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System Change not Climate Change

Is Capitalism in Crisis? Latest Trends of a System Run Amok

By C.J. Polychroniou - Truthout, August 4, 2017

Having survived the financial meltdown of 2008, corporate capitalism and the financial masters of the universe have made a triumphant return to their "business as usual" approach: They are now savoring a new era of wealth, even as the rest of the population continues to struggle with income stagnation, job insecurity and unemployment.

This travesty was made possible in large part by the massive US government bailout plan that essentially rescued major banks and financial institutions from bankruptcy with taxpayer money (the total commitment on the part of the government to the bank bailout plan was over $16 trillion). In the meantime, corporate capitalism has continued running recklessly to the precipice with regard to the environment, as profits take precedence not only over people but over the sustainability of the planet itself.

Capitalism has always been a highly irrational socioeconomic system, but the constant drive for accumulation has especially run amok in the age of high finance, privatization and globalization.

Today, the question that should haunt progressive-minded and radical scholars and activists alike is whether capitalism itself is in crisis, given that the latest trends in the system are working perfectly well for global corporations and the rich, producing new levels of wealth and increasing inequality. For insights into the above questions, I interviewed David M. Kotz, professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and author of The Rise and Fall of Neoliberal Capitalism (Harvard University Press, 2015).

Ian Angus interview: How can we save the planet?

Ian Angus interview - Climate and Capitalism, July 18, 2017

On July 7-9, I was in London (UK) to speak at the Marxism Festival, an annual conference organized by the Socialist Workers Party. I have some political differences with the SWP, but I was impressed by the enthusiasm and commitment of the 2500 participants, and by the number of sessions that were devoted to environmental and scientific questions. 

I was the featured speaker at two sessions, one on Facing the Anthropocene, and one launching my new book, A Redder Shade of Green. Both sessions were recorded: I will post links when they are available. After my second talk, I was interviewed by Dave Sewell for the SWP’s weekly newspaper Socialist Worker.


HOW CAN WE SAVE THE PLANET AND STOP CATASTROPHIC CLIMATE CHANGE?

The environmental conditions that have sustained human civilisation throughout its history are collapsing, capitalism is to blame and only socialism has the solution. That’s the warning sounded by Ian Angus, author and editor of Climate and Capitalism website. He told Socialist Worker,

“The planet is going to change substantially. Big parts of it will be uninhabitable by the end of this century if we don’t do something now. It’s very likely that in this century ocean levels will rise by at least a meter or two, maybe more. That would mean the Thames is going to overflow and flood much of inner London. Many cities are right next to oceans. They will be flooded—not tomorrow but within our children’s lifetime or our grandchildren’s lifetime.

“In some parts of the world it’s going to be too hot to work. Many of these are places where a lot of our food comes from, so we’ll have to deal with problems with food production too.”

Ian has played an important role in popularising the concept of the “Anthropocene” on the left. Many geologists argue that the relatively stable environment conditions in place since the Ice Ages ended are giving way to something much more chaotic.

A Resistance Movement for the Planet

By Ethemcan Turhan and Cem İskender Aydın - Entitle Blog, July 7, 2017

Juan Cruz Ferre (JCF): There is overwhelming evidence that demonstrates how anthropogenic climate change is out of control and will lead to global environmental catastrophe – without a major overhaul of energy production. In the February 2017 issue of the Monthly Review, you point out that although we have been presented with precise and indisputable estimations, science and social science institutions have failed to come up with effective solutions. Why do you think this is the case?

John Bellamy Foster (JBF): We are in an emergency situation in the Anthropocene epoch in which the disruption of the Earth system, particularly the climate, is threatening the planet as a place of human habitation. However, our political-economic system, capitalism, is geared primarily to the accumulation of capital, which prevents us from addressing this enormous challenge and accelerates the destruction. Natural scientists have done an excellent and courageous job of sounding the alarm on the enormous dangers of the continuation of business as usual with respect to carbon emissions and other planetary boundaries. But mainstream social science as it exists today has almost completely internalized capitalist ideology; so much so that conventional social scientists are completely unable to address the problem on the scale and in the historical terms that are necessary. They are accustomed to the view that society long ago “conquered” nature and that social science concerns only people-people relations, never people-nature relations. This feeds a denialism where Earth system-scale problems are concerned. Those mainstream social scientists who do address environmental issues more often than not do so as if we are dealing with fairly normal conditions, and not a planetary emergency, not a no-analogue situation.

