"In a time of universal deceit telling the truth is a revolutionary act." -George Orwell

Posts Tagged ‘Environment Based Solutions To Climate Change’

Sleepwalking To Extinction: Capitalism And The Destruction Of Life On Earth

In Uncategorized on November 12, 2013 at 3:46 pm

Smoke stacks.Oldspeak: “The world’s climate scientists tell us we’re facing a planetary emergency. They’ve been telling us since the 1990s that if we don’t cut global fossil-fuel greenhouse-gas emissions by 80 percent to 90 percent below 1990 levels by 2050 we will cross critical tipping points and global warming will accelerate beyond any human power to contain it. Yet despite all the ringing alarm bells, no corporation and no government can oppose growth. Instead, every capitalist government in the world is putting pedal to the metal to accelerate growth, to drive us full throttle off the cliff to collapse… We all know what we have to do: suppress greenhouse gas emissions. Stop overconsuming natural resources. Stop the senseless pollution of the Earth, its waters and its atmosphere with toxic chemicals. Stop producing waste that can’t be recycled by nature. Stop the destruction of biological diversity and ensure the rights of other species to flourish. We don’t need any new technological breakthroughs to solve these problems. Mostly, we just stop doing what we’re doing. But we can’t stop because we’re all locked into an economic system in which companies have to grow to compete and reward their shareholders and because we all need the jobs… Most of us, even passionate environmental activists, don’t really want to face up to the economic implications of the science we defend. That’s why, if you listen to environmentalists such as Bill McKibben or Al Gore, for example, you will get the impression that global warming is mainly driven by fossil-fuel-powered electric power plants, so if we just “switch to renewables” this will solve the main problem and we can carry on with life more or less as we do now. Indeed, “green capitalism” enthusiasts like Thomas Friedman and the union-backed “green jobs” lobby look to renewable energy, electric cars and such as “the next great engine of industrial growth” – the perfect win-win solution. This is a not a solution. This is a delusion, because greenhouse gasses are produced across the economy, not just by or even mainly by power plants… What this means is that, far from launching a new green-energy-powered “industrial growth” boom, barring some tech-fix miracle, the only way to impose “immediate and severe curbs” on fossil fuel production and consumption would be to impose an emergency contraction in the industrialized countries: drastically retrench and in some cases shut down industries, even entire sectors, across the economy and around the planet – not just fossil-fuel producers, but all the industries that consume them and produce GHG emissions – autos, trucking, aircraft, airlines, shipping and cruise lines, construction, chemicals, plastics, synthetic fabrics, cosmetics, synthetic fiber and fabrics, synthetic fertilizer and agribusiness CAFO operations, and many more. Of course, no one wants to hear this because, given capitalism, this would unavoidably mean mass bankruptcies, global economic collapse, depression and mass unemployment around the world… Given capitalism, today, tomorrow, next year and every year, economic growth will always be the overriding priority… Most of us, really, don’t want to face up to the economic implications of the need to put the brakes on growth and fossil-fuel-based overconsumption. We all “need” to live in denial and believe in delusions that carbon taxes or some tech fix will save us because we all know that capitalism has to grow or we’ll all be out of work. And the thought of replacing capitalism seems so impossible, especially given the powers arrayed against change. But what’s the alternative? In the not-so-distant future, this is all going to come to a screeching halt one way or another – either we seize hold of this out-of-control locomotive and wrench down this overproduction of fossil fuels, or we ride this train right off the cliff to collapse.” -Richard Smith

“i am reluctant to agree with the author’s call for a ‘one world government’ on environmental issues.  Anachro-syndicalism would be effective in addressing environmental issues on a global scale. Monoculture,  in any endeavour, but especially one that is global, is not feasible. Natural & environmental and all other forms of variation must be accounted for. And our focus should not just be on saving the humans, but to saving as much of life on earth as we can. Creating conditions for all life to be sustained in all encompassing balance. Focusing on humans exclusively, as though we and our needs are somehow separate from the the rest of our environment is what got us into this mess in the first place. Otherwise, spot on analysis of existing conditions and what needs to be changed for the betterment of all.  if we hope to ensure our survival, we must heal our Mother. ” -OSJ

By Richard Smith @ Real World Economics Review:

When, on May 10, 2013, scientists at Mauna Loa Observatory on the big island of Hawaii announced that global CO2 emissions had crossed a threshold at 400 parts per million for the first time in millions of years, a sense of dread spread around the world – not only among climate scientists.

CO2 emissions have been relentlessly climbing since Charles David Keeling first set up his tracking station near the summit of Mauna Loa Observatory in 1958 to monitor average daily global CO2 levels. At that time, CO2 concentrations registered 315ppm. CO2 emissions and atmospheric concentrations have been climbing ever since and, as the records show, temperatures rises will follow. For all the climate summits, the promises of “voluntary restraint,” the carbon trading and carbon taxes, the growth of CO2 emissions and atmospheric concentrations has not just been relentless, it has been accelerating in what scientists have dubbed the “Keeling Curve.”

In the early 1960s, CO2ppm concentrations in the atmosphere grew by 0.7ppm per year. In recent decades, especially as China has industrialized, the growth rate has tripled to 2.1ppm per year. In just the first 17 weeks of 2013, CO2 levels jumped by 2.74ppm compared to last year — “the biggest increase since benchmark monitoring stations high on the Hawaiian volcano of Mauna Loa began taking measurements in 1958.”[1] Carbon concentrations have not been this high since the Pliocene period, between 3 million and 5 million years ago, when global average temperatures were 3 degrees or 4 degrees Centigrade hotter than today, the Arctic was ice-free, sea levels were about 40 meters higher, jungles covered northern Canada and Florida was under water – along with coastal locations we now call New York City, London, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Sydney and many others.

Crossing this threshold has fueled fears that we are fast approaching “tipping points” – melting of the subarctic tundra or thawing and releasing the vast quantities of methane in the Arctic sea bottom – that will accelerate global warming beyond any human capacity to stop it: “I wish it weren’t true, but it looks like the world is going to blow through the 400-ppm level without losing a beat,” said Scripps Institute geochemist Ralph Keeling, whose father, Charles, set up the first monitoring stations in 1958: “At this pace, we’ll hit 450 ppm within a few decades.”

“It feels like the inevitable march toward disaster,” said Maureen E. Raymo, a scientist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, a unit of Columbia University.[2]

Why are we marching to disaster, “sleepwalking to extinction” as The Guardian‘s George Monbiot once put it? Why can’t we slam on the brakes before we ride off the cliff to collapse? I’m going to argue here that the problem is rooted in the requirements of capitalist reproduction, that large corporations are destroying life on Earth, that they can’t help themselves, they can’t change or change very much, that so long as we live under this system we have little choice but to go along in this destruction, to keep pouring on the gas instead of slamming on the brakes.

The only alternative – impossible as this may seem right now – is to overthrow this global economic system and all of the governments of the 1% that prop it up and replace them with a global economic democracy, a radical bottom-up political democracy, an ecosocialist civilization. I argue that, although we are fast approaching the precipice of ecological collapse, the means to derail this train wreck are in the making as, around the world, we are witnessing a near-simultaneous global mass democratic “awakening,” as the Brazilians call it, almost a global uprising from Tahir Square to Zuccotti Park, from Athens to Istanbul to Beijing and beyond such as the world has never seen.

To be sure, like Occupy Wall Street, these movements are still inchoate, still mainly protesting what’s wrong rather than fighting for an alternative social order. Like Occupy, they have yet to clearly and robustly answer that crucial question, “Don’t like capitalism? What’s your alternative?” Yet they are working on it, and they are for the most part instinctively and radically democratic. And in this lies our hope. I’m going to make my case in the form of six theses:

1. CAPITALISM IS, OVERWHELMINGLY, THE MAIN DRIVER OF PLANETARY ECOLOGICAL COLLAPSE

From climate change to resource overconsumption to pollution, the engine that has powered three centuries of accelerating economic development revolutionizing technology, science, culture and human life itself is today a roaring, out-of-control locomotive mowing down continents of forests, sweeping oceans of life, clawing out mountains of minerals, drilling, pumping out lakes of fuels, devouring the planet’s last accessible resources to turn them all into “product” while destroying fragile global ecologies built up over eons.

Between 1950 and 2000 the global human population more than doubled from 2.5 billion to 6 billion. But in these same decades, consumption of major natural resources soared more than sixfold on average, some much more. Natural gas consumption grew nearly twelvefold, bauxite (aluminum ore) fifteenfold. And so on.[3]

At current rates, Harvard biologist E.O Wilson says, “half the world’s great forests have already been leveled, and half the world’s plant and animal species may be gone by the end of this century.” Corporations aren’t necessarily evil – although plenty are diabolically evil – but they can’t help themselves. They’re just doing what they’re supposed to do for the benefit of their shareholders. Shell Oil can’t help but loot Nigeria and the Arctic and cook the climate. That’s what shareholders demand.[4] BHP Billiton, Rio Tinto and other mining giants can’t resist mining Australia’s abundant coal and exporting it to China and India. Mining accounts for 19 percent of Australia’s gross domestic product and substantial employment even as coal combustion is the worst driver of global warming. IKEA can’t help but level the forests of Siberia and Malaysia to feed the Chinese mills building its flimsy, disposable furniture (IKEA is the third-largest consumer of lumber in the world). Apple can’t help it if the cost of extracting the “rare earths” it needs to make millions of new iThings each year is the destruction of the eastern Congo – violence, rape, slavery, forced induction of child soldiers, along with poisoning local waterways. [5] Monsanto and DuPont and Syngenta and Bayer Crop Science have no choice but to wipe out bees, butterflies, birds and small farmers and extinguish crop diversity to secure their grip on the world’s food supply while drenching the planet with their Roundups and Atrazines and neonicotinoids. [6] This is how giant corporations are wiping out life on Earth in the course of a routine business day. And the bigger the corporations grow, the worse the problems become.

In Adam Smith’s day, when the first factories and mills produced hat pins and iron tools and rolls of cloth by the thousands, capitalist freedom to make whatever they wanted didn’t much matter because they didn’t have much impact on the global environment. But now everything is produced in the millions and billions – then trashed today and reproduced all over again tomorrow. When the planet is looted and polluted to support all this frantic and senseless growth, it matters – a lot.

The world’s climate scientists tell us we’re facing a planetary emergency. They’ve been telling us since the 1990s that if we don’t cut global fossil-fuel greenhouse-gas emissions by 80 percent to 90 percent below 1990 levels by 2050 we will cross critical tipping points and global warming will accelerate beyond any human power to contain it. Yet despite all the ringing alarm bells, no corporation and no government can oppose growth. Instead, every capitalist government in the world is putting pedal to the metal to accelerate growth, to drive us full throttle off the cliff to collapse. Marxists have never had a better argument against capitalism than this inescapable and apocalyptic “contradiction.”

2. SOLUTIONS TO THE ECOLOGICAL CRISIS ARE BLINDINGLY OBVIOUS, BUT WE CAN’T TAKE THE NECESSARY STEPS TO PREVENT ECOLOGICAL COLLAPSE BECAUSE, SO LONG AS WE LIVE UNDER CAPITALISM, ECONOMIC GROWTH HAS TO TAKE PRIORITY OVER ECOLOGICAL CONCERNS OR THE ECONOMY WILL COLLAPSE AND MASS UNEMPLOYMENT WILL BE THE RESULT

We all know what we have to do: suppress greenhouse gas emissions. Stop overconsuming natural resources. Stop the senseless pollution of the Earth, its waters and its atmosphere with toxic chemicals. Stop producing waste that can’t be recycled by nature. Stop the destruction of biological diversity and ensure the rights of other species to flourish. We don’t need any new technological breakthroughs to solve these problems. Mostly, we just stop doing what we’re doing. But we can’t stop because we’re all locked into an economic system in which companies have to grow to compete and reward their shareholders and because we all need the jobs.

Take Climate Change … 

James Hansen, the world’s pre-eminent climate scientist, has argued that to save the humans, “Coal emissions must be phased out as rapidly as possible, or global climate disasters will be a dead certainty. … Yes, [coal, oil, gas] most of the fossil fuels must be left in the ground. That is the explicit message that the science provides.”

Humanity treads today on a slippery slope. As we continue to pump greenhouse gases in the air, we move onto a steeper, even more slippery incline. We seem oblivious to the danger – unaware of how close we may be to a situation in which a catastrophic slip becomes practically unavoidable, a slip where we suddenly lose all control and are pulled into a torrential stream that hurls us over a precipice to our demise. [7]

But how can we do this under capitalism? After his climate negotiators stonewalled calls for binding limits on CO2 emissions at Copenhagen, Cancun, Cape Town and Doha, President Obama is now trying to salvage his environmental “legacy” by ordering his EPA to impose “tough” new emissions limits on existing power plants, especially coal-fired plants.[8] But this won’t salvage his legacy or, more importantly, his daughters’ future. How much difference would it make, really, if every coal-fired power plant in the United States were to shut down tomorrow when US coal producers are free to export their coal to China, which they are doing, and when China is building another coal-fired power plant every week? The atmosphere doesn’t care where the coal is burned. It only cares how much is burned. Yet how could Obama tell American mining companies to stop mining coal? This would be tantamount to socialism. But if we do not stop mining and burning coal, capitalist freedom and private property is the least we’ll have to worry about.

Same with Obama’s “tough” new fuel-economy standards. In August 2012, Obama boasted that his new corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards would “double fuel efficiency” in the next 13 years to 54.5 mpg by 2025, up from 28.6 mpg at present – cutting vehicle CO2 emissions in half, so helping enormously to “save the planet.” But as the Center for Biological Diversity and other critics have noted, Obama was lying as usual. First, his so-called “tough” new CAFE standards were so full of loopholes, negotiated with Detroit, that they actually encourage more gas guzzling, not less.[9] That’s because the standards are based on a sliding scale according to “vehicle footprints” – the bigger the car, the less mileage it has to get to meet its standard. So, in fact, Obama’s “tough” standards are (surprise) custom-designed to promote what Detroit does best – produce giant Sequoias, mountainous Denalis, Sierras, Yukons, Tundras and Ticonderogas, Ram Chargers and Ford F series luxury trucks, grossly obese Cadillac Escalades, soccer kid hauler Suburbans, even 8,000-pound Ford Excursions and let these gross gas hogs meet the “fleet standard.” Many of these ridiculously oversized and overaccessorized behemoths are more than twice the weight of cars and pickup trucks in the 1950s.[10] These cars and “light” trucks are among the biggest-selling vehicles in America today (GM’s Sierra is No. 1), and they get worse gas mileage than American cars and trucks half a century ago. Cadillac’s current Escalade gets worse mileage than its chrome-bedecked tailfin-festooned land yachts of the mid-1950s![11] Little wonder Detroit applauded Obama’s new CAFE standards instead of damning them. Secondly, what would it matter even if Obama’s new CAFE standards actually did double fleet mileage – when American and global vehicle fleets are growing exponentially? In 1950 Americans had one car for every three people. Today we have 1.2 cars for every American. In 1950 when there were about 2.6 billion humans on the planet, there were 53 million cars on the world’s roads – about one for every 50 persons. Today, there are 7 billion people but more than 1 billion cars. And industry forecasters expect there will be 2 billion to 2.5 billion cars on the world’s roads by midcentury. China is expected to have 1 billion.[12] So, at the end of the day, incremental half-measures like CAFE standards can’t stop rising GHG missions. Barring some technical miracle, the only way to cut vehicle emissions is to just stop making them – drastically suppress vehicle production, especially of the worst gas hogs. In theory, Obama could at least simply order GM to stop building its humongous gas guzzlers and switch to producing small economy cars. After all, the federal government owns the company! But of course, how could he do any such thing? Detroit lives by the mantra “big car big profit, small car small profit.” Since Detroit has never been able to compete against the Japanese and Germans in the small-car market, which already is glutted and nearly profitless everywhere, such an order would only doom GM to failure, if not bankruptcy (again), throw masses of workers onto the unemployment lines (and devalue the GM stock in the feds’ portfolio). So given capitalism, Obama is, in fact, powerless. He’s locked in to promoting the endless growth of vehicle production, even of the worst polluters – and lying about it all to the public to try to patch up his pathetic “legacy.” And yet, if we don’t suppress vehicle production, how can we stop rising CO2 emissions?

