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Capitalism’s renewable energy roadblock

By James Plested - Red Flag, April 7, 2017

Who can forget the image? George W. Bush’s stupid, blank face staring out across the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln under a giant banner emblazoned with the words “mission accomplished”.

The date was 1 May 2003 – a little over a month after the US launched its invasion of Iraq – and Bush was there to declare an end to major combat operations. As it turned out, this was somewhat premature.

Today, the environment movement seems to be having a “mission accomplished” moment of its own. With the price of renewables such as solar in free fall and new battery technology coming on line, many environmentalists are sounding the death knell of fossil fuels.

A recent article by Australia Institute strategist Dan Cass in Meanjin, “The sun rises: the democratisation of solar energy might change everything” – makes the case. The cost of solar power has decreased to the point where it’s now as cheap as, or cheaper than, coal or gas. “As late as 2007”, he writes, “Australia had only about 8,000 solar systems in total. As of 1 June 2016, there were more than 1,548,345”.

Globally, it’s a similar story. According to a Frankfurt School of Finance and Management report, in 2015, for the first time, renewables made up the majority of newly built electricity generation capacity. Investment in renewable energy, at US$265.8 billion, was more than double the US$130 billion invested in fossil fuel power generation.

Cass declares that “renewables have won the energy wars”. Crucially, he argues, this isn’t happening because of government intervention, but is in line with “capitalism as usual”:

“Consumers are rushing to a new technology that saves them money. Capital is flowing to the next big thing. Conservative critics of clean energy can’t quite admit it yet, but the rise of solar and the collapse of the old-energy utilities is ‘creative destruction’. It is the Kodak moment for big energy.”

According to this logic, we needn’t worry too much about continuing with environmental campaigning. Naomi Klein was wrong. It’s not, as she had it, “capitalism vs. the climate”, but rather capitalism for the climate. Put simply, technological developments mean that, while it may not yet be apparent, fossil fuels are dead in the ground.

All this is very comforting for those of us who have been alarmed by the headlong rush of global capitalism toward climate catastrophe. But just as with George W. Bush’s arrogant imperial overreach, this kind of triumphalism is unlikely to end well.

The toll of pollution: How many lives vs. how much profit?

By Pete Dollack - Systemic Disorder, April 5, 2017

Frequently lost in the arguments over financial costs and benefits when it comes to pollution is the cost to human health. Not only illness and respiratory problems but premature death. To put it bluntly: How many human lives should we exchange for corporate profit?

Two new studies by the World Health Organization should force us to confront these issues head on. This is no small matter — the two WHO studies estimate that polluted environments cause 1.7 million children age five or younger to die per year.

Indoor and outdoor air pollution, second-hand smoke, unsafe water, lack of sanitation, and inadequate hygiene all contribute to these 1.7 million annual deaths, accounting for more than one-quarter of all deaths of children age five or younger globally. A summary notes:

“[W]hen infants and pre-schoolers are exposed to indoor and outdoor air pollution and second-hand smoke they have an increased risk of pneumonia in childhood, and a lifelong increased risk of chronic respiratory diseases, such as asthma. Exposure to air pollution may also increase their lifelong risk of heart disease, stroke and cancer.”

One of the two reports, Don’t pollute my future! The impact of the environment on children’s health, notes that most of humanity lives in environmentally stressed areas:

“92% of the global population, including billions of children, live in areas with ambient air pollution levels that exceed WHO limits. Over three billion people are exposed to household air pollution from the use of solid fuels. Air pollution causes approximately 600,000 deaths in children under five years annually and increases the risk for respiratory infections, asthma, adverse neonatal conditions and congenital anomalies. Air pollution accounts for over 50% of the overall disease burden of pneumonia which is among the leading causes of global child mortality. Growing evidence suggests that air pollution adversely affects cognitive development in children and early exposures might induce development of chronic disease in adulthood.” [page 3]

These types of calculations on health and mortality are absent from debates on environmental regulations. And not only is the human toll missing from cost/benefit analyses, but this pollution is actually subsidized.

