Capitalism’s infrastructure, which is designed to dominate nature, cannot simply be taken over and used for an ecological transformation. Only a complete, root-and-branch change will do the job.
by Chris Williams
We are now officially living amid the sixth great extinction, according to scientists, but the global economy has still not shifted to prevent climate change’s existential threat to human civilization and much of the biosphere.
Will transnational corporations and the political leaders that cater to them realize that it is in their own interest of self-preservation to address the problem of global climate change by halting the unrelenting use of fossil fuels? What would it take for the capitalist economy to prioritize ecological concerns? Perhaps, when 10 of the largest oil and gas companies sign a letter calling on world leaders to sign an effective deal at the international climate negotiations in Paris in December, progress is being made. In a statement that will likely surprise many, the CEOs of these 10 giant fossil fuel corporations state that, “we will continue in our efforts to help lower the current global emissions trajectory,” as they apparently commit themselves to ensuring a “2ºC future.”
Yet Exxon, the biggest oil company, has been busily undermining its own climate research for the last two decades, and sowing doubt in the reality of climate change at every opportunity. Similarly, fossil fuel corporations consistently underplay the growth of renewables and talk up demand. One of the signers of the statement, Shell, predicted in their most recent annual report to shareholders that by 2040 demand for oil and gas would be greater than today by 14 to 55 percent, thus justifying expansion of drilling in the Arctic. Can the very corporations that are rushing to every corner of the world to find and extract more fossil fuels be the answer to reducing fossil fuel production? In the words of Josu Jon Imaz, CEO of Repsol, “We could be part of the problem, but we are convinced we are part of the solution.”
Concerns about climate change, loss of biodiversity, ocean acidification and pollution are not sufficient to catalyze changes in the global economic order. Changes to capitalism are the most likely to come about internally through shifts in profitability that force shifts in economic practices; through class warfare, which makes some forms of production or social relations unacceptable; through profitable technological innovation; or through the political influence of corporations that identify and act on the geopolitical and economic interests of the capitalist class as a whole.
Dynamics of Capitalism
Pressure is clearly building for change, with the growth of a more robust and radicalizing environmental movement in the global North, and most especially in the global South. The fact that some oil and gas companies are responding with a public relations offensive is a testament to that pressure. But the movement has, thus far, not been able to generate the kind of change required on anything like the scale needed. To do so would mean either the outright rejection of capitalism, or, at the very least, the fall of neoliberalism, and the reemergence of the state in domestic political and social life, outside the spheres of the security, surveillance and criminal legal sectors.
Capitalism as a system only cares about increasing labor productivity. Why? What drives the system forward is the inbuilt compulsion to maximize profitable accumulation through the ever-expanding competitive production and sale of commodities. That profitable accumulation for the sake of accumulation is the driving force is evidenced by the way in which capital is seeking new frontiers to do so, irrespective of two decades of international climate negotiations, and increasingly dire scientific reports on the crumbling state of the biosphere.
Those new frontiers may be physical, representing previously untouched areas relatively free of commodification, such as around Lake Turkana in northern Kenya, for wind power or oil production. They may be new frontiers of technology, which take them to new physical locations – such as deep-sea drilling off the East Coast of the United States or in the Arctic, tar sands extraction in Alberta or fracking for oil and gas in North Dakota. Or they may be genetic engineering and the privatization and commodification of profitable pieces of the genomes of plants, animals and bacteria. It could take the form of new frontiers in manufacturing artificial wants and turning those, through advertising, into needs. Or it could be through the forcible expansion into new markets, via imperialism, international trade deals or international financial institutions. As a last resort, outright warfare, to secure resources and solidify geopolitical power, remains an option for the most powerful states.
If that premise is true, the only point at which the system will respond to ecological threats is when there’s a short-range and recognizable negative impact on global accumulation as a whole. Which is to say, recognizable exhaustion and decay of how fast, long and hard people and nature can work, known as labor productivity, and/or natural resource productivity, either of which will impact profit and hence accumulation.