There can be no gradualist, ecomodernist answer to the dire ecological problems we face, because when looking at the human effect on the planet there is nothing gradual about it; it is a Great Acceleration and a rift in the Earth system. The problem is rising exponentially, while worsening even faster than that would suggest, because we are in the process of crossing all sorts critical thresholds and facing a bewildering number of tipping points.

JCF: If conversion to renewable energy could halt or reverse the march of environmental crisis, why aren’t we moving in that direction at the right pace?

JBF: The short answer is “profits.” The long answer goes something like this: There are two major barriers: (1) vested interests that are tied into the fossil-fuel financial complex, and (2) the higher rate of profitability in the economy to be obtained from the fossil-fuel economy. It is not just a question of energy return on energy investment. The fossil-fuel infrastructure already exists, giving fossil fuels a decisive advantage in terms of profitability and capital accumulation over alternative energy. Any alternative energy system requires that a whole new energy infrastructure be built up practically from scratch before it can really compete. There are also far greater subsidies for fossil fuels. And fossil fuels represent, in capitalist accounting, a kind of “free gift” of nature to capital, more so than even solar power.

Patrick Bond: Climate justice movements need to hit Trump where it hurts most

By Ethemcan Turhan and Cem İskender Aydın - Entitle Blog, July 7, 2017

ecology.iww.org web editor's disclaimer: The IWW does not pursue the strategy of capturing state power, through elections, or other means, but instead advocates rendering state power irrelevant through the organizing by workers, by industry, at the point of production. Nevertheless, the following proposal does include other goals upon which many IWW members would agree and advocate:

Political economist and climate justice expert Patrick Bond comments on the prospects for a progressive anti-capitalist agenda in the face of increasing alt-right populism, xenophobia, climate denialism and economic-political exceptionalism. 

So we are back to square one: Trump’s withdrawal from Paris Agreement in early June 2017 has raised – quite understandably – many eyebrows around the world. This anticipated, but not entirely expected, move by the Trump administration calls us to question not only the viability of the Paris Agreement in the medium/long-term or the feasibility of commitments from non-state actors bridging the ambition gap, but also the tactics and strategies of global climate justice movements in the face of increasing alt-right populism, xenophobia, climate denialism and economic-political exceptionalism.

So where do we go next? Or better said, what are the prospects for a progressive anti-capitalist political agenda in a world where even the lowest common denominator like the Paris Agreement can’t hold? Can techno-fixes and allegedly apolitical sustainability governance approaches save capitalism from itself in its new authoritarian, post-truth disguise?

We caught up with Patrick Bond, who is in the advisory board of the ISSC-funded Acknowl-EJ project (Academic-activist co-produced knowledge for environmental justice) during a project meeting in Beirut, Lebanon.

Patrick Bond is professor of political economy at the Wits School of Governance, University of the Witwatersrand. He was formerly associated with the University of KwaZulu-Natal, where he directed the Centre for Civil Society from 2004 to 2016. He held visiting positions in various institutions including Johns Hopkins University and the University of California, Berkeley.

As a leading activist-academic figure, Bond is a familiar face in global climate justice circles. Some of his recent works include BRICS: An Anticapitalist Critique (edited with Ana Garcia, 2015, Haymarket Books), Elite Transition: From Apartheid to Neoliberalism in South Africa (Revised and Expanded Edition, 2014, Pluto Press), South Africa – The Present as History (with John Saul, 2014, Boydell & Brewer) and Politics of Climate Justice: Paralysis above, Movement below (2012, University of KwaZulu-Natal Press).

Five Days that Shook My World, Part One: The Making of a Critical Thinking Community

By John Foran - Resilience.org, July 5, 2017

I spent five days in June at a most unusual gathering.  Unusual, because unlike the many academic conferences, the workshops, the handful of “symposia” I’ve attended, this one seemed right on the mark, existentially and politically, for our moment.

Dubbed B.Y.O.B., for “Bring Your Own Brain,” and put on by a collective of students from Big Sky High School in Missoula, Montana who go by the hashtag #freeusfromclimatechaos (FUCC, in case you don’t get the biting but playful humor at the heart of their critique), this had been nine months in the making, assisted by their Spanish teacher, Jay Bostrom and a crew of adult allies from their school and mentors from the local activist community affinity group the ZooTown Zaps.