In the wake of the failure of climate negotiators from Kyoto to Doha to agree on binding limits on GHG emissions, exasperated British climate scientists Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows at the Tyndall Centre, Britain’s leading climate change research center, wrote in September 2012 that we need an entirely “new paradigm”: government policies must “radically change” if “dangerous” climate change is to be avoided:

We urgently need to acknowledge that the development needs of many countries leave the rich western nations with little choice but to immediately and severely curb their greenhouse gas emissions. … [The] misguided belief that commitments to avoid warming of 2 degrees C can still be realized with incremental adjustments to economic incentives. A carbon tax here, a little emissions trading there and the odd voluntary agreement thrown in for good measure will not be sufficient. … Long-term end-point targets (for example, 80% by 2050) have no scientific basis. What governs future global temperatures and other adverse climate impacts are the emissions from yesterday, today, and those released in the next few years.[13]

And not just scientists. In its latest world energy forecast released on November 12, 2012, the International Energy Agency (IEA) warns that despite the bonanza of fossil fuels now made possible by fracking, horizontal and deepwater drilling, we can’t consume them if we want to save the humans: “The climate goal of limiting global warming to 2 degrees Centigrade is becoming more difficult and costly with each year that passes. … No more that one-third of proven reserves of fossil fuels can be consumed prior to 2050 if the world is to achieve the 2 degree C goal. … ” [14] Of course the science could be wrong about this. But so far climate scientists have consistently underestimated the speed and ferocity of global warming, and even prominent climate change deniers have folded their cards.[15]

Emergency Contraction or Global Ecological Collapse

Still, it’s one thing for James Hansen or Bill McKibben of 350.org to say we need to “leave the coal in the hole, the oil in the soil, the gas under the grass,” to call for “severe curbs” in GHG emissions – in the abstract. But think about what this means in our capitalist economy. Most of us, even passionate environmental activists, don’t really want to face up to the economic implications of the science we defend. That’s why, if you listen to environmentalists such as Bill McKibben or Al Gore, for example, you will get the impression that global warming is mainly driven by fossil-fuel-powered electric power plants, so if we just “switch to renewables” this will solve the main problem and we can carry on with life more or less as we do now. Indeed, “green capitalism” enthusiasts like Thomas Friedman and the union-backed “green jobs” lobby look to renewable energy, electric cars and such as “the next great engine of industrial growth” – the perfect win-win solution. This is a not a solution. This is a delusion, because greenhouse gasses are produced across the economy, not just by or even mainly by power plants. Globally, fossil-fuel-powered electricity generation accounts for 17 percent of GHG emissions, heating accounts for 5 percent, miscellaneous “other” fuel combustion 8.6 percent, industry 14.7 percent, industrial processes another 4.3 percent, transportation 14.3 percent, agriculture 13.6 percent, land-use changes (mainly deforestation) 12.2 percent.[16] This means, for a start, that even if we immediately replaced every fossil-fuel-powered electricity-generating plant on the planet with 100 percent renewable solar, wind and water power, this would reduce global GHG emissions only by around 17 percent. What this means is that, far from launching a new green-energy-powered “industrial growth” boom, barring some tech-fix miracle, the only way to impose “immediate and severe curbs” on fossil fuel production and consumption would be to impose an emergency contraction in the industrialized countries: drastically retrench and in some cases shut down industries, even entire sectors, across the economy and around the planet – not just fossil-fuel producers, but all the industries that consume them and produce GHG emissions – autos, trucking, aircraft, airlines, shipping and cruise lines, construction, chemicals, plastics, synthetic fabrics, cosmetics, synthetic fiber and fabrics, synthetic fertilizer and agribusiness CAFO operations, and many more. Of course, no one wants to hear this because, given capitalism, this would unavoidably mean mass bankruptcies, global economic collapse, depression and mass unemployment around the world. That’s why in April 2013, in laying the political groundwork for his approval of the XL pipeline in some form, President Obama said “The politics of this are tough.” The Earth’s temperature probably isn’t the “number one concern” for workers who haven’t seen a raise in a decade, have an underwater mortgage, are spending $40 to fill their gas tank, can’t afford a hybrid car and face other challenges.”[17] Obama wants to save the planet. But given capitalism, his “number one concern” has to be growing the economy, growing jobs. Given capitalism, today, tomorrow, next year and every year, economic growth will always be the overriding priority – until we barrel right off the cliff to collapse.

The Necessity of Denial and Delusion

There’s no technical solution to this problem and no market solution either. In a very few cases – electricity generation is the main one – a broad shift to renewables could indeed sharply reduce fossil-fuel emissions in that sector. But if we just use “clean” “green” energy to power more growth, consume ever more natural resources to produce more and more junk we don’t need, then we would solve nothing and still would be headed to collapse. Agriculture is another sector in which reliance on fossil fuels could be sharply reduced – by abandoning synthetic fertilizers and pesticides and switching to organic farming. And there’s no downside there – just the resistance of the agribusiness industrial complex. But for the rest of the economy – mining, manufacturing, transportation, chemicals, most services (including construction, tourism, advertising, etc.), there are no such easy substitutes. Take transportation. There are no solar-powered ships or airplanes or trains on anyone’s drawing boards. Producing millions of electric cars instead of millions of gasoline-powered cars, as I explained elsewhere, would be just as ecologically destructive and polluting, if in somewhat different ways, even if they were all run on solar power.[18] Substituting biofuels for fossil fuels in transportation just creates different but no less environmentally destructive problems: Converting farmland to raise biofuel feedstock pits food production against fuels. Converting rainforests, peatlands, savannas or grasslands to produce biofuels releases more CO2 into the atmosphere than the fossil fuels they replace and accelerates species extinction.[19] More industrial farming means more demand for water, synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. And so on. Cap-and-trade schemes can’t cut fossil fuel emissions because, as I explained elsewhere,[20] business understands, even if some environmentalists do not, that “dematerialization” is a fantasy, that there’s no win-win tech solution, that capping emissions means cutting growth. Since cutting growth is unacceptable to business, labor and governments, cap-and-trade has been abandoned everywhere.[21] Carbon taxes can’t stop global warming either because they do not cap emissions. That’s why fossil fuel execs like Rex Tillerson, CEO of ExxonMobil (the largest private oil company in the world) and Paul Anderson, CEO of Duke Energy (the largest electric utility in the United States), support carbon taxes. They understand that carbon taxes would add something to the cost of doing business, like other taxes, but they pose no limit, no “cap” on growth.[22] Exxon predicts that, carbon tax or no carbon tax, by 2040 global demand for energy is going to grow by 35 percent to 65 percent in the developing world and nearly all of this is going to be supplied by fossil fuels. ExxonMobil is not looking to “leave the oil in the soil” as a favor to Bill McKibben and the humans. ExxonMobil is looking to pump it and burn it all as fast as possible to enrich its shareholders. [23]

James Hansen, Bill McKibben, Barack Obama and most of us, really, don’t want to face up to the economic implications of the need to put the brakes on growth and fossil-fuel-based overconsumption. We all “need” to live in denial and believe in delusions that carbon taxes or some tech fix will save us because we all know that capitalism has to grow or we’ll all be out of work. And the thought of replacing capitalism seems so impossible, especially given the powers arrayed against change. But what’s the alternative? In the not-so-distant future, this is all going to come to a screeching halt one way or another – either we seize hold of this out-of-control locomotive and wrench down this overproduction of fossil fuels, or we ride this train right off the cliff to collapse.

Same with Resource Depletion

We in the industrialized “consumer economies” are not just overconsuming fossil fuels. We’re overconsuming everything. From fish to forests, minerals to metals, oil to fresh water, we’re consuming the planet like there’s no tomorrow.[24] Ecological “footprint” scientists tell us that we in the industrialized nations are now consuming resources and sinks at the rate of 1.5 planets per year. That is, we’re using natural resources like fish, forests, water, farmland and so on at half-again the rate that nature can replenish them.[25] According to the World Bank, the wealthiest 10 percent of the world’s people accounts for almost 60 percent of consumption expenditures and the top 20 percent accounts for more than 76 percent of global consumption, whereas the bottom 40 percent of the world’s population account for just 5 percent. Even the bottom 70 percent of the world’s population accounts for barely 15.3 percent of global consumption expenditures.[26] Needless to say, the 70 percent wants and deserves a higher material standard of living. Yet if the whole world were to achieve this by consuming like Americans, we would need something like five more planets of natural resources and sinks for all of that.[27] Think what this means.

Take the case of China. Columbia University’s Earth Policy Institute predicts that if China keeps growing by around 8 percent per year, it’s current rate, Chinese average per capita consumption will reach current US level by around 2035. But to provide the natural resources for China’s 1.3 billion-plus to consume like America’s 330 million, the Chinese, roughly 20 percent of the world’s population, will consume as much oil as the entire world consumes today. They also will consume 69 percent of current world grain production, 62 percent of the current world meat production, 63 percent of current world coal consumption, 35 percent of current world steel consumption, 84 percent of current world paper consumption. (See Table 1.) Well, where on earth are the Chinese going to find the resources (not to mention sinks) to support all this consumption? China certainly doesn’t have the resources. That’s why the Chinese are buying up the planet. And that’s just China. What about the other four-fifths of humanity? What are they going to consume in 2035?

2013.11.10.Table1

Already, as resource analyst Michael Klare reviews in his latest book, The Race for What’s Left, around the world existing reserves of oil, minerals and other resources “are being depleted at a terrifying pace and will be largely exhausted in the not-too-distant future.” This is driving miners and drillers to the ends of the earth, the bottom of oceans, to the arctic. We’re running out of planet to plunder so fast that serious people like Google’s Larry Page and Eric Schmidt have partnered with film director James Cameron to make life imitate art, to explore the possibility of mining asteroids and near planets. Avatar – the perfect capitalist solution to resource exhaustion (but the Marines will be Chinese). [28]

China’s Capitalist Environmental Nightmare

As Beijing has been choking on smog this year, Deutsche Bank analysts gloomily conclude that, barring extreme reforms, Chinese coal consumption and increased car ownership will push pollution levels 70 percent higher by 2025. They say that even if China’s economy slowed to 5 percent growth per year, its annual coal consumption still would rise to 6 billion tons by 2022, from the current 3.8 billion tons. Car ownership is expected to increase over the years to 400 million in 2030 from the current 90 million. For China to meet its goal of reducing PM2.5 particulate matter to 35 micrograms of per cubic meter by 2030, the government would have to take drastic steps – shut down large numbers of coal-fired power plants, sharply reduce the number of vehicles on the roads, and shut down many other polluting industries.

2013 1110-3a

Even then, air pollution would still be above the level deemed safe by the World Health Organization (25 micrograms of PM2.5 particulates per cubic meter). The current national average is 75 micrograms per cubic meter. In January, PM2.5 levels in Beijing reached 900 micrograms per cubic meter.[29] But here again, the problem is that ever since China turned onto the “capitalist road” and made its economy and employment ever-more dependent upon market success like the Western capitalist economies Deng Xiaoping sought to emulate, it can no more subordinate growth to the environment than can Barack Obama or ExxonMobil. Instead, China’s commie capitalists, like regular capitalists everywhere, have no choice but to put the pedal to the metal, do all they can to accelerate humanity’s collective drive to suicide.[30]

“Wild facts” and Unquestioned Assumptions

In mainstream discourse it is taken as an absolutely unquestioned given by scientists like James Hansen, environmentalists like George Monbiot, not to mention CEOs and presidents, that demand for everything must grow infinitely, that economies must grow forever. That’s why Hansen, Monbiot, James Lovelock and others tell us that, Fukishima notwithstanding, we “have to” go nuclear for energy production. In their view, the human population is headed for 9 billion to 10 billion. All these billions want to consume like Americans, so we will need more power for their washing machines, air conditioners, iPads, TVs and (electric) SUVs. We can’t burn more fossil fuels to produce this power because it will cook the planet. Renewables are great but can’t reliably meet relentlessly growing “base load” demand for electricity 24/7. Therefore, they tell us, we have no choice but to turn to nuclear power. (Besides, what could go wrong with the “newest,” “safest,” “fourth generation” reactors? What indeed?)[31]

But not one of these people stops to ask the obvious question: Where are all the resources going to come from to support insatiable consumption on a global scale? In the capitalist lexicon, there is no concept of “too much.” The word overconsumption cannot be found in Econ. 101 text books except as a temporary market aberration, soon to be erased as “perfect competition” matches supply to demand and shortages and surpluses vanish down the gullet of the consumer. The fact that we live on one small planet with finite resources and sinks is just beyond the capitalist imagination because, as Herman Daly used to say, the “wild facts” of environmental reality demolish their underlying premise of the viability of endless growth on a finite planet. So inconvenient facts must be denied, suppressed or ignored. And they are. When, on May 10,2013, climate scientists announced the latest “wild fact” that the level of heat-trapping CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere had passed the long-feared milestone of 400 ppm, an event fraught with ominous consequences for us all, this was met with total silence from the world’s economic and political elites. President Obama was busy preparing his own announcement – that he was clearing the way for accelerated natural-gas exports by approving a huge new $10 billion Freeport LNG facility in Texas. Obama’s Department of Energy gave Freeport LNG the green light because it “found the prospective benefits from exporting energy outweighed concerns about possible downsides.” No surprise there. Freeport LNG chief Michael Smith wasn’t anticipating downsides or any change in Obama’s priorities. He said: “I hope this means that more facilities will get approval in due time, sooner than later. The country needs these exports for jobs, for trade and for geopolitical reasons. … “[32] That’s why, even though, at some repressed level, most Americans understand that fracking the planet is disastrous, even suicidal for their own children in the long run, yet still for the present they have to make the mortgage payments and fill the gas tank. So they have little choice but to live in denial and support fracking.[33] And so we go, down the slippery slope.

