Capitalism is the Climate Crisis; Our Hope is Each Other

Puerto Rico after Hurricane

Capitalism is the Climate Crisis; Our Hope is Each Other

By Patrick O’Donoghue of the M1 Minnesota Collective


The results are in: The planet is getting strangled and we’re running out of time.

The latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a normally conservative and cautious body, warns that on our current trajectory the world is set to warm by a global average of 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 Fahrenheit) by 2040, and that carbon emissions need to be cut in half by 2030 and go carbon neutral by 2050 if we want to avoid worse warming. Even with these changes, we are staring down the barrel of climate chaos– sea level rise, droughts, and severe weather are set to disrupt agriculture and the economy on a global scale, forcing the immense displacement of people and bringing with it conflict over resources and borders. These effects of warming are already hitting us, and are only set to get worse without a thorough restructuring not just of our energy system, but of our economy.  

From where we stand now, this seems almost impossible, after decades of inaction by politicians, financed by fossil fuel companies that knew full well the truth about climate change years before it became public knowledge. The 2015 Paris Climate Accords saw the world’s powers agree to reduce emissions enough to limit the warming to 2 degrees Celsius, none of the signatories of that treaty are currently on track to reduce their emissions to the agreed levels. Carbon in the atmosphere is over 400 parts per million, up from 280 parts per million at the dawn of the industrial revolution, and well over the 350 parts per million that NASA climatologist James Hansen has described as the safe upper operating limit for the climate.

The report confirms once more what we’ve known for decades– that our current relationship with the planet we live on is unsustainable, and that without an immense restructuring of society, we will see the unraveling and degradation of the ecosystems that sustain our life. We should be dead clear here that this is a political, economic issue, and not simply “humanity” or “civilization”. It’s capitalism.


Capitalism is Roasting Us

With the crashing of our global ecosystems on the horizon, it’s easy to bemoan our fate as brought about by the flaws and foolishness of human nature, as Nathaniel Rich did in his otherwise informative piece in the New York Times tracking the failure of governments to respond to climate change in the 1980s when the scientific community raised the alarms. But humanity as a whole isn’t to blame. Humanity has lived on the Earth for around 200,000 years, and only developed industrial capitalism and the ability to destroy our environment on a global scale in the last 200. Even today, most of humanity is barely contributing to climate change. While the growing population of the former colonized world makes a convenient scapegoat for British princes and eco-fascists, the carbon emissions per capita of those countries are well below those of the former colonizing countries– and within the “first world”, these emissions do not come from working people’s individual consumption. Since 1988, 71% of global carbon emissions came from 100 companies. Yes, those companies are feeding the consumer demand for energy. But, the choices that matter here are less that of working people to consume energy, and more the production choices of those companies– because the technology exists to meet that demand in a sustainable, low-to-no-carbon way.

Yes- we currently have the technology to have a totally renewable energy sector, just as we have the technology to feed, house, and clothe everyone and have a universal, dignified standard of living.We could end poverty and enjoy a sustainable, equitable prosperity across the whole world if we put our resources where they matter most. We just don’t do this, because the capitalist economic system and its internal economic logic don’t select for that world.

Under capitalism, it’s been more profitable to use fossil fuels than to develop and use renewable energies. One of the reasons for this is “externalized costs” in market systems. What this means, is that when a private company, say, fracks gas, it only pays for some of the immediate costs, like the fracking equipment and wages for the workers. It doesn’t pay for the environmental costs– the amount it would take to care for the people and ecosystems made sick by the side effects of fracking. Capitalism and the market are rife with un-internalized costs pretty much everywhere (along with other market failures), which is one of several reasons why price signals are actually very inefficient ways of coordinating production. In fact, if environmental ‘externalities’ were accounted for, none of the world’s leading industries would be profitable— the vast majority of the economy focuses on “cheaper” but environmentally ruinous methods of production.

Crude methods exist for internalizing costs, such as a carbon tax, or a cap and trade system that creates a scarce and tradable permit for emissions. These are rarely implemented, rarely given the teeth they’d need- the European carbon emissions market routinely has far too many permits, allowing polluting to be cheap, and the carbon offset market, which is “supposed” to reduce the need for first-world emissions reductions by paying for forest preservation in the global south, frequently creates empty carbon credits, often at the expense of displacing indigenous people. Even if externalities  did, this would be ghoulish economics- levying carbon taxes or using the profits from emissions trading to pay for the resettling of climate refugees and fracking taxes to pay for cancer treatment. Or, more likely, collecting the revenue from pricing the pollution, and spending it on unrelated projects, leaving the community to suffer. Even internalized environmental costs still wouldn’t make capitalism sustainable.

Capitalism as a system demands endless growth. The basis of capitalism is investment and a return on investment, after the materials initially invested in are made more valuable by the collective labor of the workforce hired. Without this return, investments dries up, people get laid off, the economy crashes… and then the engine starts up again, pushing against any boundaries or barriers in order to find new places to invest. We have a planet with finite resources, and while not all growth is equally resource-intense, infinite growth on a finite planet is just impossible.