It was, in fact, a pretty credible incarnation of a North American, youth-led experiment with Zapatismo; recall that to the thousands of queries the Zapatistas have received from activists over the past twenty-three years about what they should be doing, the consistent answer has been:  “Go and do what we do, but in your own way, in your own place of origin, your own home, your own community.”

Some of these students – and their teachers – had already made a trip to Chiapas, to see the Zapatista revolution first hand.  A year ago, they had engaged in a Skyped event with indigenous activists from around the world.  Last summer, based on those conversations, they decided that this year they would go to the root of the problem, and they arrived at … climate chaos.  All of this would be unusual even for a college class in the United States.

An Eco-Revolutionary Tipping Point?

By Paul Burkett - Monthly Review, May 2017

Toward an Ecological Revolution

By David Johnson - CounterPunch, May 5, 2017

Climate change, as it has emerged as a defining political issue of our time, has a peculiar exceptionalism attached to it. While we know it is in some sense a political problem, or at least demands a political solution, we nevertheless tend to think of it as a problem in nature – one that transcends social issues and threatens social life itself. Every year, waves of liberal students enter environmental science programs at universities across the West, determined to study the changes human beings are causing in the earth’s ecosystems. We know that human activity in general, and the burning of fossil fuels in particular, is the primary agent of climate change, with very serious implications for the natural environment upon which humans depend, and for human life itself

The need to drastically reduce carbon emissions, then, is as clear as it is urgent.  Technologically speaking, there is a path forward: innovations in energy production abound, including in renewable sources like sun and wind. It would seem we have a problem and a solution. Why then do we see little meaningful reform, when the stakes are so high and the answers so clear?

Here the conversation often crumbles into a series of dead-ends. A significant portion of the public has resorted to denying the scientific consensus on climate change, and there is no shortage of funding for such a campaign. Others who accept the science nevertheless become cynical from the scale of the problem; the obstacle, many conclude, is “human nature” itself. Still others, determined to fight, seek to appease large corporations with innovations that are both environmentally friendly and profitable – so-called Green capitalism. Can the profit motive save us?

A new book edited by Vijay Prashad bursts through this rigid state of affairs. Focused around Naomi Klein’s Edward Said lecture, delivered in London on 4 May 2016, Will the Flower Slip Through the Asphalt is a short collection of narrative essays and analysis that responds to the global climate crisis in a refreshingly expansive way.

Climate Diplomacy and Climate Action: What’s Next?

By Brian Tokar - System Change not Climate Change, April 29, 2017

Just over a year ago, diplomats from around the world were celebrating the final ratification of the December 2016 Paris Agreement, proclaimed to be the first globally inclusive step toward a meaningful climate solution. The agreement was praised as one of President Obama’s signature accomplishments and as a triumph of his “soft power” approach to world affairs. But even then, long before Donald Trump and his coterie of plutocrats and neofascists rose to power pledging to withdraw from the agreement, there were far more questions than answers.

First, recall that the Paris Agreement was based entirely on countries voluntarily submitting plans outlining their proposed “contributions” to a climate solution.  This was the outcome of Obama and Hillary Clinton’s interventions at the ill-fated 2009 Copenhagen climate summit, where the US delegation made it clear that it would never agree to mandatory, legally binding limits on global warming pollution. While most global South representatives at successive UN summits sought to preserve that central aspect of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, rich countries united during the years between Copenhagen and Paris behind the notion that climate measures should be strictly voluntary.

Secondly, the Paris Agreement contained no means of enforcement whatsoever. While the text was abundant with words like “clarity,” “transparency,” “integrity,” “consistency,” and “ambition,” there’s literally nothing to assure that such aspirations can be realized. The only official body focused on implementation and compliance is mandated to be “transparent, non-adversarial and non-punitive.” Countries are urged to renew their proposals every few years, with a stated hope that the various “Nationally-Determined Contributions” to climate mitigation will become stronger over time. But if a President Trump or a potential President Le Pen chooses to do the opposite, there’s nothing but vague diplomatic peer pressure standing in the way.

