoting the “mix of assets that supports improvements in human well-being,” which was expected to change over time, thereby posing no clear limits to “indefinite growth.” The notion of critical natural capital, that is, a strong-sustainability argument, was thus carefully discounted. Entirely ignored was any consideration of the specific socioeconomic conditions governing capitalist production and the contradictions these inherently pose for the Earth System metabolism. In 1992, the International Society of Ecological Economics held a conference in Stockholm dedicated to the full operationalization of natural capital as a concept of ecological economics. In 2003, Ecological Economics published an introduction to a special issue that stated: “Natural capital is a key concept in ecological economics.”45 This shift coincided with a struggle within the journal itself, in which Robert Costanza, the chief editor and leading proponent of the hybrid neoclassical/ecological economic notion of natural capital, managed to remove leading systems ecologist Howard Odum and a number of other natural scientists associated with the journal from the editorial board. In opposition to the natural-capital concept with its attempted valuing of nature on capitalist terms, Odum had promoted a way of accounting for the embodied energy inputs in the natural economy using the notion of emergy (spelled with an m), directly related to the use-value category of classical economics. This was aimed at challenging attempts to play down the opposition between the capitalist economy and natural systems and providing a comprehensive theory of ecological imperialism. Following Odum’s ouster from the journal, the concept of emergy was effectively banned from the publication.46 These shifts in ecological economics opened the way to measuring the “natural income” or “welfare” flows to the human economy from natural capital stock in the form of ecosystem goods and services (shortened for convenience simply to services), thus providing putative market values for nature’s contribution to economic growth.47 Natural capital was, in effect, redefined in market terms as the natural resource stock that provided ecosystem services to the human economy. Ecosystem services did not refer to ecosystem processes as a whole, but only to those services that could be seen as subsidizing the human economy, and thus could be separated in this way from the rest of nature.48 The implicit goal was accounting for and eventually, to some extent, “internalizing” discernible free gifts to the capitalist market economy on the basis of imputed consumer preferences. Nature, where such benefits to the capitalist economy were absent, in effect remained devoid of imputed economic value and external to this wider natural-capital conception, as if it could be sliced and diced in economic asset terms. In this respect, ecosystem services as a natural-income category displaced the category of natural capital itself.49 Costanza, who did the most to expand the notion of ecosystem services, proceeded to lead a study entitled “The Value of the World’s Ecosystem Services and Natural Capital,” published in Nature in 1997, that provided estimates of seventeen ecosystem services across sixteen biomes based on a “simple benefit transfer [or value transfer] method.” The study assumed a constant per unit dollar value per hectare of a given ecosystem type, which was then multiplied by the total area of each type to obtain aggregate values.50 Values were obtained by relating benefits in the human economy to analogous benefits provided by ecosystem services. This constituted, in effect, a system of “shadow prices” based on an economist’s best estimate of what price a function or thing would obtain in the capitalist market economy, rooted in what were assumed to be individual preferences.51 Carrying out such an analysis requires, as does capitalist expropriation as a whole, what has been called “the division of nature,” that is, its simplification into putatively commodifiable elements.52 Natural, heterogeneous, and qualitatively distinct processes are “disaggregated into discrete and homogeneous value units,” reducing widely incommensurable entities and processes—Darwin’s “complex web of relations”—to monetary terms, allowing them to be aggregated to stand for global ecosystem services as a whole, while valued/priced in terms of capitalist commodity relations.53 The 1997 Costanza study was widely acclaimed among environmentalists, if only because it gave what seemed to be hard numbers to the notion that the world economy was dependent on the world ecology—now itself reduced in terms of ecosystem services to dollars. In that study, Costanza and his coauthors depicted the value of annual world ecosystem services in 1995 as $33 trillion in current dollars, slightly less than double the $18 trillion world GDP.54 The notion of natural capital valuation was further advanced in the Millennium Economic Assessment in 2005, which took as its main message the dangers of the “running down of natural capital assets” and neglect of environmental services across the globe. The United Nations was to launch a System of Environmental-Economic Accounting, utilizing the natural capital/ecosystems services approach.55 In 2014, in an updated analysis entitled “Changes in the Value of Global Ecosystem Values,” Costanza and his colleagues estimated that world ecosystem services in 2011 were equal to $145 trillion annually (in 2007 dollars), compared to a world GDP of approximately $73.6 trillion.56 Yet, while current attempts to place values on nature can serve useful pedagogical roles and help enhance strategic planning, they are increasingly being integrated with goals of capital accumulation. As Friends of the Earth noted in The Financialization of Nature, “promoting ecosystem markets involves the same methodologies and institutions for pricing and trading which were developed for economic evaluation.”57 Thus, over the last three decades, “the history of ecosystems services research” has been accompanied by “a parallel history of ecosystem function commodification,” operating through universities, governments, and businesses, using the same language and methods of ecosystems services accounting, but further extending the analysis to the creation of actual natural-capital markets. This occurs through three steps: (1) designating an ecological process as an ecosystem service to the human economy, (2) imputing to it a single “exchange value,” and (3) establishing ownership and managerial rights so as to link users and providers of the service in a market exchange, permitting financial investment and accumulation.58 For the IEG (now teamed up with the New York Stock Exchange, a minority investor in the former), the significance of the 2014 Costanza-led study of global ecosystem values is that it shows that ecosystem services have a value far exceeding that of world GDP—one that, in the context of environmental concerns, can be opened to accumulation and financial exploitation via ecosystem function commodification.59 “Nature’s economy is larger than our current industrial economy and we can tap this store of wealth” based “on natural assets and the mechanism to convert them into financial assets,” thereby transforming the economy into “one that is more equitable, resilient and sustainable.” In this perspective, “intrinsic value” is used as the umbrella term for potential economic values of the natural environment that have “not yet been identified or quantified,” representing vast new openings for financial investment and wealth as the boundaries between the capitalist economy and unpriced nature erode.60 Accumulation of Natural Capital and the Financialization