Comment on this article |
View comments |
Email this article |
News :: Environment
Climate Chaos & the Quabbin Woodlands
22 May 2014
Boston's water supply is about to get the axe!
The Massachusetts Dept. of Conservation & Recreation is reopening the Quabbin watershed and other public lands to commercial logging. Trees are our climate saviors, we need to preserve the forests.
This work is in the public domain
Re: Climate Chaos & the Quabbin Woodlands
(No verified email address)
31 May 2014
Click on image for a larger version
Go, Go Godzilla! Nature’s Avenger by KIM NICOLINI
Don’t let the big budget special effects and eye-popping 3D hoopla fool you, the new Godzilla (2014) is one serious movie packed into a load of fun. With fantastically rendered apocalyptic visual effects, mind boggling radiation-eating monsters from the deep, a giant lizard god, and a whole shitload of unnatural natural disasters, the movie seethes and explodes with catastrophes, monsters, humans scrambling like ants, and a big bad ass primordial lizard stomping through the chaos. The new film is not a remake of the original Japanese Gojira (1954); rather it is a sequel. The original film is an apocalyptic vision of Japan after the nuclear bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Godzilla is a product of radiation, the embodiment of the toxic post-nuclear landscape. The sound of his feet stomping are the sounds of bombs dropping. The new film brings Godzilla back to the world 60 years later, where the entire planet has become a toxic landscape polluted by the reckless plundering of humankind.
The movie begins with a scene at an open pit mine where a radiation eating MUTO (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism) has been released when the mine digs deep into the Earth’s core looking for the highly profitable uranium, which is used to make atomic bombs (like the ones dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima). The mine represents the marriage between corporate and state interests, mining the Earth’s natural resources to be used for economic profit, military operations and human destruction. In other words, the mine bastardizes the order of things, and this causes a disruption in the ecosystem which releases the MUTO. The MUTO triggers an earthquake in Japan which causes a Nuclear Power Plant meltdown and looks strikingly familiar to the 2011 Japanese earthquake, tidal wave, and nuclear disaster.
Throughout the movie, disasters fill the screen. A tidal wave takes down Hawaii. A MUTO plunders its way through seas of people. Multitudes lie dead and injured on stretchers, like survivors of wars, bombings, hurricanes, and earthquakes. Skyscrapers tumble. Las Vegas is ripped to shreds. A faux Eiffel Tower is toppled like so much human rubbish while Casinos stand like crumbling skeletons with the strains of lounge music pumping through the wreckage. Trains are derailed. Planes and helicopters burst into flame. Sure, these are all visually sumptuous renditions of disasters, apocalyptic cinema at its best. But they could also be taken straight out of news headlines from the past few decades where unnatural natural disasters (hurricanes, earthquakes, global warming, war, and massacre) are everyday facts of life. Man fucks with Earth. Earth fights back. In this case, Earth is Godzilla. As Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) says, Godzilla resides “at the top of the primordial ecosystem.” He doesn’t show up to destroy but to “restore the natural order of Earth.”
The Earth we see in this movie could use some restoring. The MUTOs which Godzilla has come to destroy are the spawn of humankind’s toxicity. They were created by radiation and feed on radiation to survive. But they were not created by Earth’s natural radiation. Rather, they are products of the very bombings that are referenced in the original 1954 Japanese film. MUTOs are enormous towering loathsome creatures that were created by human poison to feed off human poison (nuclear waste and power of all variety). Who created these things? Man. So who is the real monster? Man. But man is nothing compared to the powers of nature. He is a fool to think he can pillage and control nature. The difference in scale between Godzilla and humans shows just how foolish mankind is to fuck with Mother Earth. Next to the feet of the God Lizard, humans are mere specks just like we are specks on the ecological calendar. Godzilla precedes people, and he will outlive all of us as we plunder the planet until we force the human race itself into extinction.
Not that we get to see the big guy right away. He doesn’t appear until nearly halfway through the movie, but that is why the film is so effective. This isn’t just a movie about Godzilla, but about why Godzilla shows up in the first place. Before we see the Lizard King, we witness many scenes of the waste man has made of the planet. The open pit mine is crawling with day laborers like some kind of Hieronymus Bosch painting. The communication room of the nuclear power plant and the interiors of military aircraft carriers show the apparatus of the State at work (and are true to the vision of the original film). All the monitors, instrumentation and control panels reflect man’s attempt to manipulate, control and destroy nature. People manically turn knobs, push buttons, and launch attacks, but their attempts are futile.
The nuclear plant meltdown is sublimely apocalyptic as it collapses to the ground. The camera roams through the gorgeously rendered landscape of Japan’s post-meltdown quarantine zone. Planets, vines, insects and dogs take over the abandoned town showing how nature takes over even after man has been wiped out. Resorts in Hawaii and Las Vegas (places which plowed the earth to create commercial sites for human recreation) are destroyed. A MUTO rises from a vast nuclear waste dump in Nevada, the place where the most toxic residue of mankind has coalesced. In all these scenes, we are given some of the best CGI-generated cinematic catastrophes ever rendered on film, yet the hazy blur of chaos, the running crowds, and the gloom of a world gone wrong maintain the feel and aesthetic of the original film. This is the same world; the catastrophes have just gotten more global.
In the middle of all this chaos, Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston plays the engineer Joe Brody. His rough-hewn serious face and deadpan delivery makes for the perfect 1950s paranoid scientist transposed into the 21st century. Joe inadvertently kills his wife during the initial nuclear meltdown, leaves his son motherless, and dedicates his life to finding the cause of the initial earthquake which he is convinced is some kind of conspiracy between the military and industry. Joe is deemed crazy by his colleagues and family. He insists there is something terribly wrong, yet no one believes him. He ends up being the paranoid who is the most sane of all. Monster movies have often been the visual manifestation of human paranoia turned into horrific creatures. “You’re hiding something!” Joe yells at the state apparatus right before the MUTO is unveiled. Of course the State is hiding something. We have a reason to be paranoid. They have captured the original MUTO and are holding it hostage in the revived and renovated nuclear power plant. Needless to say, man’s attempts to control this beast that is bigger than a thousand football stadiums are ludicrously futile.
When Godzilla does finally appear, witnessing this primordial lizard god is exhilarating. He is a radiation breathing accidental hero. As he swims through the ocean, he creates waves as tall as the fallen Eiffel Tower. His feet are wider than buildings when they touch ground. The swing of his magnificent tail brings down a MUTO in a single swipe. Let it be clear that as happy as we are to see this God Lizard arrive to save the day, he has no interest in mankind. He knocks over military ships like toys and lays waste to people and buildings when he hits shore. He wants to kick the MUTOs’ asses to save the planet that he occupies not to save humankind who have fucked up the Earth. After Godzilla takes down the MUTOs in San Francisco and rises from the ashes, giant TV screens in a football stadium converted to an evacuation center (reference to Hurricane Katrina) broadcast his image with scrolling words reading:
“King of Lizards. Savior of our city.” Sure, the audience champions this “savior,” but his mission is to restore natural order, and miniscule humankind is not part of that order. Saving humankind was a random result. We just get lucky when Godzilla saves our asses while saving his own and the planet’s. Godzilla represents the ultimate power of the primordial ecosystem. He is a giant organic creature that precedes man arriving on this planet and will continue after man leaves the planet.