Third, the various plans submitted prior to Paris fell far short of what is needed to prevent catastrophic destabilization of the earth’s climate systems. Various assessments of the plans that countries brought to Paris suggested an outcome approaching 3.5 degrees Celsius (6.3°F) of warming above pre-industrial levels by 2100, far short of the stated goal of a maximum of 2 degrees, much less the aspirational goal of only 1.5 degrees that was demanded by delegates from Africa, small island nations, and elsewhere. We know, however, that at the current level of just over 1 degree Celsius (1.8°F)  in average temperature rise, we are experiencing uniquely unstable weather, Arctic ice is disappearing, and catastrophic storms, wildfires, droughts and floods are disproportionately impacting the world’s most vulnerable peoples. Two degrees is very far from a “safe” level of average warming; it is far more likely to be the 50-50 point at which the climate may or may not rapidly shift into a thoroughly chaotic and unpredictable state.

The global climate movement responded to the Paris outcome with an impressive showing of skepticism and foresight. Thousands of people filled the streets of Paris itself, declaring that the UN conference had fallen far short of what is needed, and parallel demonstrations voiced similar messages around the world. Last spring, a series of worldwide “Break Free from Fossil Fuels” events temporarily shut down major sites of fossil fuel extraction and transport on every continent, including major actions against oil transport by rail in the northeastern and northwestern US, a massive convergence to shut down Germany’s most polluting coal mine, and a boat blockade of Australia’s biggest coal port. Last fall and winter, the encampment at Standing Rock in North Dakota brought together the most inspiring alliance of indigenous communities and allies we have yet seen, and encampments inspired by Standing Rock have since emerged at the sites of a handful of major pipeline projects across the US.  Midwestern activists are responding with renewed determination to challenge the Trump administration’s move to resurrect the dreaded Keystone XL pipeline, which would transport toxic, high-carbon tar sands oil from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico.

It remains to be seen, of course, how much the current administration’s excesses will curtail longer-range climate progress. Obama’s Clean Power Plan is clearly on the chopping block, but independent estimates have suggested for some time that this represented (at best) only an incremental step beyond business-as-usual. The more internationalist voices in the Trump administration want the US to remain a party to the Paris Agreement, hoping that it can be weakened even further to benefit global fossil fuel interests.

Meanwhile, techno-optimists like Bill Gates and Michael Bloomberg argue that the economic benefits of continued renewable energy development are compelling enough to keep their expansion on track for the next several years. In many locations, renewable installations are already far more cost effective than fossil fuel plants, and a new report from the Union of Concerned Scientists reveals that five US states now rely on renewable resources (including big hydroelectric dams) for more than 65 percent of their in-state energy production. Employment in solar and wind energy is fast approaching ten times the number of coal jobs in the US, and nearly 2 million people are reportedly employed in energy conservation and efficiency. Low oil prices have driven a rapid decline in the most extreme forms of fossil fuel extraction, though increased automation in conventional oil and gas drilling has greatly enhanced the profitability of many such operations. Meanwhile, numerous state and local climate initiatives are continuing to partly offset the long legacy of climate inaction – and now overt sabotage – at the federal level.

But small measures are no longer enough, as the consequences of an increasingly unstable climate wreak havoc on communities around the world. Scientists now agree that we cannot simply aspire to return to a 350 parts-per-million carbon dioxide concentration, but that the atmosphere also has a finite and ever-shrinking “carbon budget.” If we exceed this maximum in accumulated carbon emissions since the dawn of the fossil fuel age, it could become physically impossible to restabilize the climate before many thousands of years have passed. Long before then, the atmospheric conditions necessary to sustain complex life on earth, much less a moderately stable human civilization, could be lost forever. We need to dismantle the fossil fuel economy in just a few short years, reducing consumption every year for the foreseeable future. Thus the Trump agenda is not just a temporary setback, but an existential threat to our survival. The New York Times opinion page editors were not exaggerating when they headlined a recent series of environmental case studies from around the world, “The Planet Can’t Stand This Presidency.”