of Nature The last decade has seen an explosion of natural capital initiatives aimed at the accumulation and financialization of nature as a means of addressing environmental constraints. In 2011, the UK Environment Bank, a private institution devoted to the financialization of nature, received £175,000 from the Shell Foundation to aid it in the development of markets for ecosystem services.61 Since 2012, the Natural Capital Committee of the UK government and the UK Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs have been promoting a natural capital “aggregate rule” based on the notion of net-zero losses in natural capital in economic value terms. This has involved the development of mechanisms for treating various elements of nature as commensurate not only with each other, but also with commodity markets. A methodology for managing natural capital has been introduced in which the destruction of biodiversity or the climate would be balanced by offsets that increase (or protect) natural assets by an equal value amount elsewhere. This has required the reduction of nature/natural capital to monetary units that can then be integrated into consolidated national accounts, incorporating changes in UK natural capital, valued in 2015 at £1.6 trillion. This process has been facilitated internationally by the formation of a host of entities dedicated to natural capital accounting, including the World Forum for Natural Capital, the Natural Capital Declaration, and the Natural Capital Financing Facility of the European Investment Bank and European Commission.62 Although carbon trading markets were behind much of this, of near-equal importance have been initiatives associated with biodiversity and conservation. In September 2016, the World Conservation Congress of the International Union for Conservation of Nature introduced its “natural capital charter” (Motion 63) as a framework for treating all biodiversity as natural capital values. This was preceded by the global Natural Capital Protocol of multinational corporate business initiated in July 2016 by the Natural Capital Coalition (now renamed the Capitals Coalition).63 The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity, published in 2010 and 2011, initiated under the auspices of the Natural Capital Coalition with the support of the United Nation Environment Programme and the European Commission, was to be a heavy promoter of the valuation of natural capital.64 A watershed initiative with respect to the accumulation of nature was launched by the Swiss-based global investment bank Credit Suisse, which in 2016 introduced a report on Conservation Finance: Moving Beyond Donor Funding to an Investor-Driven Approach, followed by a report that same year on Levering Ecosystems: A Business-Focused Perspective on How Debt Supports Investment in Ecosystems Services. The Credit Suisse scheme is to move beyond donor capital in conservation to construct a “conservation finance space.” The key here is to reorganize conservation finance to create in each case a definite “financial vehicle” or company, controlling the natural capital/ecosystem services, which would generate major financial returns to investors. The goal is to turn ecosystem services into “an asset treasured by the mainstream investment market.”65 This was the basis for the NACs listing on the New York Stock Exchange, which used the same methodology of creating a “financial vehicle” or “natural assets company” as an intermediary in the conversion of a “natural asset” into “financial capital” consecrated by the launch of an Initial Public Offering of the natural asset company.66 Various means would be developed in this respect for the Payments for Ecosystem Services and trading of natural capital, involving nonfinancial corporations, banks, governments, and NGOs. Government-owned natural capital assets, often expropriated from Indigenous populations and subsistence farmers, could be sold in the form of debt for nature swaps or leveraged via international financial capital. More important, however, is the role envisioned by the IEG in which NACs managing ecosystems services would operate essentially like businesses that have acquired “mining rights,” thus allowing them to exploit the resources and accumulate monetized assets—in this case though in the name of sustaining nature.67 Although a given state would normally continue to have sovereign ownership of the land, the financial vehicle managing and disposing of the ecosystem services would profit directly off the income streams associated with these “tradable” assets. According to the Credit Suisse Conservation Finance report, in order for firms to profit through investment in natural capital, it will be necessary to combine “heterogeneous” natural assets, “bundling them into a single product with a tailored risk and return sharing vehicle.” In this way, it is possible to “provide a market-rate return and leverage multiple sources of finance to reduce risk,” thereby maximizing value for investors.68 Carbon trading, which is now being fully globalized through Article 6 of the 2021 UN Climate Change Conference, is designed to promote a world market in offsets, allowing a firm to avoid actual carbon emission reductions by financing (and frequently capitalizing) an offset, usually in the Global South, involving carbon sequestration. The $100 billion that the developed capitalist countries have promised to direct at the Global South for climate finance is seen as subject to debt leverage by multinational monopoly-finance capital. This lies behind the 2021 Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero initiative of global finance, which has declared at the outset that carbon-mitigation financing to developing countries will be dependent on whether they fully open up their economies to global capital. Credit Suisse sees “ecological footprints” as moving “closer to being recognized as assets and liabilities by companies allowing debt to fund natural capital investment and the creation of new profitable markets with “net-positive financial outcomes” in the Global South.69 In general, the accumulation and financialization of nature involves the creation of titles to environmental services of various kinds, previously within the commons as the inheritance of the world’s people, after which these titles can be traded and leveraged. In the case of valorized natural capital, monopoly rights to environmental services can be established with the cooperation of governments, through the creation of NACs, which then will be free to accumulate based on the “management” of this service, including trading in all sorts of offsets. As the New York Stock Exchange indicated, NACs would “hold the [economic] rights to ecosystem services produced on a given chunk of land.”70 The logic, as far as capital and finance is concerned, is not that far removed from how extractive industries themselves developed, but, in this case, it is putatively about sustaining natural assets by maintaining net-zero losses. In analogy with standing timber as a concept in forestry, these assets are now referred to as standing natural capitals.71 Profiting off the extraction of environmental services is conflated with the notion of sustainable forestry, marketing the service while maintaining the overall asset. It, however, runs into the same contradictions.72 Governments, intergovernmental organizations, financial institutions, nonfinancial corporations, and nongovernmental organizations, in introducing the notion of natural capital in their various reports, often begin by referring to it in broad material use-value terms as consisting of nature’s resource stock—a view of natural capital that goes back to the nineteenth