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Destroying Our Planet... Sustainably

Destroying Our Planet... Sustainably

As this article goes to press (December 2019), the bush fires that have been raging for weeks through six Australian states, from Queensland to Western Australia, have consumed 12.5 million acres of land and the death toll is mounting. They continue to wreak disaster as record-breaking temperatures average over 400C.

Australia's Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, was eventually persuaded to cut his holiday in Hawaii short and return to show some interest in managing the domestic crisis. Like President Trump, Morrison denies the basic fact that man-made climate change is for real. He prefers to support the lucrative export of Australia's coal-mining industry, one of the factors in his election victory last year.

As for Trump, the recent report by the UN Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) is unlikely to persuade him to bring the US back into the Paris agreement fold. And so other 'climate laggards' are encouraged to make light of measures needed to get anywhere near to reducing global warming. Admitting that their “findings are bleak” — the IPCC are making a staggering understatement, as can be seen from even a cursory reading of the report.1 A movement to combat this is on the rise, but it offers all the wrong solutions — primarily because it is trying to solve the problem within the boundaries of the capitalist system.

The Burning Issue

The IPCC gap report of November 2019 notes that countries have collectively failed to stop the growth of Green House Gas (GHG) emissions and that in 2018 emissions were at a new record level. At the end of 2018, the world reached the position the IPCC predicted it would reach at the end of 2020 if no action whatsoever was taken! This means the previously assumed rate of emissions has increased. The so-called emissions gap between what was promised at the Paris climate conference and what has been achieved is larger than ever before. The reduction pledges of the Paris conference (2015) need to be tripled to reach even the limited goal of a 20C rise in temperature by the end of the century, while the present level of reductions will lead to a temperature rise of 3.70 C. The link between growth rates and carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, which is something the capitalist class has for years tried to deny, is stated as a matter of fact in the executive summary of the report. GDP growth which in 2018 was 4.5% in non-OECD countries and 2% in OECD countries is now listed as a key driver of emissions. In other words, the capitalist system’s insatiable drive for growth is the key driver of climate disaster.

A commentary article in the scientific journal Nature2 points out that, whereas two decades ago the IPCC thought only a rise of 50C would trigger a tipping point, two recent IPCC reports, from 2018 and 2019, indicate we could face a cascade of tipping points, which could be triggered by a much lower temperature rise of only between 1 and 20C. Several tipping points appear alarmingly close. Both Arctic and Antarctic ice sheets and the Greenland iced sheet are now considered as having passed the point or as being close to the point where melting becomes irreversible. A number of biosphere tipping points are also being approached. Those listed are: the reduction of the Amazon rainforest, the Boreal forests in the northern hemisphere, the bleaching of coral reefs, the thawing of the permafrost areas, and the Atlantic current circulation. One process affects the next. Melting ice leads to more heat being absorbed in the Polar Regions, the warming of these regions leads to thawing of the permafrost which releases methane, a GHG 30 times more powerful than the carbon dioxide, stored in the soil and under the sea. Heating causes forest fires and the collapse of the rainforests turns them from carbon sinks into carbon dioxide generators, warming and acidification of the seas destroys corals — all this contributing to further warming and extinction of species as well as erratic weather patterns. A cascade of local tipping points could be leading to a spiral of global heating.

The present rate of release of GHGs is an order of magnitude faster than anything in the geological record which means that radiative forcing, which is the process by which heat is captured by the earth’s atmosphere, is also greater by an order of magnitude.

Concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere are already at levels last encountered in the Pliocene period four million years ago; a very dry period when the forests disappeared over much of the world and our ancestors had to abandon life in the trees. The authors note, however, that concentrations of CO2 are heading to levels last seen 50 million years ago when the temperature was 140C above pre-industrial levels. The authors argue that the existing climate models used to predict future trends are inadequate and we may already have lost control over whether tipping happens.

In this context the miserable failure of the latest UN climate talks (COP25), held at the last minute in November in Madrid, is symptomatic of the deeper impotence of the world powers to come up with effective action. As it is, the Madrid meeting could not even reach an agreement on the central task the organisers had given themselves: drawing up rules for a new version of the long-discredited carbon trading system whereby each country is allowed a nominal level of emissions and those who overstep the mark can ‘offset’ their surplus by buying credits from countries whose emissions are lower than they are officially allocated. Get it? However this is dressed up — and the haggling in Madrid was mainly over demands from the likes of China, India and Brazil to hold on to credits they had acquired before they became major polluters — carbon trading is just a financial capitalist smokescreen for business largely carrying on as usual.

Given the failure of the global political ‘community’ to do anything about the mounting number of ‘extreme’ climate-triggered disasters, we have seen an intensification of climate change related protests all around the world.

Protesting our Impotence

Over the past two years protests against global warming have been making the headlines, partly thanks to Greta Thunberg’s call for young people to pressure their governments so that they would finally start doing something. As encouraging as it is to see global warming and other environmental issues finally being brought more and more to the forefront of the agenda, this ‘climate movement’ brings with itself a plethora of issues — not least in the fact that it largely revolves around just that: pressuring governments to bring about (often quite piecemeal) changes that go directly against their interests as the ruling class. Some of the ‘climate strikes’, which are in fact just demonstrations3, are even followed by group sessions of writing to your MPs.

