by Ian Angus
A recently posted comment goes straight to the heart of what this website is all about. “Rethinker” wrote:
I still find myself uncomfortable with assertions that only socialism can solve the problem of ecological crisis. I agree that capitalism requires constant growth, and that this is ultimately unsustainable ecologically. But does that necessarily imply that large corporations are incapable of reducing fossil fuel consumption? The world has by and large reduced its consumption of other commodities (CFCs, for instance, or to use an example from Canadian history, beaver pelts) so why is it impossible to suggest that reducing fossil fuel consumption is impossible in a capitalist economy? …
Isn’t there a middle path between dogmatic assertions of the socialist theory and reliance on the market as a mechanism? Isn’t there some way to have governments regulate – and it would need to be very heavy regulation – industries in order to get GHG emissions reduced, without requiring the workers to seize control of the means of production?
My view was stated in my very first post to this website:
Experts believe that stabilizing climate change will require a 70% or greater reduction in CO2 emissions in the next 20 to 30 years – and that will require a radical reduction in the use of fossil fuels. At least three major barriers militate against capitalism achieving that goal.
- Changing from fossil fuels to other energy sources will require massive spending. In the near-term this will be non-profitable investment, in an economy that cannot function without profit.
- The CO2 reductions must be global. Air and water don’t stop at borders. So long as capitalism remains the world’s dominant economic system, positive changes in individual countries will be undermined by countermoves in other countries seeking competitive advantage.
- The change must be all-encompassing. Unlike previous anti-pollution campaigns that focused on single industries, or specific chemicals such as DDT, stopping greenhouse gases will require wrenching change to every part of the economy. Restructuring on such an enormous scale is almost certainly impossible in a capitalist framework — and any attempt to make it happen will meet intense resistance.
Only an economy that is organized for human needs, not profit, has any chance of slowing climate change and reversing the damage that’s already been done. Only democratic socialist planning can overcome the problems caused by capitalist anarchy. (Confronting the Climate Change Crisis)
That view can be summed up in seven words: Ecosocialism or barbarism: There is no third way.
But it isn’t enough to assert that capitalism cannot do what is obviously necessary. We need to explain and prove it, in theory and in practice. Over time, Climate and Capitalism will publish contributions that deal with that question from many angles. The following article is part of this ongoing process.
The author, Daniel Tanuro, is a member of the Fourth International. This article is an excerpt from Le Diable Fait Les Casseroles, Mais Pas Les Couvercles, which originally appeared in the Belgian newspaper La Gauche. It was translated for Climate and Capitalism by Richard Fidler, and is posted here with Daniel Tanuro’s permission. A different translation of the entire piece, entitled The Devil Makes the Saucepans, But Not the Lids, was published in International Viewpoint, March 2007.
(Daniel Tanuro’s original article also includes a discussion of “Contraction And Convergence.” Readers who have been following that issue on this website may find his comments useful.)
Three Interlinked Difficulties
by Daniel Tanuro
Notwithstanding its logic of accumulation, can capitalism respond to the physical constraints that stabilisation of the climate will require in time to allow us to avoid human and ecological catastrophe? Unfortunately, given the level already reached by greenhouse gases and the inertia of the climate system, that seems highly improbable, if not impossible. In reality, catastrophe already looms as shown by a series of events whose interconnected nature is obvious. With the apparent acceleration of global warming, the question today is rather whether the system is capable of limiting the damage and stabilising the situation, and under what social conditions.
To give a concrete response to that, we need to take the measure of three interlinked difficulties: the scope of the changes needed within a very short time frame, the rigidity of the energy system, and the competition expressed in the relations between states (in particular North-South relations).
First difficulty: The combination of very strong imperatives and very short timescales.
The scope of the changes to be carried out in barely a few decades is dizzying: it amounts to “decarbonising” the economy almost completely. That involves doing without fossil fuels in general as sources of energy, but also oil in particular as raw material of the petrochemical industry (see box: “decarbonisation and energy decline”). Renewable sources can fill the gap, but not under all conditions. Not in the context of energy-devouring transportation, or in the production of a plethora of plastics, for example.
In any case, since they cost more than fossil fuels, and the timelines are short, the passage to renewables must absolutely be linked with a significant fall in the primary demand of the developed countries (of the order of 50%, and more in the more energy-voracious countries). This means a war on waste and an increase in energy efficiency. And not only in facilities, individual machinery and the behaviour of individuals, but also and above all in the global energy system, the overall determinant.