century. Yet, the fine print soon makes it clear that natural capital is primarily viewed today in exchange-value, not use-value, terms. One such market is the global voluntary carbon market, which is projected to reach $180 billion by the end of this decade. Only “a tiny fraction” of these carbon offsets, according to Bloomberg in January 2022, actually remove carbon from the air, while 90 percent of firms employing certified carbon offsets were found in a survey to have inflated their claims on carbon savings. In line with this, the term carbon neutral is now being used as a marketing tool with no basis in net-zero carbon accounting, in much the same way as the term natural, lacking any clear designation, is adopted in place of organic in marketing to fool the unwary consumer.73 In this context, the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) market has become the leading vehicle for voluntary carbon offsets. Such projects, however, have been associated with the expropriation of Indigenous lands and the removal of Indigenous peoples.74 It is significant in this respect that the Terra Bella Fund of Terra Global Capital, which is a private investment fund specializing in environmental assets, is specifically directed at “voluntary markets where regulations are uncertain or non-existent” in emerging and developing economies and is focused on buying up “under-valued derivative instruments on environmental assets.”75 According to Kanyinke Sena, director of the Indigenous Peoples of Africa Coordinating Committee, Indigenous people constitute less than 5 percent of the world’s population but protect 80 percent of the world’s biodiversity.76 The world’s peasantry also plays a vital ecosystem role, employing traditional practices. Ironically, in the name of ecology and combating the capitalist destruction of the earth as a safe home for humanity and innumerable other species, we are seeing an enormous expansion of the domain of what Marx called earth capital. This is occurring by means of the expropriation of Indigenous and peasant populations, along with the expropriation of the human natural inheritance altogether, including that of future generations. This constitutes the great tragedy of the commodification of the commons, a new Great Expropriation, pointing to the destruction of the earth, involving vast land (and ocean) grabs, particularly in the Global South.77 The famous Lauderdale Paradox, the destruction of public wealth (principally the commons) in order to generate private riches, introduced by the Earl of Lauderdale at the beginning of the nineteenth century, has a direct application in our time. The expropriation and degradation of the ecological commons is generating the conditions of scarcity crucial to the creation of exchange value, private property monopolies, and monopoly rents. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that multinational capital is playing both sides of this game of the destruction and accumulation of nature. According to Portfolio Earth, the world’s fifty largest banks provided $2.6 trillion in 2019 to companies linked to deforestation and biodiversity destruction, especially in Southeast Asia and the Amazon. The top three offenders are Bank of America, Citigroup, and JPMorgan Chase.78 The Financial Times carried a report in October 2021 indicating that global banks and asset managers had extended $119 billion since 2016 to agribusiness companies involved in deforestation.79 Over 70 percent of global carbon emissions can be traced to just one hundred corporations (military emissions excluded).80 The same capitalist firms that are destroying the Earth System as a home for humanity are now supporting the financialization of the world’s natural capital/ecosystem services, aimed at profiting off attempts to safeguard the earth from their own continuing destruction of it. In this conception, profits can be made on both sides of the ledger, by contributing to the creative destruction of nature as part of the accumulation of capital and by profitably investing so as to ensure a zero net loss in total human and natural assets. It would be an understatement to refer to this as a planetary-level protection racket raised to the level of the capitalist economic system as a whole.81 Against the Accumulation of Nature The concept of natural capital, including the earth as a capital stock, was introduced in nineteenth-century political economy and environmental discussions, primarily within the socialist and radical traditions, as a way of emphasizing that real wealth consisted of natural-material use values as opposed to the commodified exchange values of the capitalist economy. Those figures within classical political economy who initially focused on the conservation and common human ownership of material use values as constituting real wealth, opposed land monopolies and the confiscation, commodification, and destruction of nature in the interest of capital accumulation. Such arguments with regard to natural capital could already be seen in the writings of Considerant, Jones, Marx, Waring, Carey, and Liebig, among others. When Schumacher revived the concept of natural capital in 1973 in Small Is Beautiful, he was operating, as he was well aware, in this same basic tradition, seeing natural capital as constituting use values or natural resources that could not be quantified, but represented a stock of real wealth that was being liquified by capitalist production. As he wrote there: “To measure the immeasurable is absurd and constitutes [on the part of the economist] but an elaborate method of moving from preconceived notions to foregone conclusions: all that one has to do to obtain the desired results is to impute suitable values to the immeasurable costs and benefits” of nature. The only real result of such an endeavor was to perpetuate the myth that “everything has a price, or, in other words, that money is the highest of all values.”82 As we have noted, Marx and Engels in The German Ideology initially used the concept of natural capital to refer to the “natural form” of the commodity tied to use value and its concrete, physical form. In its initial development, coming out of the Middle Ages, they argued, capital was tied to physical space, in the sense of land/space, involving definite material inputs, and in this sense could be regarded as a form of “natural capital.” This was contrasted to the subsequent development of “mobile capital” based on an exchange value and the circulation of financial claims to wealth. However, the term natural capital itself was dropped by Marx by the time he wrote The Poverty of Philosophy only a year later, given his critique of the naturalization of capitalism. In its place, he introduced a more ecological distinction between the earth or land as a natural-material entity—earth matter—and the category of earth capital, the latter representing nature (for example, the soil or a waterfall) turned into capital.83 The accumulation of earth capital, though indispensable to capital accumulation, led in Marx’s view to the disruption of the universal metabolism of nature in favor of capitalism’s alienated social metabolism, thus developing an “irreparable rift” in the metabolism of nature and society (or the metabolic rift).84 Here, Marx’s analysis was much influenced by the work of Waring, Carey, and Liebig, who wrote of the robbing of the earth’s capital stock, a notion that Marx was to make central to his notion of metabolic rift. In Marx’s own terms, what was being “robbed” through the accumulation of “earth capital” was the material metabolism and reproductive basis of the earth as matter (material nature) itself. Capitalism was to be conceived as a form of creative destruction in