Global Warming Makes the Case for Socialism

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by Zoe Kenny

From Green Left Weekly, August 22, 2007

Twenty years ago, a UN special commission produced a report, Our Common Future, that predicted rising CO2 levels would lead to a mean temperature increase of up to 4.5oC within 50 years, which would cause catastrophic climate change. The report proposed that immediate action be taken to counter global warming through massive investment in renewable energy sources, with the onus upon wealthy industrialised nations to take the lead.
Since that report was produced, little has been done to halt, let alone reverse, global warming. Why? Hidden within the UN report was the answer. It drew the conclusion that combating the predicted climate-change catastrophe would require “profound structural changes in socioeconomic and institutional arrangements” to enable decisions to be made in the “common interest” of humanity rather than being subordinated to “production for the market.”

Today, the business leaders and the politicians who serve them are presenting market-mechanisms such as CO2 pollution trading between corporations as the solution to the global warming problem.

Corporations are now competing to give themselves a “green” image. BP, for example, has changed its name from British Petroleum to Beyond Petroleum. Some airlines are offering “carbon offsetting” services, for a fee, that promise to negate the carbon emissions of customers’ flights, regardless of the dubious environmental benefits of such “offset” schemes.

Through such greenwashing, corporations hope to reassure customers that they are part of the solution, while at the same time putting the onus back onto the individual whose “consumer choices” are presented as a major motor force for solving the global warming problem. Reinforcing the idea that individual purchasing power can change the world fits neatly into the framework of the capitalist political system in which working people are politically atomised.

This drive to greenwash capitalism dovetails with the underlying approach of most mainstream environmental groups and Green parties, and feeds illusions that, with the right combination of carrots and sticks, the corporate capitalism will abandon its massive investments in highly profitable fossil fuel and rapidly switch over to renewable energy technologies.

Capitalism’s inherently anti-ecological nature, however, is the result of its subordination of the needs of society to the accumulation of business profits through the production and sale of an ever-expanding mass of goods and services, regardless of the costs to society as a whole.

Capitalist businesses try to turn every human activity into a commodity, an article for sale for corporate profits.

Because capitalist businesses’ interaction with nature is solely seen through the prism of individual company profits, capitalist businesses are incapable to making decisions according to the common interests of humanity, including our need to protect the natural environment for future generations.

Nature is regarded as an “externality” to capitalist business operations, as a “free gift” at the start of the production process, while during the process the natural environment is used as a giant sewer.

The negative impacts of this ruthless disregard for nature are also externalised by capitalists — as communities are left to deal with the costs of polluted air, rivers, oceans and land. When attempts are made at forcing capitalist businesses to “internalise” the environmental costs of their activities into the production processes, for example through the imposition of “green” taxes, these are vigorously opposed, watered down or simply passed on to consumers. Similarly, corporations often make the calculation that fines for polluting are cheaper than investing in the technologies to avoid the pollution in the first place.

Karl Marx wrote that capitalism creates a “metabolic rift” between humans and nature through concentrating the population in gigantic urban centres, leading to the consumption of vast amounts of nutrients sourced from the countryside. Under capitalist agriculture, food production becomes increasingly reliant on city-made artificial fertilisers (sourced from fossil fuels).

Exacerbating the ever-more intensive and destructive profit-making cycle is the drive by each capitalist business to dominate the market. This produces the absurdity of multi-billionaires perpetually in pursuit of their next corporate takeover.

The drive to maximise business profits is achieved through cutting business costs. Workers’ wages and conditions are constantly under attack as a result.

Profit-oriented cost-cutting also leads to constant technological innovation — though the big corporations seek to have the cost of research and initial development borne by society through massive taxpayer-funded subsidies. But the use of every new technology is subjugated to one goal only – the maximisation of business profit, regardless of the effects of those innovations on human health or the environment.

For example, after World War II production methods underwent what US environmentalist Barry Commoner called a “qualitative leap” in pollutiveness, with the massive expansion in the production of synthetic chemicals by the petrochemical industry.