Major weather disruptions and events like massive hurricanes, storms, floods and droughts in individual countries aren’t enough to globally affect the accumulation dynamic of capitalism. That’s partly because the system can insulate itself from such problems, via reinsurance schemes, hiking up insurance rates or, in the case of developing countries, emergency aid (at the appropriate rate of interest). Partly it does so because all forms of spending are, from the perspective of GDP and growth of the economy, an economic good to the system. More spending of any kind, even if it’s rebuilding the houses demolished by a giant superstorm, draining flooded subway tunnels or evacuating and hospitalizing people, is a positive contribution to GDP, as are government funds to help individual cities rebuild. The United States has already seen two of its most iconic cities buried beneath climate-change-powered superstorms. Yet its government, of either political stripe, remains one of the most intransigent when it comes to doing anything meaningful in the realm of international climate negotiations.
The Role of Finance and the Erosion of Democracy
The growth of the financial sector over the last 30 years, and its growing importance to GDP, often denoted as “financialization” of the economy, has facilitated not only growing inequality, but also the ability for capital to swiftly move from region to region in response to investment crises. Long-term investors, such as pension funds, are continually on the hunt for profitable places to invest and store cash. Whenever profit rates dip, because of ecological or social degradation that threatens profitability, when infrastructure is too damaged to facilitate the transport of commodities, or they can no longer be manufactured because the electricity is out, capital relocates via international financial markets in fractions of a second.
As long as the system as a whole is able to manufacture and sell commodities, whether useful or not, at increasing rates, and continue to expand, via natural resource consumption and increases to labor productivity, it will continue on its current trajectory. Absent a mass social movement for change, there will be no coherent or concerted response from ruling elites whose job it is to govern capitalism. This situation is compounded by the advent of neoliberalism, the ideology of which sets limits to the rights of states to intervene in the interests of the capitalist class as a whole.
Over the last three decades, formally democratic states have become much more authoritarian and stepped further and more forcefully into the realm of security and “homeland defense,” simultaneously, moving away from ideas of social provision and market regulation. Indeed, the two movements actually co-determine and co-depend on one another. Less social spending, a smaller safety net with larger holes and greater inequality necessitate more activity, violence and incarceration by the policing, security and criminal legal wing of the state. In the West, as elsewhere, this process has gone hand in hand with the hollowing out of formal democracy, which is required because in an election with genuine choice, people would vote out the leaders inflicting oppressive policies on them – an outcome that the corporations and ruling elite could ill afford.
Hence, pollution and waste are not really a concern for capital until and unless they become a significant drain on overall profitability – which could come from social protest, undermining their “social license to operate,” as much as it comes from ecological limits. Indeed, I would argue that it’s much more likely to come from social protest than from the eventual exhaustion of natural resources. Productivity demands and speed-ups become too great to bear, degrading people’s work lives (in the workplace or the home), particularly in such an unequal world, and drive people to organize and protest. Or, the degradation of life caused by the polluting activities of capital on health and reproduction becomes too blatant. We are seeing both these trends around the world, in country after country. This is where the hope lies.
It is highly unlikely that resource constraints on their own will terminate capitalism, or cause a significant change of course within the time frame given to us by the laws of thermodynamics. Capital will simply move to a new frontier and method of commodification and accumulation.
When profitable accumulation on a world scale is finally and unambiguously threatened by climate change, there will be a more general reaction by the system. Needless to say, that will be far too late. But secondly, it will also be, partly because of that fact, militarized and particularly vicious. As Lenin remarked, there is no crisis that capitalism can’t solve by making the workers pay for it. So, if you think capitalism ignoring or denying climate change is bad, wait until you see what happens when capitalists take it seriously.
Were it not for the sunk investment costs of fossil fuels, and the political power represented by fossil capitalism, in an age of neoliberal ideology restricting the potential for states to rectify the excesses of individual units of capital, capitalism would likely be moving more swiftly toward energy production via renewables, at least in the realm of electricity. While it’s a little more complicated to commodify sunlight and wind, as long as the land is privatized, and the factories that produce the wind turbines and solar cells are in private hands, or owned by a state similarly committed to market competition, it can be done. There is really no obstacle, other than the historical, political and economic weight of fossil fuel corporations and sunk investment in infrastructure, which affects the banking and finance sector, to the expansion of commodification to convective currents of the atmosphere we breathe, and the sunshine from which all living things ultimately live.
But currently, the largest corporations are extremely profitable, with ExxonMobil, a gigantic unit of capital at the heart of the economic and political empire of oil, registering extraordinary profit rates of 19 percent in 2014. So why would capitalism change?