Time for Tesla to Listen

By Jose Moran - Medium, February 9, 2017

I’m proud to be part of a team that is bringing green cars to the masses. As a production worker at Tesla’s plant in Fremont for the past four years, I believe Tesla is one of the most innovative companies in the world. We are working hard to build the world’s #1 car — not just electric, but overall. Unfortunately, however, I often feel like I am working for a company of the future under working conditions of the past.

Most of my 5,000-plus coworkers work well over 40 hours a week, including excessive mandatory overtime. The hard, manual labor we put in to make Tesla successful is done at great risk to our bodies.

Preventable injuries happen often. In addition to long working hours, machinery is often not ergonomically compatible with our bodies. There is too much twisting and turning and extra physical movement to do jobs that could be simplified if workers’ input were welcomed. Add a shortage of manpower and a constant push to work faster to meet production goals, and injuries are bound to happen.

A few months ago, six out of eight people in my work team were out on medical leave at the same time due to various work-related injuries. I hear that ergonomics concerns in other departments are even more severe. Worst of all, I hear coworkers quietly say that they are hurting but they are too afraid to report it for fear of being labeled as a complainer or bad worker by management.

Ironically, many of my coworkers who have been saying they are fed up with the long hours at the plant also rely on the overtime to survive financially. Although the cost of living in the Bay Area is among the highest in the nation, pay at Tesla is near the lowest in the automotive industry.

Most Tesla production workers earn between $17 and $21 hourly. The average auto worker in the nation earns $25.58 an hour, and lives in a much less expensive region. The living wage in Alameda county, where we work, is more than $28 an hour for an adult and one child (I have two). Many of my coworkers are commuting one or two hours before and after those long shifts because they can’t afford to live closer to the plant.

While working 60–70 hours per week for 4 years for a company will make you tired, it will also make you loyal. I’ve invested a great deal of time and sacrificed important moments with my family to help Tesla succeed. I believe in the vision of our company. I want to make it better.

I think our management team would agree that our plant doesn’t function as well as it could, but until now they’ve underestimated the value of listening to employees. In a company of our size, an “open-door policy” simply isn’t a solution. We need better organization in the plant, and I, along with many of my coworkers, believe we can achieve that by coming together and forming a union.

Many of us have been talking about unionizing, and have reached out to the United Auto Workers for support. The company has begun to respond. In November, they offered a raise to employees’ base pay — the first we’ve seen in a very long time.

But at the same time, management actions are feeding workers’ fears about speaking out. Recently, every worker was required to sign a confidentiality policy that threatens consequences if we exercise our right to speak out about wages and working conditions. Thankfully, five members of the California State Assembly have written a letter to Tesla questioning the policy and calling for a retraction.

I’m glad that someone is standing up for Tesla workers, and we need to stand up for ourselves too. The issues go much deeper than just fair pay. Injuries, poor morale, unfair promotions, high turnover, and other issues aren’t just bad for workers — they also impact the quality and speed of production. They can’t be resolved without workers having a voice and being included in the process.

Tesla isn’t a startup anymore. It’s here to stay. Workers are ready to help make the company more successful and a better place to work. Just as CEO Elon Musk is a respected champion for green energy and innovation, I hope he can also become a champion for his employees. As more of my coworkers speak out, I hope that we can start a productive conversation about building a fair future for all who work at Tesla.

Survival Is the Question

By Michael Löwy - Against The Current, January 2017

Facing the Anthropocene:
Fossil Capitalism and the Crisis of the Earth System
By Ian Angus
Monthly Review Press, 280 pages, $19 paper.

Green Capitalism:
The god that failed
By Richard Smith
World Economics Association, http://www.worldeconomicsassociation.org/, 115 pages, $21.50 paper.

CRITICAL ECOLOGY PUBLI­CA­TIONS are finding a growing audience in the United States, as is evident in the success of Naomi Klein’s  book This Changes Everything. Within this field there is also an increasing interest in ecosocialist thought, of Marxist inspiration, of which the two authors reviewed here are a part.

One of the active promoters of this trend is Monthly Review and its publishing house. It is this group that has published the compelling book, Facing the Anthropocene by Ian Angus, the Canadian ecosocialist and editor of the online review Climate and Capitalism.