Technologies such as solar and wind power, which would be beneficial for all by eliminating greenhouse gas emissions, have not been rolled out in any extensive way because they threaten the profits of the corporations that produce and use fossil fuels.

Capitalism condemns ordinary working people into its cycle of pollution through the imposition of irrational consumption patterns. The outstanding example of this is the forced reliance on private motor vehicles as the overwhelming method of commuting in the First World, with most Third World countries aspiring to the same levels of car ownership. This situation has been consciously manufactured by the oil and auto corporations in collusion with governments.

In the US in the 1930s, tram lines in most of the major cities were bought up by the big automobile companies and subsequently removed to make way for roads.

Designed obsolescence also forces working people into wasteful consumption patterns. Many household items that previous generations expected to last for decades now need to be replaced every few years. Such waste is integral to the capitalist profit-making machine.

Capitalism divides the world into rich and poor nations. The economic underdevelopment of the majority of countries is essential for capitalist corporations that rely upon vast reserves of cheap labour to produce raw materials and low-tech manufactures, as well as providing dumping grounds for toxic waste.

The impoverished people of much of the Third World are driven to destroy their natural environment, through slash-and-burn farming techniques for example, in the daily struggle to survive on incomes of a only few dollars a day.

Capitalism sows the seeds of ecological destruction by ignoring humanity’s dependence on nature. In 1876, Marx’s co-thinker Frederick Engels pointed out that the negative impacts on human welfare of environmental destruction reminds “us that we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing outside nature – but that we, with flesh, blood and brain, belong to nature, and exist in its midst, and that all our mastery of it consists in the fact that we have the advantage over all other creatures of being able to learn its laws and apply them correctly.”

But, if we are to apply them correctly, this requires more than scientific knowledge. It also requires, as Engels observed, “a complete revolution in our hitherto existing mode of production, and simultaneously a revolution in our whole contemporary social order”.

The historically necessary project of replacing capitalism with a socialist system, in which the rule of the capitalist profit-makers is replaced by the democratic self-rule of the working majority, will enable society to subordinate economic activity to the common interest.

If decisions about economic activity could be made democratically by society as a whole — because society as a whole owned the economic resources (all the mines, mills and factories) — then the root causes of global warming could be rationally and rapidly tackled.

Certainly the most obvious place to begin would be with the world’s energy systems. Today pro-capitalist politicians like John Howard tell us that any attempt to move rapidly to replace the use of fossil fuels like coal with renewable energy sources will “wreck the economy”, by which he means it’ll wreak business profits.

He’s absolutely right about this. But the consequence of not doing this will be increasingly catastrophic climate events, which will wreck the livelihoods of most working people.

If the big corporation won’t move rapidly to a renewables-based energy economy, because it threatens their corporate profits, that’s not a rational argument for continuing to rely on fossil fuels. It’s a rational argument for replacing capitalist governments with governments that will organise working people to bring about “profound structural changes” in who owns industry, how it’s run and who it serves.

Society structurally organised to meet the common interest rather than corporate profits would be free to simply weigh up the costs and benefits involved in how it meets its energy needs, and then to allocate through a massive and urgent program of public works to make the switch from fossil fuels to renewables.

Similarly, why would a socialist world continue with reliance on hundreds of millions of privately owned vehicles for daily commuting, with all their associated problems. Far superior would be state of art, integrated free public transport systems with frequent services. This could dramatically reduce greenhouse pollution if rolled out in a systematic way worldwide.

The human resources to do these things will be massively enhanced when millions of workers can be transferred from highly profitable but socially unproductive work, such as the advertising and public relations industries or the military-industrial complex.

The obstacles to achieving an ecologically sustainable society do not lie in the lack of alternatives to CO2-generating fossil fuel dependent technologies, but in the power of the capitalist “market forces” system to resist abandoning the latter for the former.

