‘Capitalism cannot respond to climate change’

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Noted Marxist economist and ecologist John Bellamy Foster is a feature guest speaker at the World at a Crossroads: Climate Change Social Change conference, which will take place in Melbourne Australia, September 30 to October 3. He was interviewed by Peter Boyle for Green Left Weekly.


What will be some of the effects of the ongoing global financial crisis and the global bank bailouts on capitalism’s response to the climate change crisis?

What we know as the global financial crisis has turned now into a global stagnation that is affecting the economies of the triad (the United States, Europe and Japan) and much of the rest of the world — with China as the main question mark.

Under these circumstances, the system is unlikely to respond to climate change at all.

As in every economic crisis, there will be a tendency toward increased environmental deregulation, not environmental regulation.

The only good news from an environmental standpoint is that the slowdown in economic growth diminishes the rate of impact on the environment.

Nevertheless, to the extent that public attention is diverted from climate change as an issue, necessary actions are not taken while the overall problem gets worse.

The truth is that the capitalist system is unable to respond to climate change: either in periods of prosperity or stagnation, and in the latter case everything but the latest stock quotes and profit figures recede into the background.

Do you anticipate a deepening of the main contradictions in the system over the next 12 months?

Yes, in terms of the economy that much is now clear. Production and employment are now headed down again, long before a full recovery from the Great Recession.

We are basically at zero growth and slowing, with growing fears of a deep plummet.

The underlying problem (of which financialisation is only a symptom) is the overaccumulation of capital, reflected in the inability to absorb the potential surplus generated in production.

This contradiction now exists on a global level. Matters are being made worse by neoliberal cutbacks in government spending in Europe and the United States, eliminating the one potential source of stimulus for the economy at present, and even turning it into a negative factor.

Recognition that we are now in a period of long-term economic stagnation is now widespread, even within mainstream economics, which has long avoided the issue.

Nouriel Roubini at New York University said recently: “Karl Marx had it right. At some point capitalism can self-destroy itself. That’s because you cannot keep on shifting income from labor to capital without not having an excess capacity and a lack of aggregate demand.

“We thought that markets work. They are not working. What’s individually rational … is a self destructive process.”

Roubini is clearly beginning to grasp some of the deeper contradictions, until recently only perceived by Marxists and a few radical Keynesians.

When you look beyond the economy to other factors, matters are even worse.

The United States with and without NATO is involved in one war after another in the Middle East and North Africa, in what is seen as an attempt to “stabilise” access to strategic resources and secure key geopolitical regions for capitalism.

In Libya, incidentally, the issue is not only oil, but also the world’s largest fossil underground aquifer system, which Libya had started exploiting in the south-east part of the country, in what is perhaps the world’s largest irrigation project.

The way in which this aquifer is utilised will be crucial importance to Africa’s future. It will now fall under the control of private French water companies.

We are in a period of growing imperial wars aimed at strategic resources and the geopolitical bases for leveraging economic power. Here economic and ecological issues converge.

Environmentally, the entire planet is threatened on an ever increasing scale, while planetary systems have proven themselves to be vulnerable in ways that we previously failed to appreciate.

At one time, we could afford to ignore what humanity could do to the Earth in a mere 12 months. Those days are now gone.

Changes that previously defined geological history are now occurring on the level of decades.

The further we go down the path of “business as usual” the greater the social and ecological revolution we will need to pull the planet out of this impending disaster.

What are the main climate change costs in the US governments deficit reduction drive?

The deficit reduction drive will pull the economy down further, at the same time it means that the state cannot be a force for carrying out the kinds of changes that would help the environment.

For example, the budget deal reportedly slashed $1.5 billion dollars from Obama’s high speed train project (designed to reduce dependence on cars).

Since this was the only really important positive climate change measure that the Obama administration put through the slashing of it is quite symbolic.

Has consciousness on the climate change emergency in the US retreated or advanced during the recent years of economic crisis?

It is hard to say anything about consciousness. I haven’t looked at the recent poll numbers, which in any case are only of limited value.

Politics, however, has moved to the right in the United States.

The Tea Party, which is of course the right-wing of the Republican Party, campaigned heavily on the basis of climate denial, as well as on the basis of deficit-reduction and anti-government policies.

In the current campaign for the Republican nomination climate denial is widespread, with Rick Perry, the Governor of Texas, declaring that climate change was a hoax drummed up by a conspiracy of scientists.

In terms of the wider population in the United States, I would say that the primary issue in the country is jobs, and climate change is a political non-issue, so that while denialism is considered a political asset on the right, liberals see no percentages in pursuing the matter and are inclined to downplay it, except when directly addressing environmentalist audiences.

The Obama administration of course has no policy at all to speak of with respect to climate change and now seldom mentions it at all.

More important for Obama is expanding energy sources: oil from deep sea drilling, coal, nuclear, shale oil, etc, as a means of leveraging economic growth, and, more immediately, gaining corporate backing.

In other words, the situation in the United States seems to confirm that there is no hope to be found at present anywhere in the system where climate change is concerned.

[To register for the conference, visit http://climatechangesocialchange2011.wordpress.com/ ]

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