No one stops to ask “what’s it all for?” Why do we “need” all this energy? Why do we “need” all the stuff we produce with all this energy? It’s high time we start asking this question. Economists tell us that two-thirds of America’s own economy is geared to producing “consumer” goods and services. To be sure, we need food, clothing, housing, transportation, and energy to run all this. But as Vance Packard astutely observed half a century ago, most of what corporations produce today is produced not for the needs of people but for the needs of corporations to sell to people. From the ever-more obscene and pointless vanities of ruling class consumption – the Bentleys and Maseratis, the Bergdorf Goodman designer collections, the penthouses and resorts and estates and yachts and jets, to the endless waste stream of designed-in obsolescence-driven mass market fashions, cosmetics, furniture, cars, “consumer electronics,” the obese 1000 calorie Big Macs with fries, the obese and overaccesorized SUVs and “light trucks,” the obese and ever-growing McMansions for ever-smaller middle class families, the whole-house central air conditioning, flat screen TVs in every room, iThings in every hand, H&M disposable “fast fashion” too cheap to bother to clean, [34] the frivolous and astonishingly polluting jet and cruise ship vacations everywhere (even Nation magazine cruises with Naomi Klein!), and all the retail malls, office complexes, the packaging, shipping industries, the junk mail/magazine/catalog sales companies, the advertising, banking and credit card “industries” that keep this perpetual consumption machine humming along, not to mention the appalling waste of the arms industry, which is just total deliberate waste and destruction, the vast majority – I would guess at least three quarters of all the goods and services we produce today just do not need to be produced at all. It’s all just a resource-hogging, polluting waste. My parents lived passably comfortable working class lives in the 1940s and 50s without half this stuff and they weren’t living in caves. We could all live happier, better, more meaningful lives without all this junk — and we do not need ever-more energy, solar or otherwise, to produce it. We could shut down all the coal-powered electric generators around the world, most of which, especially in China, are currently dedicated to powering the production of superfluous and disposable junk we don’t need and replace them with — nothing. How’s that for a sustainable solution? Same with nuclear. Since the 1960s, Japan built 54 nuclear power plants. But these were built not so much to provide electricity for the Japanese (their population is falling) as to power Japan’s mighty manufacturing export engine producing all those disposable TVs and Gameboys and Toyotas and Hondas the world does not need and can no longer afford to consume.

Endless growth or repair, rebuild, upgrade, recycle?

So, for example, at the risk of sounding ridiculous, we don’t really need a global automobile industry. At least we don’t need an industry cranking out hundreds of millions of new cars every year, because the industry is built on the principle of designed-in obsolescence, on insatiable repetitive consumption, on advertising and “cash for clunkers” programs to push you to crush your perfectly good present car for a “new,” “improved,” “bigger,” “more luxurious” model that is, in reality, trivially different, sometimes even inferior to the one you just junked. What we need is a different approach to transportation. To build a sustainable transportation system, we would have to divert most resources from auto production to public transportation, trains, buses and bicycling. But, of course, bikes and public transport aren’t feasible everywhere and for every task, particularly for those who live in the suburbs or the country or in the mostly rural developing world. So we would still need some cars and trucks – but many fewer if we “degrow” the economy to produce just what we need instead of for profit. As the VW ads below point out, properly designed and engineered cars can be sturdy but simple, economical to drive, easily serviceable and repairable (even DIY), perpetually rebuildable and upgradable as needed. I’m not suggesting an ecosocialist society should produce this particular “peoples’ car.” We need something with modern safety features. But to the extent that we would need cars in a sustainable society, we could save immense resources and GHG emissions by producing massively fewer cars and keep them running for decades, if not practically forever. Reducing global car production to something like, say 10 percent of current production – and sharing those – would not only save vast resources and eliminate massive pollution but also free up labor and resources for other uses. Let us shorten the working day – and take longer vacations.

The same goes for all kinds of industries.

Apple easily could build you iPhones and iMacs, in classic timeless designs that could last for decades, that could be upgraded easily. This would save mountains of resources, not to mention the lives of Congolese kids and Foxconn assembly workers. But how much profit is there in that? Apple could never justify such a humane and environmentally rational approach to its shareholders because shareholders (who are several stages removed from the “sourcing” process and don’t really care to know about it) are capitalists rationally looking to maximize returns on their portfolios, not to maximize the lifespan of the company’s products, let alone the lifespan of Congolese or Chinese. So to this end, you have to be convinced that your G4 phone is not good enough, that you “need” an iPhone5 because you need a phone that streams movies, that talks to you and more, and next year you will need an iPhone6. And even if you own an iPad3 you will soon “need” an iPad4, plus an iPad Mini, and how will you live without iTV? This incessant, exponentially growing demand for the latest model of disposable electronic gadgets is destroying societies and the environment from Congo to China and beyond.

IKEA easily could manufacture beautifully designed, high-quality, sturdy and durable furniture that could last a lifetime, that could be handed down to your children or passed on friends or antique shops for others. That would save a Siberia’s worth of trees, lakes of toxic dyes and finishes, and vast quantities of other resources. But why would it do that? IKEA is not in business to make furniture or save the planet. IKEA is in the business to make money. As Ingvar Kamprad, founder and CEO of IKEA (and Nazi symp), long ago discovered, the way to maximize profits (besides employing semi-slave forced prison labor in Stalinist regimes and moving his “Swedish” company from high-tax Sweden to low-tax Holland and Switzerland)[35] is to relentlessly cheapen production by, among other tactics, building flat-pack disposable particle-board furniture in accordance with the Iron Law of Marketing to sell “the cheapest construction for the briefest interval the buying public will tolerate” so IKEA can chop down more Siberian birch trees and sell you the same shoddy $59 bookcase all over again that will last you as long as the first one did – perhaps a bit longer this time if you don’t actually load many books of those flimsy shelves. As an IKEA commercial, directed by Spike Jonze, tells us: “an old lamp (or bookcase or table) doesn’t have any feelings; any piece of furniture can and should be replaced at any time.” The ad, and the whole IKEA approach, suggests that objects have no lasting meaning or value. They’re disposable; when we tire of them, we should just throw them out.[36] This is how IKEA got to be the third-largest consumer of wood in the world, most of it from East Europe and the Russian Siberia, where, according to the World Bank, half of all logging is illegal even by the Russian kleptocracy’s standards of legality. IKEA’s wholly owned Swedish subsidiary Swedwood has even been condemned by Russian nature conservancy organizations and the Global Forest Coalition for clear-cutting 1,400 acres a year of 200- to 600-year-old forest near the Finnish border, a process that “is having deep ramifications on invaluable forest ecosystems.”[37] This is how IKEA’s business plan based on endless “repetitive consumption” is wiping out life on Earth. Here again, the capitalist freedom to make such junk wouldn’t matter – if it weren’t costing the Earth.[38]

Given capitalism, there’s no way to “incentivize” GM to stop producing new cars every year, IKEA to stop making its disposable furniture, Apple to stop pushing you to lose your iPhone 4 and buy a 5. That’s what they’re invested in. Companies can’t change, or change much, because it’s too costly, too risky, shareholders won’t allow it. And given capitalism, most workers, most of the time, have no choice but to support all this suicidal overconsumption because if we all stop shopping to save the planet today, we’d all be out of work tomorrow. Ask your nearest 6-year-old what’s wrong with this picture.

Capitalism and Délastage in the Richest Country of Poor People in the World

Yet even as corporations are plundering the planet to overproduce stuff we don’t need, huge social, economic and ecological needs – housing, schools, infrastructure, health care, environmental remediation – go unmet, even in the industrialized world, while most of Third World lacks even basic sanitation, clean water, schools, health care, ecological restoration, not to mention jobs.[39] After 300 years of capitalist “development” the gap between rich and poor has never been wider: Today, almost half the world, more than 3 billion people, live on less than $2.50 a day, 80 percent of humanity lives on less than $10 a day. This while the world’s richest 1% own 40 percent of the world’s wealth. The richest 10 percent own 85 percent of total global assets, and half the world barely owns 1 percent of global wealth. And these gaps have only widened over time.[40] Tell me again where Karl Marx was wrong? In Congo is one of the lushest, most fertile countries on the planet, with untold natural wealth in minerals, lumber, tropical crops and more. Yet its resources are plundered every day to support gross overconsumption in the north while poverty, hunger and malnutrition are so widespread that Congo is now listed dead last on the 2011 Global Hunger Index, a measure of malnutrition and child nutrition compiled by the International Food Policy Research Institute. While European and American corporations loot its copper and cobalt and coltran for iPhones and such, half the population eats only once a day and a quarter less than that. Things have reached such a state that in places like the capital Kinshasha parents can afford to feed their children only every other day. Congolese call it “délastage” – an ironic takeoff on the rolling electrical blackouts that routinely hit first one neighborhood then the next. In this context it means “Today we eat! Tomorrow we don’t.”

“On some days,” one citoyen told a New York Times reporter, “some children eat, others do not. On other days, all the children eat, and the adults do not. Or vice versa.” [41] This, in the 21st century, in one of the resource-richest countries on Earth, and brought to them by an economic system that capitalist economists never tire of telling us is “the best system humanity can come up with.”

Contraction or Collapse

If there’s no market mechanism to stop plundering the planet, then, again, what alternative is there but to impose an emergency contraction on resource consumption? This doesn’t mean we would have to de-industrialize and go back to riding horses and living in log cabins. But it does mean that we would have to abandon the “consumer economy” – shut down all kinds of unnecessary, wasteful and polluting industries from junk food to cruise ships, disposable Pampers to disposable H&M clothes, disposable IKEA furniture, endless new model cars, phones, electronic games, the lot. Plus all the banking, advertising, junk mail, most retail, etc. We would have completely redesign production to replace “fast junk food” with healthy, nutritious, fresh “slow food,” replace “fast fashion” with “slow fashion,” bring back mending, alterations and local tailors and shoe repairmen. We would have to completely redesign production of appliances, electronics, housewares, furniture and so on to be as durable and long-lived as possible. Bring back appliance repairmen and such. We would have to abolish the throwaway disposables industries, the packaging and plastic bag industrial complex, bring back refillable bottles and the like. We would have to design and build housing to last for centuries, to be as energy-efficient as possible, to be reconfigurable and shareable. We would have to vastly expand public transportation to curb vehicle use but also build those we do need to last and be shareable like Zipcar or Paris’ municipally owned “Autolib” shared electric cars. These are the sorts of things we would have to do to if we really want to stop overconsumption and save the world. All these changes are simple, self-evident, no great technical challenge. They just require a completely different kind of economy, an economy geared to producing what we need while conserving resources for future generations of humans and for other species with which we share this planet.

3. IF CAPITALISM CAN’T HELP BUT DESTROY THE WORLD, THEN WHAT ALTERNATIVE IS THERE BUT TO NATIONALIZE AND SOCIALIZE MOST OF THE ECONOMY AND PLAN IT DIRECTLY, EVEN PLAN MOST OF THE GLOBAL INDUSTRIAL ECONOMY?

With 7 billion humans crowded on one small planet running out of resources, with cities disappearing under vast clouds of pollution, with the glaciers and ice caps melting and species going extinct by the hour, we desperately need a PLAN to avert ecological collapse. We need a comprehensive global plan, a number of national or regional plans, and a multitude of local plans – and we need to coordinate them all. When climate scientists call on governments to cut CO2 emissions to stay within a global “carbon budget” if we want to keep a livable planet, isn’t that, in effect, calling for “planning,” indeed, planning on a global scale? When governments pump money into research projects like nuclear power or biotech or the Internet or clean energy projects, isn’t that planning? When scientists say that we need to massively reduce and limit consumption of oil, coal, trees, fish, all kinds of scarce resources or stop dumping chemicals in the world’s oceans – isn’t that, in effect, physical planning and rationing? And don’t we want that? Indeed, because we all breathe the same air, live in the same biosphere, don’t we really want and need something like a “one-world government” at least on environmental issues? How else can we regulate humanity’s collective impact on the global biosphere? How else can we reorganize and reprioritize the economy in the common interest and environmental rationality except in a mostly planned and mostly publicly owned economy?

What Would We Have To Do To Save the Humans?

If we want a sustainable economy, one that “meets the needs of present generations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs,” then we would have to do at least some or all of the following:

  1. Put the brakes on out-of-control growth in the global North – retrench or shut down unnecessary, resource-hogging, wasteful, polluting industries like fossil fuels, autos, aircraft and airlines, shipping, chemicals, bottled water, processed foods, unnecessary pharmaceuticals and so on. Abolish luxury-goods production, the fashions, jewelry, handbags, mansions, Bentleys, yachts, private jets etc. Abolish the manufacture of disposable, throw-away and “repetitive consumption” products. All these consume resources we’re running out of, resources that other people on the planet desperately need and that our children and theirs will need.

  2. Discontinue harmful industrial processes like industrial agriculture, industrial fishing, logging, mining and so on.

  3. Close many services – the banking industry, Wall Street, the credit card, retail, PR and advertising “industries” built to underwrite and promote all this overconsumption. I’m sure most of the people working in these so-called industries would rather be doing something else, something useful, creative and interesting and personally rewarding with their lives. They deserve that chance.

  4. Abolish the military-surveillance-police state industrial complex, and all its manufactures because this is just a total waste whose only purpose is global domination, terrorism and destruction abroad and repression at home. We can’t build decent societies anywhere when so much of social surplus is squandered on such waste.

  5. Reorganize, restructure, reprioritize production and build the products we do need to be as durable and shareable as possible.

  6. Steer investments into things society does need, like renewable energy, organic farming, public transportation, public water systems, ecological remediation, public health, quality schools and other currently unmet needs.

  7. Deglobalize trade to produce what can be produced locally; trade what can’t be produced locally, to reduce transportation pollution and revive local producers.

  8. Equalize development the world over by shifting resources out of useless and harmful production in the North and into developing the South, building basic infrastructure, sanitation systems, public schools, health care, and so on.

  9. Devise a rational approach to eliminate or control waste and toxins as much as possible.

  10. Provide equivalent jobs for workers displaced by the retrenchment or closure of unnecessary or harmful industries, not just the unemployment line, not just because workers cannot support the industry we and they need to save ourselves.

 “Necessary,” “Unnecessary” and Who’s the “Decider”?

Now we might all agree that we have to cut “overconsumption” to save the humans. But who’s to say what’s “necessary” and “unnecessary?” How do we decide what to cut? And who’s to decide? Under capitalism goods and services are rationed by the market. But that’s not sustainable because the market can’t restrain consumption, the market can only accelerate consumption. So we need a non-market approach. I don’t claim to have all the answers. This is a big question and I’m sure there are others better qualified than me to figure out solutions. But I would think the short answer has to be a combination of planning, rationing and democracy. I don’t see why that’s so hard. The US government planned significant parts of the US economy during World War II and rationed many goods and services. And we managed just fine. Actually, far form suffering unduly, Americans took pride in conservation and sharing. Besides, what’s the alternative? What other choice do we have? There are only so many ways to organize a modern industrial economy.

The challenges of physically planning the world economy in the interests of the 99% instead of for the 1% – reorganizing and reprioritizing the world economy to provide every person sufficient, nutritious, safe and delicious food, providing every human with high-quality, pleasurable, and aesthetically appealing housing, consolidating our cities to maximize the feasibility of public transportation, building great schools to enable every student to reach her or his fullest potential, providing top-notch health care for everyone on the planet, reorganizing and reprioritizing work so that everyone can find constructive, enjoyable, interesting, challenging and rewarding work, work that’s rewarding in many ways beyond simple remuneration, providing fun, enlightening and inspiring entertainment, reducing the workday so people can actually have time to enjoy themselves and pursue other pleasures, while, not least, how to limit our collective human impact on the planet so as to leave space and resources to all the other wonderful life forms with which we have the pleasure of sharing this unique and amazing planet – all these are no doubt big challenges. They’re very big political challenges. But they’re not an economic challenge. This is not Soviet Russia in 1917. I’m not proposing Maoist austerity. Today, there’s more than enough wealth and productive capacity to provide every person on earth a very satisfactory material standard of living. Even more than half a century ago, Gandhi was right to say then that “there’s more than enough wealth for man’s need but never enough for some men’s greed.” I doubt that it would even be much of a technical challenge. Google’s Larry Page predicts that the virtually everyone in the world will have access to the Internet by 2020. Quantifying human needs, global resources and global agricultural and industrial capacities is, I would think, a fairly pedestrian task for today’s computers, with all their algorithms.

