Capital and Climate. The Elephant in the Room


Most public discussion of climate change and environmental issues takes place in an antiseptic, power-free realm of well-intentioned, pragmatic politicians, international conferences, emissions targets and technologies. In this realm, as in that of the dominating realm of ‘the economy’ and its abstract cosmos of statistics, nobody seems to have any vital material or systemic interests to defend. These interests have been ‘disappeared’, as it were, behind a complicated, shifting veil of conferences, personalities, reports, sound bites and ‘facts and stats’.

This is not a matter of simplistic conspiracies. This abstract pseudo-realm (often equated with ‘realism’) is of course a total creation of the corporate media operating within its inherent structural constraints. Here, under the economic pressures of the media themselves, every day a new headline displaces the one yesterday that is already forgotten anyway. Telegenic images, rapidly obsolescent ‘stories’ and fragments of painstakingly crafted PR-nonsense known as ‘sound bites’ (and now ‘tweets’) rule. Any possibility of developing some sense of connections, of the whole – also known as ‘meaning’ – is thus as effectively amputated as are speaking and thinking in complex sentences. (According to David Orr in Conservation Biology August 1999, the working vocabulary of an average American fourteen year-old in 1950 was 25,000 words; in 1999 it was 10,000 words.)

Similarly, any sense of historical context is completely missing. There is almost no continuity of discourse and it is as if history itself is supposed to have stopped. The media have to a large extent realised capital’s dream, as expressed by some of its representatives like Henry Ford: ‘History is bunk.’ Like some enlightened being or god in some celestial paradise, the news media and its distracted consumers live in an eternal now of stories and entertainment. Scandal, amusement, a politician’s crafted sound bite or staged ‘event’, blood and violence, outrage for two seconds, then an ad. The spectacle, Capital become an image (Guy Debord), rules supreme.

Meanwhile, and that is probably the point of all this, it is business-as-usual for business and politics as we all speed merrily towards the abyss of climate chaos and the collapse of civilisation as we know it. We are truly ‘amusing ourselves to death’ (Neil Postman) within a medial and political flatland without memory and continuity, without context and depth. A generalised amnesia reigns. As information proliferates and overwhelms, knowledge and understanding seem to diminish in many areas. Without any guiding framework within which to place and relate single items of information, the world and society are portrayed and felt as chaotic, complex, noisy, fragmented, meaningless. Uncritical, affirmative forms of intellectual ‘post-modernism’ cater to this mindset of Capital and its spectacle. Thus nobody rules, power has been magically ‘de-centred’, and there’s nothing to be done. Everything is too ‘complex’. Intervention and change are pointless. It is clear whom this view benefits.

There is an alternative viewpoint. Although not taught in schools or influencing the ephemeral ‘stories’ of the mass media, broad socio-historical change and evolution can be most coherently interpreted, I would argue, using the sociological framework of historical materialism. Cutting through much ideological rationalisation and obfuscation, this perspective has the advantage of centring on observable (albeit interpretable) material conflicts of interest between major social groups or classes. These conflicts are mainly over access to resources and, thus, wealth and power. Today such a perspective risks courting the charge of heresy when one asserts that, despite appearances and propaganda machines assiduously maintained to suggest the contrary, social evolution and class struggle over access to resources did NOT magically stop in 1945. The post-war welfare-warfare state and the affluent consumerism of late capitalism are not the conflict-free ‘end of history’ (a metaphysical ploy that the masters’ pet ideologues from Hegel to Fukuyama have of course always tried to assert).

Within this framework it could be argued that the global climate and biosphere crisis that now endangers civilisation itself can also be best understood as, ultimately, a reflection – both an effect and co-determining cause – of the inherent, structural need for capital to grow (i.e. capitalists and their bureaucrats to make profits and accumulate money) and the corresponding social struggle around resource access and power. The climate and environmental crisis is at root a social crisis, a crisis about economic power and wealth distribution.

The usual environmentalist paradigm does not see it that way. It will often say: but what about overpopulation? What about fossil fuel dependency? What about over-development and over-consumption? What about growth of GDP? What about the proverbial lack of ‘political will’? All are undoubtedly very important factors in the general historical crisis we face. All have major social and ecological effects.

However, all can also be understood as linked strands in a complex web that has been, for the last five hundred years or so, driven mainly by capital accumulation (which has determined the nature of technological change and settlement patterns) and social conflict over resource access and decision-making power. Population explosions in these centuries at least have often been linked to early stages of economic growth and urbanisation in modernising societies. Fossil fuels enabled industrial forms of capital accumulation, urbanisation and imperialism. Economic growth and consumerism are also ways of temporarily lessening both the systemic pressures of unplanned overproduction as well as social conflict over more equal distribution of power and resources. Political will is lacking because the democratic political system itself is almost wholly subservient to the dictates of the economic system and its powerful ruling oligarchies.

Thus the main reason this social power framework cannot be accepted by ruling elites and their media is that it questions the very basis of their economic and political system and their power. In contrast to the beliefs of most environmentalists, this total crisis cannot be really solved within the same logic of the system that caused it, within capitalism.