As a kid, I loved watching the Godzilla movies. I realize in retrospect that they were a way for me to deflect the sense of the toxic landscape I was living in onto the screen. 2014’s Godzilla reflects the toxic horrors of our present day world onto the screen, and we are reminded, like we are in so many traditional monster movies, that man is the real monster. The MUTOs are manifestations of man, created by nuclear refuse and man’s inorganic harnessing of the earth’s resources for power and profit. It is not Ford Brody (Joe’s surviving son) who the audience is rooting and cheering for in the end. It is Godzilla. Somewhere in the depths of our inner primordial beings, we understand that Godzilla is better than we ever will be, and we want him to live more than we want to save the human race.
When Godzilla rises from the city and returns to the ocean, his body heaves like a giant mountain as if he is made of Earth itself. He is a reminder to all of us to stop fucking with the planet or we will go the way of the MUTOs – products of our own poison and doomed to obliteration
knicolini (at) gmail.com
Re: Climate Chaos
by Pete Dolack
(No verified email address)
31 May 2014
Why Green Capitalism Will Fail by PETE DOLACK
Green capitalism is destined to fail: You can’t keep doing the same thing and expect different results. We can’t shop our way out of global warming nor are there technological magic wands that will save us. There is no alternative to a dramatic change in the organization of the global economy and consumption patterns.
Such a change will not come without costs — but the costs of doing nothing, of allowing global warming to precede is far greater. Therefore it is healthy to approach with a dose of skepticism the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report that concludes the annual reduction in “consumption growth” on a global basis would be only 0.06 percent during the course of the 21st century. Almost nothing!
The “Summary for Policymakers” supplement of the IPCC’s Climate Change 2014: Mitigation of Climate Change report, a dense 33-page document, estimates that the annualized reduction in consumption growth would be 0.04 to 0.16 percent, with the median value of various models at 0.06 percent. This estimate is based on projected global annual growth of 1.6 to 3.0 percent per year during the full course of the 21st century. [page 15]
This estimated cost is what the IPCC believes is what would be required to hold the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide equivalent to 450 parts per million, the level at which the IPCC believes total global warming would be 2 degrees Celsius by the year 2100, which in turn is seen as the maximum temperature rise to avoid catastrophic damage to Earth.
Let’s unpack those last two paragraphs. In sum, what the IPCC panel is asserting is that the cost of bringing global warming under control will be negligible, no more than a blip noticed only by statisticians. And, best of all, there need be no fundamental change to the world’s economic structures — we can remain on the path of endless growth. We can have our cake and not only eat it but make more cakes and eat them, too.
Alas, there are no free lunches nor limitless cakes.
On the current path, you’ll need scuba gear to get around
Hundreds of climate scientists from around the world (collectively, the “IPCC Working Group III”) contributed to the report, but it does appear to have been watered down to some extent for political reasons. Indeed, the Mitigation 2014 web site’s front page says the Summary for Policymakers “has been approved line by line by member governments.” Since most of the world’s governments are reluctant to do very little more than talk about global warming, a note of caution is surely warranted.
Nonetheless, the summary does acknowledge that greenhouse-gas emissions accelerated during the 2000-2010 decade as compared to the 1970-2000 period. It declares, with “high confidence,” that half of all anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions since 1750 (the dawn of the Industrial Revolution) have been discharged in the past 40 years. Worse, population and economic growth has outstripped gains in efficiency, thus greenhouse-gas emissions have increased despite increased efficiency in, and conservation of, energy usage. Continuing on this trajectory will have potentially catastrophic consequences, the summary says:
“Without additional efforts to reduce [greenhouse-gas] emissions beyond those in place today, emissions growth is expected to persist driven by growth in global population and economic activities. Baseline scenarios, those without additional mitigation, result in global mean surface temperature increases in 2100 from 3.7 °C to 4.8 °C compared to pre-industrial levels (median values; the range is 2.5 °C to 7.8 °C when including climate uncertainty) (high confidence).” [page 9]
Many of the world’s cities would be underwater, or well on their way to being underwater, should such heating occur. The temperature range of the preceding paragraph represents atmospheric concentrations of 750 to 1,300 parts per million of carbon dioxide equivalent. To instead hold that concentration to 450 parts per million will require a monumental undertaking — the concentration is already 400 ppm. The IPCC thus concludes that the level of greenhouse-gas gases will actually rise above the 450 mark, then brought down to that level under its scenario for capping the concentration at 450 ppm in 2100.
To achieve a goal of 450 ppm in 2100 would require that greenhouse-gas emissions be “40 to 70 percent lower globally” in 2050 than in 2010 and “near zero” in 2100. How to achieve this? The report makes these recommendations:
*Further rapid improvements of energy efficiency.
*Reduce the carbon intensity of electricity generation.
*Increase the use of renewable energy technologies, which would require subsidies.
*Increased use of nuclear energy.
*The development of carbon dioxide capture and storage technology, in particular “bioenergy with carbon dioxide capture and storage” (BECCS) by the year 2050.
The last of these, in particular BECCS, is the key to the IPCC’s belief that techno-fixes are the way to save the day. But there is ample reason to throw cold water on this optimism.
Bioenergy likely to increase global warming
BECCS is defined as the capture and sequestration of the carbon produced by bioenergy processes. The carbon dioxide would be “captured” before it escapes into the atmosphere and “permanently” stored underground or underwater, thereby removing it from the air and negating its greenhouse effects. One problem with BECCS is that the technology is not yet viable. Another is that the very idea that BECCS would lead to reduced atmospheric carbon dioxide is a false premise.
A Biofuelwatch study prepared by Rachel Smolker and Almuth Ernsting reports that there are significant costs associated with carbon-capture technologies. They write:
“High costs are associated with capturing … compressing and transporting [carbon] (including building new CO2 pipelines) and pumping it underground, and major technical challenges are associated with the majority of [carbon dioxide capture and storage] proposals. Storing CO2 below ground requires access to underground spaces, beneath both ocean and land areas. Current mapping of geological formations, with the expectation that these spaces will be accessed, is setting the stage for a new form of ‘underground’ land grab. Resistance has already begun with communities opposing the injection of CO2 into the ground beneath them.” [page 2]
The Biofuelwatch study reports that the IPCC, among others, counts flooding oil reservoirs with carbon dioxide, to extract otherwise inaccessible oil out of the ground, as BECCS. Hardly “carbon neutral”! The authors write:
“Crucially, the promotion of [carbon dioxide capture and storage], including BECCS for climate change mitigation and geo-engineering, coincides with the oil industry’s fast-growing demand for cheap continuous supplies of CO2. … [F]looding oil reservoirs with CO2 allows for the recovery of a far higher proportion of oil than would be possible with conventional means.” [page 2]
In a separate report, Ms. Smolker, writing in Truthout, challenges the science behind assumptions that BECCS projects will reduce greenhouse-gas emissions:
“Virtually nobody still contends that corn ethanol is ‘carbon neutral.’ Yet the premier BECCS project that is often referred to is an ADM corn ethanol refinery in Decatur, Illinois. In fact, when emissions from indirect impacts are included in analyses, along with a complete assessment of the impacts from growing, harvesting, fertilizer and chemical use etc., most bioenergy processes actually cause more emissions even than the fossil fuels they are meant to replace. … [W]e know already from the current scale of biofuel and biomass demand — just look at the current corn ethanol debacle — that it is driving loss of biodiversity, higher food prices, land grabs and other damages. Scaling up bioenergy to the extent that would be required to supposedly reduce global CO2 levels would be a disastrous backfire.”