The mainstream political answer to getting the capitalist corporate profit system to adopt renewable energy technologies is a reform policy combination of carrots (huge taxpayer-funded subsidies to the corporations) and sticks (CO2 emissions taxes, that will be passed on by corporations to ordinary consumers) — both of which involve making working people pay to fix a problem created by the corporate elite.

This approach is what the Swedish government’s Stockholm Environmental Institute calls the “Policy Reform” scenario in its study on a “market forces”-dominated transition to global sustainability — published in 2002 as Great Transition: The Promise and Lure of the Times Ahead.

The authors of the study argued that “great strides toward a sustainability transition are possible without positing either a social revolution or the deus ex machina of a technological miracle” through the application of government policy reforms to “market forces” (which they ackowledge are dominated by the “special interests” of the big “rich country”-based transnational corporations).

However, because solving the problem of global warming “requires a pace and scale of technological and social change [that] is daunting”, the “reform path to sustainability is like climbing up a down escalator.”

Furthermore, for “the reform path to succeed, an unprecedented and unyielding governmental commitment to achieving sustainability goals must arise. That commitment must be expressed through effective and comprehensive economic, social and institutional initiatives. But the necessary political will for a reform route to sustainability is today nowhere in sight.

“To gain ascendancy, the Policy Reform vision must overcome the resistance of special interests, the myopia of narrow outlooks and the inertia of complacency. But the logic of sustainability and the logic of the global market are in tension. The correlation between the accumulation of wealth [in the form of capital] and the concentration of power erodes the political basis for a transition.”

This surely points to the necessity for a social revolution — a fundamental change in which social class, the capitalists or working people, owns and manages society’s economic resources — as the only way to remove the institutional obstacles to countering the gathering global warming catastrophe. But the authors of Great Transition — myopically wedded to their “market forces” narrow outlook — rule this out of consideration.

Cuba has become the world’s undisputed leader in organic agriculture, and has taken major steps toward developing energy efficiency and replacing the use of fossil fuels with renewables.

Cuba was also the first country in the world to implement a universal low-energy lighting program. In 2005, the Cuban government mobilised social workers — many university students on study leave — to distribute and install low-energy fluorescent light bulbs. By the end of the year, five million people had been supplied. By mid 2006, this program had cut electricity for lighting by a third.

Cuba remains the only country in the world to implement a universal low-energy, low-polluting lighting policy. Since mid 2006, the low-energy, low-polluting bulbs are the only ones sold in Cuban stores.

According to the World Wildlife Fund’s The Living Planet Report 2006, the socialist island-nation of Cuba is the only country in the world that enjoys sustainable development, assessed on the basis of countries’ commitments to improving the quality of life of their residents while living within the carrying capacity of supporting ecosystems. This, despite Cuba being a relatively poor country subjected by Washington to nearly five decades of punitive economic sanctions.

If the economic and political institutions of Australia and other rich countries — with their massive scientific and technological resources — were organised, via a social revolution, to serve the interests of working people rather than corporate profit-making, then we’d be able to get on the fast track in solving the global warming crisis, instead of trying to “climb up in a down escalator.”


  • Instead of looking for solutions within capitalism we should be looking for ways to end it, and replace it with a new paradign of democratic participation and respect for nature. That’s what the above article is about.

    The capitalist “plan” (more like an imperative) of expanding markets and perpetual growth will not be curbed by universal programs of birth control carried out under capitalist administration. History has shown repeatedly that such programs, when administered within the context of globalized capitalism, do nothing to curb environmental destruction and economic growth, while doing much to coerce, disempower, and impoverish the very people who have the smallest environmental footprint.

  • Birth control, to reflect carrying capacity needs to be brought into this discussion. Population growth, representing new consumers, fits right in with the capitalist plan of expanding markets, representing growing GDP. This conflicts with the given that there is a finite space for humans, or carrying capacity, that will also be impacted by the need to dispose of waste products. Has the Earth reached or exceeded its’ capacity for humans?