Planning Can’t Work? 

Right-wing economists like Milton Friedman denied the very possibility of planning any economy, equating all planning with Stalinism. I don’t buy that. The question is this: Planning by whom, for whom? Stalinist central planning was planning from the top down, by and for a totalitarian bureaucracy. It completely shut out workers and the rest of society from the planning process. So it’s hardly surprising that planning didn’t work so well in the Soviet Union. But I don’t see what that tells us about the potentials of planning from the bottom up, of democratic planning. Besides, capitalists indirectly plan the national and global economies all the time. They meet every year at Davos to shape the world market for their benefit. They conspire to privatize medicine, schools, public transportation, force us to buy “their” water or eat GMO foods. They use the IMF and World Bank to shackle countries with debt then open them up to U.S. corporate takeover. They’ve been using their states for centuries to expropriate peasants and tribes, even to exterminate them when necessary as in the Americas, to steal and privatize common lands, break up pre-capitalist societies, reorganize, replan whole continents to set up the right “business climate” for capital accumulation. Late developers like Japan and South Korea used their state-backed MITIs and Chaebols to hothouse their own industries, protect them and strategically plan their integration into the world market. Capitalists are very good at planning – for their own interests. So why can’t we plan the economy for our own interests?

Government “Can’t Pick Winners”?

Disengenuous capitalist apologists like the Wall Street Journal are quick to condemn any perceived government funded “failures” like the recent bankruptcy of solar startup Solyndra Corporation bankrolled by the Obama administration as proof that “government can’t pick winners.” But Solyndra didn’t fail because solar is a losing technology. It failed because, ironically, capitalist Solyndra could not compete against lower-cost, state-owned, state-directed and state-subsidized competitors in China. Besides, since when do capitalists have a crystal ball? CEOs and corporate boards bet on “loser” technologies and products all the time. Look at the recent collapse of electric car startup Fisker Automotive, or Better Place, the Israeli electric vehicle charging/battery swapping stations venture.[42] These join a long list of misplaced private bets from Sony’s Betamax to Polaroid, Ford’s Edsel, Tucker Autonobilie, DeLorean Motor Company and all the way back to White Star Lines Titanic and the Tulip Mania. CEOs and boards not only pick losing technology and products, they also lose money for their shareholders and even drive perfectly successful companies into bankruptcy every day: Jamie Dimon at JPMorgan, Lehman Brothers, Washington Mutual, Enron, WorldCom, Pan Am, SwissAir and on and on. Who knows if Facebook or Zipcar or Tesla Motors will ever make money? Government-backed Solyndra lost $500 million. But when Jamie Dimon lost $12 billion for JPMorgan, I don’t recall the Journal howling that capitalists “can’t pick winners.” When Enron collapsed I don’t recall hearing any blanket condemnation of the “inevitable incompetence” of the private sector. Hypocrisy is stock and trade of capitalists, lazy media and fact-averse capitalist economists who want to make the facts fit their simple-minded model no matter the truth. That’s why it’s entirely in character that the Wall Street Journal has never bothered to applaud government when it picked indisputable winners: when government-funded, government-directed applied research produced nuclear weapons, nuclear energy, radar, rockets, the jet engine, the transistor, the microchip, the Internet, GPS, crucial breakthroughs in biotechnology, when government scientists and government industries launched the Apollo spacecrafts that put men on the moon, when government-developed and produced ballistic missiles terrorized the Soviets and government-designed and operated bombers bombed the Reds in Korea and Vietnam to “contain Communism” and secure American dominance of the Free World for corporate subscribers of the Wall Street Journal to exploit – where then was the cri de coeur that “government can’t pick winners”? And what about those government-run drones? Anti-government bigmouth Rand Paul filibustered for a whole day against the threat of swarms of government drones over American cities but I didn’t hear him complain that government drones don’t work. That wasn’t his problem. And when, after an eight-year, mind-bogglingly difficult, complex and risky 150 million-mile journey, NASA’s government-built Curiosity spaceship landed a (government-built) state-of-the art science lab the size of a Mini Cooper within a mile and a half of its target on the surface of Mars – then it immediately set off to explore its new neighborhood – even the Ayn Rand-loving government-hating Republicans in Congress were awed into silence. As David Sirota’s headline in Salon.com read on August 13, 2012, just after Curiosity set down on the red planet: “Lesson from Mars: Government works!” And right now, as I’m writing this in April 2013, most of a year later, that government-run Mars explorer is happily roving around drilling core samples to find out if there is now, or used to be, water and possibly even life on Mars. All this while, back home, Shell Oil’s private capitalist-run arctic drilling platform ran aground in an arctic storm and is now being towed away to Asia for repairs while Shell Oil’s shareholders are having second thoughts about their CEO’s wisdom in “picking winners” by squandering $5 billion on this fools errand of drilling for oil under Artic ice.[43]

One Planet, One People, One Economy for the Common Good

For better or worse we are well into what scientists call the “Anthropocene.” Nature doesn’t run Earth anymore. We do. So if we are, after all, just “one people on one planet,” it’s time we begin to make conscious and collective decisions about how our economic activity affects the natural world – and I don’t mean “geoengineering” the planet by wrapping glaciers in tinfoil to slow their melting while capitalism goes right on cooking and pillaging the planet. Since the rise of capitalism 300 years ago, more and more of the world has come to be run on the principle of market anarchy, on Adam Smith’s maxim that every individual should just maximize his own interest – “look out for No. 1” – and the “public interest,” the “common good” would take care of itself. Well, that hasn’t worked out so well. It was always a dumb theory, but it’s worked OK for the 1% who could mostly manage without the commons. For the rest of us, the more capitalism, the more the common good gets trashed. And now globalized market anarchy is destroying not just humanity and society but even life on Earth.[44] The problem with Smith’s theory is that the aggregate of private interests don’t add up to the public interest. The problems we face with respect to the planetary environment and ecology can’t be solved by individual choice in the marketplace. They require collective democratic control over the economy to prioritize the needs of society, the environment, other species and future generations. This requires local, national and global economic planning to reorganize the world economy and redeploy labor and resources to these ends. And it requires an economy of guaranteed full employment because if we would have to shut down ExxonMobil and GM and Monsanto[45] and Walmart and so on to save the world, then we have to provide equal or better jobs for all those laid-off workers because otherwise they won’t support what we all need to do to save ourselves.

Ecosocialism and the Salvation of Small Businesses

This does not at all mean that we would have to nationalize local restaurants, family farms, farmers markets, artisans, groceries, bakeries, repair shops, workers co-ops and the like. Small-scale self-managed producers based on simple reproduction are not destroying the world. Large-scale capitalist investor-owned corporations based on insatiable accumulation are destroying the world. So they would have to be nationalized, many closed down, others scaled back, others repurposed. But an ecosocialist society would rescue and promote small-scale, local, self-managed businesses because we would need them. Indeed, we would want many more of them whereas, today, capitalism is driving them out of business everywhere.

4. RATIONAL PLANNING REQUIRES DEMOCRACY: VOTING THE BIG QUESTIONS

Solar or coal? Frack the planet, or work our way off fossil fuels? Drench the world’s farms in toxic pesticides or return to organic agriculture. Public transportation or private cars as the mainstay? Let’s put the big questions up for a vote. Shouldn’t everyone have a say in decisions that affect them all? Isn’t that the essential idea of democracy? The problem with capitalism is that the economy isn’t up for a vote. But it needs to be. Again, in Adam Smith’s day it mattered less, at least for the environment, because private decisions had so little impact on the planet. But today, huge decisions that affect all of us, other species, and even the fate of life on Earth are all still private decisions, made by corporate boards on behalf of self-interested investors. Polls show that 57 percent of Chinese feel that protecting the environment should be given priority, even at the expense of economic growth, and only 21 percent prioritize the economy over the environment.[46] But, obviously, the Chinese don’t get to vote on that or anything else. Polls show Americans opposed to GMO foods outnumber supporters nearly two to one and 82 percent of Americans favor labeling of GMO foods.[47] But Americans don’t get to vote on whether we get GMOs in our food or get told about it. Well, why not? Corporate boards vote to put GMOs and all kinds of toxic chemicals in our food. We’re the ones who consume this stuff. We can’t avoid GMOs simply by refusing to purchase them – the “market solution” – because they’re everywhere. They’re in 80 percent of the foods we consume, and Monsanto and the rest of the GMO-industrial complex bribe politicians and regulators with campaign contributions and lucrative revolving-door jobs to make sure you don’t know what foods to avoid.[48] Well, why should we accept this? Why shouldn’t we have a say in these decisions? We don’t have to be experts; corporate boards aren’t composed of experts. They’re mainly made up of major investors. They discuss and vote on what they want to do, then hire experts to figure out how to implement their decisions. Why can’t we do that – for humanity’s interests?

Every Cook Can Govern

From Tunisa to Tahir Square; Zuccotti Park to Gezi Park; Madison, Wisconsin, to Kunming Yunnan, Songjian Shanghai, Shifang Sichuan, Guangzhou and thousands of sites and cities and towns all over China, ordinary citizens demonstrate remarkably rational environmental sense against the profit-driven environmental irrationality and irresponsibility of their rulers.[49] In Turkey, “Sultan” Erdogon’s decree to tear up Istanbul’s last major park to replace it with an Ottoman-style shopping mall provoked mass outrage. Protesters complained, as one put it: “When were we asked what we wanted? We have three times as many mosques as we do schools. Yet they are building new mosques. There are eight shopping malls in the vicinity of Taksim, yet they want to build another. … Where are the opera houses? The theaters? The culture and youth centers? What about those? They only choose what will bring them the most profit without considering what we need.”[50] When, in a bid to mollify the protesters, a spokesman for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) floated the excellent idea of a public referendum on the issue saying, “We might put it to a referendum. … In democracies only the will of the people counts,” Erdogon considered this option for a moment. But when protesters doubted his sincerity, he proved them right by calling in his riot squads to crush the protests instead.[51] In Brazil, on the heels of the Turkish protests, mass protests erupted over announced bus fare hikes but soon morphed into more sweeping social protest as hundreds of thousands of Brazilians turned out in cities across the country to denounce the irresponsible waste of public funds on extravagant soccer stadiums in the run-up to the World Cup in 2014, when schools, public transportation, hospitals, health care and other public services are neglected: “People are going hungry, and the government builds stadiums,” said Eleuntina Scuilgaro, a pensioner. “I love soccer, but we need schools,” said Evaldir Cardoso, a firemen at a protest with his 7-month-old son. “These protests are in favor of common sense, argued protester Roberta da Matta. “We pay an absurd amount of taxes in Brazil, and now more people are questioning what they are getting in return.”[52]

If corporations and capitalist governments can’t align production with the common good and ecological rationality, what other choice is there but for society to collectively and democratically organize, plan and manage most production themselves? To do this we would have to establish democratic institutions to plan and manage our social economy. We would have to set up planning boards at local, regional, national/continental and international levels. Those would have to include not just workers, the direct producers, but entire communities, consumers, farmers, peasants, everyone. We have models: the Paris Commune, Russian soviets, Brazil’s participatory planning, La Via Campesina and others. Direct democracy at the base, delegated authority with right of recall for higher-level planning boards. What’s so difficult about that? [53]

As Greg Palast, Jarrold Oppenheim and Theo MacGregor described in Democracy and Regulation: How the Public Can Govern Essential Services (2003), it is a curious and ironic fact that the United States, foremost protagonist of the free market, possesses a large and indispensable sector of the economy that is not governed by the free market but instead, democratically, by public oversight – and that is utilities: the provision of electricity, heating fuel, water and sewerage, and local telephone service. Not only that but these are the most efficient and cheapest utility systems in the world. The authors note that British residents pay 44 percent more for electricity than do American consumers, 85 percent more for local telephone service and 26 percent more for natural gas. Europeans pay even more, Latin Americans more than Europeans. They write that “Americans pay astonishingly little for high-quality public services, yet low charges do not suppress wages: American utility workers are the nation’s industrial elite, with a higher concentration of union membership than in any other private industry.” Palast, Oppenheim and MacGregor attribute this to the fact that, unlike Britain and most of the rest of the world, utilities are not unregulated free-market corporations like ExxonMobil or Monsanto or Rio Light or British Water. Instead, they are tightly regulated industries, mostly privately owned, but many publicly owned by local municipalities. Yet even when utilities are privately owned like Con Edison in New York or Green Mountain Power in Vermont or Florida Power and Light (to take some East Coast examples), it’s really hard to call this “capitalism.” It’s more like state capitalism, even quasi-socialism. Either way, public- or investor-owned, they are highly regulated, subject to public oversight, involvement and control:

Unique in the world (with the exception of Canada), every aspect of US regulation is wide open to the public. There are no secret meetings, no secret documents. Any and all citizens and groups are invited to take part: individuals, industrial customers, government agencies, consumer groups, trade unions, the utility itself, even its competitors. Everyone affected by the outcome has a right to make their case openly, to ask questions of government and utilities, to read all financial and operating records in detail. In public forums, with all information open to all citizens, the principles of social dialogue and transparency come to life. It is an extra-ordinary exercise in democracy – and it works. … Another little-known fact is that, despite the recent experiments with markets in electricity [the authors published this book in 2003, just three years after the Enron privatization debacle], the US holds to the strictest, most elaborate and detailed system of regulation anywhere: Private utilities’ profits are capped, investments directed or vetoed by public agencies. Privately owned utilities are directed to reduce prices for the poor, fund environmentally friendly physical and financial inspection. … Americans, while strongly attached to private property and ownership, demand stern and exacting government control over vital utility services.[54]

The authors are careful to note that this is “no regulatory Garden of Eden.” It has many failings: regulation is constantly under attack by promoters of market pricing, the public interest and the profit motive of investor-owned utilities often conflict with negative consequences for the public, and so on. [55] But even so, this long-established and indisputably successful example of democratic public regulation of large-scale industries offers us a real-world practical example of something like a “proto-socialism.” I see no obvious reason something like this model of democracy and transparency could not be extended, expanded, fully socialized and replicated to encompass the entire large-scale industrial economy. Of course, as I argued above, to save the humans, we would have to do much more than just “regulate” industries. We would have to completely reorganize and reprioritize the whole economy, indeed the whole global industrial economy. This means not just regulating but retrenching and closing down resource-consuming and polluting industries, shifting resources out of them, starting up new industries and so on. Those are huge tasks, beyond the scope of even the biggest corporations, even many governments. So who else could do this but self-organized masses of citizens, the whole society acting in concert, democratically? Obviously, many issues can be decided at local levels. Others like closing down the coal industry or repurposing the auto industry, require large-scale planning at national if not international levels. Some, like global warming, ocean acidification, deforestation, would require extensive international coordination, virtually global planning. I don’t see why that’s not doable. We have the UN Climate Convention, which meets annually and is charged with regulating GHG emissions. It fails to do so only because it lacks enforcement powers. We need to give it enforcement powers.