A Partnership for Policy Integrity study found that biomass electricity generation, which relies primarily on the burning of wood, is “more polluting and worse for the climate than coal, according to a new analysis of 88 pollution permits for biomass power plants in 25 states.” The partnership’s director, Mary Booth, wrote:
“The biomass power industry portrays their facilities as ‘clean.’ But we found that even the newest biomass plants are allowed to pollute more than modern coal- and gas-fired plants, and that pollution from bioenergy is increasingly unregulated.”
The problem here is far deeper than wishful thinking. Optimistic scenarios such as the IPCC report rest on assumptions that the world can reduce its greenhouse-gas emissions, cut pollution and enjoy another century of consumer-fueled economic growth while business as usual goes on. But that is not possible.
Short-term scramble for survival trumps the long term
The capitalist system requires continual growth, which means expansion of production. Its internal logic also means that its incentives are to use more energy and inputs when more efficiency is achieved — the paradox that more energy is consumed instead of less when the cost drops. Because production is for private profit, growth is necessary to maintain profitability — and continually increasing profitability is the actual goal. If a corporation doesn’t expand, its competitor will and put it out of business.
Because of the built-in pressure to maintain profits in the face of relentless competition, corporations continually must reduce costs, employee wages not excepted. Production is moved to low-wage countries with fewer regulations, enabling not only more pollution but driving up energy and carbon-dioxide costs with the need for transportation across greater distances. Economic growth of 2.5 percent is necessary simply to maintain the unemployment rate where it is and “substantially stronger growth than that” is necessary for a rapid decrease, according to a former White House Council of Economic Advisers chair, Christina Romer.
Under capitalism, all the incentives are to continue business as usual, no matter the dire future that business as usual is leading humanity. Richard Smith, in a tour de force paper published in the Real-World Economics Review, “Green capitalism: the god that failed,” summed up the dilemma:
“[T]he problem is not just special interests, lobbyists and corruption. … [Under] capitalism, it is, perversely, in the general interest, in everyone’s immediate interests to do all we can to maximize growth right now, therefore, unavoidably, to maximize fossil fuel consumption right now — because practically every job in the country is, in one way or another, dependent upon fossil fuel consumption. … There is no way to cut CO2 emissions by anything like 80 percent without imposing drastic cuts across the board in industrial production. But since we live under capitalism, not socialism, no one is promising new jobs to all those … whose jobs would be at risk if fossil fuel use were really seriously curtailed. … Given capitalism, they have little choice but to focus on the short-term, to prioritize saving their jobs in the here and now to feed their kids today — and worry about tomorrow, tomorrow.” [page 121, March 2011]
“Green” enterprises will not be granted an exemption. They, too, will be pushed by market forces the same as any other enterprise. Dr. Smith writes:
“Biofuels, windpower and organic crops — all might be environmentally rational here or there, but not necessarily in every case or forever. But once investments are sunk, green industries have no choice but to seek to maximize profits and grow forever regardless of social need and scientific rationality, just like any other for-profit business.” [page 142]
All the more is that so for the capitalist system as a whole. Fred Magdoff and John Bellamy Foster, in their book What Every Environmentalist Needs to Know About Capitalism, write:
“ ‘Green capitalism,’ even if products are produced using the utmost environmental care and designed for easy reuse, offers no way out of a system that must expand exponentially and thus continue to ratchet up its use of natural resources, its chemical pollution, its contaminated sewage sludge, its garbage, and its many other toxic substances. Some of these ‘fixes’ will probably slow down the rate of environmental destruction, but the magnitude of the needed changes dwarfs these approaches.” [page 120]
A duty to shareholders, not humanity
The structural necessity of continual expansion is expressed in the mandate of corporations with stock traded on exchanges to maximize profits on behalf of their shareholders above all other considerations. There are well-meaning people who wag their fingers at “excesses” of corporate plunder and claim that the focus on shareholders is not necessary, but in reply one need only observe how swiftly financiers punish companies that fail to meet expectations and the frequency with which “enhancing shareholder value” is listed by corporations as their reason for existence.
None other than the high priest of orthodox economics, Milton Friedman, put it plainly in an interview with Joel Bakan recounted in the latter’s book, The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power. John Browne, then the chief executive officer of BP, launched a public-relations offensive claiming that environmental stewardship would now be a primary goal for BP. Setting aside the nonsense of this, given BP’s dreadful record even by the standards of oil majors, Mr. Friedman had this to say, according to the author:
“Not surprisingly, Milton Friedman said ‘no’ when I asked him how far John Browne could go with his green convictions. … ‘He can do it with his own money. If he pursues those environmental interests in such a way as to run the corporation less effectively for its stockholders, then I think he’s being immoral. He’s an employee of the stockholders, however elevated his position may appear to be. As such, he has a very strong moral responsibility to them.’ ”
Putting the environment first in a capitalist economy is not realistic, and doing so anyway would be very costly due to capitalist dynamics. The IPCC is taking a head-in-the-sand approach with its claim that reversing global warming will be nearly cost-free. The more honest approach would be to acknowledge the high cost of saving the planet — and that the cost of not doing so, of continuing business as usual, will be far greater.
The European Commission estimates the cost of global warming in Europe could reach four percent of gross domestic product and estimates that almost 350,000 people per year will be displaced by flooding by mid-century. The National Resources Defense Council estimated that the U.S. government spent about $100 billion cleaning up natural disasters in 2012 — one-sixth of the federal budget’s non-defense discretionary spending and three times what private insurers paid out. Fifty billion tons of carbon dioxide equivalent is being thrown into the atmosphere yearly, and a U.S. government working group estimates each ton will cause $37 in future harms in today’s dollars.
And what would the cost be of abandoning many of the world’s cities if the ice caps melt? Of the world’s bread baskets turning into deserts? Of dead oceans? Such costs are not calculated by the IPCC.
The IPCC’s flawed approach does not derive from whatever political pressures have been exerted on it. The fundamental issue is that it can’t imagine a world without capitalism. It has much company in that. But a future in which we live in harmony with nature, rather than destroying nature for profit, can only be a very different world.