His book has been lauded by the general public as well as by many within the scientific community, such as Jan Zalasiewicz and Will Steffen. Among the principal proponents of this outstanding work on the Anthropocene are Marxist researchers like Mike Davis and John Bellamy Foster, and ecologists on the left like Derek Wall of the Green Party of England.

From the work of such thinkers as chemist Paul Crutzen, who won the Nobel Prize for his research on the destruction of the ozone layer, geophysicist Will Steffen and many others, the conclusion that we have entered into a new geological era that is distinct from the Holocene (the era of the past 12,000 years) is beginning to be accepted.

The term “Anthropocene” is most often used to identify this new epoch, which is characterized by the profound impact of human activity on the earth-system. Most experts agree that the Anthropocene began in the mid-20th century, when a “Great Acceleration” of destructive changes were triggered. In fact, three-quarters of all CO2 emissions have been produced since the 1950s.

The term “Anthropos” does not mean that all humans are equally responsible for these drastic and disturbing changes — researchers have clearly shown the overwhelming responsibility of the world’s richest countries, the OECD countries, in shaping these events.

We also know the consequences of these transformations, notably climate change: most temperature rise, increasing extreme climate events, elevating ocean levels, the drowning of large coastal cities, etc. These changes are not gradual or linear and can be both abrupt and disastrous.

It seems to me, however, that this part of Facing the Anthropocene is less developed. Although Angus mentions these dangers, he does not discuss in a more detailed and concrete way the threats that weigh on the survival of life on the planet.

What are the established powers doing — especially the governments of the rich countries principally responsible for the crisis? Angus cites the fierce response of James Hansen, the North American NASA climatologist, to the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, saying, “a fraud really, a fake…. It’s just bullshit.”

Indeed, even if all the countries present at the conference keep their promises, which is very unlikely considering that not a single sanction is expected to be fully met by the Paris agreements, we still will not be able to avoid an increase in the planet’s temperature past two degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels.

COP22’s Imperialist Environmentalism

By Joe Hayns - Jacobin, November 11, 2016

Each year, the world’s heads of state meet at the Conference of Parties (COP) to discuss how to “stabiliz[e] greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system,” as the guiding United Nations Framework on Climate Change demands.

Last year’s COP garnered international attention and praise. Le Monde’s verdict included a quote from the event’s president and Parti Socialiste foreign minister, Laurent Fabius (“a compromise guided by ‘climate justice’”). The Guardian called the meeting “a rare and heartening case of disparate peoples being led to a common conclusion by evidence and reason.” The New York Times declared that the negotiations ended with “a historic breakthrough.”

But many climate justice activists and scientists disagree. Against the “People’s Test” — “a set of criteria that the Paris deal would need to meet in order to be effective and fair” created by social movements, unions, and environmental groups — the Paris agreements failed on every count.

On Monday, COP22 began in Marrakech, Morocco. International attention will again focus on the political class’s negotiations. But if we’re serious about fighting climate change globally, we might be better off listening to the Moroccan activists currently fighting environmental ruination.

This resistance comes out of the country’s imperialist environmental policy, which, to paraphrase William Faulkner, isn’t past: it isn’t even history.

DIRTY CLEAN ENERGY: Is Morocco’s renewable energy from Western Sahara really ‘Green’?

By Fabian Wagner - Green European Journal, November 28, 2016

Young Green Fabian Wagner attended the COP 22 negotiations in Marrakesh and found that despite the host’s eagerness to project itself as a constructive force in the fight against climate change, its policies in other areas raise serious concerns – not least the levels of repression around the question of Western Sahara.

Morocco certainly did not hold back in terms of advertising its efforts to become a country powered by renewable energy during the COP22. Only the most oblivious of visitors could have missed the banners at the airport, posters in the city, ads on horse carriages, and stickers on cars. Wind power, solar power — Morocco is transitioning towards clean energy at a very quick pace.