At first it would seem as though the most radical elements of this diverse climate movement can be found within Extinction Rebellion (XR). Despite its recurring religious theme, spokespeople for XR are not averse to holding ‘capitalism’ and ‘the elite’ to account for ‘destroying the climate’ and in turn bringing ‘mass starvation’ and ‘social collapse’. Mercifully “the capitalist system is going to be brought down by itself”, thus posing the “need for fundamental change in the structure of the economy”.4 This reveals their fear of capitalism collapsing into a new global dark age. Otherwise XR's religious “longings ... to be in unity with each other and with the life-source, call it the divine, call it the still small voice”5, has no affinity with the ONLY way to bring about a superior social alternative to capitalism: a political movement of the world's exploited with a clear revolutionary programme which points the way towards a global, borderless community producing directly for social needs, not capitalist profit. What XR is actually doing, despite its claims to the contrary, is channelling people’s fear of climate disaster into a campaign to reform capitalism. It makes demands for reform on the state and cooperates with the police, while its leaders stand in elections.6

Furthermore, XR has plenty of its own organisational and fundamental problems. There is a degree of unpleasant irony to be found in more privileged protest organisers urging everyone to put themselves at risk of being targeted by the police, even going as far as writing and publishing a thirteen page guide on how to deal with imprisonment!7 A short stay in a cell (assuming things would not go even further) may seem like no big deal for those with the financial capital and social connections to squeeze their way out of the grip of the repressive state apparatus, but a criminal record that lingers over a worker’s future prospects is not so easy to tackle, not to mention the traumas associated with the possibility of serving a prison sentence.

The irony goes further as activists guilt-trip individuals about using plastic straws, while huge industrial-scale chopped fruit factories like Orchard House Foods use unthinkable amounts of single-use plastics on an everyday basis, hour-by-hour, all to satisfy the quotas needed by supermarkets to turn a profit. And while Greta Thunberg is hailed a champion for her environmentally-friendly ways — travelling from one continent to another on a multi-million-pound, zero-carbon, solar-panel-covered, underwater-turbine-powered yacht8 is something completely unachievable and beyond the wildest dreams of any ordinary person. In the same vein, taxing flights might seem like something that only affects those for whom it is a luxury mode of travel for holidays, but for migrant workers who often already struggle financially it is the only viable way of visiting their families still living far away across borders enforced by nation states.

And it is in these ways that XR, along with most other sections of the climate movement, reveals its completely class collaborationist nature — by focusing only on how to compel governments to make largely ineffective reforms and with their protests targeting things that, under the capitalist reality we are currently living in, would only make life even more difficult for workers and migrants without actually bringing a halt to the Earth-destroying process of accumulation of global capital. In fact, in an absurdly direct move by the movement’s leadership that caused widespread disquiet among its grassroots, the short-lived ‘XR Business’ website revealed all sorts of shady connections between the founders of Extinction Rebellion and various capitalist proponents of so-called ‘responsible capitalism’ or ‘green capitalism’…9

As hard as it may be for the foot soldiers of Extinction Rebellion to accept, the XR Business fiasco revealed that their entire movement was started by a small group of opportunist investors from the financial sector who simply saw another opportunity to get wealthy on the new wave of increased awareness about climate change.

And as well-intentioned as some of the activists on the streets may be, the whole milieu around Greta Thunberg boils down to lobbying groups whose pleas will largely fall on deaf ears. Ears which will remain deaf because the pleas run against the basic requirement of the capitalist system itself, which is to turn a profit. Only projects which fill this bill will be taken up by capital. Moreover, no amount of cuts or taxes will stop the impending disaster. Nothing short of shattering the currently established order through a communist revolution will spare the human race and the natural world with it.

What’s the Deal?

The left of capital and its supporters are also campaigning for their own ‘solutions’ to the climate crisis that are supposedly achievable through reform of the capitalist system, with the so-called Green New Deal (GND) becoming an umbrella term for these efforts. The reference to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, a series of state regulations and welfare programmes applied in the US to help the country recover from the Great Depression, is a clear statement that is gaining traction among some of the Democrat opposition to Trump.

In the context of the UK, the GND has found its supporters among the left liberal and social-democratic Momentum milieu organising within the Labour Party. What does the GND actually encompass?

No unified answer to that question can be found among its advocates, which is one of many problems with the whole idea, but some constants can be found across these proposals: government investment in ‘green’ industries and generation of jobs in these sectors, taxation of polluting and GHG emitting corporations, and incentives for the production and usage of greener forms of transport.

In Labour’s case, the proclaimed goal is “to achieve the substantial majority of our emissions reductions by 2030”10 — an idea that does not even equate to the aim to reach net zero emissions by 2030 that activists have been trying to push through. But even with the publishing of their ‘Green Industrial Revolution’ manifesto, Labour continues to be divided on exactly how to deal with the impending climate disaster.