Re: Climate Chaos & the Quabbin Woodlands
by Steve Leigh
(No verified email address)
31 May 2014
IN A national day of action under the slogan "Hands Across the Sand," people in more than 100 locations in 43 states gathered on May 17 to oppose reliance on fossil fuels. This annual event started in Florida in 2010 in response to the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. It was backed by the Sierra Club, 350.org and Climate Action Now along with other groups.
According to the Hands Across the Sand website, the purpose of the rallies is:
to ask the President and local officials to reject the use of dirty fuels in ALL processes. Ask the President to reject expanding offshore drilling, seismic blasting, hydraulic fracturing, Keystone XL pipeline, Tar Sands extraction and all other dirty fuel projects that threaten our communities and destabilize our climate.
In Seattle, more than 50 people gathered at Golden Gardens Park on Elliott Bay. Speakers from the Sierra Club, the youth wing of 350.org, Climate Action Now and Idle No More explained the issues.
The recent report that the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is collapsing and could raise sea levels 10 feet was given as an important example of the problems with global warming. Speakers noted that if sea levels rose even much less than this, the whole beach we were standing on would be under several feet of water.
Speakers stressed the urgency of the issue. Said one speaker:
This is the decade that will be the turning point. In a thousand years, people will look back at this as the most important pivotal point in world history. People will look back and say, this is the era when we went off fossil fuels. In a thousand years, our descendants will either be living in a cooler world or not at all. A 2-degree rise in temperature will make civilization difficult. A 10-degree rise end life on earth impossible.
Besides the national issues like the Keystone XL pipeline, local issues were highlighted. Activists have been fighting against a coal export terminal near Bellingham, 90 miles north of Seattle. Besides increased greenhouse gas emissions, the coal port would endanger people along the train route with coal dust, which causes increased asthma and other respiratory diseases.
Another important issue is the transport of oil through the city. Oil trains have been shown to be unsafe, especially after explosions in Canada and the U.S. In Seattle , the trains travel through downtown and an explosion could cause extensive loss of life.
At the end of the event, Sweetwater, an activist with Idle No More, led the rally in a native water ceremony to bless and cleans the water of Elliot Bay.
Though the turnout was small, people were encouraged by actions around the U.S. and the growing movement against global warming across the U.S. They vowed to continue the fight.
(No verified email address)
01 Jun 2014
Click on image for a larger version
John Bellamy Foster & Co.: “Ecosocialism” Against Marxism
The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a new comprehensive review of climate-related scientific research on September 27. The authoritative report finds that recent warming of the planet is, in its words, “unequivocal” and that human activity is “extremely likely” to be the primary cause. As the world continues to heat up, sea-level rise and the loss of Arctic sea ice are expected to be somewhat greater than was forecast in the IPCC’s previous report, issued in 2007, although extremes of weather will likely not be as bad as some headlines have suggested.
Predictably, the “climate skeptics” launched a fusillade of anti-scientific drivel in an attempt to discredit the report, whereas the full spectrum of environmentalists read it as sounding the alarm for immediate government action. Among the green missionaries is System Change Not Climate Change: The Ecosocialist Coalition (SCNCC). This lash-up was initiated by the reformists of the International Socialist Organization (ISO), along with the Solidarity group, in the name of “bringing together eco and socialism.” Other endorsers include the fake Trotskyists of Socialist Action, the left-wing intellectuals of Monthly Review, the spiritually minded Ecosocialist Horizons and chapters of the small-time capitalist Green Party.
For young radical activists, it might seem a natural to try to fuse eco-radicalism with socialism. But environmentalist ideology and socialism are entirely irreconcilable. All variants of environmentalism are an expression of bourgeois ideology, offering fixes predicated on class-divided society and the reinforcement of scarcity. Marxists fight for a society that will provide more for the toiling and impoverished masses and ultimately eliminate material scarcity altogether. To this end, it will take a series of workers revolutions across the globe to rip the mines, factories and other means of production from the grip of their private owners, paving the way for an internationally planned, collectivized economy.
Until then, the profit-driven capitalist system—marked by the anarchy of production and the furious chase for markets, the division of the world into nation-states and the accompanying interimperialist rivalries—will remain a fundamental barrier to addressing the unintended human-derived contribution to climate change. Decaying modern capitalism also greatly exacerbates the potential toll of a warming world on mankind. The wretched conditions imposed by the imperialists on Third World countries make their populations especially vulnerable to climate change, not to mention disease, famine and other ever-present ravages. (These issues are taken up in depth in our two-part article “Capitalism and Global Warming,” WV Nos. 965 and 966, 24 September and 8 October 2010.)
In contrast to revolutionary Marxism, for the eco crowd the villain is growth, and their watchword is less. Proposals to limit consumption and cut back production dovetail with capitalist austerity measures. The main political organization of the environmentalists, the Green Party, is open about its defense of production for private profit, simply favoring small-scale enterprise. The 13th-richest person in the world, the union-hating Michael Bloomberg, is an outspoken environmentalist who, after Superstorm Sandy, proposed that New York City “lead the way” in battling climate change. Even if the city rulers take steps to protect Wall Street from storm surges like the one that accompanied Sandy, it will still be hell—and perhaps high water—for those in public housing. Then there are the many large corporations, such as DuPont, not about to be mistaken for a paragon of virtue, that have voluntarily adopted the emissions goals of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol.
Most SCNCC supporters do not openly subscribe to the primitivism at the core of the environmentalist worldview, preferring to focus on dispensing policy advice to the bourgeoisie. Nevertheless, the ISO and its SCNCC partners proceed from the false equation of capitalism with economic growth. The putative anti-capitalism of these and other eco-socialists is simply another means of arriving at the doorstep of an anti-growth agenda, providing a thin reddish veneer on retrograde green nostrums.
Take one of its foremost luminaries, Monthly Review editor John Bellamy Foster, who has written or coauthored several books published by Monthly Review Press. Foster’s seminal work, Marx’s Ecology (2000), paints Marxism as “deeply, and indeed systematically, ecological.” In a February 2010 interview, Foster opined: “We need a new economic structure focused on enough and not more. An overall reduction in economic scale on the world level, particularly in the rich countries, could be accompanied by progress in sustainable human development.”
Progress in human development, i.e., ending misery and want, will not result from curtailing production but from raising it to unparalleled heights. By lifting the dead hands of private profit and property rights, the proletarian seizure of power would give great impetus to economic growth. In this event, humanity also will be best equipped to consciously marshal its collective resources to meet both known and unforeseen challenges, including climate change.
Our vision of the socialist future accords with that expressed by the great Marxist revolutionary Leon Trotsky in an article titled “If America Should Go Communist,” which was published in the 23 March 1935 issue of Liberty Magazine. In describing the vistas that would be opened by a victorious socialist revolution in the world’s most advanced capitalist country, Trotsky wrote:
“Should America go Communist as a result of the difficulties and problems which your capitalist social order is unable to solve, it will discover that Communism, far from being an intolerable bureaucratic tyranny and individual regimentation, will be the means of greater individual liberty and shared abundance....