Africa’s forgotten conflict

Sounds great? Here’s the downside: Africa has a largely forgotten and ignored conflict right on the doorsteps of Europe. After colonial Spain retreated from Western Sahara in the ‘70s, Morocco quickly imposed itself following a bit of a struggle with Mauritania which ended in its favour, and subsequently annexed the entire territory as its “Southern Provinces”. The UN installed a peacekeeping mission there (without a mandate to observe human rights in the region) and spent the next almost half a century repeatedly, and without success, calling for a referendum on the independence of resource rich territory, and its identity as the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. It was interesting to see how much effort Morocco invested into presenting this as the “African COP”, despite Morocco being the only country in Africa that is not a member of the African Union (AU) — Morocco left after the AU acknowledged the independence of Western Sahara. In the run-up to the COP in Marrakech the topic naturally attracted slightly more attention than usually, but very little criticism was raised openly for obvious reasons. Morocco’s reaction to any kind of criticism of its Western Sahara politics is brusque. When the UN Secretary General called the situation out for what it is — an illegal occupation — Morocco expelled the entire peacekeeping mission. A subsequent apology from the Secretary General was still not enough to re-admit the entire mission. Moreover, our own Green activists from several of the Federation of Young European Greens’ (FYEG) member organisations have been evicted from or denied entry to both Western Sahara and Morocco, when trying to report from the ground. Plain-clothes and uniformed police are everywhere, as FYEG’s activists witnessed first-hand, when trying to work on unrelated, but still undesirable for the Moroccan government, media projects. Under these circumstances FYEG, the Western Sahara Support Committees from around the world, the Sahrawis themselves, and other civil society organisations and movements like the teachers group we met in Marrakech found it very difficult to raise concerns about the topic of Western Sahara while being present for COP22 in Morocco.

The Carbon Tax Is Doomed

By Matt Huber - Jacobin, October 9, 2016

Climate change is often chalked up to “market failure.” We’re told that, despite prevailing assumptions that prices accurately transmit “signals” about the costs of goods and services, emitters like power plants, refineries, automobiles, and households simply do not pay the full ecological costs of their emissions. Hence, the market has failed.

To fix the problem, the argument goes, we must internalize the costs of emissions into the price mechanism so that emitters pay the full costs of their actions. If we could craft a policy that accurately monetized the ecological costs of emissions — a carbon tax, or fee and dividend scheme — fossil fuels would become costlier and renewables would be more competitive and cost effective. The failure could be corrected, and the market would succeed in guiding us to a clean energy future.

Accounting for ecological costs has become the primary way of crafting environmental policy for public officials and legal experts. But the rhetoric of cost internalization is a political dead end for a left climate politics.

Focusing on getting the price right, and thereby assuming the market can be corrected, allows right-wing and fossil-fuel interests to effectively argue that any and all climate policy will be a cost to working people. Recently, the CEO of Chevron put it bluntly “I’ve never had a customer come to me and ask to pay a higher price for oil, gas, or other products.” Indeed, while many on the climate left attribute slow movement on climate to a problem of education and denial of climate science, popular opposition to climate policy is more often framed in economic terms, focusing on costs to the economy and to everyday people’s lives.

In an ideological landscape dominated by an obsession with accounting for and trimming costs, environmental policy proposals often advocate raising costs—costs that are likely to end up being passed down to working people. Opponents of climate justice easily argue that any tax or cost will end up percolating throughout the economy and hitting ordinary people: wealth doesn’t trickle down, but costs do.

A left climate politics must move beyond a language of cost-internalization, and emphasize the real material benefits for a society beyond fossil fuel: not only in terms of a cleaner environment, but also cheaper energy and green jobs. This requires a language of public goods and collective action, not a language of markets and costs. If the Left must speak of costs at all, it needs to be framed in class terms — costs that the wealthy and corporations must pay to fund a better energy economy.

The Dark Side of Local

By Margaret Gray - Jacobin, August 21, 2016

We live in the shadows,” explained Javier, a Hudson Valley farmworker, while describing his life to me. “We are treated like unknown people . . . We are not paid well and cannot ask for more.” A worker on another farm said, “They treat us like nothing; they only want the work . . . Whether we like it or not, we have to like it.”

Some of today’s liveliest political conversations concern agricultural production and distribution. But these discussions are also among the most confused.

Exploitative conditions on factory farms have rightly drawn the attention of academics, activists, and journalists. Indeed, the vast majority of research on farmworkers focuses on the largest farming sites. Consumers are offered countless reasons to avoid produce from them — but few alternatives other than to “buy local.”