Growth Under Capitalism
The oil and gas industry has hired numerous analysts, and manipulated the political system, in tandem with corporate media, to massage public opinion to reconcile itself with relentless fossil fuel production and the need for continued exponential growth. Now they argue for the need for growth in order to overcome poverty – poverty produced and required by capitalism itself. In this age of new environmental activism, austerity and yawning inequality, the industry recognizes that even if it can’t be unequivocally loved in quite the same way as it was in the 1950s, it will nevertheless be valued through fear: fear of what life will be like without its products. Rex Tillerson, CEO of Exxon, said as much when noting that if Exxon stopped looking to increase supply for oil, “everybody’s lights would be going off before not too long.”
What is required is to either eradicate the profit motive entirely through a revolutionary redistribution of social power, or at the very least, dismantle the oil companies through government regulation. This would prevent them from operating by capitalist imperatives, and move the vast quantities of subsidies from fossil fuel production to other forms of more benign and sustainable energy production. That is to say, you’d have to take sharply anti-capitalist, even revolutionary measures, to prevent them from drilling for more oil. As we have seen with the Obama administration, and other government’s around the world, they seek to argue and produce both sets of policy at once – some regulations and support for renewable alternatives, bikes lanes etc., but only where it does not interfere with the logic of the market, by which I mean the ability to make profit. Which is to say, only where it supplements profitability, by opening up new avenues for accumulation.
This was made explicit in a recent scientific conference in Paris, whereby scientists and government advisers called for “an induced implosion of the carbon economy over the next 20-30 years,” while highlighting the continuing depths of poverty. “The promise of the fossil fuel age has never been fulfilled,” one speaker said. “We still have 2bn people living on $2 (£1.30) a day.” However, former chief economist at the World Bank, Nobel Prize winner and Columbia University professor Joseph Stiglitz, while agreeing on the need to end the fossil fuel industry and supporting the movement to divest from it, nevertheless noted that “Creating a green economy is not only consistent with economic growth, it can promote economic growth.”
Regardless of the rhetoric, all measures carried out so far, by all governments, have nothing whatsoever to do with restricting consumption of fossil fuels, but merely expand consumption into new areas. If a ban or limit to extraction or production of, say, coal occurs in one country, something which can also happen due to falling productivity and competition from other energy sectors, that coal will be mined and sold elsewhere, just as coal mined in the United States is being shipped and burned in Chinese power stations in ever greater quantities. In 2014, a motion introduced to the Norwegian Parliament calling for a halt to new drilling because it was deemed antithetical to Norway’s climate change policies, was defeated by 95 votes to 3. In Britain, the 2015 Infrastructure Act states that, “The principal objective and the strategy [is of] maximising the economic recovery of UK petroleum.”
There is nothing specifically anti-capitalist about current regulations concerning energy, or any other realm of capital accumulation, but that is exactly what is required for humanity to collectively maintain a stable biosphere. Indeed, quite the opposite is happening. Due to the massive expansion of fracking in the United States, the oil industry is currently waging a fight to further expand oil production, by lobbying for the end of the restriction on oil exports. In turn, the expansion of fracking has been the major driver of recent significant reductions in the global price of oil and natural gas. Price falls are having dramatic geopolitical implications, a fact not lost on all of the affected states.
It’s not simply the problem of growth per se. It’s the way in which growth stimulates more growth, which is an attribute specific to capitalism: because the point of capitalism is precisely that – accumulate in order to accumulate. More solar and wind power does not mean declines in fossil fuels. In President Obama’s words, it means “all of the above.” The switch to oil in the last century did not depress the demand for coal; quite the opposite, it stimulated it by allowing us to build bigger machines and more technology applied to extract it from more difficult mines. Invention of the steam engine prior to oil was specifically to extract more coal, to build more factories, to expand the production of cotton to fuel the British Empire, founded on chattel slavery in the US South. Many people would describe this as a technology feedback loop, but it’s not about things, but social relations. It’s a feedback loop consistent with the social relations that operate under capitalism.
The Social and the Ecological
To take an anti-capitalist measure, via a mass movement calling for socio-ecological change, would be to rein in production, via government regulations limiting production of fossil fuels, while simultaneously shifting all the current finance going to oil subsidies, tax write-offs etc., calculated by the International Monetary Fund at almost $2 trillion, into rearranging the infrastructure of modern states. New cities, transportation networks, energy production and distribution systems would have to be built, and the lifeblood of capitalism drained away and consigned to history.