“National industry will be organized along the line of the conveyor belt in your modern continuous-production automotive factories. Scientific planning can be lifted out of the individual factory and applied to your entire economic system. The results will be stupendous.”
It should be noted that Trotsky was writing long before U.S. industry was hollowed out by its capitalist owners—a deterioration that itself points to the need for the working class to overthrow the capitalist order.
Intellectual Dishonesty and Opportunism
In 2002, Foster published Ecology Against Capitalism, a collection of essays written between 1993 and 2001. Leaning on sociologist Allan Schnaiberg, Foster described capitalism as “a treadmill of production” that consumes ever greater quantities of limited natural resources while disgorging their waste products into the environment:
“Clearly, this treadmill leads in a direction that is incompatible with the basic ecological cycles of the planet. A continuous 3 percent average annual rate of growth in industrial production, such as obtained from 1970 to 1990, would mean that world industry would double in size every twenty-five years.... It is unlikely therefore that the world could sustain many more doublings of industrial output under the present system without experiencing a complete ecological catastrophe. Indeed, we are already overshooting certain critical ecological thresholds.”
Ecology Against Capitalism in its own way mirrored bourgeois ideological triumphalism in the aftermath of the counterrevolutionary destruction of the Soviet Union in 1991-92. Communism was declared “dead” and capitalism was trumpeted as an ever-expanding global system. Government policies in the major capitalist countries, especially control of the money supply and interest rates, would supposedly henceforth ensure permanent and steady economic growth. Bourgeois economists coined the term the “Great Moderation” to describe conditions in North America and West Europe: low inflation and relatively shallow and short-lived economic downturns.
But then came the financial crisis of 2007-08, plunging the capitalist world into the deepest and most prolonged economic downturn since the Great Depression of the 1930s. The Great Moderation gave way to the Great Recession. Mass unemployment, savage cuts in wages and benefits and the slashing of government-provided social programs (fiscal austerity) became the order of the day.
Logically, Foster should have welcomed the current downturn since he identified the expansion of production with increasing environmental degradation. Fewer automobiles manufactured and on the road mean less atmospheric pollution. With less income, working-class families are forced to “conserve energy” by reducing their heating in the winter and air-conditioning in the summer. However, Foster does not argue that the Great Recession has brought certain ecological benefits. To do so would provoke a hostile response from the young left-minded activists—e.g., those who identified with the Occupy movement—to whom he appeals.
So he sings a different tune about what’s wrong with capitalism. Last year, he came out with the book The Endless Crisis: How Monopoly-Finance Capital Produces Stagnation and Upheaval from the U.S.A. to China. It begins:
“The world economy as a whole is undergoing a period of slowdown. The growth rates for the United States, Europe, and Japan at the center of the system have been sliding for decades. In the first decade of this century these countries experienced the slowest growth rates since the 1930s; and the opening years of the second decade look no better. Stagnation is the word that economists use for this phenomenon.”
The “treadmill of production” has disappeared. Instead, we are told that the core countries of world capitalism have been mired in economic stagnation for decades and beset by perpetual crises. Foster continues: “In human terms it means declining real wages, massive unemployment, a public sector facing extreme budget crises, growing inequality and a general and sometimes sharp decline in the quality of life.” Notably absent from this list of ills is environmental degradation. In his speeches, Foster is known to describe capitalism both as a constant growth engine when addressing the “environmental crisis” and as a victim of stagnation when addressing the fiscal crisis, and never the twain shall meet.
From New Left Maoism to Green Radicalism
Foster’s views are conditioned by his longstanding association with Monthly Review. In the 1960s and early-mid ’70s, it was the main journal propagating Maoism (the Chinese variant of Stalinist ideology) in American left-wing intellectual/academic circles. Today a professor of sociology at the University of Oregon, Foster attended Evergreen State College in Washington State as an undergraduate in the early 1970s, when he first came under the influence of Monthly Review and its leading figures, Paul Sweezy and Harry Magdoff.
The Maoist-Stalinist politics expounded by Monthly Review originated as the ideological expression of what Trotsky described as the bureaucratic degeneration of the Soviet workers state in the mid 1920s-30s. Rejecting and fearing the fight for international proletarian revolution, which animated the Bolshevik Party that led the October Revolution of 1917, the ruling bureaucratic caste under J.V. Stalin put forward the doctrine of “building socialism in one country.” This dogma turned Marxism on its head. Socialism is a society of material abundance in which class distinctions are being finally overcome. Despite its possession of abundant natural resources, the USSR could not on its own surpass the material level of the advanced capitalist countries, which exerted economic and military pressures that eventually brought about the destruction of the Soviet workers state.
China experienced a profound social revolution in 1949 that overthrew capitalism and liberated the country from imperialist subjugation. The subsequent establishment of a planned, collectivized economy brought great social gains to workers, peasants and deeply oppressed women. However, the revolution, issuing out of a peasant-guerrilla war, was deformed from its inception under the rule of Mao Zedong’s Chinese Communist Party (CCP) regime, a materially privileged, bureaucratic caste resting atop the workers state.
The Mao regime was modeled politically, economically and ideologically on Stalin’s Russia, although China in this period was far more backward than the Soviet Union. Mao’s version of “building socialism”—especially during the so-called “Cultural Revolution” that began in the mid 1960s—glorified the Spartan virtues of self-denial and self-sacrifice. While today’s CCP bureaucrats are not known for professing such nostrums—to say the least—they share Mao’s opposition to the Marxist program of world proletarian revolution. Challenges to the capitalist order would give impetus to the Chinese proletariat to sweep away the Stalinist caste that has politically suppressed it and appeased the imperialists.
To understand the appeal of Maoism as propagated by Monthly Review for critical-minded, young American intellectuals like Foster, it is necessary to consider the outlook and evolution of the self-described New Left. In the late 1950s-early ’60s, a generation of young liberal idealists, mainly college students, was propelled leftward by the mass black struggle against racist oppression domestically and the Cuban Revolution and escalating war in Vietnam internationally. Many of these radicals looked to Mao’s CCP as an alternative to the stodgy conservatism of the Moscow Stalinist bureaucracy.
In this period, the large majority of the American working class, especially its predominant white component, supported U.S. militarism abroad in the name of combating world Communism. In their own way, New Left radicals accepted but then inverted official anti-Communist ideology. The political leaders and ideological spokesmen for U.S. imperialism claimed that capitalism was superior to Communism in Soviet Russia, not to speak of “Red China,” because it provided the American people, including industrial workers, with a much higher standard of living. New Left radicals agreed with the logic of this argument but reversed its conclusion. That working-class families could afford a late-model car, a washing machine and a TV set or two was viewed as the material basis for their support to U.S. imperialist predations in the Third World.