5. DEMOCRACY CAN WORK ONLY IN CONTEXT OF ROUGH SOCIO-ECONOMIC EQUALITY AND SOCIAL GUARANTEES.

When in the midst of the Great Depression, the great “people’s jurist” Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said, “We can either have democracy in this country or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few. But we can’t have both.” He was more right than he knew. Today we have by far the greatest concentration of wealth in history. So it’s hardly surprising that we have the weakest and most corrupt democracies since the Gilded Age. If we want democracy, we would have to abolish “the great wealth concentrated in the hands of the few.” That means abolishing not just private property in the means of production, but also extremes of income, exorbitant salaries, great property, and inheritance. Because the only way to prevent corruption of democracy is to make it impossible to materially gain by doing so – by creating a society with neither rich nor poor, a society of basic economic equality.

Does that mean we would all have to dress in blue Mao suits and dine in communal mess halls? Hardly. Lots of studies (Wilkinson and Pickett’s Spirit Level, the UK’s New Economics Foundation studies, and others) have shown that people are happier, there’s less crime and violence and fewer mental health problems in societies where income differences are small and where concentrated wealth is limited. We don’t have five planets to provide the resources for the whole world to live the “American Dream” of endless consumerism. But we have more than enough wealth to provide every human being on the planet with a basic income, with a good job at pay sufficient to lead a dignified life, with safe water and sanitation, quality food, housing, education and health care, with public transportation – all the authentic necessities we really need. These should all be guaranteed as a matter of right, as indeed most of these already were declared as such in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948.

Freeing ourselves from the toil of producing unnecessary or harmful commodities – the three-quarters of current US production that’s a waste – would free us to shorten the work day, to enjoy the leisure promised but never delivered by capitalism, to redefine the meaning of the standard of living to connote a way of life that is actually richer, while consuming less, to realize our fullest human potential instead of wasting our lives in mindless drudgery and shopping. This is the emancipatory promise of ecosocialism.[56]

6. THIS IS CRAZY, UTOPIAN, IMPOSSIBLE, NEVER HAPPEN

Perhaps. But what’s the alternative? The specter of planetwide ecological collapse and the collapse of civilization into some kind of Blade Runner dystopia is not as hypothetical as it once seemed. Ask the Chinese. China’s “capitalist miracle” already has driven that country off the cliff into headlong ecological collapse that threatens to take the whole planet down with it. With virtually all its rivers and lakes polluted and many depleted, with 70 percent of its croplands contaminated with heavy metals and other toxins, with undrinkable water, inedible food, unbreathable air that kills more than a million Chinese a year, with “cancer villages” metastasizing over the rural landscape and cancer the leading cause of death in Beijing,[57] China’s rulers face hundreds of mass protests, often violent, around the country every day, more than 100,000 protest a year. And even with all their police-state instruments of repression, they know they can’t keep the lid on forever (indeed, hundreds of thousands of Communist Party kleptocrats can see the writing on the wall through the smog and are moving their families, their money and themselves out of the country before it’s too late). Today the Chinese and we need a socialist revolution not just to abolish exploitation and alienation but to derail the capitalist train wreck of ecological collapse before it takes us all over the edge. As China itself demonstrates, revolutions come and go. Economic systems come and go. Capitalism has had a 300-year run. The question is, will humanity stand by let the world be destroyed to save the profit system?

The Specter of Eco-Democratic Revolution

That outcome depends to a great extent on whether we, on the left, can answer that question – “What’s your alternative?” – with a compelling and plausible vision of an eco-socialist civilization – and figure out how to get there. We have our work cut out for us. But what gives the growing global eco-socialist movement an edge in this ideological struggle is that capitalism has no solution to the ecological crisis, no way to put the brakes on collapse, because its only answer to every problem is more of the same growth that’s killing us. “History” was supposed to have “ended” with the fall of communism and the triumph of capitalism two decades ago. Yet today, history is very much alive. And it is, ironically, capitalism itself that is being challenged more broadly than ever and found wanting for solutions. Today, we are very much living in one of those pivotal world-changing moments in history, indeed it is no exaggeration to say that this is the most critical moment in human history. We may be fast approaching the precipice of ecological collapse, but the means to derail this train wreck are in the making as, around the world, struggles against the destruction of nature, against dams, against pollution, against overdevelopment, against the siting of chemical plants and power plants, against predatory resource extraction, against the imposition of GMOs, against privatization of remaining common lands, water and public services, against capitalist unemployment and precarité are growing and building momentum. Today we’re riding a swelling wave of near-simultaneous global mass democratic “awakening,” almost global mass uprising. This global insurrection is still in its infancy, still unsure of its future, but its radical democratic instincts are, I believe, humanity’s last best hope. Let’s make history!

The original version of this story appeared in the Real World Economics Review.


[1] Tom Bawden, “Carbon dioxide in atmosphere at highest level for 5 million years,” The Independent, May 10, 2013 .

[2] Justin Gillis, “Heat-trapping gas passes milestone, raising fears,” The New York Times, May 10, 2013. Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Scripps News, April 23, 2013 .

[3] Michael T. Klare, The Race for What’s Left (New York: Picador 2012), p. 24 Table 1.1. Jeffrey Sachs calculates that in value terms, between 1950 and 2008 the global human population rose from 2.5 billion to 7 billion, so less than tripled, while global GDP multiplied eight times. Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet (New York: Penguin Books, 2008), p. 19.

[4] On Shell’s impact on Africa, see Nimo Bassey, To Cook a Continent: Destructive Extraction and the Climate Crisis in Africa (Cape Town: Pambazuka Press 2012).

[5] Delly Mawazo Sesete of Change.org, writing in The Guardian newspaper says, “I am originally from the North Kivu province in the eastern region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where a deadly conflict has been raging for over 15 years. While that conflict began as a war over ethnic tension, land rights and politics, it has increasingly turned to being a war of profit, with various armed groups fighting one another for control of strategic mineral reserves. Near the area where I grew up, there are mines with vast amounts of tungsten, tantalum, tin, and gold – minerals that make most consumer electronics in the world function. These minerals are part of your daily life. They keep your computer running so you can surf the Internet. They save your high score on your Playstation. They make your cellphone vibrate when someone calls you. While minerals from the Congo have enriched your life, they have often brought violence, rape and instability to my home country. That’s because those armed groups fighting for control of these mineral resources use murder, extortion and mass rape as a deliberate strategy to intimidate and control local populations, which helps them secure control of mines, trading routes and other strategic areas. Living in the Congo, I saw many of these atrocities firsthand. I documented the child slaves who are forced to work in the mines in dangerous conditions. I witnessed the deadly chemicals dumped into the local environment. I saw the use of rape as a weapon. And despite receiving multiple death threats for my work, I’ve continued to call for peace, development and dignity in Congo’s minerals trade.” “Apple: time to make a conflict-free iPhone,” The Guardian, December 30, 2011. For more detail see conflictminerals.org. See also: Peter Eichstaedt, Consuming the Congo: War and Conflict Minerals in the World’s Deadliest Place (Chicago: Lawrence Hill, 2011).

[6] Lauren McCauley, “Herbicides for GMOs driving monarch butterfly populations to ‘ominous’ brink,” Common Dreams, March 14, 2013.

[7] James Hansen, Storms of My Grandchildren (New York: Bloomsbury 2009), pp. 70, 172-173,

[8] John M. Broder, “Obama readying emissions limits on power plants,” The New York Times, June 20, 2013.

[9] Center for Biological Diversity, “New mileage standards out of step with worsening climate crisis,” press release, August 28, 2012. Also, Common Dreams staff, “New mileage standards encourage more gas-guzzling, not less: report,” Common Dreams, August 28, 2012.

[10] A full-size 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air weighed 3,100 pounds. A ’55 Ford F-100 pickup truck also weighed 3,100 (3,300 with the optional V-8 motor). Even a 1955 Cadillac El Dorado, icon of 1950s conspicuous consumption, weighed only 5,050 pounds – chrome bullets, tailfins and all. By comparison, today even a compact Toyota Prius weighs 3,274 pounds (could it be the batteries?) while your typical full-size Ford Taurus weighs more than 4,300 pounds, pickup trucks and big SUVs start at around 6,000 pounds and go up from there to 7,000 to 8,000 pounds. Even though the occasional honest driver will concede he or she doesn’t really “need” all this bulk and horsepower to load up at the mall, as a cheerful Texas Ford salesman noted, “We haven’t found a ceiling to this luxury truck market.” Joseph B. White, “Luxury pickups stray off the ranch,” Wall Street Journal, March 21, 2012.

[11] Your typical 4,428-pound 1955 Cadillac Coupe DeVille got 12.9 mpg in city driving, according to Motor Trend magazine, whereas your typical 5,963-pound 2013 Cadillac Escalade gets 10 mpg in the city (12 mpg “combined” city and highway). Your typical 2013 Chevrolet Silverado K15 truck gets just 9 mpg hauling those heavy bags of groceries home from the mall. This is after six decades of Detroit fuel economy “improvements” – and Obama says Detroit is going to “double its fleet mileage in 20 years.” Good luck on that. Mileage figures for the Cadillac are from Cadillac History 1955. For the Silverado at www.fuel economy.gov.

[12] For forecasts of China’s vehicle fleet and its implications see Craig Simons, The Devouring Dragon (New York: St. Martins Press, 2013), p. 200.

[13] “A new paradigm for climate change,” Nature Climate Change, Vol. 2 September 2012, pp. 639-640 (my italics).

[14] IEA, World Energy Outlook 2012 Executive Summary (November 12, 2012), p. 3 .

[15] For a recent summary of the peer-reviewed literature see Glenn Scherer and DailyClimate.org, “Climate science predictions prove too conservative,” Scientific American December 6, 2012 . Prominent ex-denier Richard A. Muller published his mea culpa on the op-ed page of The New York Times: “The conversion of a climate-change skeptic,” July 28, 2012.

[16] World Resources Institute, WRI Navigating the Numbers, Table 1. pp. 4-5 .

[18] See my “Green capitalism,” op cit. pp. 131-133.

[19] Eg. David Biello, “The false promise of biofuels,” Scientific American, August 2011, pp. 59-65.

[20] Smith, “Green capitalism,” op cit. pp. 117-122.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] ExxonMobil, The Outlook for Energy: A View to 2040 (December 2012) . See also, Jon Queally, “BP’s Big Plan: Burn it. Burn it all,” Common Dreams, January 17, 2013.

[24] Eg. John Parnell, “World on course to run out of water, warns Ban Ki-moon,” The Guardian, May 22, 22013. Gaia Vince, “How the world’s oceans could be running out of fish,” BBC News Online, September 12, 2012 . And as tropical forests, biodiversity is being sacrificed even in nominally protected areas at an alarming rate. See William F. Laurance et al. “Averting biodiversity collapse in tropical forest protected areas,” Nature, no. 489 September 12, 2012 pp.  290-294. “Widespread local ‘extinctions’ in tropical forest ‘remnants’ ” Also, ScienceDaily, August 14, 2012 .  On minerals and oil, see Michael T. Klare, The Race for What’s Left (New York: Picador 2012).

[25] Ecological “footprint” studies show that today humanity uses the equivalent of 1.5 planets to provide the resources we use and absorb our waste. This means it now takes the Earth one year and six months to regenerate what we use in a year. Moderate UN scenarios suggest that if current population and consumption trends continue, by the 2030s, we will need the equivalent of two Earths to support us. And of course, we have only one. Turning resources into waste faster than waste can be turned back into resources puts us in global ecological “overshoot” depleting the very resources on which human life and biodiversity depend. See the Global Footprint Network.

[26] World Bank, 2008 World Development Indicators, p. 4 Table 1J .

[27] Worldwatch Institute, 2010 State of the World: Transforming Cultures From Consumerism to Sustainability (New York: Norton, 2010) pp. 3-7ff. Also Alan Durning, How Much is Enough? (New York: Norton 1992). Avatar.

[28] Michael T. Klare, The Race for What’s Left, p. 12. AP, “Tech tycoons in asteroid mining venture,” The Guardian, April 20, 2012.

[29]China’s environmental nightmare,” China Digital Times, March 12, 2012 . Lily Kuo, “China’s nightmare scenario: by 2025 air quality could be much much worse,” posted March 12, 2013 on Quartz.

[30] See eg. Sam Wade, ” ‘Growth first’ mentality undermines war on pollution,” China Digital Times, June 5, 2013 .

[31] Hansen, Storms, chapter 9. Independent Voices: “James Lovelock: Nuclear power is the only green solution,” Independent, May 24, 2004 . George Monbiot, The Guardian columnist, has argued this in many venues but see, in particular, his blog piece: “The moral case for nuclear power,” August 8, 2011 . Also, Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, “Going green? Then go nuclear,” Wall Street Journal op-ed, May 23, 2013.

[32] Keith Johnson and Ben Lefebvre, “U.S. approves expanded gas exports,” Wall Street Journal, May 18, 2013.

[33] John Vogel, “Methane gas ‘fracking:’ 3 polls show public leaning to toward yes,” American Agriculturalist, April 9, 2013 . Karen DeWitt, “Poll shows increased support for fracking,” North Country Public Radio, September 13, 2012 .

[34] Clothing designer Eliza Starbuck says of ultra -cheap producers like H&M “It’s throwaway fashion or ‘trashion.’ If their prices are that cheap that people are throwing their disposable income at them – only to find that the clothes fall apart on the hangers after a wash or two – they’re just creating garbage. … It takes such a huge amount of human energy and textile fibers, dyes and chemicals to create even poor-quality clothes. They may be offering fashions at a price anyone can afford in an economic crunch, but they’re being irresponsible about what happens to the goods after the consumers purchase them.” Jasmin Malik Chua, “Is H&M’s new lower-priced clothing encouraging disposable fashion?” ecouterre, September 28, 2010 . And H&M takes “disposable” literally. As The New York Times reported in 2012, H&M’s employees systematically slash and rip perfectly good unsold clothes before tossing them in dumpsters at the back of the chain’s 34th Street store in Manhattan – to make sure they can’t be sold but thus adding pointlessly to landfills rather than donating them to charity. It is little remarked that capitalism is the first economic system in which perfectly serviceable, even brand new goods from clothes to automobiles (recall the “cash for clunkers” rebates) are deliberately destroyed so as to promote production of their replacements. I’ll explore this interesting theme further elsewhere. See Jim Dwyer, “A clothing clearance where more than just the prices are slashed,” The New York Times, January 5, 2010. Also, Ann Zimmerman and Neil Shah, “Taste for cheap clothes fed Bangladesh boom,” Wall Street Journal, May 13, 2013.

[35] Juan O. Tamayo, “STASI records show Cuba deal included IKEA furniture, antiques, rum and guns,” McClatchy Newspapers, May 9, 2012. James Angelos, “IKEA regrets use of East German prisoners,” Wall Street Journal, November 16, 2012. Kamprad’s soft spot for prison slave labor fits very well with his deep past as a Swedish Nazi recruiter and long-time sympathizer as detailed in a recent book by Elisabeth Asbrink. See “Ikea founder Ingvar Kamprad’s Nazi ties ‘went deeper,’ ” BBC News online August 25, 2011 .

[36] I am quoting here from Stephanie Zacharek’s excellent “IKEA is as bad as Wal-Mart,” Salon.com, July 12, 2009: 12:11 PM. Reviewing Ellen Ruppel Shell, Cheap: The High cost of Discount Culture (New York: Penguin, 2009), chapter 6.

[37] Ida Karisson, “IKEA products made from 600-year old trees,” Inter Press Service, May 29, 2012  Common Dreams.org.