Much contemporary food writing argues that when we buy locally grown food directly from farms, we not only secure fresher, more seasonal produce, but we also create an intimate, trusting relationship with the farmer. This supposed bond reinforces the common understanding that the local food production process is more wholesome than the industrial agricultural system.

Food writers and scholars have highlighted the many positive aspects of local food systems: economic and social justice, the sense of community facilitated by face-to-face interactions with food producers, and the civic engagement and democracy promoted by alternative agri-systems.

For example, as Barbara Kingsolver argues in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, “‘locally grown’ is a denomination whose meaning in incorruptible.” Later in the book she addresses the poor pay and conditions of workers on factory farms, citing their average annual income of $7,500. Clearly, she intends readers to feel grateful that local farms offer a more just and well-paid alternative.

Or take another prominent example: in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, a landmark in the new food literature, Michael Pollan describes two types of farming — industrial and pastoral — and offers no in-between.

In promoting local diets as healthy and righteous alternatives to the capitalist-industrial monoculture food system, such writers have sold us an idea premised on a false dichotomy.

On one hand, they demonize factory farms for poisoning the land and local waterways, for confining and mistreating animals, and for exploiting their workers in the name of earning profits. On the other hand, they promote local agriculture as the antidote to the factory farms’ corporate ills.

By shopping at the farmers market or joining a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program, consumers support smaller (though not necessarily small) farmers, keep food dollars local, encourage limited pesticide use, and ensure animals are treated humanely.

Corporations Call for “Net Zero” Emissions: Do They Know How to Get There?

By Sean Sweeney - New Labor Forum, August 12, 2016

In the months leading to the December 2015 Paris Climate Conference, representatives of global institutional investors and multinational corporations made headlines after they demanded that world leaders adopt radical emissions reduction targets, among them “net zero” emissions by 2050. Examples include the Global Investor Statement on Climate Change, which was signed by 409 investors representing more than $24 trillion in assets, and the Prince of Wales’ Corporate Leaders Group (which includes the likes of Shell Global and Heathrow Airport Holdings Limited). Following the Statement’s adoption in Paris, a cluster of corporate heads led by Virgin Group’s Richard Branson (calling itself the “B Team”) demanded that all governments turn the Paris net zero emissions target into national-level laws.

What are we to make of this? The practical implications of the net zero target adopted in Paris—if it is seriously pursued—are nothing short of revolutionary, opening up a “system crunch” scenario when the forces of growth, profit, and accumulation that presently propel capitalism collide with the political imperatives required to reach virtually total “decarbonization” in little more than a generation.

Paradoxically, the corporate push to adopt net zero by 2050—a target that is unprecedented in terms of its ambition—merely draws attention to the fact that the corporate elite has no clear or convincing idea about how it might be achieved. The capitalist spirit is progressively willing, but the flesh grows all the time steadily weaker.

Thus, the Paris Agreement can be a clarifying moment for labor, the climate movement, and the broader left in that, more than ever before, it exposes the gulf between what needs to be done from a scientific standpoint and what the global corporate and political elite are actually able to deliver.

The 21st Century Doesn't Need a New Deal: It Needs a New Economic Model

By C.J. Polychroniou - Truthout, August 6, 2016 © Truthout 2016; reused by permission.

In today's global economy, neoliberalism reigns supreme, organized labor is in deep retreat and public debt has shot through the roof. In the face of these crises, is a global 21st century remaking of the 1930s-era New Deal what people on the left should be fighting for?

Contemporary progressive parties, such as Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain, have rallied around the idea of a "new New Deal," while the European Citizen's Initiative for a "New Deal 4 Europe" appears to have the backing of both Labor and Green party leaders in several European countries. In the US, Bernie Sanders has also been a strong advocate of this idea as the way out of our troubles.

However, a closer look at the history of the 1930s-era New Deal reveals that a new New Deal would do little to solve the underlying problems of capitalism and could even delay efforts to combat climate change through its emphasis on boosting growth via a new era of state capitalism.

Although New Deal-style programs have the potential to alleviate poverty in the short term, they are deeply limited by the core constraint that the raison d'être of active state intervention in a capitalist regime is none other than to save capitalism. Moreover, any program in the mold of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal would also be limited by its failure to give workers a greater say in decision-making.

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