From a rational viewpoint, entire sectors of the economy would need to be eliminated outright because they are unnecessary if not harmful (weapons production, advertising and so on), whereas others would be rationalised to suppress the duplication of competition. That, capitalism cannot even envisage, it is so contrary to its logic.
But there is no escaping the fact that substantial changes will be necessary in areas as diverse as land development, transportation, agriculture, housing, recreational activities, tourism and so on. Indeed, to achieve them in time would necessitate a high degree of centralisation and democratic elaboration of a well thought through plan. None of these factors are easily compatible with neoliberal management of a mode of production driven by feverish competition, with the political exclusion of the masses as its corollary.
Second difficulty: the capitalist energy system is characterised by extreme rigidity and a strong centralisation.
These are the result not only of the lifetime of investments (30-40 years for an electric power station) but also and above all of the fact that powerful lobbies are attached to the goose that lays the golden eggs — and permanently create new needs which “justify” putting the goose in a position to lay more.
The annual worldwide sales of refined products in the oil industry are estimated at 2,000 billion euros per year, all products combined; total costs of prospecting, extraction and refining account for barely 500 billion. The difference between the two (1,500 billion euros per year!) constitutes the total profits, and above all superprofits in the form of economic rent derived from the private appropriation of the resource.
To this colossal power should be added that of the industries linked to oil. Cars, chemicals, petrochemicals, aeronautics, shipbuilding and so on: all of these branches are dependent on the continued expansion of the world market, and thus of material consumption and exchanges. In this situation even rapid development of investment in wind and solar technologies (where economic rents are hard to envisage) can only delay the solution. Generally under the control of huge groups like Shell, BP, and so on, the renewables sector is used mainly at this time to complement fossil fuels, not replace them.
The explosion in air transport and individual automobile use, and the consumer habits flowing from them, are a marvellous illustration of how this logic of the sorcerer’s apprentice is legitimised through the needs it creates, dragging us ever more quickly into the wall while obscuring our vision of reality.
Third difficulty: competition as expressed in relations between states.
CO2 produced at any point of the globe contributes to global warming. Given this global character of the menace, the response needs to be thought through, planned and structured globally, with the priority on co-operation in the interests of all within a long term perspective. The central goal must be to produce a united response to the key question: how are resources to be shared to combine a drastic and rapid reduction of emissions globally with the right to development of the countries of the South, where the vast majority of the human race lives?
Indeed, in spite of the efforts deployed by numerous scientists, domination and competition systematically prevail over collaboration, and the hoarding of resources (including by means of war) over their sharing.
The attitude of the main imperialist protagonists (USA, European Union, Japan) in the climate negotiations is clearly determined by the interests of their businesses and the geo-strategic objectives of the various bourgeoisies on the world market, in particular on the energy market. The same applies to Russia, to each member state of the European Union taken separately, and to the major developing countries (not to mention the oil monarchies!).
The interminable difficulties, the slowness and setbacks of the climate negotiations are thus an expression of the contradiction, insoluble under capitalism, between the increasingly globalized character of the economy and the maintenance of rival nation states (or combinations of states) entirely devoted to the defence of the interests of their bourgeoisie, some of which dominate others.
This imbroglio, in which the fate of the victims of climate change carries no weight, could have irreversible consequences. For example, if the conflict of interests between the imperialist powers and the dominant classes of the major developing countries were to result in a prolonged stalemate in negotiations on the sequel to Kyoto. Or if the future US administration, against all expectations, was to prolong the Bush line for several more years.
The capitalist Moloch won’t fold its arms
From all this, it should not be concluded that the capitalist Moloch will remain with arms folded in the face of a phenomenon which, while it primarily affects the exploited, also presents the threat of a massive devalorisation of capital and rising instability.
But its struggle against climate change for fourteen years has been conducted at the pace dictated by capital — too slowly — and on neoliberal terms, which increase social inequalities, North-South tensions, as well as the appropriation and pillage of natural resources. Despite some positive features, Kyoto is clearly too little and too late. Not only is the goal of a 5.2% reduction in emissions of the developed countries very minimal, and not to be realised until 2012, but the “flexible mechanisms” included in the protocol have negative social and environmental consequences.
The negotiations on the post-2012 period are unlikely to alter the situation. As soon as Bush has left the White House, the EU and USA will probably turn toward compromise. This corresponds to the increasingly pressing demands of numerous multinationals which, convinced that some measures are inevitable, want a unified and stable regulatory framework at the global level as soon as possible. But this rapprochement of climate competitors and allies may well accentuate the neoliberal character of the Protocol, reduce its relative regulatory impact (quotas, dates, sanctions in case of non-compliance) and put other, positive aspects under pressure.