[38] Eg. Fred Pearce, “Ikea – you can’t build a green reputation with a flatpack DIY manual, Guardian, April 2, 2009. Also: Greenpeace, Slaughtering the Amazon, July 2009 . Alfonso Daniels, “Battling Siberia’s devastating illegal logging trade,” BBC news online, November 27, 2009.

[39] Michael Davis, Planet of Slums (London: Verso 2006).

[40] World Bank Development Indicators 2008, cited in Anup Shah, Poverty and stats, Global Issues, January  7, 2013 . World Institute for Development Economics Research of the UN cited in James Randerson, “World’s richest 1% own 40% of all wealth, UN report discovers,” The Guardian, December 6, 2006. As for trends, in 1979 the richest 1% in the U.S. earned 33.1 percent more than the bottom 20 percent. In 2000 the wealthiest 1% made 88.5 percent more than the poorest 20 percent. In the Third World, polarization has grown even worse, especially in China which in 1978 had the world’s most equal incomes while today, it has the most unequal incomes of any large society. Who says capitalism doesn’t work?!

[41] Adam Nossiter, “For Congo children, food today means none tomorrow,” The New York Times, January 3, 2012.

[42] Isabel Kershner, “Israeli venture meant to serve electric cars ending its run,” The New York Times, May 27, 2013. Ronald D. White, “One owner, low miles, will finance: sellers try to unload Fiskers,” Los Angeles Times, April 26, 2013. Rachel Feintzeig, “Electric-car maker Coda files for bankruptcy,” Wall Street Journal, May 1, 2013.

[43] Kenneth Chang, “Mars could have supported life long ago, NASA says,” The New York Times, March 12, 2013. And Shell Oil isn’t the only company having second thoughts about what its brilliant CEO thought was a sure thing: Clifford Krauss, “ConocoPhilips suspends its Arctic drilling plans,” The New York Times, April 11, 2013.

[44] Citing a recent study by an international team of researchers in Nature Climate Change in May 2013, the BBC reports that if “rapid action” is not taken to curb greenhouse gases, some 34 percent of animals and 57 percent of plants will lose more than half of their current habitat ranges. Dr. Rachel Warren, the lead scientist of the study said that “our research predicts that climate change will greatly reduce the diversity of even very common species found in most parts of the world. This loss of global-scale biodiversity would significantly impoverish the biosphere and the ecosystem services it provides. There will also be a knock-on effect for humans because these species are important for things like water and air purification, flood control, nutrient cycling and eco-tourism.” Matt McGrath, ” ‘Dramatic decline’ warning for plants and animals,” BBC News Online, May 12, 2013 .

[45] On the existential threat Monsanto Corporation poses to humanity and the planet, see the Green Shadow Cabinet: “What must be done about Monsanto corporation, and why,” May 23, 2013 .

[46] Gallup, June 8, 2012 .

[47] Huffington Post, “GMO poll finds huge majority say foods should be labeled,” March 4, 2013 .

[48] See again, Green Shadow Cabinet, “What must be done about Monsanto, and why?” op cit.

[49] Eg. Jennifer Duggan, “Kunming pollution is the tip of rising Chinese environmental activism,” The Guardian blog post May 16, 2013.

[50] Tim Arango and Ceylan Yeginsu, “Peaceful protest over Istanbul park turns violent as police crack down,” The New York Times, May 31, 2013.

[51]Turkish government moots referendum on Gezi Park,” Deutsche Welle, June 12, 2013 .

[52] Simon Romero, “Protests grow as Brazilians blame leaders,” The New York Times, June 19, 2013.

[53]  For further exploration of these themes see the superb piece by Michael Lowy: “Eco-socialism and democratic planning,” Socialist Register 2007 (New York: Monthly Review 2007), p. 294-309.

[54] Greg Palast, Jerrold Oppenheim, and Theo MacGregor, Democracy and Regulation: How the Public can Govern Essential Services (London: Pluto, 2003) pp. 2-4. The authors point out yet another irony of this system of public regulation, namely that it was created by private companies as the lesser evil to fend off the threat of nationalization: “Modern US utility regulation is pretty much the invention of American Telephone & Telegraph Company (AT&T) and the National Electric Light Association (NELA) – the investor-owned telephone and electric industries at the turn of the twentieth century. They saw regulation as protection against Populist and Progressive movements that, since the economic panic of 1873 and later disruptions, had galvanized anti-corporate farmer and labor organizations. By the turn of the twentieth century, these movements had galvanized considerable public support for governmental ownership of utilities. … ” p. 98.

[55] In the case of nuclear power plants, local public regulation often has been subverted and overridden by the federal government in its zealous drive to push nuclear power even against the wishes of the local public. Thus in the aftermath of the Three Mile Island nuclear accident in 1979, social scientists Raymond Goldsteen and John Schorr interviewed residents around Three Mile Island about the history of the power plant, why it was built, what voice they had in the decision to build it and the decision to restart the plant after the accident. It turns out that, as one resident, a Mrs. Kelsey, put it, they had no choice. They were virtually forced to accept it: “They [Met Ed the utility, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission] keep saying we need this nuclear. They keep pounding that into our heads with the news and everything. We need it. We need it. We can’t do without it.” Residents told Goldstein and Schorr that the surrounding communities petitioned against restarting the plant after the accident but lost again. Another resident, Mrs. Boswell, said, “We don’t want to be guinea pigs. … I still think that we should have a say, too, in what goes on. I really do, because we’re the victims.” Mrs. Brown: “The company just wants [to reopen the plant for] the money. … ” Mrs. Carmen: “No, they’re going to do what they want. … I don’t think [community feelings] would bother them at all.” Mrs. Hemmingway: “I feel very angry about it really, because I just feel that there is so much incompetence on the part of the utility, on the part of the NRC, on the part of the local governments. … ” Residents said that if they had been informed honestly about the risks and if they had had a choice, they would have investigated other technologies and chosen differently. Mrs. Hemingway again: “It just seems to me there are so many alternatives we could explore. … We obviously need alternate energy sources, but solar could provide heating for houses and water [and so on].” Residents said they would have preferred other choices even if it meant giving up certain conveniences: Mrs. Caspar: “I don’t really mind conserving all that much. If people can conserve gas [for cars], why can’t they conserve energy? Now I don’t mean I want to go back to the scrubboard … but I don’t dry my clothes in the dryer. I hang them … on the line … and I do try to conserve as far as that goes.” (pp. 181-183,212).  One of the most interesting results of this study, which is well worth reading in full, is that it illustrates how ordinary citizens, given the chance, would make more rational decisions about technology, safety and the environment than the “experts” at the utility, Met Ed, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. It’s not that they were more knowledgeable about the technology than the experts but that the experts were not impartial. They were representing the industry and profits and the NRC, not the public, so they could not help but systematically make wrong decisions, decisions that in this case not only violated the public trust and but put huge numbers of lives in danger. Raymond L. Goldsteen and John K. Schorr, Demanding Democracy After Three Mile Island (Gainsville: University of Florida Press 1991).

[56] See again, Michael Lowy op. cit.

[57] Edward Wong, “Air pollution linked to 1.2 million premature deaths in China,” The New York Times. April 1, 2013. Johnathan Kaiman, “Inside China’s ‘cancer villages,’ ” The Guardian, June 4, 2012.

Richard Smith is an economic historian. He wrote his UCLA history Ph.D. thesis on the transition to capitalism in China and held post-docs at the East-West Center in Honolulu and Rutgers University. He has written on China, capitalism and the global environment and on related issues for New Left Review, Monthly Review, The Ecologist, the International Journal of Ecological Economics and Statistics, Real-World Economics Review, Adbusters magazine and other publications. He book To Save the Planet, Turn the World Upside Down will be published in 2014.

“Q: Is Earth Fucked? A: More Or Less.”- How Science Is Telling Us All To Revolt

In Uncategorized on November 4, 2013 at 5:26 pm
Texas.

Waste land: large-scale irrigation strips nutrients from the soil, scars the landscape and could alter climatic conditions beyond repair. Image: Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto/ Flowers, London, Pivot Irrigation #11 High Plains, Texas Panhandle, USA (2011)

Oldspeak: “Global capitalism has made the depletion of resources so rapid, convenient and barrier-free that “earth-human systems” are becoming dangerously unstable in response… research shows that our entire economic paradigm is a threat to ecological stability…. challenging this economic paradigm – through mass-movement counter-pressure – is humanity’s best shot at avoiding catastrophe…. we have lost so much time to political stalling and weak climate policies – all while global consumption (and emissions) ballooned – that we are now facing cuts so drastic that they challenge the fundamental logic of prioritising GDP growth above all else… Climate change is a cumulative issue! Now, in 2013, we in high-emitting (post-)industrial nations face a very different prospect. Our ongoing and collective carbon profligacy has squandered any opportunity for the ‘evolutionary change’ afforded by our earlier (and larger) 2°C carbon budget. Today, after two decades of bluff and lies, the remaining 2°C budget demands revolutionary change to the political and economic hegemony…. The fact that the business-as-usual pursuit of profits and growth is destabilising life on earth is no longer something we need to read about in scientific journals. The early signs are unfolding before our eyes.” -Naomi Klein

“Yep. Business as usual, Limitless growth, ever higher toxic emmissons, relentless barrier free resource extraction, are a certain recipe for global systems failure. Systems that supersede those of GDP, Profit, Politics, national boundaries, policy.  The whole length and breadth of contrived reality we’re being led to believe is real must be done away with. it’s just no longer sustainable or feasible. irreversable non-linear feedbacks have already begun. The warmest September on record just passed. The pacific ocean is warmer than it’s been in 144,000 years. We need to revolutionarily change our global systems that have caused the malfunctions in our global ecological and environmental systems, to have an inkling of a chance to avert a coming unlivable climate. Radical & immediate de-growth strategies are critical for all wealthy nations. There is no profit on a dead planet.” -OSJ

By Naomi Klein @ The New Statesman:

Is our relentless quest for economic growth killing the planet? Climate scientists have seen the data – and they are coming to some incendiary conclusions.

In December 2012, a pink-haired complex systems researcher named Brad Werner made his way through the throng of 24,000 earth and space scientists at the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union, held annually in San Francisco. This year’s conference had some big-name participants, from Ed Stone of Nasa’s Voyager project, explaining a new milestone on the path to interstellar space, to the film-maker James Cameron, discussing his adventures in deep-sea submersibles.

But it was Werner’s own session that was attracting much of the buzz. It was titled “Is Earth F**ked?” (full title: “Is Earth F**ked? Dynamical Futility of Global Environmental Management and Possibilities for Sustainability via Direct Action Activism”).

Standing at the front of the conference room, the geophysicist from the University of California, San Diego walked the crowd through the advanced computer model he was using to answer that question. He talked about system boundaries, perturbations, dissipation, attractors, bifurcations and a whole bunch of other stuff largely incomprehensible to those of us uninitiated in complex systems theory. But the bottom line was clear enough: global capitalism has made the depletion of resources so rapid, convenient and barrier-free that “earth-human systems” are becoming dangerously unstable in response. When pressed by a journalist for a clear answer on the “are we f**ked” question, Werner set the jargon aside and replied, “More or less.”

There was one dynamic in the model, however, that offered some hope. Werner termed it “resistance” – movements of “people or groups of people” who “adopt a certain set of dynamics that does not fit within the capitalist culture”. According to the abstract for his presentation, this includes “environmental direct action, resistance taken from outside the dominant culture, as in protests, blockades and sabotage by indigenous peoples, workers, anarchists and other activist groups”.

Serious scientific gatherings don’t usually feature calls for mass political resistance, much less direct action and sabotage. But then again, Werner wasn’t exactly calling for those things. He was merely observing that mass uprisings of people – along the lines of the abolition movement, the civil rights movement or Occupy Wall Street – represent the likeliest source of “friction” to slow down an economic machine that is careening out of control. We know that past social movements have “had tremendous influence on . . . how the dominant culture evolved”, he pointed out. So it stands to reason that, “if we’re thinking about the future of the earth, and the future of our coupling to the environment, we have to include resistance as part of that dynamics”. And that, Werner argued, is not a matter of opinion, but “really a geophysics problem”.

Plenty of scientists have been moved by their research findings to take action in the streets. Physicists, astronomers, medical doctors and biologists have been at the forefront of movements against nuclear weapons, nuclear power, war, chemical contamination and creationism. And in November 2012, Nature published a commentary by the financier and environmental philanthropist Jeremy Grantham urging scientists to join this tradition and “be arrested if necessary”, because climate change “is not only the crisis of your lives – it is also the crisis of our species’ existence”.

Some scientists need no convincing. The godfather of modern climate science, James Hansen, is a formidable activist, having been arrested some half-dozen times for resisting mountain-top removal coal mining and tar sands pipelines (he even left his job at Nasa this year in part to have more time for campaigning). Two years ago, when I was arrested outside the White House at a mass action against the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, one of the 166 people in cuffs that day was a glaciologist named Jason Box, a world-renowned expert on Greenland’s melting ice sheet.

“I couldn’t maintain my self-respect if I didn’t go,” Box said at the time, adding that “just voting doesn’t seem to be enough in this case. I need to be a citizen also.”

This is laudable, but what Werner is doing with his modelling is different. He isn’t saying that his research drove him to take action to stop a particular policy; he is saying that his research shows that our entire economic paradigm is a threat to ecological stability. And indeed that challenging this economic paradigm – through mass-movement counter-pressure – is humanity’s best shot at avoiding catastrophe.

That’s heavy stuff. But he’s not alone. Werner is part of a small but increasingly influential group of scientists whose research into the destabilisation of natural systems – particularly the climate system – is leading them to similarly transformative, even revolutionary, conclusions. And for any closet revolutionary who has ever dreamed of overthrowing the present economic order in favour of one a little less likely to cause Italian pensioners to hang themselves in their homes, this work should be of particular interest. Because it makes the ditching of that cruel system in favour of something new (and perhaps, with lots of work, better) no longer a matter of mere ideological preference but rather one of species-wide existential necessity.

Leading the pack of these new scientific revolutionaries is one of Britain’s top climate experts, Kevin Anderson, the deputy director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, which has quickly established itself as one of the UK’s premier climate research institutions. Addressing everyone from the Department for International Development to Manchester City Council, Anderson has spent more than a decade patiently translating the implications of the latest climate science to politicians, economists and campaigners. In clear and understandable language, he lays out a rigorous road map for emissions reduction, one that provides a decent shot at keeping global temperature rise below 2° Celsius, a target that most governments have determined would stave off catastrophe.

But in recent years Anderson’s papers and slide shows have become more alarming. Under titles such as “Climate Change: Going Beyond Dangerous . . . Brutal Numbers and Tenuous Hope”, he points out that the chances of staying within anything like safe temperature levels are diminishing fast.

With his colleague Alice Bows, a climate mitigation expert at the Tyndall Centre, Anderson points out that we have lost so much time to political stalling and weak climate policies – all while global consumption (and emissions) ballooned – that we are now facing cuts so drastic that they challenge the fundamental logic of prioritising GDP growth above all else.

Anderson and Bows inform us that the often-cited long-term mitigation target – an 80 per cent emissions cut below 1990 levels by 2050 – has been selected purely for reasons of political expediency and has “no scientific basis”. That’s because climate impacts come not just from what we emit today and tomorrow, but from the cumulative emissions that build up in the atmosphere over time. And they warn that by focusing on targets three and a half decades into the future – rather than on what we can do to cut carbon sharply and immediately – there is a serious risk that we will allow our emissions to continue to soar for years to come, thereby blowing through far too much of our 2° “carbon budget” and putting ourselves in an impossible position later in the century.

