By Andrew Martin
We live in unprecedented times. Never have we seen environmental destruction occur on such a scale. What humanity collectively does now determines the fate of all future generations. The productive forces of capitalism have transformed the globe. No longer are humans living in submission to the environment. A single species completely dominates the earth and holds it in subjection.
But, the very productive forces unleashed by capitalism have consequences that we may have little control over. Time is running short. Capitalism has created the conditions for a mass extinction of most of the earth’s species. The difference to previous mass extinctions is that the current one we are entering is not due to any sort of natural phenomena. The roots of the current environmental crisis are only several hundred years old. They lie in the creation of class-based societies that have managed to monetise and extract surplus value.
Capitalism runs counter to the preservation and sustainability of the environment. It depends not only on the exploitation of labour but on the extraction of vast natural resources.
The mining of abundant coal deposits in North-Eastern England was vital for the development of the British Empire. There had been large coal pits since Roman times. Still, it was not until deep shaft mining developed in conjunction with the steam engine that capitalism had the industrial output to become a truly global system of generalised commodity production. Fierce competition for new markets and greater resources gave greater impetus to industrialisation and colonial conquest. Previously colonised nations such as China and India became even more exploited, and their resources systematically plundered.
As the free competition between small proprietors gave way to competition between large transnational corporations, the capitalist system developed into what we know today as imperialism.
This single integrated global market constrains any other economic or political system from emerging. Capitalism is a “do or die” system. The logic and internal processes of capitalism are blind to humanity’s needs and to the ecological systems that support life on this planet.
Capitalism relies on endless growth. Any contraction in growth is poisonous to the capitalist system. It is at its heart a predatory system, relying on competition between nation-states, corporations and individuals. It relies on systematic oppression, exploiting superficial differences, manipulating basic insecurities, fears and uncertainty. Divisions of race and gender weaken resistance to capitalist development. Still, it is the extraction of super-profits, the transfer of masses of wealth from developing nations to the rich, that has ultimately consolidated capitalism’s rule.
Colonial powers were able to send expeditionary forces to quell unrest, subjugate indigenous peoples, control resources and capture new markets. Capitalism uprooted whole social orders, driving peasants from the commons and, in turn, through factory labour, socialised the means of production.
Capitalism is a truly integrated global system; not one single part of the planet is untouched by its reach. It has allowed for an intensification of innovation – the centralisation of wealth into large monopolies has allowed for a greater level of technological advancement than ever achieved before.
But this advancement has brought forth many contradictions. Capitalism was always going to be on a collision course with the environment. From its outset, it has relied on the burning of large stored amounts of energy. The earth’s ecosystems cannot fully absorb the carbon released from the burning of fuels such as wood, coal, and oil and gas.
While many forests and wetlands have been able to absorb and store carbon in the past, this is no longer the case. Many forests, such as the Amazon rainforest, are now on the verge of becoming net emitters of carbon. Atmospheric carbon dioxide hit a 4 million ppm year high last year.
According to a recent study published in Nature Climate Change, between 2001 and 2019, the Brazilian Amazon has been a net emitter of carbon. Since 2019, under president Jair Bolsonaro there has been a greater intensification of the destruction of the Amazon rainforest. This destruction has occurred by fire and by land clearing for agriculture.
Tropical forests are necessary because of their high growth rates and ability to store carbon. Only the Congo basin’s tropical forests in Africa remain relatively intact, but even these are under threat. Harvesting tropical and any other old-growth forest releases carbon that has taken centuries to accumulate. As these forests are excellent sources of profit, there is very little commercial incentive to protect them.
U.S. imperialism undermines action on climate change
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), global mean temperatures will continue to rise well into the 21st century if carbon emissions remain unabated. Global temperatures are likely to exceed 2.0°C above levels recorded between 1850 and 1900. This temperature change won’t be uniform, with the Arctic region expected to warm the most.
There will undoubtedly be more hot temperature extremes that continue to break all previous records. According to Climate Analytics and the New Climate Institute’s independent research, without any action on climate change, the world is on track to reach 4.1 to 4.8°C above pre-industrial temperatures. Even if in the optimistic scenario of current pledges being met, baseline emissions will rise 2.6°C.
All the modelling and research indicate that we face an unprecedented level of global warming even in a best-case scenario. The pledges from all the major global emitters are woefully inadequate and are no substitute for action. Based on the Paris Agreement, these pledges are a legally binding treaty adopted by 196 nations in 2015, which the Biden government has recently rejoined after Trump withdrew from it.
It is, as it stands, already an outdated agreement. There are no powers to make sure it’s enforceable. The U.S, under the Obama administration, meddled with the agreement. Most of its pledges are for net-zero emissions by 2050, far too late to cut emissions to zero.
The U.S., through cloak and dagger diplomacy, has consistently undermined agreements to take action on climate change. The Copenhagen Summit in 2009 was one of the largest gatherings of world leaders ever to discuss the issue of climate change. Obama stated of his attendance: “The time has come for us to get off the sidelines and shape the future that we seek; that is why I came to Copenhagen.”
Of Obama’s intervention, Lumumba Di-Aping, chief negotiator for the G77 group of 130 developing countries, said quite accurately, the deal had “the lowest level of ambition you can imagine. It’s nothing short of climate change scepticism in action. It locks countries into a cycle of poverty forever. Obama has eliminated any difference between him and Bush.”
Bolivia and Venezuela, along with some European nations, called for binding targets to mitigate climate change. Much of the Western media blamed developing countries for the failure of the talks. The western media ignored the fact that many African and Asian countries expressed the need for more emissions reduction.
By the final day of the conference, the talks were in total disarray. The U.S. negotiated the accord with a select group of nations. An analysis of Wikileaks U.S. diplomatic cables reveals the U.S. used spying, threats and promises of aid to get approval for the Copenhagen accord. Further documents released by Edward Snowden show how the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) monitored communications between countries in attendance to give them an edge in negotiations.