which the destructiveness of the system would overwhelm its creative side. As he observed, “capital…is in practice moved as much and as little by the sight of the coming degradation and final depopulation of the human race, as by the probable fall of the earth into the sun.”85 A rational, sustainable relation to the earth was impossible under the regime of capital, since it saw the earth either as a mere free gift to capital accumulation or as transformed into earth capital. In either case, the ecological system was robbed. There was nothing eternal about terre-capital, which existed on the basis of the capitalization of nature; only terre-matière, constituting the realm of natural-material existence, the universal metabolism of nature, was eternal. “Natural capital,” Daly insists, should be seen in use-value terms, “based on the relations of physical stocks and flows, not prices and monetary valuation.”86 Yet, the notion of natural capital has to be seen as a dangerous one altogether in a capitalist society. Rather than embodying a distinction, as in Marx’s analysis, between the earth matter and earth capital, it is easily incorporated into an all-inclusive, ahistorical notion of capital, which is treated as homogeneous and to be measured in terms of the single yardstick of exchange value. In this respect, it is crucial to remember that capitalism is a system of accumulation geared to exponential expansion, hence leading to the drawing down of natural resources. It represents the very opposite of conservation. It therefore cannot accept material limits or boundaries, which are viewed simply as barriers to be surmounted.87 Faced with environmental constraints, the dominant economic approach is, therefore, to incorporate ecosystem services into the economy by placing capital values on it and selectively integrating it with capital accumulation itself—a process made easier by the fact that capital makes nature scarcer and more marketable by destroying it. Valuing nature simply by its ecosystem services to a capitalist economy is inevitably destructive of nature itself, with the concept of ecosystem services inviting the extreme division of nature in capitalist terms, since it has as its initial basis the “cutting” of nature into discrete pieces to be valorized.88 In the context of the overall financialization of the world economy, vast amounts of surplus “free cash,” the growth of financial bubbles, and the promotion of debt peonage in the Global South, the financialization of nature is likely to intensify the volatility of the capitalist economy itself.89 Nevertheless, it is the environmental bubble generated by the financialization of nature that is most dangerous.90 In what amounts to a victory of notions of weak sustainability, it is often contended that the continual destruction of nature required by capital accumulation can be offset by the valorization of nature and its internalization within the logic of capital itself, so that there is no net loss of natural capital in economic value terms and the exponential increase of capital accumulation in a limited environment is allowed to proceed. New financialized ecosystems can help support the entire system. If nature is itself capital, the argument goes, there is simply no problem. The destruction of one species or of a whole ecosystem can be compensated for by natural capital that provides ecosystem services for the economy elsewhere. In the words of Solow, representing the neoclassical view of sustainability, History tells us an important fact, namely that goods and services can be substituted for one another. If you don’t eat one species of fish, you can eat another species of fish. Resources are, to use a favorite word of economists, fungible in a certain sense. They can take the place of each other. That is extremely important because it suggests that we do not owe to the future any particular thing. There is no specific object that the goal of sustainability, the obligation of sustainability, requires us to leave untouched.… Sustainability doesn’t require that any particular species of fish or any particular tract of forest be preserved.91 Like most capitalist economists, Solow fails to recognize that each species and each ecosystem is unique, and that extinction is irreversible, affecting the whole complex evolution of the Earth System. For Credit Suisse, conservation finance is about turning nature into “fungible” cash flow and products in precisely Solow’s sense.92 Species and ecosystems may be treated as commensurable and substitutable in the economic value terms of the capitalist economy, but in reality they are incommensurable and irreplaceable. Their individual demise represents real ecological consequences. To think otherwise is to fall prey to what Marxist geographer David Harvey called “the madness of economic reason,” in which there are no limits—quantitative or qualitative—to the valorization and financialization of capital, conceived as value in motion, absorbing all of reality, including nature itself.93 As ecological economist John Gowdy declared, the concept of natural capital as it is now employed “contains two contradictory concepts: ‘natural’ indicating a world governed by biophysical laws and ‘capital’ indicating a world governed by the laws of market capitalism.”94 Attempts to overcome this contradiction by subsuming material nature within capital run into the contradiction that Marx expressed between the earth as natural-material and the earth as capital. For Marx, human production and extra-human nature had to be seen as complementary and co-evolutionary, requiring that natural systems be maintained in terms of their material flows and complex web of relations, preserving the metabolism of humanity and nature for the entire chain of human generations and for the sake of life on earth itself, in accord with the principle of acting as good heads of the household.95 In the classical Marxian view, as emphasized by Ernst Bloch in The Principle of Hope, nature and humanity are “co-productive,” in the sense that “the creations slumbering in the womb of nature” are the material basis of all human productivity.96 What this means is that other, wider ecological principles, applicable to both natural and human systems, need to displace current attempts to solve the planetary crisis generated by capitalism by simply absorbing the earth itself within the logic of the system, in an extension of commodity fetishism to the realm of nature itself.97 Ecology has generated new bases for promoting sustainable human development and the overcoming of economic and ecological imperialism.98 Within Marxism, there is a long, if disputed, tradition of the dialectics of nature, which stands strongly opposed to reductionist approaches to nature and its evolution, exposing the dangers of all attempts to commodify the natural world and insisting that human beings “belong to nature and exist in its midst, and…all our mastery of it consists in the fact that we have the advantage of all other creatures of being able to learn its laws and apply them correctly.”99 Such a critical, dialectical, and materialist perspective requires the abandonment of both the naturalization of capital and the capitalization of nature, as well as the recognition of the inescapable social character of capital, associated with a particular historical system: capitalism. Only an ecological and social revolution that would allow humanity as a whole, the associated producers, to regulate the human social metabolism with the earth in a rational and sustainable way, in accord with a broad scientific understanding and with the aim of promoting genuine, free human development, can offer a way out of the current planetary crisis.
