Is global heating reversible under capitalism?
Begin with ad lib on Labour Party GND motion (conference, Sept ’19). 128 CLPs—by far the most. Backed by many unions too—FBU, CWU, etc. Very radical motion. 2030 decarb target. Accept climate refugees. Soak the rich.
There was a commitment, too, to nationalising the fossil fuel industries; a necessary first step to shutting them down.
It’s an inspiring moment; gives a glimpse of the sorts of policies that are needed.
The part of the motion that called for an end to airport expansion was nixed (by a couple of the big unions). Nonetheless, this is huge. (Ad lib)
And it was made possible by mass movements: school strikes, XR. If global heating is to be mitigated at all meaningfully under capitalism, it’ll require much more of this.
We face a conundrum. Capitalism, a system of compulsive accumulation, is impelling the planet towards the tipping points that would lead to runaway warming and a ‘hothouse earth.’ Yet the only powers that, in the short and medium term, can mobilise the resources and manpower that are necessary to launch a sharp change, a GND, are… capitalist states. And if there isn’t a radical global transformation, or at least a transformation in the Global North and the so-called BRICS, in the next decade or two, global heating will likely be impossible to reverse. Much will hang on how the Left tries to finesse this.
If global heating is to be reversed under capitalism—so, overpowering even the effects of the feedbacks—then vast quantities of carbon will have to be removed from the atmosphere and put back into the lithosphere.
Start with tech solutions. Carbon-removal solutions. So far: very little. What are the options?
- Sequestering carbon through regenerative architecture and biochar; afforestation; protecting wetlands.
- Ad lib on limitations: land!; and the lithosphereàbiosphere/atmosphere problem; trees burning, rotting.
- From power plants, steel works, cement works. The drawbacks: most of these involve fossil fuels; it’s not removing carbon, just reducing emissions, it’s v expensive; vast arrays of new pipelines required. Much of this infrastructure is likely, in capitalism, to be in the hands of the polluter industries; fox guarding henhouse.
- Direct from ambient air, to store underground. It removes carbon, but v expensive, vast amounts of energy, chemicals (Sodium hydroxide etc.) That energy would have to be renewable—but renewables (solar, wind, geothermal) = only 1.5% of global total primary energy supply.
- Ad lib on the Paris Agreement, pinned on BECCS. V expensive, plus land constraints, given huge areas of forest required. Plus the changing land use required will release so much carbon that it may well be pointless even in its own terms.
Possibly, nuclear fusion will suddenly switch on, and some extraordinary catalyst will be discovered to extract carbon at low energy, enabling a massive roll-out of atmospheric carbon capture, massive negative emissions, a return of carbon to the lithosphere, and a reversal of global heating under capitalism. But don’t hold your breath.
The other type of tech: renewables, EVs, HS rail, etc.
Let’s take HS rail. Broadly, it’s an attractive and rational proposal. But, is there a catch?
If you connect up all cities over, say, the size of New Orleans, that’s 50 cities in the US. Add up the links between them. Whatever the network topology, that’s a lot of track.
The rest of the world—of course—needs and deserves prosperity at the same level as the USA. So the Salvadorian needs to rapidly get to events in Manaus and the Muscovite to Omsk and so on around the world, then you might find ….
Well, where will you extract all the materials? I’m not suggesting this colossal construction project is impossible without burning the planet to a crisp. But it might be. You could reach a stage where so much cement has been manufactured and so much iron ore dug for all of this construction that, say, the recent (1990s-2010s) breakneck expansion of materials throughput and GHG emissions in China will look, in comparison, an after-dinner burp.
Concrete facts: Among materials, only coal, oil and gas are a greater source of GHGs than concrete. For the planned 100 miles of new HST track in England, 20 million tonnes of concrete will be poured. To produce a tonne of concrete releases the same tonnage of CO2. [We would be in a different place if CO2 were bright crimson or neon yellow, so we’d see the lurid glow above cement works.]
[By one estimate, concrete already outweighs the combined carbon mass of every tree, bush and shrub on the planet. How much should we add to that?]
It’s all very well saying this’ll all be powered by renewables, but, again, look at the stats. Wind and solar and geothermal—combined—comprise 1.5% of total global final energy supply. Almost zero. And total energy demand is rising, to such an extent that each new 10 MW of renewably-generated electricity displaces at most 1 MW from fossil fuels. The other 9 MW is additional.
