Trying to Square the Climate Circle

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

By William Bowles, Creative-I

Sink or Swim – The ‘choice’ apparently, is yours according to Hilary Benn, but only if you can breath under water and swim

Here, in the UK we have a minister for the environment, Hilary Benn is his name, son of doyen of the ‘left’ of the Labour Party, Anthony Wedgwood-Benn, whose swings from right to left are by now legendary (he’s currently stuck somewhere on what passes for the left).

Wedgie as he is known, renounced his aristocratic ‘pedigree’ to become plain ol’ Wedgie Benn. In any case Hilary (who seems to have dropped even more bits of his aristocratic legacy) is currently hanging out in Bali where the Climate Change conference has just come to a cliff-hanging conclusion, was interviewed on BBC Radio 4 on 14/12/07.

The exchange was remarkable for what wasn’t said rather than what Hilary could and should have said. That said, Hilary seems to think that the ‘choice’ is ours, so for example, it’s our ‘choice’ to use low-power light bulbs or only to fly once a year. It’s that or figure how many trips in your car are equal to one trip in a plane, take your ‘choice’, what’s it to be? I kid you not, this is what our thoroughly (by now) misnamed minister for the environment offered the listener when questioned about the plan to add another runway to Heathrow airport, doubling the number of people who will fly in and out of the place to 50 million a year.

Worse still, he went on to say that we can eat our cake and keep it, apparently that ‘choice’ is not ours to make, it’s a force of nature over which poor ol’ Benjy has no control. According to Benjy, “we can continue to have growth and cut consumption.”

Frankly, for a man of Benjy’s intelligence and education, it was an embarrassing display of the total avoidance of the central issue; economics.

Now I don’t know about you, but it’s my understanding of the word growth that it means increased output of everything connected to our economic activities, which, when you think about it, is just about what most of us ever do for most of our lives (aren’t they called jobs or work in less prosaic circles?). In other words, at the root of the situation is the one thing we don’t apparently have any ‘choice’ over, namely how we conduct our economic activities.

Which is why Benjy produced so many lame, nay, dumb, attempts at trying to square the climate circle, square it with an economic system that must grow in order to survive.

“Climate deal sealed by US U-turn”

“I think we have come a long way here,” said Paula Dobriansky, head of the US delegation. “The EU came to the talks demanding that industrialised nations commit to cuts of 25-40% by 2020, a bid that was implacably opposed by a bloc containing the US, Canada and Japan.”

Later in the piece we read

“This dispute was resolved with a text that did not mention specific emissions targets but did acknowledge that “deep cuts in global emissions will be required to achieve the ultimate objective”. — BBC News Website, 15/12/07

Resolved? How can it be resolved if the real issue, numbers, emission targets etc, has been removed from the final text? As with Benjy, the BBC piece studiously avoids, indeed misrepresents, the fundamental issue, the economics of capitalism and its fundamental connection to climate change.

The ‘Bali Roadmap’ is much like its Middle East counterpart the ‘Road Map to Peace’, consisting of empty, useless phrases that ultimately let them off the hook by agreeing not to agree on anything of real substance.

The bizarre contradictions become apparent when one investigates any aspect of capitalist growth. To take one example, the destruction of tropical rain forests. Not too far away from Bali, in Sumatra to be precise, where vast swathes of rain forest have been cut down to make, not furniture or houses (in other words, something actually useful) but cardboard cartons for the endless stream of consumer products that fill the malls. Cardboard cartons that get junked in their millions and perhaps some get ‘recycled’, but forests cannot be ‘recycled’.

The connection between the two should be obvious but not to Benjy apparently, who sees no contradiction between increased capitalist growth and the thoroughly mangled concept, ‘sustainability’.

The problem would appear to be intractable, after all, we need to have jobs to pay the bills for all those consumer products we purchase (50% of which are bought at Christmas, now there’s an irony for you, the traditional ‘time of giving’).

If any of our governments were to be really truthful about the situation they would have admit that the only solution is literally the complete retooling of our domestic economies (over time obviously). And it doesn’t mean wholesale layoffs (here we need to look at the studies made for ‘defence’ conversion, for example the Project for Defense Alternatives).

But our political classes have no intention for it is not in their interests to ‘bite the hand that feeds them’ and feeds them extremely well thank you very much. This is why individuals like Hilary Benn go through the motions, he has a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, his job and all the perks that go with it.