We also know that past administrations, and governments around the world, have thoroughly failed to implement a proactive climate agenda. Obama’s “all of the above” energy policy, embracing renewables and energy efficiency while simultaneously expanding fracking and offshore oil drilling, was a disaster for the planet as well. A capitalist system that demands unlimited growth – and constantly holds our jobs and economic well-being hostage to that overarching goal – could likely respond to decreasing consumption of resources with all the fury of an economic depression, shifting the worst impacts onto the most vulnerable people while bailing out the wealthy and powerful. This only reinforces what climate justice activists have been saying for some time now: that campaigns for climate action can only succeed as part of a holistic and fully intersectional liberation movement. We need to challenge all the institutions that blame our problems on immigrants and poor people while simultaneously threatening planetary survival. We need to challenge all forms of oppression, create genuinely sustainable and regenerative alternatives, and act boldly upon our understanding that The Planet Can No Longer Stand This Economic System.

The Steps to Ecosocialism

By Ian Angus and John Bellamy Foster - Jacobin, April 26, 2017

We were pleased to learn that Daniel Tanuro was writing an article on carbon pricing schemes. His book Green Capitalism: Why it Can’t Work makes important contributions to ecosocialist thought, and he has an impressive record of personal involvement in many radical environmental campaigns in Europe. We looked forward to the clear explanation and strong critique of market-based approaches to climate change that we know he could write.

Unfortunately, “The Right’s Green Awakening” does not live up to the generally high standard set by his book. Instead of addressing the carbon-pricing plans that have surfaced in capitalist politics, Tanuro focuses his critique on proposals developed by leading climate scientist James Hansen and on the critical support that we gave his proposal in Monthly Review and Climate & Capitalism.

Tanuro equates our position — and Hansen’s rather different one — with a proposal advanced by some right-wing American politicians, arguing that we support “a populist variant . . . [of] neoliberal doctrine.” Naturally, we disagree.

We are not saying that our views are above criticism. Open debate is an essential part of building a global ecosocialist movement, and we welcome thoughtful responses to anything we have written. However, since Tanuro’s article seriously misrepresents both Hansen’s plan and our approach to it, we need to correct his misunderstandings before a proper discussion can begin.

Climate change is more than a tech problem, so we need more than a tech solution

By Martin J Boucher and Philip Loring - Ensia, March 20, 2017

At the COP 21 climate change convention in Paris at the end of 2015, leaders from 194 nations agreed to pursue actions that will cut greenhouse gas emissions enough to keep global warming within 1.5 °C (2.7 °F) above pre-industrial conditions. Meeting this goal will avoid continued and increasing harm to people and ecosystems around the world caused by a changing climate, and it is also a great opportunity to turn the world into a place that embodies our collective and pluralistic values for the future. Nevertheless, there remains a notable gap between current trajectories of global GHG emissions and the reductions necessary to see COP 21’s goals realized.

Numerous technological and economic strategies for bridging that gap are currently being discussed, including transitions to renewable energy and/or nuclear power, carbon capture and storage, and cap and trade. However, many overlook the fundamental social issues that drive climate change: overconsumption, poverty, industrial agriculture and population growth. As such, even if these strategies succeed in mitigating CO2 emissions — renewable energies, for instance, seem to have achieved irreversible momentum — they leave unaddressed a second gap, a sustainability gap, in that they allow issues of ecological overshoot and social injustice to persist. We argue that there is an opportunity to reverse climate change by attending to these sustainability issues, but it requires that we reject the convenience of technological optimism and put aside our fears of the world’s “big” social problems.

In 2004, Stephen Pacala and Robert Socolow wrote in Science that it is possible to address climate change by breaking the larger problem of CO2 emissions down into a series of more manageable “wedges.” They offer 15 different solutions based on existing technology, including nuclear energy, coal carbon capture and storage, energy efficiency, and increased adoption of conservation tillage, for mitigating climate change one wedge at a time. Their pragmatic approach to the problem has been popularly received, as evidenced by the thousands of citations that the paper has received. However, their approach can also be critiqued for glossing over the immense costs involved and for its piecemeal and top-down nature. In other words, they assume that this complex global environmental problem can be fixed with a handful of standardized solutions.

Climate change is just one of many related sustainability problems that the world faces. In addition to rising atmospheric CO2, we are approaching or have already exceeded multiple other planetary boundaries — such as fresh water, nitrogen, phosphorus and biodiversity loss — that CO2-mitigating technologies cannot solve. Solving climate change on its own would require immense investments but leave too many other problems unaddressed. That is not to say that these technological innovations are irrelevant; Pacala and Socolow’s desire to break down the challenge into manageable pieces is both valid and appreciable. What’s missing from their assessment is the fact that the world is a complex system, and systemic problems require systemic solutions.

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