Perhaps union- and state-backed renewable campaigns could overcome this. Carpet the world with wind farms?
David McDermott Hughes, Who Owns the Wind? A gorgeous book, an ode to wind power, to wind turbines, it seeks to win our love for turbine-bristled landscapes, and for the people who can make those landscapes become reality. It’s an eco-modernist manifesto. “My landscape of utopia sprouts with steel.”
In southern Spain the author finds intriguing sparks of hope in picaresque traditions and individuals. The picarós: those who follow archaic traditions of survival, ducking and diving. Effective environmentalism requires getting to know poor people; they’re the ones who will carry the changes, potentially benefit the most, and will certainly suffer the most if no global green transformation occurs.
If the poor can benefit from wind energy, argues Hughes, they will gain and so will the world. But a lot hangs on ‘if.’ For who does in fact own the wind?
It’d be a digression to summarise the core argument—(It’s fascinating, highly recommended: why the air should be nationalised….)
Instead, mention an absence that struck me: The book covers wind energy from every conceivable angle. Juridical, technological, political, economic, aesthetic, literary, visual and acoustical, cultural, ethnographic, ornithological….
And yet there’s no mention of the materials and energy inputs. None. Although the machines are discussed excitedly, with lavish attention to detail, the materials and energy and human labour from which they are constructed is entirely occluded from view. It’s as if the turbines, turned by thin air, are made of it too.
Turbines aren’t made of thin air but of concrete, steel, copper, glass fibre, neodymium, etc., all of which require human labour and (at least for now, fossil) energy to mine and manufacture and transport. Some of these processes, esp. neodymium mining, are extremely pollutive, with mines surrounded by toxic lakes and workers and neighbourhoods suffering.
Other hazards are only just now coming to light. Renewables have ramped up use of—and leaks of—sulphur hexafluoride (SF6). 24,000 times more powerful GHG than CO2, and lasts in atmosphere thousands of years. (Alternatives to SF6 are available. But it is nonetheless symptomatic.)
Similar applies to EVs: in many countries (Germany, US), if production and mineral extraction is included (as it must be), they emit similar levels of GHGs over their life cycle than petrol-fuelled cars.
In some GND discussion, there’s a tendency to place considerable faith in tech. E.g. some pin hopes in development of electric aircraft. But look at the small print: such aircraft will at best cover short hops, which would be more energy-efficiently covered by rail. Likewise biofuel [ad lib on coconuts]
The conundrum of tech. On one hand, tech applications and innovations will—obviously—play a vital role in any GND. On the other, a defining ideology of capitalist soc is tech fetishism. It arises from (i) the role of innovation in enabling capitals to steal a march on rivals and accrue super-profits, tech rents (i.e. innovation = the elixir of success for individual capitals), and (ii) the importance to capital accumulation of continual novelty, new product lines. Industries try to persuade us we need the latest gadgets or we can’t play a full part in social life. Here’s the puzzle: When is the green enthusiasm for tech simply a manifestation of tech fetishism? Is, e.g., the electric car a vital element in any green revolution or just another product line, to encourage the junking of existing models and purchase of new ones, to keep the wheels of accumulation spinning fast (and faster)?
On the political left, tech fetishism and ‘green growth’ sync with a politics of class coalition. The emphasis is on strategies that the bulk of the capitalist class can support; strategies premised on profit, accumulation, growth.
Is degrowth the alternative?
Ad lib on GND as soc dem; degrowth as Narodnik.
It’s widely supposed that GND and degrowth are antithetical projects. I suggest they are not. Or, more precisely, while the main body of each current is by definition antithetical (green growth vs degrowth), at their left flanks there is a convergence.
Degrowth isn’t a politics of ‘less,’ as some suppose. More accurate is to see it as a politics of ‘less is more.’ There’d be a smaller overall materials/energy envelope, with differentiated contents. For the rich, much much less, while for the billions who lack the basics: more good food, better housing, abundant clean water, efficient sanitation, excellent public transport, quality public amenities available freely to all. For the Global North: less energy use, less beef, fewer cars and planes, but more self-governed time, cleaner air, better public transport, less hierarchy. All this requires transformations of the infrastructures of energy, mobility and social reproduction, and with industrial technology in abundance.