Under capitalism, we have an energy system that selects for dirty energy because the companies don’t have to pay the full environmental cost of their production. This energy system feeds an economy that focuses most of its growth on inventing and then ‘fulfilling’ new market demands for already affluent consumers while ignoring the needs of the vast majority of humanity. To ensure the supply of fossil fuels, energy companies lay waste to areas that become “sacrifice zones” to the broader economy. The industry disproportionately targets poorer, more marginalized and indigenous communities who don’t have the political power to resist, and whose more militant resistance can be put down with state force to “protect the property” of the fossil fuel companies. This sacrifice zone dynamic still continues under “green” capitalism to grab rare earth metals for renewable energy and to displace people for carbon offsets.

The long and short of it is, capitalism can’t be green. This system has to fall if we are going to live.


An Ecological Anarchism

This isn’t to say that a socialist economy would necessarily be green, by simple virtue of abolishing the market. Smokestacks don’t start emitting harmless mist just because you hang a red flag from them. A worker-run, socialized economy isn’t inherently going to create a sustainable system– but it could be *capable* of it, whereas capitalism is structural and inherently incapable, and in fact is structurally doomed to drive ecological devastation.

We have the legacy of the Soviet Union and China to show us the potential of centrally planned industrial economies to abuse and consume both land and people, before reverting back to ecocidal capitalism. While the early USSR instituted protections for the environment after the revolution, these were cast aside in the drive to develop and compete with western capitalist enemies. The USSR operated in many regards like a single great capitalist enterprise, with the state setting production goals and directing industry with little input from those impacted, to maximize production for the global market and internal development. This much-debated devolution into state capitalism that has been covered extensively elsewhere. The drive to imitate capitalist industry in the Soviet Union led to such abuses as the draining of the Aral Sea, the “Nuclear Explosions for the National Economy” program, and the development of an oil-dependent extractive economy which, under stress from low oil prices, contributed to the fall of the USSR and the rise of the modern Russian petro state. There is likewise little to praise about the ecology of “actual existing socialism” in China, where per capita carbon emissions surpassed the EU’s in 2014, largely driven by the increasingly privatized coal mines and power plants providing energy for the export-focused manufacturing sector.

Cuba, at least, has managed to be one of the world’s few countries that maintains both a low ecological footprint and a high human development index, rough benchmarks for a sustainable economy. This is largely because Cuba has focused heavily on meeting basic human needs such as universal housing, and passed substantial environmental protections during the 1990s, when the state was forced by the collapse of the Soviet Union to switch from mechanized cash crop production to labor-intensive production of food. But as the country liberalizes, it remains to be seen if the Cuban government will sacrifice its environmental wealth for foreign investment. The Cuban economy during the Cold War functioned as part of the Soviet Union’s trade system. Now, with the “Second World” gone, Cuba is re-integrating into the capitalist dominated trade system of today, and will face the pressures of that global system to surrender its ecological web to the development of capital.

An ecological economy needs to be based in meeting people’s needs rather than on endless growth. It needs to account for the whole costs of our production decisions, rather than relying on incoherent price signals. Local communities have the power to deny consent to being made into sacrifice zones, and to push the rest of the society to find better solutions, such like finding substitutes for rare earth metals in renewable energy technologies. At the same time, such a society can’t exist in isolation, or it will be forced to compete with, integrate into, and ultimately suffer global ecological devastation alongside the unsustainable capitalist global economy. Neither capitalism or existing state socialism can satisfy these needs.

The economic argument of the “tragedy of the commons” tries to explain environmental degradation by imagining a commonly held pasture, where each farmer has the incentive to graze their own cattle unsustainably, eventually destroying the commons. The only solution, the story goes, is to privatize the commons, or regulate them through the state. The fable is a cornerstone of economics education around environmental issues. It is also a myth– it was invented by William Forster Lloyd in the 1830s to justify the privatization of commonly held lands, and revived in 1968 by Garret Hardin as a justification for capitalism, Malthusian population control, and attacks on the welfare state.

It presents a false choice– hand control over to a capitalist or to a state– that is really not a choice at all, as in fact the capitalists take control of the commons with the aid of the state, and the state when it is control of the commons generally acts as a capitalist. The reality, as economists like Elinor Ostrom have shown, is that commonly held resources around the world are most carefully stewarded when they are kept under the control of the community.

The anarchist vision of worker control over production, community control over the commons, and federative, non-hierarchical communities offers us a model for a sustainable economy. In the model envisioned by anarchists, production needs are communicated to worker’s collectives, councils, or communes by the broader community. Production is carried out with the input of people affected- the workers, nearby residents, and those who need the finished products. This model, of worker and community control, has yet to be adopted on a mass scale– it exists only in fragments, in communes and cooperatives, in the ambitions of revolutionary worker’s movements, in the models of anarchist and radical writers from Bakunin to Hahnel, in the revolutionary worker’s councils of Spain in the 1930s, and in partial form in the revolutionary cantons of Rojava today. The building of an economy where working people have control over our work, and how it affects our planet, will require confrontation with capital, the state, and reactionaries, and mutual support of revolutionary projects across the globe.

Our survival lies in massively organized resistance to capitalism, the state, and reaction. It lies in defense of the commons and each other, and struggle to take hold of the means of production and pull this planet out of the climate tailspin. The climate crisis calls not for an abandoning of the project of building mass, revolutionary working class movements and institution of dual power against the state, but a deepening of the urgency and importance of that project.

About the Author: Patrick O’Donoghue is a maritime worker, musician, and member of the First of May Anarchist Alliance. His education is in environmental science and policy.