The Monthly Review circle sought to provide a “Marxist-Leninist” rationale for these prevalent New Left prejudices: disdain for the working class in the advanced capitalist countries combined with enthusing over “socialism” in the Third World. Sweezy argued that the working class as a whole in North America, West Europe and Japan constituted a labor aristocracy relative to the impoverished toilers of Asia, Africa and Latin America. In Monthly Review (December 1967), he wrote that Bolshevik leader V. I. Lenin “also argued that the capitalists of the imperialist countries could and do use part of their ‘booty’ to bribe and win over to their side an aristocracy of labor. As far as the logic of the argument is concerned, it could be extended to a majority or even all the workers in the industrialized countries.”
When describing the labor aristocracy, Lenin was explicit that he was not painting the entire working class in the imperialist centers with the same brush. Taking stock of England’s industrial monopoly and rich colonies in the mid 19th century, Lenin observed in “Imperialism and the Split in Socialism” (1916): “It was possible in those days to bribe and corrupt the working class of one country for decades. This is now improbable, if not impossible. But on the other hand, every imperialist ‘Great’ Power can and does bribe smaller strata (than in England in 1848-68) of the ‘labour aristocracy’” (emphasis in original). This well-paid layer can occupy a privileged social position only in relation to the working masses of the society of which it is a part.
While disparaging the working class in the advanced capitalist countries, Sweezy glorified Mao’s China for supposedly building an egalitarian socialist society in one of the poorest countries in the world. Indeed, he considered China’s poverty a socialist virtue while crediting Mao with overcoming and eliminating what he contended were remnants of bourgeois ideology embedded in classical Marxist doctrine: “It was only in China, where of all countries in the world conditions were most favorable for revolution, that Marxism could finally be purged of its (essentially bourgeois) economistic taint” (Monthly Review, January 1975). By “economistic taint,” Sweezy meant the identification of socialism with qualitatively raising the material and cultural level of society.
At the time, we polemicized against those intellectuals like Sweezy and Charles Bettelheim who had revived the anti-Marxist doctrines of primitive egalitarianism and “socialist” asceticism:
“Far more so than Moscow-line Stalinism, therefore, Maoist ideology is a sustained attack on the fundamental Marxist premise that socialism requires material superabundance through a level of labor productivity far higher than that of the most advanced capitalism....
“Maoism’s primitivism and extreme voluntarism—particularly as presented during the ‘Cultural Revolution’ period—have had great appeal for petty-bourgeois radicals in the West. It was the promise of an end to alienated labor here and now, without the whole historical period needed to raise the technological and cultural level of mankind, that enabled many of the followers of [New Left theorist Herbert] Marcuse to transfer their loyalty to Maoist China in the late 1960’s.”
—“The Poverty of Maoist Economics,” WV No. 134, 19 November 1976
Maoism, however, lost its luster, particularly following the official rapprochement between the U.S. and China signaled by Richard Nixon’s visit to Beijing in 1972 as American bombs rained down on Indochina. By the late 1970s, it was no longer attractive to American student youth of leftist sympathies. So the Monthly Review circle latched on to the burgeoning green radical movement, which also came out of the New Left. Whence John Bellamy Foster, today the journal’s leading figure.
Bolivia and the Fraud of “Ecological Revolution”
Just as his mentors could posit the introduction of socialist relations in China through a “Cultural Revolution,” Foster does the same today in places supposedly in the throes of “ecological revolution.” In both cases, the professed values of the ruling regime are sufficient evidence of socialist achievement. This is despite the fact that whereas capitalism had been overturned in China with the 1949 Revolution, the countries that Foster hails today are unmistakably capitalist.
In the book The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth (2011), Foster and his coauthors proclaim: “An ecological revolution, emanating first and foremost from the global South, is emerging in our age, providing new bases for hope.” In keeping with Monthly Review tradition, they reject the unique capacity of the working class in both the advanced countries and in the neocolonial world to overturn the capitalist order and collectivize the means of production—a potential based on the proletariat’s role in making the wheels of industry turn. Instead, Foster & Co. posit an “environmental proletariat” consisting of “the third world masses most directly in line to be hit first by the impending disasters,” especially sea-level rise, as “the main historic agent and initiator of a new epoch of ecological revolution.”
Ground Zero for this supposed revolution is Bolivia under Evo Morales, whom Foster hailed in a 2010 interview as “probably the strongest single voice for an ecological relation in the world today.” Environmentalists widely laud Morales for hosting the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth in April 2010 as a counter-summit to official United Nations climate negotiations. Foster also finds evidence of his environmental proletariat in “the water, hydrocarbon, and coca wars” that “helped bring a socialist and indigenous-based political movement to power” in Bolivia.
Despite its name, the Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS—Movement Toward Socialism) headed by Morales makes no bones about administering “Andean capitalism.” The social turmoil that Morales rode into office as the head of the bourgeois state involved a series of desperate struggles by Bolivia’s impoverished masses to resist imperialist exploitation. For example, the “water war” in 2000 consisted of large plebeian protests that broke out in Cochabamba after the Bechtel corporation took control of the city’s water system and jacked up rates by more than 200 percent.
In much of Latin America, popular revulsion at nakedly pro-imperialist “neoliberal” governments resulted in the election of a layer of bourgeois populists, including Morales and the late Hugo Chávez of Venezuela. This shift has nothing to do with socialism. Posing as defenders of the oppressed and exploited masses, Morales, Chávez et al. sought to co-opt and contain discontent within a capitalist framework, which necessarily means subordination to the world imperialist system. To smash the chains of imperialist oppression requires a proletarian revolution, led by a vanguard party, that shatters the bourgeois state. Such a revolution must have the perspective of spreading elsewhere in Latin America and, crucially, to the United States and other advanced capitalist countries.
The Morales regime showed its true colors this May when it unleashed violent repression against a nationwide strike called by the country’s largest union federation, far from the first time that it had suppressed workers and peasants struggles. The strike had galvanized tin miners, teachers and health care workers in the fight for better pensions. Police repeatedly attacked, gassed and beat striking workers, arresting hundreds. The guns have also been turned on the indigenous population. In September 2011, the government carried out a bloody crackdown on a protest against the building of a new highway through indigenous lands. The brutal assault by paramilitary police reportedly left a three-month-old baby dead.
The anti-proletarian essence of eco-socialism is captured in Foster’s salute to Morales and earlier to Chávez, which also shows how empty his “ecological revolution” is, even on its own terms. The economies of Bolivia and Venezuela are heavily dependent on natural gas and oil, respectively. Both regimes carried out partial nationalizations of their hydrocarbon industry. But it is not as if output has slowed. Indeed, in an attempt to double the production of natural gas by 2015, state-owned Yacimientos Petrolíferos Fiscales Bolivianos is seeking both new foreign partners and new areas for exploration and production. The Bolivian government also plans to harness fossil fuel resources in national parks and protected natural areas.