Capitalist globalization won’t stop war; it empowers dictators
Alden, 4-11, 22, Edward Alden is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, a visiting professor at Western Washington University, and the author of, “Failure to Adjust: How Americans Got Left Behind in the Global Economy.” Globalization was supposed to bring peace through capitalism https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2022/04/11/russia-china-peace-capitalism/
Since the end of the Cold War, the United States and other Western powers have pursued a noble idea — that by tying themselves economically to their rivals, they might escape the dismal cycle of great-power conflicts. In that spirit, Germany encouraged gas and oil imports from Russia over the last decade even as Vladimir Putin was stepping up his aggression against neighboring states. Europe and the United States embraced trade with China, expanding ties as the Asian nation became the world’s largest exporter, including of some critical goods. For several decades, Western powers seemed satisfied that, in the words of the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, the “power of money … perhaps the most dependable of all powers,” would compel nations “to prevent war wherever it threatens to break out.” All of that now seems hopelessly naive. Putin invaded Ukraine despite unambiguous Western threats that Russia would be immediately isolated from the global economy through sanctions. China under Xi Jinping has crushed democracy and press freedom in Hong Kong, increased military threats against Taiwan, and entered a loose alliance with Russia to challenge the U.S.-led global order. Rather than moderating the ambitions of authoritarian leaders, their rising wealth — brought about in good part by foreign investment and trade — has emboldened them to challenge Western democracies head on. So has economic engagement been a catastrophic failure? The purest version of this “capitalist peace theory” — that economic interests naturally discourage war — was certainly optimistic. Western leaders had hoped that trade would not only temper the ambitions of their rivals but also nurture a middle class in those countries that would demand democratic reforms. The Germans had a name for the policy — “Wandel durch Handel,” or “change through trade” — and stuck stubbornly to it even as growing wealth in Russia and China brought greater political repression. Germany’s trade with Russia grew by nearly 6 percent annually from 1995 to 2021. The European Union’s trade with China today — some $828 billion in 2021 — is now larger than EU trade with the United States. In the same spirit, the United States welcomed China into the World Trade Organization in 2001. Bringing China into the global economy “has succeeded remarkably well,” Robert Zoellick, deputy secretary of state in the George W. Bush administration, said in 2005. “From China’s perspective, it would seem that its national interest would be much better served by working with us to shape the future international system.” Neo-Nazis are exploiting Russia’s war in Ukraine for their own purposes There were reasons to be hopeful, as China seemed on a path to reform in the 1990s and 2000s, and Putin welcomed foreign investment after being elected Russian president in 2000. But economic growth ceased to be the top priority as Putin and Xi, who became China’s president in 2013, came to see themselves as leading historic missions to restore national greatness. And Western politicians were far too confident that these leaders would be unable to constrain the liberalizing forces of capitalism. President Bill Clinton once quipped that China’s plan to control the Internet was like “trying to nail Jello to the wall,” although China was succeeding in building the largest censorship system in history. A destroyed residential building in the town of Borodianka, northwest of Kyiv. (Genya Savilov/AFP/Getty Images) Despite these dispiriting developments, though, it is too soon to declare that the heirs of Kant have failed. Russian arms have proved deficient in Ukraine, but the power of money has never been more on display. Sanctions against Russia have cut off access to hundreds of billions of dollars of its central bank reserves, crashing the value of the ruble (it has recovered only because of capital controls that make the currency all but worthless outside Russia). Russia’s manufacturing industries, from steel to cars, have ground to a halt since the flows of Western parts and technology have ceased and foreign markets have been blocked. Its citizens have lost access to most Western goods and services — companies including McDonald’s, H&M, Visa and Mastercard have left. Thousands of Russians have already fled the country in what is looking like a massive brain drain of the nation’s best and brightest. The Institute of International Finance forecasts that Russia’s economy will contract nearly 18 percent by the end of 2023, wiping out the last 15 years of economic growth. China, which only months ago declared its friendship with Russia to be “without limits,” is watching closely. While it appears to have adhered to Western sanctions against Russia, capital has nonetheless been flowing out of China. Investors, seeing massive losses in Russia, are recalculating the risks they face in authoritarian countries. If China were hit with similar sanctions, it would have many more economic weapons to fight back than Russia does. China’s economy is more diversified; its trade with the ASEAN nations is now larger than with either the United States or Europe. It has invested heavily in developing countries through its Belt and Road Initiative, and those countries might be reluctant to enforce Western sanctions. And China has a near monopoly in some critical sectors, such as the processing of rare-earth metals, a vital component of many consumer products including electric and hybrid vehicles, and for military applications such as jet engines and satellites. But China still relies on the West for the most advanced technologies, especially semiconductor equipment and fabrication capabilities. In an economic conflict, its vulnerabilities exceed its strengths. Russia’s military losses give diplomacy a fighting chance The West’s economic embrace of China and Russia, of course, was not all about peace. Businesses have profited handsomely. Former German chancellor Gerhard Schröder became board chairman of the Russian oil giant Rosneft, and he used his close relationship with Putin to champion the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project, which Germany halted just before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. U.S. companies lobbied furiously to bring China into the WTO, lured by cheap labor and the huge Chinese consumer market. It is easy to see how Putin would miscalculate, believing corporate interests to be so strong in the West that governments would be dissuaded from truly damaging sanctions. But those profits are exactly the point. Economic interdependence breeds peace only if the costs of breaking those ties are high enough — and just as important, if all sides recognize that the costs are high enough. If the West can remain united on sanctions in response to the invasion of Ukraine — a big if as energy prices soar and inflation hurts consumers — Russia will pay high and sustained costs. That cooperation is already being tested as pressure is growing in Europe to cut off gas and oil imports from Russia in the wake of the Bucha massacre, which Germany fears would throw its economy into recession. But a demonstration of unity may discourage Xi from following Putin’s example.