One succinct way of elucidating this heretical thought is by using capital’s own language of ‘costs’. Even cursory thinking about this crisis soon leads one to the notion that the climate and environmental crisis can be seen as capitalism’s inherent ‘externalisation of social costs’ now writ large on a global level. Capital can ‘externalise’ or socialise costs because, aided by its corporate state and media, it has the power to do so. This ‘externalisation’ in fact constitutes the essence of its very power and structure. Nature and we are its ‘dump’, its ‘outside’, its ‘externality’. (Note that the economy is here not seen as embedded in nature/society but as a separate sphere that has nature/humanity as its ‘environment’. Mainstream economics expresses the social truth of alienation and the reign of things in an affirmative, ideological way, the tail is seen as rightfully wagging the dog.)

To reverse this process, to completely ‘internalise’ all these gigantic social and ecological costs, i.e. to have the power to force capital to monetarily, morally and politically pay not only for pollution but for all its horrific costs past and present, would of course mean a collapse of the system, some form of revolution.

After the first waves of ecological resistance in the 1960s/70s and late 80s/early 90s, we are currently within a third wave of popular concern and struggle around energy and ecological issues. I would argue that if the ruling elites, now with the blind help of socially naïve environmentalism, are again allowed to maintain their vested interests against the common interest of a healthy biosphere and functioning democratic civilisation, the next wave (if there still is one) may have to take place in sharply deteriorated conditions of global barbarism and general environmental collapse.

If this is a plausible reading of our current historical context, it is thus necessary to raise the too seldom articulated question of responsibility, culpability, guilt and criminal justice. Some would argue that to ‘blame’ anyone or to focus on ‘them’, the powerful and wealthy decision-makers, merely serves to deflect attention from one’s own middle class culpability; that things are infinitely complex, that there is no more ‘them and us’ and that we are all culpable.

I would of course agree that the issues are complex and that all who live in affluent societies share varying levels of culpability with regard to ecologically unsustainable rates of resource consumption. However, I would argue that it is ethically and intellectually dishonest and obfuscating to thus make no more ethical distinctions between the masses of powerless consumers, workers and decision-takers on the one hand and the powerful and wealthy decision-makers of capitalist business-as-usual on the other. The neo-liberal ideology of ‘choice’ is a nefarious one when used in this way.

For a start, the impoverished are locked out of most ‘choices’ provided by the market. In terms of direct ecological impact, it is an obvious truism that poor people in both poor and affluent societies have almost none when compared to the jet-setting middle classes and the global elites of economic and political decision makers. Many of us, however, may be able to choose between holidaying nearby or jetting to Bali or Phuket; it is equally obvious that we cannot choose between building more rail services and bike facilities or more airports, cars, freeways, coal and nuclear power stations and military weapons. We can change our light bulbs and some of our eating habits but we can’t change the economic decision-making structures that lead to the production of ever more obscene luxuries, planned obsolescence and energy-intensive junk in an energy-constrained, impoverished and hungry world.

Can the ruling elites not plead ignorance? Did they perhaps not know about fossil fuel use, global heating and climate change? Just like the tobacco executives knew about tobacco and the asbestos executives knew about asbestos, they knew. They knew for over forty years. However, they could see that climate change and its threat to the continuance of fossil fuel use and economic growth potentially threatened both their short-term profits and their whole economic system. They fought for their own material interests, rates of profit, positions of power and for the stability of the capitalist system as a whole. They invested millions in hiring their PR consultants, lobbyists, think tanks and spin doctors. They distracted from, denied, obfuscated, delayed and then coopted the taking of any real measures to combat global heating in commodifying, privatising, loopholed, unverifiable, ineffective and unjust emissions trading schemes.

An early and effective global response to the catastrophe of potential climate chaos (e.g. by the rapid phasing out of fossil fuels) was thus prevented. If decisive action had been taken forty years ago, the world could have almost certainly avoided climate catastrophe. Given looming tipping points (melting permafrost, marine acidification, polar melting etc), this is now becoming ever more unlikely unless a considerable minority of the world’s people can massively organise themselves in time to change the economic and political system that has led to this planetary crisis.

In 2008-09 the ruling elites, using trillions of taxpayer dollars and without any significant resistance, bailed out the banks and financial speculators who caused a global near-depression. They did not bail out the biosphere. Nor did they even promise to do so at the UN Copenhagen Conference on climate change in December 2009. This public money given to the banks has transferred private, speculative and toxic debt to public debt, with grave downstream public spending and saving ramifications. It is now also lost for implementing the desperately needed and difficult transition to low-carbon infrastructure and settlement patterns.

Carbon Trade Watch researcher Oscar Reyes summarises the political consequences:

But policy changes alone will not be enough.  Above all, we need to get organized politically. To roll back the advance of the nouveau-green chief executives there are no short cuts, because the struggle against climate change is part of a much larger fight: for a more just, democratic and equal world.


~ by Peter Lach-Newinsky on January 15, 2010.

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