Which is why Anderson and Bows argue that, if the governments of developed countries are serious about hitting the agreed upon international target of keeping warming below 2° Celsius, and if reductions are to respect any kind of equity principle (basically that the countries that have been spewing carbon for the better part of two centuries need to cut before the countries where more than a billion people still don’t have electricity), then the reductions need to be a lot deeper, and they need to come a lot sooner.

To have even a 50/50 chance of hitting the 2° target (which, they and many others warn, already involves facing an array of hugely damaging climate impacts), the industrialised countries need to start cutting their greenhouse-gas emissions by something like 10 per cent a year – and they need to start right now. But Anderson and Bows go further, pointing out that this target cannot be met with the array of modest carbon pricing or green-tech solutions usually advocated by big green groups. These measures will certainly help, to be sure, but they are simply not enough: a 10 per cent drop in emissions, year after year, is virtually unprecedented since we started powering our economies with coal. In fact, cuts above 1 per cent per year “have historically been associated only with economic recession or upheaval”, as the economist Nicholas Stern put it in his 2006 report for the British government.

Even after the Soviet Union collapsed, reductions of this duration and depth did not happen (the former Soviet countries experienced average annual reductions of roughly 5 per cent over a period of ten years). They did not happen after Wall Street crashed in 2008 (wealthy countries experienced about a 7 per cent drop between 2008 and 2009, but their CO2 emissions rebounded with gusto in 2010 and emissions in China and India had continued to rise). Only in the immediate aftermath of the great market crash of 1929 did the United States, for instance, see emissions drop for several consecutive years by more than 10 per cent annually, according to historical data from the Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Centre. But that was the worst economic crisis of modern times.

If we are to avoid that kind of carnage while meeting our science-based emissions targets, carbon reduction must be managed carefully through what Anderson and Bows describe as “radical and immediate de-growth strategies in the US, EU and other wealthy nations”. Which is fine, except that we happen to have an economic system that fetishises GDP growth above all else, regardless of the human or ecological consequences, and in which the neoliberal political class has utterly abdicated its responsibility to manage anything (since the market is the invisible genius to which everything must be entrusted).

So what Anderson and Bows are really saying is that there is still time to avoid catastrophic warming, but not within the rules of capitalism as they are currently constructed. Which may be the best argument we have ever had for changing those rules.

In a 2012 essay that appeared in the influential scientific journal Nature Climate Change, Anderson and Bows laid down something of a gauntlet, accusing many of their fellow scientists of failing to come clean about the kind of changes that climate change demands of humanity. On this it is worth quoting the pair at length:

 . . . in developing emission scenarios scientists repeatedly and severely underplay the implications of their analyses. When it comes to avoiding a 2°C rise, “impossible” is translated into “difficult but doable”, whereas “urgent and radical” emerge as “challenging” – all to appease the god of economics (or, more precisely, finance). For example, to avoid exceeding the maximum rate of emission reduction dictated by economists, “impossibly” early peaks in emissions are assumed, together with naive notions about “big” engineering and the deployment rates of low-carbon infrastructure. More disturbingly, as emissions budgets dwindle, so geoengineering is increasingly proposed to ensure that the diktat of economists remains unquestioned.

In other words, in order to appear reasonable within neoliberal economic circles, scientists have been dramatically soft-peddling the implications of their research. By August 2013, Anderson was willing to be even more blunt, writing that the boat had sailed on gradual change. “Perhaps at the time of the 1992 Earth Summit, or even at the turn of the millennium, 2°C levels of mitigation could have been achieved through significant evolutionary changes within the political and economic hegemony. But climate change is a cumulative issue! Now, in 2013, we in high-emitting (post-)industrial nations face a very different prospect. Our ongoing and collective carbon profligacy has squandered any opportunity for the ‘evolutionary change’ afforded by our earlier (and larger) 2°C carbon budget. Today, after two decades of bluff and lies, the remaining 2°C budget demands revolutionary change to the political and economic hegemony” (his emphasis).

We probably shouldn’t be surprised that some climate scientists are a little spooked by the radical implications of even their own research. Most of them were just quietly doing their work measuring ice cores, running global climate models and studying ocean acidification, only to discover, as the Australian climate expert and author Clive Hamilton puts it, that they “were unwittingly destabilising the political and social order”.

But there are many people who are well aware of the revolutionary nature of climate science. It’s why some of the governments that decided to chuck their climate commitments in favour of digging up more carbon have had to find ever more thuggish ways to silence and intimidate their nations’ scientists. In Britain, this strategy is becoming more overt, with Ian Boyd, the chief scientific adviser at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, writing recently that scientists should avoid “suggesting that policies are either right or wrong” and should express their views “by working with embedded advisers (such as myself), and by being the voice of reason, rather than dissent, in the public arena”.

If you want to know where this leads, check out what’s happening in Canada, where I live. The Conservative government of Stephen Harper has done such an effective job of gagging scientists and shutting down critical research projects that, in July 2012, a couple thousand scientists and supporters held a mock-funeral on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, mourning “the death of evidence”. Their placards said, “No Science, No Evidence, No Truth”.

But the truth is getting out anyway. The fact that the business-as-usual pursuit of profits and growth is destabilising life on earth is no longer something we need to read about in scientific journals. The early signs are unfolding before our eyes. And increasing numbers of us are responding accordingly: blockading fracking activity in Balcombe; interfering with Arctic drilling preparations in Russian waters (at tremendous personal cost); taking tar sands operators to court for violating indigenous sovereignty; and countless other acts of resistance large and small. In Brad Werner’s computer model, this is the “friction” needed to slow down the forces of destabilisation; the great climate campaigner Bill McKibben calls it the “antibodies” rising up to fight the planet’s “spiking fever”.

It’s not a revolution, but it’s a start. And it might just buy us enough time to figure out a way to live on this planet that is distinctly less f**ked.

Naomi Klein, the author of “The Shock Doctrine” and “No Logo”, is working on a book and a film about the revolutionary power of climate change. You call follow her on twitter @naomiaklein

Environmental Collapse: The Sixth Stage Of Collapse

In Uncategorized on October 26, 2013 at 8:57 pm

http://sillymickelsapocalypticwakeupcall.files.wordpress.com/2013/08/559624_4730113134571_700653948_n.jpgOldspeak: Dmitri Orlov is back with a brilliant addendum to his eerily prescient 2008 “The Five Stages Of Collapse“. Writing about  the all important stage of collapse he’d neglected to mention then.  Indeed, it is the only problem left worth preparing for. At the end of this stage Environmental Collapse, there is no other problem to be concerned with. The jig is up, there’s no home. The irony is we’re systematically eradicating the last remnants of people who know how we need to live to start reversing the damage we’ve done to our Mother. Relentlessly and increasingly exhausting at a non-renewable rate our essential ‘ecosystem services” for contrived reality driven “profit”. “Extend and pretend” can only go on for so much longer.” -OSJ

We don’t want to change who we are in order to live in harmony with nature; we want nature to live in harmony with us while we remain who we are. In the meantime, we are continuing to wage war on the sorry remnants of the tribes that had once lived in balance with nature, offering them “education,” “economic development” and a chance to play a minor role in our ruinous, negative-sum economic games. Given such options, their oft-observed propensity to do nothing and stay drunk seems like a perfectly rational choice. It minimizes the damage. But the damage may already have been done…

It seems like letting global industrial civilization collapse and all the nuclear power plants cook off is not such a good option, because it will seal our fate. But the alternative is to “extend and pretend” and “kick the can down the road” while resorting to a variety of environmentally destructive, increasingly desperate means to keep industry running: hydraulic fracturing, mining tar sands, drilling in the Arctic and so on. And this isn’t such a good option either because it will seal our fate in other ways…

Because, you see, there is also the sixth stage which I have previously neglected to mention—environmental collapse—at the end of which we are left without a home, having rendered Earth (our home planet) uninhabitable.