The talks were overshadowed by the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) which dominated domestic politics in the U.S, adding pressure to postpone any real cuts to emissions. The U.S. president, Barrack Obama, blamed China for the breakdown in negotiations yet had offered them nothing. Obama personally disrupted several negotiating sessions that China was attending with other nations.
The Copenhagen conference failed to address the urgent reality of climate change. Instead, the major global polluters prioritised economic growth over the preservation of the environment. This growth is based on ruthless exploitation, locking developing nations into loans that require significant structural changes to their economies. Where developing nations try to tread a different path, the U.S. intervenes militarily or covertly through CIA backed operations.
The U.S. military itself consumes more hydrocarbons than most countries. It is one of the largest polluters in all world history, with its operations being continually open-ended. It has a larger logistical supply chain than any other organisation in the world. In 2017 alone, the U.S. military purchased about 269,230 barrels of oil a day and emitted more than 25,000 kt- CO2e by burning those fuels. Even without going to war, the U.S. military forces are a danger to the world.
A Different Path
In contrast to the Copenhagen Summit and the Paris Accord, Bolivia hosted the World Peace Conference on climate change in 2010. There were 15 000 delegates, primarily members of social movements and indigenous groups in attendance from developing countries worldwide. The conference announced clear binding targets to limit climate change to 1°C above present levels.
The conference put forward a radical vision of hope that remains significant. Such a gathering has yet to be replicated anywhere else. It recognised the earth as having rights, that humans belong to it and that the earth is to be respected. The conference sought to work on a world referendum on climate change and draw up a plan of action for a Climate Justice Tribunal.
Such an orientation is at odds with the shady bureaucratic manipulations of the U.S. empire. Bolivia, rich in natural resources and treading a different path to neoliberal doctrines of economic management, was a key target for regime change. After years of destabilisation efforts, the U.S. government helped to overthrow the Bolivian Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) government of Evo Morales a decade after the World Peace Conference.
Through mass resistance, MAS has now returned to power. The U.S. has condemned the Bolivian government for bringing the coup plotters to justice and, no doubt will continue to try and destabilise the region. The country remains on an emergency footing.
When MAS first came into power, its leaders were clear capitalism was to blame for all Bolivia’s social ills and environmental degradation. When Morales was sworn in for a second term in 2010, he declared the government would construct “communitarian socialism”. Bolivia’s vice president, Garcia Linares, stated: “The society we have today in the world is a society with too many injustices, too much inequality…We have the seeds of communitarian socialism, badly treated, partially dried up, but if we nourish this seed in Bolivia a powerful trunk will grow with fruit for our country and the world.”
MAS has a powerful connection to the working class and indigenous populations. It will need to strengthen those connections to take global initiatives to fight climate change and create a new society.
Endless growth means endless waste
Any society that emerges from capitalism will have to tackle the mountains of waste that it has produced. While capitalism has always been a wasteful society, the marketing and consumer culture we see today was born post WW11. After the worst military conflict in all world history, U.S. capitalism reigned supreme over the world economy. The next twenty-five years were an unprecedented boom.
The war decimated most European nations industrial capacity. Their human and economic resources were exhausted. The U.S. was the primary beneficiary and underwrote the reconstruction of Europe on terms that were favourable for capitalist expansion. Allied western countries, through the U.S Marshall plan, contained soviet expansion.
West Germany became the most significant market and prime exporter of industrial and consumer commodities in all of Europe. In contrast, Eastern Europe suffered a shortage of labour and investment, constricting its development. Soviet Russia had suffered an incomparable loss of life and devastation. The mass slaughter and scorched earth policies of the Nazis played much more of a part in the East’s slow recovery than any inefficiencies of the Soviet centralised economies.
The global dominance of U.S. capitalist propaganda has led to the widespread belief in the “free market” being superior to any other form of economic and political organisation. The blindness of the free market has led to a feverish level of production of junk commodities. Manufacturers deliberately design their products to be obsolete within a short lifetime.
Marketing ensures that most commodities are obsolete within a matter of years, or even months, even if they are entirely functional. Obsolescence is now more a matter of perception than technological redundancy. In the U.S, 99% of products bought today are thrown away within six months.
In the U.S, 35 – 50% of food is thrown away. This enormous amount of waste accounts for almost 20% of crop-lands and 21% of landfill content and is worth $218 billion in GDP.
Capitalism has created an ecological crisis that cannot be resolved through buying greener products, recycling, or upgrading electric vehicles. A better solution is to reduce unnecessary production and waste, make things last, and eliminate throwaway items and packaging.
We need to go well beyond resource efficiency and recycling. There needs to be a total transformation in the way things are made. What is made now should be made for the future. The life-cycle of manufactured products needs to be greatly increased. They should be able to be continually re-used, easily repairable, refurbished and re-manufactured. New technology should allow upgrades to be retrofitted. Of course, these measures are entirely at odds with capitalism, which puts private profit first.
All materials and processes used in production should be assessed for their impact on people’s health and the environment. Workers themselves should be involved in finding ways to eliminate toxic substances, waste and harmful work practices.
Genuine environmental solutions can only be achieved on a widespread basis through a democratically planned economy that puts workers first and centre in the production process. A socialist economy would rid the world of cyclical economic crisis and immediately address the harm capitalism has done to the planet. A consciously planned economy would enable a truly humane society to come into existence where each person could fulfil their potential, transforming themselves as they transform the world around them.
What is your socio-economic solution to capitalism?
The title should not just focus on the USA. India, China, etc are all capitalist economies. Your article is clear and good, but this apart from climate change matters has been all heard before over decades.