More importantly, even if present-day state funding and welfare programmes could reach the level of post-war development campaigns without the widespread destruction of capital and human life that preceded the latter, any attempts to create a greener society will be fiercely opposed by the capitalist demands for growth, as well as the fact of how deep-rooted the global financial market continues to be in GHG-producing industries.

Ironically, the production of electric/hybrid vehicles, wind turbines, and other ‘green’ technologies is also done in factories using methods that only further contribute to global warming. Furthermore, even if capitalism could somehow be successfully reformed to curb climate change, the decision would have to be made globally and agreed by all countries to have any effect – something that individual states have been unable to fully accomplish, let alone competing imperialist blocs.

Minus Trump’s continued refusal to accept basic facts, perhaps the most obvious and cynical example of ‘dealing’ with climate change without making any actual progress whatsoever is that of China. The Chinese government continues to pour hundreds of billions of dollars into the industry of renewable energies, with $100 billion invested in these sectors in 2015 alone and the country now apparently owns five of the six largest solar module manufacturing firms in the world.11 If we are to heed the calls for ‘green capitalism’ and ‘green investment’, then the numbers speak for themselves — China is the world leader in clean energy and the saviour of humanity!

But what about all those massive factories of traditional industries that China has relied on for so many decades, where is their place in China’s own ‘green industrial revolution’? Abroad, in Africa, apparently.

Just as the wealthy states of Europe and North America export much of their waste to developing countries for further processing, China has continued to rely on the flow of global capital through the traditional industries by moving its coal production to Africa. Countries like Kenya are already becoming toxic dump sites for the Chinese economy, with potentially disastrous effects on Kenya’s coastline that will negatively affect not only the local environment and wildlife, but also its people, if developments in the area are to continue as projected.12 In this way China is reducing its domestic contribution to worldwide emissions of GHGs while adding even more to global emissions through business developments and the destruction of nature in other countries.

The Actual Solution

The Communist Workers’ Organisation has been arguing for 30 years that capitalism is doomed to destroy the environment — our position on this has not changed. In the first volume of Capital, Marx wrote:

"Capitalist production collects the population together in great centres, and causes the urban population to achieve an ever-growing preponderance. This has two results. On the one hand it concentrates the historical motive force of society; on the other hand, it disturbs the metabolic interaction between man and the earth, i.e. it prevents the return to the soil of its constituent elements consumed by man in the form of food and clothing; hence it hinders the operation of the eternal natural condition for the lasting fertility of the soil ... But by destroying the circumstances surrounding that metabolism ... it compels its systematic restoration as a regulative law of social production, and in a form adequate to the full development of the human race ... All progress in capitalist agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the worker, but of robbing the soil; all progress in increasing the fertility of the soil for a given time is a progress toward ruining the more long-lasting sources of that fertility ... Capitalist production, therefore, only develops the techniques and the degree of combination of the social process of production by simultaneously undermining the original sources of all wealth — the soil and the worker."

The crux of the matter is that the Earth will not be saved without getting rid of capitalism — something which the latest IPCC report implies though, of course, it does not state it. Any movement with radical changes in mind that is based primarily on civil disobedience rather than class struggle is doomed to fail, succumbing sooner or later to the demands of the bourgeoisie. Moreover, it is impossible to reconcile economic growth with ecological sustainability. The capitalist mode of production has already created the means to produce enough for all of humanity to live comfortably, but its time as a progressive force has long gone. What we need now is the implementation of practical solutions, on a scale that simply cannot be achieved by a system whose fundamental priority is to produce ever-increasing volumes of products for profit, regardless of consequences. No meaningful changes that could curb climate change can be achieved under capitalism. If the planet’s ecosystems as we know them — along with any semblance of human civilisation — are to survive, the working class of all countries must overthrow the planet-killing capitalist regimes and establish a world society based on the production for human need instead of profit!

Nikopetr and CP
December 2019

  • 1. For access to the UN Environment Programme’s full Emissions Gap Report for 2019, see: unenvironment.org
  • 2. Full article here: nature.com
  • 3. At one of these protests, members of the CWO have even personally encountered employees of DEFRA (the UK government’s Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs) who had been given paid leave to join the ‘climate strike’ demonstration for the day.
  • 4. Quotations are from Roger Hallam in a BBC interview, for 'Hard Talk', a programme broadcast during the small hours of 16 August, 2019. bbc.co.uk
  • 5. XR's Why We Rebel, mini booklet distributed free with certain publications, e.g. London Review of Books, November 2019.
  • 6. Roger Hallam and some other XR activists unsuccessfully stood as independents in the 2019 European elections.
  • 7. See more in Extinction Rebellion's police and prison guide: rebellion.earth
  • 8. In August of 2019, Greta Thunberg travelled from Plymouth to New York on a zero-carbon yacht to reach two global gatherings on climate change, as reported by The Guardian: theguardian.com
  • 9. For more information on this, see Winter’s Oak exposé of Extinction Rebellion at: winteroak.org.uk
  • 10. Quoted from Labour’s A Green Industrial Revolution manifesto.
  • 11. Source: phys.org
  • 12. For more on Chinese developments in Kenya, see: theconversation.com