To add to capitalism’s climate woes, it has entered one of its periodic crises (and possibly its last) but under conditions never encountered before where the technical integration of the movement of capital now inextricably connects competing national economies (whether they like it or not). The old phrase, ‘General Motors catches a cold and Europe sneezes’ now has a new and even more ominous ring to it: the usual international economic anarchy but with all the competitors now chained to each other via global financial institutions which in turn are the proud owners of the major corporations that determine our collective future (or lack of one). It’s a fragile house of cards, which needs only a shove for it to collapse.

The ‘free market’ has proved that it can do nothing to solve the current crisis, indeed it’s the ‘free market’ that has caused it. Enter the state (using our money of course), which has been forced to bail out virtually all the major banking institutions.

In an unheard of move, we witness the banking institutions of the US Federal Reserve, the Bank of England and the European Bank actually getting together to pump billions into the major private banks, which are all caught in a bind of not being able to borrow from each other because the cost of borrowing is too high.

Even the name for the latest crisis of capital, the ‘credit squeeze’ hides the underlying causes. Find a story in the mainstream media if you can, that unpacks the ‘credit squeeze’ for what it is, a recurring symptom of the over-accumulation of capital of which ‘the sub-prime lending’ scam was merely a symptom. It worked whilst money was ‘cheap’, that is to say, cheap to borrow and as the banks engaged in this (previously and possibly still illegal activity) argued, ‘no problem if they default, we’ll simply repossess the houses.’

With tens of thousands of (effectively worthless) properties now owned by the banks and nobody with the means to buy them, entire communities have been devastated. Worse, the ripple effect of entire neighbourhoods of boarded up dwellings is obvious; local businesses go bust as localities become ghost towns.

But printing billions of even more devalued currencies merely puts off the day of reckoning, for even a capitalist economist knows that such an act leads to inflation, which means down the road aways, more and more people will find their devalued pounds, dollars and euros buy them less, and more will default on mortgage repayments, credit card bills. It’s a vicious spiral over which our governments have no real control without direct intervention.

“Will we have another crash?
“Will we have another credit crisis?
“Can we do anything about it?
— Alan Greenspan, September 2007

So too with the reduction in the interest rate both here and in the US, which also leads to inflation, something reflected in the dive stocks took on Wall Street with the announcement by the Fed.

These ‘remedies’ are no more than short-term fixes, they do nothing to address the underlying contradictions of an economic system caught between a rock and hard place; expand or die. The problem is that without actually removing the competitors (China, India, the EU, take your pick) and opening up new markets for the handful of corporations that control the ‘global market’, or, as they have done in the past, really large wars that burn up all that surplus capital sloshing about the ‘system’ (not to mention ‘take care’ of an enormous surplus labour market), there is no solution.

This is what Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, Iran, Venezuela and other points South is really all about, forget the ‘war on terror’, it’s the political economy of capitalism and what it needs to sustain itself and the ends it will go to in order to obtain it.

The depressing thing about this situation is that it’s not new, it’s been happening for literally hundreds of years, but made all the more so now because of the inter-connections between the major economies and the fact that much of surplus value being generated is composed either of financial speculation (which utilises the global circuit of capital to print money with) or consumer spending (almost 60% of the so-called GDP in the UK for example is composed of consumer spending). In other words, this mythical growth is actually nothing more than an illusion; real growth, for example in affordable housing, better health care and education, decent and cheap public transport, which would constitute real growth, is conspicuous by its absence.

‘Growth’ consists of an endless stream of consumer products, all of which are extremely energy and resource intensive in every phase of their life cycle, a cycle which grows shorter and shorter as revolutions in production take on an ever more frantic pace.

There’s only one way this can be done sustainably and that is by the state directing investment not for the benefit of shareholders but for the public good. There’s an entire world out there desperate for real development.

Of course if Benjy were to speak the truth about the situation he would lose his job quicker than he could say ‘Bali Roadmap’ (just look at what happened to Michael Meacher, former minister for the environment, who dared to speak out).

When it comes to public discourse, real economics is a taboo subject, relegated to the ‘economics’ section of the major media, where only those interested in the value of their stock portfolio bother to go. For the rest of us, news on economics is presented as a fait accomplis, too difficult to understand and in any case, there’s nothing we can do about it anyway.

Instead, we are presented as the cause of climate change once it was belatedly recognised as a reality, trapped as we are in the consumer/debt cycle, with our futures totally dependent on maintaining an insane system of ever-expanding production.

No wonder the economics of capitalism and its relationship to climate change and of course to poverty, is a taboo subject, for to admit it into the mainstream of public discussion would open a can of worms.