Anti-globalization worse for the poor than globalization
David C. Hendrickson is President of the John Quincy Adams Society and the author of Republic in Peril: American Empire and the Liberal Tradition (Oxford, 2018), March 25, 2022, Sanctions Won’t Bring Down Putin, But They Will Punish the World, https://nationalinterest.org/feature/sanctions-won%E2%80%99t-bring-down-putin-they-will-punish-world-201423?page=0%2C1
If the economic war were short term, the economic and financial consequences might prove manageable. If long term, we are looking at a fundamental reordering of the international political economy, a gigantic shift from globalization to neo-mercantilism. China cannot escape the whirlwind of sanctions; President Joe Biden and his team have promised extreme pressure on China if it does not break from Russia, as it is most unlikely to do. On this grim reckoning, the TEWAR on its present course promises to be relentless, insatiable, drawing commercial relationships the world over into its purview. Economists taught for a generation that globalization was a great generator of wealth, and the neoliberal order did generate great wealth, albeit very unevenly and unfairly for many people. We can leave that argument over the benefits and burdens of globalization for another day. This day, we need to acknowledge not only that deglobalization is a powerful wealth-destroying force but also that the dismantling of globalization would fall most heavily on those who least participated in its benefits.
Capitalism/neoliberalism make it impossible to control disease
Elanah Uretsky, Associate Professor of International and Global Studies, Brandeis University, 11-5, 21, The Converesation, The US was not prepared for a pandemic – free market capitalism and government deregulation may be to blame, https://theconversation.com/the-us-was-not-prepared-for-a-pandemic-free-market-capitalism-and-government-deregulation-may-be-to-blame-165295
It’s unclear when the pandemic will come to an end. What may be an even more important question is whether the U.S. will be prepared for the next one. The past year and a half suggests that the answer may be no. As a medical anthropologist who has spent the past 20 years studying how the Chinese government reacts to infectious disease, my research can provide insight into how countries, including the U.S., can better prepare for disease outbreaks. Researchers agree that a good response starts with a strong public health system. But this is something that has been sidelined by the United States’ neoliberal system, which places more value on free markets and deregulation than public welfare. Neoliberalism promotes a free market accessible to the wealthy few, making essential services less free for everyone else. As US neoliberalism evolved, public health devolved Neoliberal economic policies became popular in the 1980s during the Reagan and Thatcher eras. This new approach aimed to make government leaner and more efficient through measures like market deregulation, privatization and reduction of government provision of public services like health and education – resources that do not necessarily lend themselves to market production. The Conversation brings you analysis from scientists and medical doctors. While neoliberal governments still work to promote the health, welfare and security of their citizens, they place the responsibility of providing those services in the hands of private entities like health insurance companies and nongovernmental organizations. This gives the government space to focus on economic performance. But placing responsibility for a public good into the hands of a private corporation turns that good into a commodity that people need to buy, rather than a service publicly available to all. Spending on health care in the U.S., including on hospitals, medications and private insurance, has more than tripled in the past 60 years. But the public health system that helps the nation prepare for the unexpected has been neglected. U.S. spending on the local health departments that help to avert epidemic outbreaks and protect the health of populations fell by 18% between 2010 and 2021. Two and a half cents of every medical dollar goes toward public health, a figure that has fallen from 1930 levels of 3.3 cents of every dollar. This has allowed the U.S. to manage health risks like chronic diseases that threaten individual’s health. But it leaves the nation inadequately prepared for population-level major health threats that have a much bigger effect on the economy and society. Public health cuts left the U.S with a skeletal workforce to manage the pandemic. Because of this, responsibility fell to individuals. For example, without mandatory workplace COVID-19 safety guidelines, essential workers faced daily exposure to the coronavirus with insufficient to no protective gear and sanitizing supplies. They had to protect both their own health and the health of their families when they returned home, a difficult task without proper resources and support. And this was not unique to the U.S. There were similar COVID-19 outcomes in other neoliberal countries like the U.K. and India that had shifted priorities away from public health. How Asian nations learned their lessons The story was different in many Asian nations where people enjoy the same types of individual liberties as those who live in neoliberal societies. The difference is a collectivist type of mindset that guides these societies and encourages people and government to take responsibility for one another. In her book Flexible Citizenship, anthropologist Aihwa Ong argues that this leads to a societal model where citizens can be independent and self-reliant while also able to rely on a state that supports the collective. Countries like Taiwan and South Korea may have been better prepared to respond to the pandemic because most people are accustomed to protecting themselves and their communities. Like China, these countries also learned from their recent experience with a pandemic. In 2003, China and much of Asia were caught off guard with the emergence of SARS. Like the U.S., China’s public health system had taken a backseat to investment in market reforms for over 20 years. As a result, it couldn’t accurately track individual cases of infections. Following the end of the SARS outbreak, however, the Chinese government improved training for public health professionals and developed one of the most sophisticated disease surveillance systems in the world. This allowed China to respond more quickly to the 2009 H1N1 pandemic and late 2019 COVID-19 outbreaks, once it was able to get past the initial bureaucratic