Many degrowthers campaign for large-scale expansion of renewables, public transport, and ‘passive’ houses for all—both of which require colossal construction programmes. Many degrowthers are committed to union strength—crucial for the struggle for a shorter working week and improved public services.
If an anti-capitalist degrowth were to form, it should also set as forceful target: abolition of absolute and relative poverty within a few years.
Degrowthers call for a “reproductive economy of care, understood not only as caring between humans, but also between humans and the non-human environment,” and in this they bear an unmissable resemblance to those on the far left of the GND. I have in mind Alyssa Battistoni’s vision of a future climate-stable socialism “oriented toward sustaining and improving human life as well as the lives of other species,” with emphasis on green- and pink-collar labour such as “teaching, gardening, cooking, and nursing: work that makes people’s lives better without consuming vast amounts of resources, generating significant carbon emissions, or producing huge amounts of stuff.” I’m thinking, too, of Tithi Bhattacharya’s Jacobin essay, ‘Three Ways a Green New Deal Can Promote Life Over Capital.’
Resources for critique of growth.
Yes, of course, they’re for dev of “PFs,” but this refers not to material economic growth as such but how human beings develop their capacities and produce goods and services to fulfil their needs. And the ‘needs’ of which Marx/Engels speak are not reducible to material consumption. They regarded the expansion of human needs as perfectly compatible with a reduction in resource use. In Communist Manifesto they hold that the ‘productive forces’ had already (in 1848, before the invention of the car, the telephone, or even the safety pin!) reached the stage at which a transition to communism was feasible.
The purpose of production, for Marx/Engels, is not mere material goods but “the universality of individual needs, capacities, pleasures, productive forces etc.” Marx contrasts these goals with what would nowadays be called the ‘growth fetish’ that develops within capitalist society, characterised by the appearance of production “as the aim of mankind and wealth as the aim of production.”
Marx insists that the natural environment is a necessary part of wealth, which should be treated with the understanding that it is “the inalienable condition for the existence and reproduction of the chain of human generations.” He was a sharp critic of deforestation, of the ecologically unsustainable organisation of agricultural production, and of the wastefulness of manufacturing industry. At the start of Capital he writes that “‘labour is not the only source of material wealth… labour is its father and the earth its mother”—though many of his disciples forgot all about the mother.
Indeed one can go further. Marx = a richly developed critique of the growth paradigm. Because the paramount purpose of capitalist production is value expansion, use values (including land, raw materials, fuels and other natural resources) are treated simply as inputs contributory to that end. Their depletion and degradation do not show up on the bottom line. The drive to value expansion makes radical reductions in the throughput of raw materials and energy extremely difficult to achieve.
Hence, it is an error to interpret Marx and Engels as exponents of a ‘promethean’ productivism. It is to mistake Prometheus for his first cousin and goddess of the harvest, Demeter. For the cornucopia that is Marx and Engels’ goal cannot be achieved by Prometheus’ means—whether trickery, theft or the exploitation of fire (or its low-entropy hydrocarbon analogues).
It is not an impossible abundance the pursuit of which will smash nature’s limits and release Pandora’s evils into the world. Rather, it is a realisable future geared to the satisfaction of human needs, created by human social labour, with solidaristic political consciousness as precondition. From this vantage point, Marx and Engels’ aspiration towards ‘abundance’ appears neither as techno-fetishising hubris nor as arrogance towards nature’s limits, but is based rather on the recognition that natural resources are appraised and engaged with by human beings politically and sociologically; that is to say, with particular social purposes and objectives that are inherently open to change. To aspire to a state of abundance (I’m adapting David Harvey’s critique of Malthus) is to maintain that human beings have the will, wit, and capacity to develop our state of knowledge, alter our social goals and technological mixes, to modify our material economic practices in accordance with the needs of humanity and of the biosphere. And that means for the Global North: sharp degrowth of overall resource/energy throughput—at least until the 1.5% (mentioned above) is closer to 90%. Ad lib a conclusion
ANTARSYA UK organised a successful event in a packed room, at SOAS, about the very topical and crucial issue of climate change, seeking to highlight the role of capitalism in the whole process and to deepen the ongoing discussion. A useful and lively debate followed the presentations of the speakers (Elia Apostolopoulou, Gareth Dale, Maria Kadoglou). You can watch the video of the entire event here.