Best therefore that economics is left alone, better still, make it obscure and too difficult to understand by mystifying the processes. Even better, present it as a ‘force of nature’ over which we have no real control.

1 Comment

  • Although William Bowles asserts that ‘economics’ is the central issue in the global warming debate, this is not strictly accurate and underplays the scientific significance of the problem.

    The central issue is ENERGY and how humans get the energy they use in ever-increasing quantities. Of course, there is an economic dimension to energy use, but the key issue is that in our greed for energy we are in danger of destroying ALL life on planet earth. We are NOT in danger of destroying the planet – that is beyond the capabilities even of the maddest of capitalists.
    Destroying life on earth is a different matter.

    To stop making global warming worse, we must stop pouring carbon dioxide (and other greenhouse gases) into the atmosphere and, equally important, we must stop all deforestation.

    Sustainability implies that we put no more back into the atmosphere than we take out. The implications are immense.

    The problem started about three thousand years ago with the invention of writing (and the alphabet). This led to creation stories and to the idea of a transcendental god who made man in his own image and gave him dominion over the earth. This is the belief that has led humans into total disrespect for their environment. In his blind arrogance, Man has forgotten he is part of nature and not superior to nature, whatever his mythical god may have decreed.

    The planet does NOT belong to us!

    We are here under sufferance. The condition of our tenure is that we treat natural creation with respect, that is, we take what we NEED and try not to destroy life for others, be they of our species or not.

    If we abuse our presence by destroying the conditions for life to continue then our tenancy will cease. It is as simple as that.

    We can destroy conditions for life in lots of ways.

    We can simply devise means of exterminating those forms of life we don’t happen to like, wilfully ignoring the ‘web’ of life and its inter-dependence. For example, if we destroy the habitat required by bees there will be no pollination and all the gold in the world won’t save us.

    We can select those forms of life that are useful to us and make sure they increase. One way of doing this is by monoculture. This results in a lopsided, man-made creation, inimical to the natural balance.

    We can destroy those that are useful to us that in our greed we blindly exterminate. This is happening to the EARTH’S forests – not OUR forests. Once again, we get lopsided, man-made creation, with atmospheric oxygen going down and carbon dioxide going up. It has happened and continues to happen to a variety of forms of terrestrial and marine life. The largest mammals ever have been hunted almost to extinction because of their oil. Ironically, whale oil – which COULD have been sustainable – has been replaced by rock oil (petroleum), which is finite and highly destructive to life on earth because of what it does to our atmosphere.

    We can destroy the conditions for life by polluting water supplies on which ALL life depends. The seas are becoming increasingly acid, thus becoming less congenial for marine life. Ultimately, this will lead to mass extinction.

    We can pollute the air that most living things require as an essential part of their energy metabolism. This too will lead to mass extinction. We do this by burning fossil fuels, returning hundreds of millions of years’ worth of sequestered carbon back into the atmosphere within a couple of hundred years.

    We can poison the land, rendering it infertile. We are well on the way to completing this task, thanks to the mass use of chemical fertilisers and over-cultivation. This will result in the earth being able to sustain less and less life until eventually life will cease.

    We can amuse and delude ourselves by playing with the structure of matter, releasing various kinds of radiation and leaving radioactive material that makes an uncongenial companion for life (as we know it). Life will cease long before the radioactivity decays to levels compatible with life.

    Yes, we like to think how clever we are, all of the wonderful things we can do, all of the wonderful things WE have created. In our conceit we fail to realise that, like Pandora, we have opened a box that contains the means – not of life lived to the full for all eternity – but of death and destruction within our own lifetimes that we are unable to control: just as we cannot control radioactive waste from our ‘playing’ with natural matter. We are here because matter WAS sufficiently inoffensive until WE began to play with it. We have turned it into something that is offensive and incompatible with life. That is how clever we are!

    ‘Evil’ is a human construct, just as ‘wisdom’ is a human construct. They each describe a form of human behaviour. They are part of human self-recognition. We have spent so much time trying to understand ourselves that we have lost sight of the importance of our relationship with the rest of creation. We imagine ourselves to be above nature rather than part of it. This arrogance is our downfall.

    Whether we can change our behaviour in time to save us from self-destruction remains to be seen. There are few signs that humans are aware of the evil they do to themselves and to the rest of life, and non-life, on earth. We are violating the terms of our tenancy with ever-increasing contempt. There will surely be a day of reckoning.

    William Bowles is right in arguing that capitalism is inimical to long-term survival – of ANY form of life, let alone humans. But our start down this road began when humans chose a settled existence in preference to a more nomadic one.