Marxists defend such nationalizations as a means by which countries under imperialist domination can achieve a degree of economic independence. But these nationalizations do not herald a new socialist era. The hydrocarbon industries of Bolivia and Venezuela are part of national capitalist economies that are subordinate to the world market. In the end, nationalizing the hydrocarbon industry actually benefits the national bourgeoisies, not only at an economic level but mainly at a political level, by tying the masses ideologically to their own exploiters.
Taking a Bite Out of Consumption
There is another important element of continuity between the version of Maoism espoused by Monthly Review in the 1960s-70s and its eco-radicalism of recent decades: the condemnation of American capitalism for creating a society of excessive consumption. For Sweezy/Magdoff, the wide range of goods available to most workers in the U.S. came at the price of the impoverishment of the peoples of the Third World. For Foster, the existing level of consumption of the American populace is destroying the ecological basis for the future survival of the human species and other higher forms of animal life.
The notion that a large part of the living standard of working people in the U.S. and other advanced capitalist countries consists of artificially created wants that serve corporate profit-making has been a recurring feature of left-liberal ideology since the late 1950s. It was explicated in The Affluent Society (1958) by John Kenneth Galbraith, at the time the best known and most widely read liberal economist in the U.S. (He subsequently became an adviser to the Democratic Kennedy/Johnson administration in the 1960s.) A few years later, the identification of American capitalism with consumerism was given a “Marxist” gloss in Sweezy and Paul Baran’s Monopoly Capital (1966), a book that strongly influenced Foster. In Ecology Against Capitalism, Foster declares that “wants are manufactured in a manner that creates an insatiable hunger for more.”
At the same time, Foster criticizes mainstream green intellectuals and activists who appeal to individuals to curtail their personal consumption, i.e., reduce their “carbon footprints.” As a polemical foil, he cites Alan Durning of Worldwatch Institute, who argues: “We consumers have an ethical obligation to curb our consumption, since it jeopardizes the chances for future generations. Unless we climb down the consumption ladder a few rungs, our grandchildren will inherit a planetary home impoverished by our affluence.” Foster responds:
“This may seem like simple common sense but it ignores the higher immorality of a society like the United States in which the dominant institutions treat the public as mere consumers to be targeted with all the techniques of modern marketing. The average adult in the United States watches 21,000 television commercials a year, about 75 percent of which are paid for by the 100 largest corporations.”
Both Durning and Foster accept that the consumption levels of most Americans should be curbed, differing only in the means of accomplishing this goal. Foster worries that appeals for sacrifice in the name of some ecological morality alone would fall on deaf ears. His answer is government action to reorganize the economy. Somebody, then, would have to make decisions regarding the genuine needs of working people as opposed to their supposedly unnecessary wants. This task undoubtedly is meant to fall to Foster and other like-minded guardians of green virtue.
This focus on opulent consumer faddism is above all a petty-bourgeois critique of capitalism. For children of suburbia who turn to individual lifestyle changes to find meaning, the problem might be having too much. But “doing more with less” is not an option for the vast bulk of the population struggling each month to pay the bills and make ends meet.
by Rob Urie
(No verified email address)
09 Jun 2014
The Time for Technological Gimmicks is Long Gone
Global Warming is Economic Imperialism
by ROB URIE
Global warming unites the interests of ‘the world’ that would otherwise be particular through the everyday relations of complex interconnectedness. It is an unnatural ‘natural’ phenomenon in that it is an accumulation, an aggregation, of a large number of like acts. These like acts tie directly to capitalism in history as ‘a way of doing things,’ as a broad approach to ‘the world.’ The tie to capitalist production is incontrovertible— the rise in greenhouse gases correlates with the rise in capitalist production and these gases can be directly related to it as its known ‘byproducts.’ To state what is becoming increasingly obvious, unless global warming is resolved the fate of the world in any form recognizable to ‘us’ is at stake. The problem goes beyond the particulars— rising sea levels and increasing droughts and floods, to threaten the breadth of living relations. Given its genesis in capitalist production the question of resolution is one of the nature of capitalism, of the approach to ‘the world’ that brought ‘us’ from there to here in two short centuries?
Graph (1) above: the claim that ‘we,’ humans broadly considered, are responsible for global warming is more precisely explained as capitalist production is responsible for it. The graph relates carbon emissions over the last century to more recent GDP (Gross Domestic Production) data, a broad measure of economic production; to show that carbon emissions are closely related to economic production. Russia, China and India fit into the global capitalism explanation through oil and gas production (Russia) and through ‘outsourced’ industrial production (China, India). China and India are increasingly adding to carbon emissions by building out their domestic economies and through export strategies that target the capitalist West as primary customers. Sources: The World Bank and the World Resources Institute.
With the U.S. historically being the largest emitter of carbon and other greenhouse gases it is overwhelmingly responsible for global warming. The shift in emissions from China in recent years has by degree been a function of Chinese manufacturing for export to the West. Global resolution is indeed necessary, but the American frame of a global ‘we’ who is responsible is an effort to deflect culpability from the U.S. as the primary source of global environmental dysfunction. In the realm of the political American Republicans are the more straightforwardly corrupted impediments to environmental resolution within the U.S. However, after five years in office where he and his administration mumbled hardly a word about global warming while undermining international efforts at resolution through backroom ‘deals’ in international ‘negotiations,’ Democrat President Barack Obama has finally come out in a year of likely tough mid-term elections to back the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) in suggesting that someday, somebody, somewhere really ought to do something about carbon emissions. As is typical with American politicians trying to take credit for passing warm gas while assuring that nothing gets resolved, Mr. Obama’s promise to reduce carbon emissions is as vague and institutionally pliable as it is far out in the distance of time.
Table (1) above: In addition to the U.S. taking the lion’s share of global ‘wealth’ by being the ‘largest economy’ in the world over the last century, within the U.S. wealth tends to be highly concentrated. The top ten percent of households owned 75% of U.S. wealth by 2010. Tied together, ten percent of the wealthiest households of the richest country in the world own 75% of the wealth. This ties the interests of the richest citizens of the richest country in the world to maintaining the existing economic order. In a political system ruled by plutocratic interests, this makes resolution of global warming through ‘official’ channels highly improbable. Source: Federal Reserve Bank of Washington.
The mainstream Western economic explanation of carbon emissions as ‘externalities’ from industry and industrial agriculture frames them as unintended consequences of capitalist wealth production. This is nonsense. If carbon emissions are known to occur from industrial production and industrial production continues to take place then the consequences are entirely intended. Capitalists have known for centuries that if they make air unbreathable, water undrinkable and food inedible that these are costs of production forced onto others. A brief look at the arithmetic of corporate profits makes this easier to understand. If profits are defined as revenues minus costs (P = R – C) then shifting costs by forcing other people to bear the effects of environmental degradation raises profits. Even radical ‘free market’ economist Friedrich Hayek understood this until Papa Koch, father of the toxic baby Koch’s, paid him to not understand it anymore. To extend this just a bit, if Cd is the direct costs of production and Ce is the ‘externalized’ costs like environmental destruction, then the profit arithmetic can be written as P = R – Cd + Ce.