Today, there is no major question that is not simultaneously an ecological and social one intertwined and co-determining one another. Take finding a cure for cancer, for example. Is cancer best seen as a social or natural phenomenon? Where should one draw the line? Is there a line? Where does the social end and the natural begin?
What would be the best way in which to solve the issue of cancer: to continue pouring billions in to privatized research entities examining narrower and narrower purely scientific biochemical pathways and genes within animal cells? Or for workers, farmers and students to take over the factories and research centers and run them collectively and democratically in an ecologically sustainable and equitable manner, where the purpose is to produce for need, not profit? Which method is more likely to yield faster and more effective reductions in cancer?
Isn’t saving your home from foreclosure, as many hundreds of thousands of people in the United States have had to try to do since 2008, as much an environmental question as a social one? Your home is part of your environment. Is arguing for better controls on emissions from a factory because of its effects on worker and local people’s health, a social or an environmental struggle?
As Marx noted, capitalism creates its own gravediggers, in the form of the people it exploits, but simultaneously requires. Over the long term, it undermines itself first regionally, now globally, as it turns all of nature into a commodity, as endlessly interchangeable as a cog in a machine or a worker on an assembly line: tree plantations in place of forests; concentrated animal feeding operations in place of farms; globalized fashion in place of local culture; soulless skyscrapers and regimented concrete blocks in place of an integrated and meaningful diversity of urban environments. Though, naturally, for ease of accumulation, capital makes sure to set aside specific areas to promote certain types of cultural or ecological difference, in order to stimulate and enhance the commodification of tourism within well-defined geographical areas.
Reimagining the Future
We should ask ourselves the question: What is the purpose of a city? Is it to facilitate and maximize capital accumulation? Or to facilitate and maximize human fulfillment, creativity and happiness? Because how we answer that question is determined by who holds social power, in what type of society, and hence what human social values are seen as imperative to the well-being of that society.
Depending on the outcome of that decision, two completely different types of cities would be built: in spatial arrangement, in connection to rural and agricultural areas and within city limits, in forms of transportation, work, leisure time, sanitation, amounts of green space, the manufacture of buildings, types of buildings, energy production and production of other necessary items.
If we agree that we have entered a new epoch of geological time dominated by the activities of humans, through the actions and social relations engendered by capitalism, then what happens if we manage to overthrow capitalist social relations? It will not only be a question of constructing a new society, but deconstructing the old one. It is not enough to take over and reassemble the state, as in Marx and Lenin’s time; we will need to reassemble the whole world – every single aspect of humanity’s relationship with each other and the natural world. Just like the state, an infrastructure designed to dominate nature cannot simply be appropriated and used to good ends.
Ultimately, it is vital that fighters for social emancipation, human freedom and ecological sanity recognize that capitalism represents the annihilation of nature and a functioning and diverse biosphere and, thus, human civilization. A system based on cooperation, genuine bottom-up democracy, long-term planning and production for need, not profit, i.e. ecosocialism, represents the reconciliation of humanity with nature. And its achievement will, as Marx pointed out in Capital, Volume 1, of necessity be much less violent than the process by which capitalism was born in the first place:
“The transformation of scattered private property, arising from individual labor, into capitalist private property is, naturally, a process, incomparably more protracted, violent, and difficult, than the transformation of capitalistic private property, already practically resting on socialized production, into socialized [common] property. In the former case, we had the expropriation of the mass of the people by a few usurpers; in the latter, we have the expropriation of a few usurpers by the mass of the people.”
Which is to say, as difficult and overwhelming as it can sometimes seem to know that the whole system needs to change, we can be comforted by the knowledge that people have collectively taken their destiny into their own hands many times before. Numerous commentators argue about the need to think of the future, our children and what kind of planet they will inherit. This is a moral argument for change and an obviously important consideration. However, it’s also too limiting, because we are also fighting for all those in the centuries and millennia who came before us, who laid the groundwork for our struggles, by winning theirs. We are not only in solidarity with our future selves, but all of the freedom fighters from our past. Hence, we stand in the best tradition of humanity. We should take strength from knowing that, as we attempt to tear down this system and build a genuinely ecological and socially just civilization.
Reposted from Truthout, with kind permission of the author.
Chris Williams is the author of Ecology and Socialism: Solutions to Capitalist Ecological Crisis. He is chairman of the science department at Packer Collegiate Institute and adjunct professor at Pace University in the department of chemistry and physical science.