and political hurdles that prevented local doctors and government officials from sounding the alarm. Some have attributed this swift action to China’s authoritarian form of government that allows for greater control over individual lives. But prioritizing public health is not new to China. This became official practice as early as 1910 when it adopted the methods of quarantine, surveillance and masking to respond to an outbreak of pneumonic plague. Could this work in the US? Much like SARS did with China, COVID-19 has exposed huge holes in the American public health infrastructure. Take for example contact tracing. SARS taught China and other affected countries the importance of a robust system to identify and track people who may have been exposed to the COVID-19 virus. The Chinese government sent more than 1,800 teams of scientific investigators to Wuhan to trace the virus, which helped their efforts to quickly bring the virus under control. In the U.S., on the other hand, poorly funded and thinly staffed public health departments struggled to test and notify people who had been in direct contact with infected individuals. This crippled the U.S.‘s ability to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Person scans phone app used for contact tracing and has temperature checked by guard before entering a shopping area A widely adopted contact tracing system in China helped control the spread of COVID-19. Kevin Frayer/Stringer via Getty Images News In my home state of Massachusetts, the local government teamed up with the global health organization Partners in Health to start a contact tracing operation. But even then, people were left to fend for themselves. This became all the more evident as people scrambled for vaccines after their initial approval, through Facebook groups and informal volunteer networks that worked to help people secure appointments. Those who had resources learned how to take advantage of the system while others were overlooked. This is typical of a U.S. health care system that is consumer-oriented and market-based. Americans are often convinced that the solution to a health problem must be technical and costly. The focus was placed on developing vaccines and therapeutics, which are essential for ending the pandemic, while ignoring lower-cost solutions. But masking and social distancing – non-pharmaceutical interventions that have long been known to save lives during disease outbreaks – fell by the wayside. Uptake of these simple interventions is dependent on strong and coordinated public health messaging. As seen in several Asian nations like Taiwan and South Korea, a well-thought-out plan for public health communication is key to a unified response. Without clear, coordinated directions from a public health system, it becomes difficult to prevent the spread of an outbreak. What it takes to be prepared Anthropologist Andrew Lakoff describes preparedness as more than just having the tools. It’s also about knowing how and when to use them, and keeping the public properly informed. Such preparedness can only happen in a coordinated fashion organized by national leadership. But the U.S. has seen little of this over the past year and a half, leaving pandemic response up to individuals. In an era where emergent viruses are an increasing threat to health and welfare, the individualism of neoliberal policies is not enough. While neoliberalism can be good for an economy, it’s not so good for health.
Capitalism robs the earth of life sustaining functionality, socialism needed to solve
Foster, 11-1, 2021, , https://monthlyreview.org/2021/11/01/the-planetary-rift/, The Planetary Rift, John Bellamy Foster and Haris Golemis John Bellamy Foster is the editor of Monthly Review and a professor of sociology at the University of Oregon. Haris Golemis is a Greek economist who worked at the Research Department of the Bank of Greece, was scientific advisor to the Federation of Greek Bank Employees, consultant to the United Nations Center on Transnational Corporations, and director of the Nicos Poulantzas Institute from 1999 to 2017.
JBF: In “Marx’s Theory of Metabolic Rift,” I argued that the widespread view on the left that Marx had adopted a Promethean (extreme productivist) view of the human domination of nature—and hence had failed to perceive the natural limits to production and ecological contradictions in general, giving them at most only marginal attention—was contradicted by his theory of the metabolic rift, which played a key role in his overall analysis. Marx built on the German chemist Justus von Liebig’s notion of the robbery of nature, in which nutrients were systematically removed from the soil and shipped hundreds and even thousands of miles to the new urban centers, polluting the cities, rather than being returned to the soil. Based on this, he constructed an ecological critique of capitalism, rooted in the concept of social metabolism, standing for the human relation to nature as a whole through production. Capitalism’s disruption of this metabolism generated an “irreparable rift in the interdependent process of social metabolism, a metabolism prescribed by the natural laws of life itself.” For Marx, the labor and production process constituted nothing less than the social metabolism between humanity and the universal metabolism of nature, mediating between the two. But under capitalism this had become an alienated mediation, rupturing this metabolism, which needed then to be restored under socialism, as an eternal requirement of life itself. In these terms, Marx developed a notion of sustainability, arguing that no one, not even all the people in the world, owned the earth, but rather they needed to sustain it for “the chain of human generations” as “good heads of the household.” Socialism itself was defined in volume 3 of Capital as the rational regulation by the associated producers of the metabolism of nature and society, so as to conserve energy, and promote human development.
Alternative – people are now seeing the horrors of capitalism and are open to ending it, there is simply no alternative to not embracing the alternative
Foster, 11-1, 2021, , https://monthlyreview.org/2021/11/01/the-planetary-rift/, The Planetary Rift, John Bellamy Foster and Haris Golemis John Bellamy Foster is the editor of Monthly Review and a professor of sociology at the University of Oregon. Haris Golemis is a Greek economist who worked at the Research Department of the Bank of Greece, was scientific advisor to the Federation of Greek Bank Employees, consultant to the United Nations Center on Transnational Corporations, and director of the Nicos Poulantzas Institute from 1999 to 2017.