The attendant frame, that curbing carbon emissions will cost jobs and economic ‘growth,’ only works when Ce, the cost of environmental destruction, is assumed away. To be clear, Ce necessarily approximates the cost of rectification, the jobs and economic ‘production’ lost, because it is the implied cost of the externalized pollution. Environmental degradation could (in theory) have been curtailed on the front end or the back end of economic production. The choice of not curtailing it, as is evident in the fact of global warming, places these (implied) costs on the back end. Should these rightly be claimed to be incommensurable what that means is that there is no adequate ‘compensation’ for killing the planet. And what don’t appear to be understood is that these costs are already being borne by the peoples of the world through environmental devastation. The capitalist claim that reducing carbon emissions will cost jobs and economic production isn’t an argument over the costs of global warming, it is an argument over who pays them.
This is an important point so please bear with me. The argument coming out of the 1970s, of which economist / apologist Friedrich Hayek was one of the developers, is that ‘we all’ benefit from capitalist production and therefore that environmental restrictions and controls reduce the social benefits of said production by raising its costs. Again, the costs are borne whether Western economists acknowledge it or not. As can be seen in Graph (1) above, when it comes to the capitalist production that is causing global warming the ‘we’ who benefits has historically been American. On a planet where global warming affects us all, if by degree, it is not the same ‘we’ who pays the price for it. And what Table (1) above shows is that even within the U.S. the ‘we’ who benefits is not the ‘we’ who pays the price. The profit arithmetic illustrates that ‘true’ profits, profits earned where the full costs of production are borne by the producers, are nowhere to be found. How do ‘we’ know this? Global warming is the most evident indicator. Unbreathable air, undrinkable water and inedible food are others.
While I hate to so regularly pick on economist Paul Krugman (I really do), whom I have no personal animus toward, he tends to represent the received wisdom of the urban liberal status quo as regards pretty much any issue. In a recent blog he makes the argument that with Western liberal Democrat guidance more capitalism— ‘markets,’ can help limit carbon emissions by degree. His basic point is that capitalist ‘innovation’ tied to regulations and restrictions can replace high carbon emission production with lower emission technologies. Through this technological innovation reducing carbon emissions will reduce economic production far less than is claimed argues Mr. Krugman. In theory this makes sense. In theory capitalism makes sense. Environmental resolution through government regulations and restrictions was well underway in the 1970s until liberal Democrat Jimmy Carter began deregulating select industries to restore capitalist competition, with ‘competition’ defined as reducing the power of organized labor. It was hardly a coincidence then when Ronald Reagan began undoing environmental regulations as he ratcheted up the effort to end collective bargaining rights. The point is that fully forty years ago an effort was underway to do approximately what Mr. Krugman is now suggesting be done and it was undone through political-economic power relations, not intellectual suasion.
More pointed, however, is the profit arithmetic laid out above. Mr. Krugman argues that innovation can reduce Ce, the externalized costs of capitalist production, by reducing e, environmental destruction. In the modular world of comparative statics (mainstream economics) lowering Ce raises ‘true’ P, profits that ‘compensate’ for environmental destruction. Either through the designs of well intentioned and effective Democrat policies wholly missing for the last forty years or through other capitalists drawn to higher profit opportunities, ‘markets’ will replace older, higher carbon emission technologies with newer, high efficiency technologies. Left unstated is that current circumstance, broadly considered, is exactly and precisely the result of this reasoning. The reason why the U.S. is dependent on cars instead of energy efficient mass transit is that a century ago a consortium of connected capitalists decided that getting rid of mass transit was the way to sell more cars, tires and gasoline. The number one impediment to developing more ‘efficient’ energy technologies in recent decades has been the economic cum political prowess of the fossil fuel industry. Natural gas ‘fracking’ and nuclear power have different externalities, not fewer. The existing economic order could care less about sustainability— look at the wholesale resurrection of the suicide finance of Wall Street for evidence, yet another case of private profits and socialized costs. The existing economic order of large corporations owned by plutocrats can, will and has maintained profits by cramming global warming down our throats.
uriewarm3 copy 2
Graph (2) above: The information in the graph above was cited by Mr. Krugman as evidence of progress in reducing the relation of economic production to energy consumption. If the world is becoming more ‘efficient’ by reducing the amount of energy needed to produce a dollars worth of economic production then the blue line would move lower (downwards) over time. What can be seen is that the blue line has indeed been variable, largely a function of variations in GDP, the denominator in the ratio. But in the thirty years represented it takes about the same amount of energy today to produce a dollar’s worth of economic output as it did in 1981. Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration.
A large part of China’s increase in carbon emissions in recent decades has been due to the Chinese governments articulated export strategy. About three centuries ago the British government implemented a generally analogous export strategy— it subsidized ‘home’ industries backed by the most powerful navy in the ‘known’ world and used it to develop ‘free’ markets for British goods abroad. Beginning in the 1980s the Chinese government took lessons learned from three centuries of external economic policies and developed an export economy with Europe and the U.S. as target customers for Chinese goods. Through a currency peg to the U.S. dollar the Chinese were able to maintain a price advantage over U.S. producers with the result being that U.S. production— ‘manufacturing,’ declined while Chinese manufacturing grew. Another way of saying this is that externality (Ce) generating economic production shifted from the U.S. to China, from U.S. carbon emission ‘accounts’ to Chinese, while the goods produced ended up in Europe and the U.S. As with the ‘cap and trade’ policies implemented in Europe in recent decades, there are near endless ways of evading national carbon emission limits while producing the same or greater levels of carbon emissions. ‘Market’ based solutions to impending environmental catastrophe are either naïve or cynical diversions.
The bottom line is one of commensurability. Economic production that produces toxic externalities like global warming, dead oceans, undrinkable water, unbreathable air, etc, depends on assigning little or no value to these. To make this very clear, Western economic ‘accounting’ places no value on these, on the most fundamental necessities of living beings, by design. As Oscar Wilde put it, a cynic is someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. This is in fact a summation of Western economics; circumscription of the ‘knowable’ world by what has had a price tag put on it. The externalized costs of capitalist production are real— more real than the stuff in stores that is only ‘cheap’ because the true costs were lobbed off on people who haven’t yet fought back. To Mr. Krugman’s argument, even if technological innovation did reduce carbon emissions the people who would reap the benefits are not the same people who will pay the consequences— more carbon emissions is more even if the rate of growth is reduced.
Global warming is but shorthand for the increasingly conspicuous fact that the quest for ‘stuff’ has turned the entire planet into a noxious garbage dump. This concern might rightly be considered effete if ‘we,’ broadly considered, could exist in the garbage that some of us have created. But as global warming suggests, we can’t. The time for gimmicks, ‘technology,’ was a half century ago. And unless you missed this, the West is still plenty rich— rich in approximate proportion to the social and environmental catastrophes that capitalism has wrought. The question today is who pays, not what the costs are.
Rob Urie is an artist and political economist. His book Zen Economics is forthcoming.