This tragic outcome may not be unavoidable. And if it is not unavoidable, then that’s about the only problem left that’s worth solving. The solution can be almost arbitrarily expensive in both life and treasure. I would humbly suggest that it’s worth all the money in the world, plus a few billion lives, because if a solution isn’t found, then that treasure and those lives are forfeit anyway.”
Dmitri Orlov
Related Story:
By Dmitri Orlov @ Club Orlov:
I admit it: in my last book, The Five Stages of Collapse, I viewed collapse through rose-colored glasses. But I feel that I should be forgiven for this; it is human nature to try to be optimistic no matter what. Also, as an engineer, I am always looking for solutions to problems. And so I almost subconsciously crafted a scenario where industrial civilization fades away quickly enough to save what’s left of the natural realm, allowing some remnant of humanity to make a fresh start.
Ideally, it would start of with a global financial collapse triggered by a catastrophic loss of confidence in the tools of globalized finance. That would swiftly morph into commercial collapse, caused by global supply chain disruption and cross-contagion. As business activity grinds to a halt and tax revenues dwindle to zero, political collapse wipes most large-scale political entities off the map, allowing small groups of people to revert to various forms of anarchic, autonomous self-governance. Those groups that have sufficient social cohesion, direct access to natural resources, and enough cultural wealth (in the form of face-to-face relationships and oral traditions) would survive while the rest swiftly perish.
Of course, there are problems even with this scenario. Take, for instance, the problem of Global Dimming. The phenomenon is well understood: sunlight reflected back into space by the atmospheric aerosols and particulates generated by burning fossil fuels reduces the average global temperature by well over a degree Celsius. (The cessation of all air traffic over the continental US in the wake of the terrorist attacks of 9/11 has allowed climate scientists to measure this effect.) If industrial activity were to suddenly cease, average global temperatures would be jolted upward toward the two degree Celsius mark which is widely considered to be very, very bad indeed. Secondly, even if all industrial activity were to cease tomorrow, global warming, 95% of which is attributed to human activity in the latest (rather conservative and cautious) IPCC report, would continue apace for the better part of the next millennium, eventually putting the Earth’s climate in a mode unprecedented during all of human existence as a species.
On such a planet, where the equatorial ocean is hotter than a hot tub and alligators thrive in the high Arctic, our survival as a species is far from assured. Still, let’s look at things optimistically. We are an adaptable lot. Yes, the seas will rise and inundate the coastal areas which over half of us currently inhabit. Yes, farmland further inland will become parched and blow away, or be washed away by the periodic torrential rains. Yes, the tropics, followed by the temperate latitudes, become so hot that everyone living there will succumb of heat stroke. But if this process takes a few centuries, then some of the surviving bands and tribes might find a way to migrate further north and learn to survive there by eking out some sort of existence in balance with what remains of the ecosystem.
We can catch glimpses of what such survival might look like by reading history. When Captain James Cook landed on the shore of Western Australia, he was the first white man to encounter aboriginal Australians, who had up to that point persisted in perfect isolation for something like 40.000 years. (They arrived in Australia at about the same time as the Cromagnons displaced the Neanderthals in Europe.) They spoke a myriad different languages and dialects, having no opportunity and no use for any sort of unity. They wore no clothes and used tiny makeshift huts for shelter. They had few tools beyond a digging stick for finding edible roots and a gig for catching fish. They had no hoards or stockpiles, and did not keep even the most basic supplies from one day to the next. They had little regard for material objects of any sort, were not interested in trade, and while they accepted clothes and other items they were given as presents, they threw them away as soon as Cook and his crew were out of sight.
They were, Cook noted in his journal, entirely inoffensive. But a few actions of Cook’s men did enrage them. They were scandalized by the sight of birds being caught and placed in cages, and demanded their immediate release. Imprisoning anyone, animal or person, was to them taboo. They were even more incensed when they saw Cook’s men catch not just one, but several turtles. Turtles are slow-breeding, and it is easy to wipe out their local population by indiscriminate poaching, which is why they only allowed the turtles to be taken one at a time, and only by a specially designated person who bore responsibility for the turtles’ welfare.
Cook thought them primitive, but he was ignorant of their situation. Knowing what we know, they seem quite advanced. Living on a huge but arid and mostly barren island with few native agriculturally useful plants and no domesticable animals, they understood that their survival was strictly by the grace of the surrounding natural realm. To them, the birds and the turtles were more important than they were, because these animals could survive without them, but they could not survive without these animals.
Speaking of being primitive, here is an example of cultural primitivism writ large. At the Age of Limits conference earlier this year, at one point the discussion turned to the question of why the natural realm is worth preserving even at the cost of human life. (For instance, is it OK to go around shooting poachers in national parks even if it means that their families starve to death?) One fellow, who rather self-importantly reclined in a chaise lounge directly in front of the podium, stated his opinion roughly as follows: “It is worth sacrificing every single animal out there in order to save even a single human life!” It took my breath away. This thought is so primitive that my brain spontaneously shut down every time I tried to formulate a response to it. After struggling with it for a bit, here is what I came up with.
Is it worth destroying the whole car for the sake of saving the steering wheel? What use is a steering wheel without a car? Well, I suppose, if you are particularly daft or juvenile, you can use it to pretend that you still have a car, running around with it and making “vroom-vroom!” noises… Let’s look at this question from an economic perspective, which is skewed by the fact that economists tend view the natural realm in terms of its economic value. This is similar to you looking at your own body in terms of its nutritional content, and whether it would make good eating. Even when viewed from this rather bizarre perspective that treats our one and only living planet as a storehouse of commodities to be plundered, it turns out that most of our economic “wealth” is made possible by “ecosystem services” which are provided free of charge.
These include water clean enough to drink, air clean enough to breathe, a temperature-controlled environment that is neither too cold nor too hot for human survival across much of the planet, forests that purify and humidify the air and moderate surface temperatures, ocean currents that moderate climate extremes making it possible to practice agriculture, oceans (formerly) full of fish, predators that keep pest populations from exploding and so on. If we were forced to provide these same services on a commercial basis, we’d be instantly bankrupt, and then, in short order, extinct. The big problem with us living on other planets is not that it’s physically impossible—though it may be—it’s that there is no way we could afford it. If we take natural wealth into account when looking at economic activity, it turns out that we consistently destroy much more wealth than we create: the economy is mostly a negative-sum game. Next, it turns out that we don’t really understand how these “ecosystem services” are maintained, beyond realizing that it’s all very complicated and highly interconnected in surprising and unexpected ways. Thus, the good fellow at the conference who was willing to sacrifice all other species for the sake of his own could never be quite sure that the species he is willing to sacrifice doesn’t include his own.
In addition, it bears remembering that we are, in fact, sacrificing our species, and have been for centuries, for the sake of something we call “progress.” Aforementioned Captain Cook sailed around the Pacific “discovering” islands that the Polynesians had discovered many centuries earlier, his randy, drunken, greedy sailors spreading venereal disease, alcoholism and corruption, and leaving ruin in their wake wherever they went. After the plague of sailors came the plague of missionaries, who made topless Tahitian women wear “Mother Hubbards” and tried to outlaw fornication. The Tahitians, being a sexually advanced culture, had a few dozen different terms for fornication, relating to a variety of sex acts. Thus the missionaries had a problem: banning any one sex act wouldn’t have made much of a dent, while a ban that enumerated them all would read like the Kama Sutra. Instead the missionaries chose to promote their own brand of sex: the “missionary position,” which is best analyzed as two positions—top and bottom. The bottom position can enhance the experience by taking a cold shower, applying blue lipstick and not breathing. I doubt that it caught on much on Tahiti.
The Tahitians seem to have persevered, but many other tribes and cultures simply perished, or continue to exist in greatly diminished numbers, so depressed by their circumstances that they are not interested in doing much beyond drinking beer, smoking cigarettes and watching television. And which group is doing the best? That’s the one that’s been causing the most damage. Thus, the rhetoric about “saving our species from extinction” seems rather misplaced: we have been doing everything we can to drive it to extinction as efficiently as possible for a few centuries now, and we aren’t about to stop because that would be uncivilized.
Because, you see, that’s who we are: we are educated, literate, civilized persons. The readers of this blog especially are economically and environmentally enlightened types, their progressivism resting on the three pillars of pointing out financial Ponzi schemes, averting environmental devastation and eating delicious, organic, locally grown food. We do wish to survive collapse, provided the survival strategy includes such items as gender equality, multiculturalism, LGBT-friendiness and nonviolence. We do not wish to take off all of our clothes and wander the outback with a digging stick looking for edible tubers. We’d rather sit around discussing green technology over a glass of craft-brewed beer (local, of course) perhaps digressing once in a while to consider the obscure yet erudite opinions of one Pederasmus of Ülm on the endless, glorious ebb and flow of human history.
We don’t want to change who we are in order to live in harmony with nature; we want nature to live in harmony with us while we remain who we are. In the meantime, we are continuing to wage war on the sorry remnants of the tribes that had once lived in balance with nature, offering them “education,” “economic development” and a chance to play a minor role in our ruinous, negative-sum economic games. Given such options, their oft-observed propensity to do nothing and stay drunk seems like a perfectly rational choice. It minimizes the damage. But the damage may already have been done. I will present just two examples of it, but if you don’t like them, there are plenty of others.
For the first, you can do your own research. Buy yourself an airline ticket to a tropical paradise of your choice and check into an oceanside resort. Wake up early in the morning and go look at the beach. You will see lots of dark-skinned people with wheelbarrows, buckets, shovels and rakes scraping up the debris that the surf deposited during the night, to make the beach look clean, safe and presentable for the tourists. Now walk along the beach and beyond the cluster of resorts and hotels, where it isn’t being continuously raked clean. You will find that it is so smothered with debris as to make it nearly impassable. There will be some material of natural origin—driftwood and seaweed—but the majority of the debris will be composed of plastic. If you try to sort through it, you will find that a lot of it is composed of polypropylene and nylon mesh and rope and styrofoam floats from the fishing industry. Another large category will consist of single-use containers: suntan lotion and shampoo bottles, detergent bottles, water bottles, fast food containers and so on. Typhoons and hurricanes have an interesting organizing effect on plastic debris, and you will find piles of motor oil jugs next to piles of plastic utensils next to piles of water bottles, as if someone actually bothered to sort them. On a beach near Tulum in México I once found an entire collection of plastic baby sandals, all of different colors, styles and vintages.
Left on the beach, the plastic trash photo-degrades over time, becoming discolored and brittle, and breaking down into smaller and smaller pieces. The final result of this process is a microscopic plastic scum, which can persist in the environment for centuries. It plays havoc with the ecosystem, because a wide variety of animals mistake the plastic particles for food and swallow them. They then clog their digestive tracts, causing them to starve. This devastation will persist for many centuries, but it has started already: the ocean is dying. Over large areas of it, plastic particles outnumber plankton, which forms the basis of the oceanic food chain.
The ravages of the plastics plague also affect land. Scraped together by sanitation crews, plastic debris is usually burned, because recycling it would be far too expensive. Plastic can be incinerated relatively safely and cleanly, but this requires extremely high temperatures, and can only be done at specialized facilities. Power plants can burn plastic as fuel, but plastic trash is a diffuse energy source, takes up a lot of space and the energy and labor costs of transporting it to power plants may render it energy-negative. And so a lot of plastic trash is burned in open pits, at low temperatures, releasing into the atmosphere a wide assortment of toxic chemicals, including ones that affect the hormonal systems of animals. Effects include genital abnormalities, sterility and obesity. Obesity has now reached epidemic proportions in many parts of the world, affecting not just the humans but other species as well. Here, then, is our future: chemical plants continue to churn out synthetic materials, most of these find their way into the environment and slowly break down, releasing their payload of toxins. As this happens, people and animals alike turn into obese, sexless blobs. First they find that they are unable to give birth to fertile male offspring. This is already happening: human sperm counts are dropping throughout the developed world. Next, they will be unable to give birth to normal male babies—ones without genital abnormalities. Next, they will be unable to produce male offspring at all, as has already happened to a number of marine species. Then they go extinct.
Note that no disaster or accident is required in order for this scenario to unfold, just more business as usual. Every time you buy a bottle of shampoo or a bottle of water, or a sandwich that comes wrapped in plastic or sealed in a vinyl box, you help it unfold a little bit further. All it takes is for the petrochemical industry (which provides the feedstocks—oil and natural gas, mostly) and the chemical plants that process them into plastics, to continue functioning normally. We don’t know whether the amount of plastics, and associated toxins, now present in the environment, is already sufficient to bring about our eventual extinction.
But we certainly don’t want to give up on synthetic chemistry and go back to a pre-1950s materials science, because that, you see, would be bad for business. Now, you probably don’t want to go extinct, but if you decided that you will anyway, you would probably want to remain comfortable and civilized down to the very end. And life without modern synthetics would be uncomfortable. We want those plastic-lined diapers, for the young and the old!
This leaves those of us who are survival-minded, on an abstract, impersonal level, wishing for the global financial, commercial and political collapse to occur sooner rather than later. Our best case scenario would go something like this: a massive loss of confidence and panic in the financial markets grips the planet over the course of a single day, pancaking all the debt pyramids and halting credit creation. Commerce stops abruptly because cargos cannot be financed. In a matter of weeks, global supply chains break down. In a matter of months, commercial activity grinds to a halt and tax revenues dwindle to zero, rendering governments everywhere irrelevant. In a matter of years, the remaining few survivors become as Captain Cook saw the aboriginal Australians: almost entirely inoffensive.
One of the first victims of collapse would be the energy companies, which are among some of the most capital-intensive enterprises. Next in line are the chemical companies that manufacture plastics and other synthetic organic chemicals and materials: as their petrochemical feedstocks become unavailable, they are forced to halt production. If we are lucky, the amount of plastic that is in the environment already turns out to be insufficient to drive us all to extinction. Human population can dwindle to as few as a dozen breeding females (the number that survived one of the ice ages, as suggested by the analysis of mitochondrial DNA) but in a dozen or so millennia the climate will probably stabilize, the Earth’s ecology recover, and with it will the human population. We may never again achieve a complex technological civilization, but at least we’ll be able to sing and dance, have children and, if we are lucky, even grow old in peace.
So far so good, but our next example makes the desirability of a swift and thorough collapse questionable. Prime exhibit is the melted-down nuclear power plant in Fukushima, Japan. Contrary to what the Japanese government would want everyone to believe, the situation there is not under any kind of control. Nobody knows what happened to the nuclear fuel from the reactors that melted down. Did they go to China, à la China Syndrome? Then there is the spent nuclear fuel pool, which is full, and leaking. If the water in that pool boils away, the fuel rods burst into flames and melt down and/or explode and then, according to some nuclear experts, it would be time to evacuate the entire northern hemisphere. The site at Fukushima is so radioactive that workers cannot go anywhere near it for any length of time, making it rather fanciful to think that they’ll be able to get the situation there under control, now or ever. But we can be sure that eventually the already badly damaged building housing the spent nuclear fuel will topple, spilling its load and initiating phase two of the disaster. After that there will be no point in anyone going to Fukushima, except to die of radiation sickness.
You might think that Fukushima is an especially bad case, but plants just like Fukushima dot the landscape throughout much of the developed world. Typically, they are built near a source of water, which they use as coolant and to run the steam turbines. Many of the ones built on rivers run the risk of the rivers drying up. Many of the ones built on the ocean are at risk of inundation from rising ocean levels, storm surges and tsunamis. Typically, they have spent fuel pools that are full of hot nuclear waste, because nobody has figured out a way to dispose of it. All of them have to be supplied with energy for many decades, or they all melt just like Fukushima. If enough of them melt and blow up, then it’s curtains for animals such as ourselves, because most of us will die of cancer before reaching sexual maturity, and the ones that do will be unable to produce healthy offspring.
I once flew through the airport in Minsk, where I crossed paths with a large group of “Chernobyl children” who were on their way to Germany for medical treatment. I took a good look at them, and that picture has stayed with me forever. What shocked me was the sheer variety of developmental abnormalities that were on display.
It seems like letting global industrial civilization collapse and all the nuclear power plants cook off is not such a good option, because it will seal our fate. But the alternative is to “extend and pretend” and “kick the can down the road” while resorting to a variety of environmentally destructive, increasingly desperate means to keep industry running: hydraulic fracturing, mining tar sands, drilling in the Arctic and so on. And this isn’t such a good option either because it will seal our fate in other ways.
And so it seems that there may not be a happy end to my story of The Five Stages of Collapse, the first three of which (financial, commercial, political) are inevitable, while the last two (social, cultural) are entirely optional but have, alas, already run their course in many parts of the world. Because, you see, there is also the sixth stage which I have previously neglected to mention—environmental collapse—at the end of which we are left without a home, having rendered Earth (our home planet) uninhabitable.
This tragic outcome may not be unavoidable. And if it is not unavoidable, then that’s about the only problem left that’s worth solving. The solution can be almost arbitrarily expensive in both life and treasure. I would humbly suggest that it’s worth all the money in the world, plus a few billion lives, because if a solution isn’t found, then that treasure and those lives are forfeit anyway.

A solution for avoiding the sixth stage must be found, but I don’t know what that solution would look like. I do find it unsafe to blithely assume that collapse will simply take care of the problem for us. Some people may find this subject matter so depressing that it makes them want to lie down (in a comfortable position, on something warm and soft) and die. But there may be others, who still have some fight left in them, and who do wish to leave a survivable planet to their children and grandchildren. Let’s not expect them to use conventional, orthodox methods, to work and play well with others, or to be polite and reasonable in dealing with the rest of us. Let’s just hope that they have a plan, and that they get on with it.

Irreconcilable Differences: Capitalism And A Sustainable Planet

In Uncategorized on October 19, 2013 at 6:42 pm

https://i2.wp.com/cdn7.triplepundit.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/CapitalismVsEarth-208x300.pngOldspeak:No amount of fiddling with capitalism to regulate and humanize it … can for long disguise its failure to conserve the wealth and health of nature. Eroded, wasted, or degraded soils; damaged or destroyed ecosystems; extinction of biodiversity, species; whole landscapes defaced, gouged, flooded, or blown up … thoughtless squandering of fossil fuels and fossil waters, of mineable minerals and ores, natural health and beauty replaced by a heartless and sickening ugliness. Perhaps its greatest success is an astounding increase in the destructiveness and therefore the profitability of war.” -Wendell Berry

“Market-based Capitalism is unsustainable. it is no longer possible for unfettered unregulated all-consuming capitalism to continue. The fate of our home is more surely sealed every day it does. There is no capital on a dead planet. Environmental conservation trumps market conservation. We need environment based systems.  Systems built on conservation, localization, synchronicity, regeneration, sustainability, abundance, transparency, equality, democracy, & anarcho-syndicalism.” –OSJ

By Gary Olson @ Dissident Voice:

People who own the world outright for profit will have to be stopped; by influence, by power, by us.

— Wendell Berry1

The need for more studies confirming that we’re approaching an irreversible ecological crisis, the tipping point beyond human control, is over. James Hansen, the world’s most eminent climatologist is so certain of this evidence that he’s added civil disobedience to his resistance repertoire. Along with legal challenges, expert testimony and lobbying governments, the 72-year-old grandfather advocates direct action by a mobilized citizenry. He’s been arrested several times, most recently in protests again the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline.

This project would transport raw, toxic tar sands (bitumen) from Alberta, Canada to refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast. In addition to destroying northern forests and endangering our drinking water, Keystone XL will emit a staggering amount of global warming pollution into the environment. Just a few weeks ago, Hansen and some former NASA colleagues wrote that “Burning all fossil fuels, we conclude, would make most of the planet uninhabitable by humans … and would leave just a fraction of humanity clinging to life atop Earth’s highest ridges.”

That the corporate carbon industrial complex remains obdurate in the face of all evidence isn’t surprising but it does reveal the inadequacy of piece meal reform. Simply stated, market based responses won’t save us because there is an irreconcilable conflict between capitalist economic growth ad infinitum and the survival of the planet as we know it. Even the looming prospect of ecocide won’t keep fossil fuels in the ground, resources worth trillions to oil and gas corporations.

As labor rights activist Shamus Cooke puts it, those capitalists who fail to obtain a return on their investments (growth) lose money. This relentless imperative, “this holy shrine of growth cannot be surgically removed from the capitalist body; the body itself was born ill.” And because renewable energy isn’t as profitable as oil,” a majority of capitalist investment will continue to go towards destroying the planet.” Recently, when asked about opposition to the XL Pipeline, ExxonMobil’s CEO Rex Tillerson candidly replied, “My philosophy is to make money.”

As if to reinforce this point, profiting from global warming is the next big thing. I’m reminded of Bob Mankoff’s 2002 cartoon in The New Yorker where a corporate executive declares to an audience of peers, “And so, while the-end-of-the-world scenario will be rife with unimaginable horrors, we believe the pre-end period will be filled with unprecedented opportunities for profits.” Mankoff’s clever prescience is perversely confirmed by a recent Bloomberg headline: “Investors Embrace Climate Change, Chase Hotter Profits.” Because Wall Street now assumes that climate change is “inevitable,” the only remaining question is how to profit from it?

This goes far beyond selling more potent sun screens, inflatable rafts and anti-pollution breathing masks. Billions of dollars are being invested in Australian farmland (far from the ocean) and hedge funds trading in something called “weather derivatives.” Investments are flowing into the mining of copper and gold in Greenland where glacier-free land has suddenly become accessible. Arctic tourism, gas exploration and new shipping lanes through melting polar regions are all climate change, money-making ventures. In anticipation of major droughts, Bayer, Monsanto and BASF have filed some 55 patents for “climate ready” seeds. Green technology is already passé as investors scramble for their final piece of a planet in dire jeopardy.

Working for reforms is not unimportant but capitalism cannot prevent the ruination of the biosphere. My sense is that climate activists who fail to acknowledge this basic truth — we might term them “capitalism deniers” — have no chance of reversing our slide toward the ecological apocalypse.

For myself, as a grandfather of two little guys and nearing my retirement from full-time teaching, the prospect of of engaging in civil disobedience, being a serial arrestee on behalf of the environment is appealing for the next stage of my life. I like to imagine Jackson and Zinn’s parents having a true story to tell the boys when they plead: “Tell us again about how Grandpa tried to stop the bad guys who didn’t care about all the animals, plants and people on earth.”

  1. Writer and Farmer Wendell Berry on Hope, Direct Action, and the ‘Resettling’ of the American Countryside,” Yes! []

Gary Olson is professor and chair of the political science department at Moravian College in Bethlehem, PA. He is the author of Empathy Imperiled: Capitalism, Culture, and the Brain (New York: Springer-Verlag, 2013). He can be reached at: olson@moravian.edu. Read other articles by Gary.