This was such an important part of our overall discussions on the environment that, when I became aware that the phrase had been introduced in print by Jameson, who had prefaced it with “Someone said,” I thought it had emerged somehow from our own discussions. Now, however, I think we picked it up from him indirectly, probably from Cade Jameson, Fredric Jameson’s son, who is himself a great environmental sociologist, now teaching in Hawai‘i, and who was part of our program at the University of Oregon. It may be Cade, knowing his father’s work, who inserted this phrase early on into our discussions. I am not sure. The point, though, is not that the consciousness of capitalism’s role in the destruction of the planet as a safe home for humanity is wanting; rather, the point is to change this. In reversing the famous Jameson quote, and indicating that “it has suddenly become easier to imagine the end of capitalism than the end of the world,” I was pointing to the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic, coming on top of climate change, was threatening the ideological hegemony of the system, demonstrating that our ecological-epidemiological crises were products of capitalism itself. The illusion of the emperor’s clothes had vanished and suddenly the emperor was revealed as naked. The United States, at the center of capitalism, has now experienced over half a million deaths from COVID-19, which everyone knows have to do with the privatization of public health, not to mention the circuits of capital, as historical-materialist epidemiologists like Rob Wallace explain. For many, this allows them to see that what is constantly projected as the end of the world is indeed properly seen as the question of ending capitalism. You are right, of course, that in presenting the virus as an external threat to the system, the ruling ideology was attempting to steer the population away from such critical conclusions. You ask me about the views that prevail in the general public, given the constant outflow of propaganda on TINA under capitalism. I think that is the wrong way to think about it. A snapshot of public opinion tells one very little, given that the material conditions of humanity—the very conditions of life on Earth—are changing more rapidly than at any time in human history. People are like volcanoes and will erupt when the molten rock rises to the surface. If one starts simply with ideas, from an idealistic perspective, it looks like capitalism is supreme and will remain forever so. But the Catholic Church got Galileo Galilei to disavow his science, and yet, as legend has it, he touched the ground and said, “It still moves.” TINA is correct, but in a different way than Margaret Thatcher believed. There is no alternative to a society of substantive equality and environmental sustainability, that is, socialism—if humanity is to survive.
Climate change is a form of Northern imperialism
Foster, 11-1, 2021, , https://monthlyreview.org/2021/11/01/the-planetary-rift/, The Planetary Rift, John Bellamy Foster and Haris Golemis John Bellamy Foster is the editor of Monthly Review and a professor of sociology at the University of Oregon. Haris Golemis is a Greek economist who worked at the Research Department of the Bank of Greece, was scientific advisor to the Federation of Greek Bank Employees, consultant to the United Nations Center on Transnational Corporations, and director of the Nicos Poulantzas Institute from 1999 to 2017.
In “Imperialism in the Anthropocene,” we developed an argument that departs from most traditions on the left, in that it takes physical geography seriously as the climate catastrophe demands. Thus, we explained how low-latitude countries, essentially the Global South, are affected most, as a result of Earth System dynamics, by climate change, independently of the fact that they are already economically exploited by the nations of the Global North. Moreover, the effects of climate change on such factors as the elimination of glaciers (or water towers); desertification; the flooding of islands and other low-lying areas; the eradication of tropical forests and coral reefs; the extinction of species; and the creation of hundreds of millions, even as much as a billion, climate refugees expected this century—are all being factored into the global imperial strategy of the United States and other nations in the Global North. We, therefore, desperately need a theory of imperialism in the Anthropocene that would take all of this into account.
Capitalism responsible for the spread of disease
In the work of Wallace and other theorists of what is known as Structural One Health (a historical-materialist approach to epidemiology), the emergence of COVID-19 and other zoonoses are seen as connected to the circuits of capital and the extension of agribusiness into ecosystems and wilderness areas. This work provides a rich understanding of the relation of global commodification to global contagions. Moreover, the same analysis points to the consequences of the privatization of public health under neoliberalism and the effects on the spread of disease, especially among the poor, pointing to the contemporary significance of Frederick Engels’s notion of “social murder.”
Capitalism is responsible for the environmental problems coming out of China, and China itself is trying to reduce environmental problems
The fact that the COVID-19 virus originated in China has less to do with China itself than with the circuits of capital globally and the destruction of ecosystems and wilderness areas, with zoonotic spillovers. No doubt China will institute and is instituting new regulations, for example, in relation to wet markets. But this is not the core of the problem. In terms of overall ecological responses, China, while an epicenter of ecological destruction, is also an epicenter of ecomodernism and environmental reform. It has made “ecological civilization” an official goal, unlike countries in the West. How we understand this is important. There are indications that China under its current leadership is taking decisive environmental steps (although hardly the ecological revolution that is needed). China is now the world leader in clean energy technology. I just read a very interesting book by Barbara Finamore, published by Polity, entitled Will China Save the Planet? (2018). We have plenty of reason to be skeptical. Yet, given all that China is actually doing in terms of seriously addressing its ecological crisis and that of the world, the question remains. As a post-revolutionary state, with a quite different social construction from that of the mature monopoly capitalist economies of the West, China, with all of its contradictions, may still have a hidden potential to move in the direction of its official goal of an “ecological civilization.” My view is that this depends ultimately, as elsewhere, on the spread of a genuine ecological revolution emerging from the ground up. That this is at least possible in China is suggested by its current rural reform movement.
The alternative has to be possible, asking what is realistic is the wrong question
HG: The inability of capitalist states to fight the pandemic, largely due to the underfunded and understaffed health systems—together with the fact that vulnerability is closely tied to class, race, and gender—and the concomitant economic crisis have created hope among some radical leftists that an increasing number of people in the world might envision a noncapitalist alternative. Do you think that this hope is realistic?
JBF: The question of whether hope is realistic always sounds strange to me. The question is whether hope is necessary. We shouldn’t be trying to predict the future so much as to engage in the necessary struggles, recognizing that the world’s population now has its back to the wall. I think this is what scares the ruling classes. They know a struggle is inevitable and they know they could lose. Marxists have long argued for freedom as necessity. At no time has this stance been more realistic than today, since the reality of our world is one of catastrophe capitalism. If it is impossible to save the world, humanity, and most of the world’s known species, then the struggle must become that much fiercer, the impossible has to be made possible.