The Root Cause
“As capitalism is an ‘externalizing machine’, the system as a whole will not observe and respond to externalities like climate change.” — Buck, 2012
It is important to first address the basics of capitalism, the economic system we live in, and how it relates to the climate crisis. A basic introduction can inform us that capitalism is characterised by three things – wage labour, private ownership of the means of production, and production for exchange and profit (libcom, 2011). These three characteristics result in “huge differences in wealth and income” in society, causing “class divisions” which unfortunately for most “induce huge differences in decision-making influence and quality of life” (Albert, 2004: 8-9). In essence “society’s surplus product (the total product minus what is necessary to meet the population’s basic needs)” under capitalism “is controlled by a privileged minority that forms the ruling class” (Li, 2009). But one of the most important problems that arises from capitalism is its grow-or-die imperative, encouraging perpetual change and dynamic evolution in order to survive regardless of its social or environmental impact (Bookchin, 2003). Later in the series there will be further detail how this is important.
Capitalism as the prime economic system for the past few hundred years has brought us to the beginning of the climate crisis. Anthropogenically-induced climate change has been an undeniable scientific fact for some time (NASA, 2015), but importantly the longstanding “guardrail” idea of limiting global warming to a “safe” +2°C threshold has been recently derided as inadequate (UNFCCC, 2015: 18). Despite this, the year 2015 is “likely to be the warmest on record” (WMO, 2015) and is set to be the year that global temperatures “reach [the] 1°C marker for first time” (Met Office, 2015). Some climate scientists claim that the historical inaction in limiting GHG emissions means temperatures could rise by 4°C to 6°C degrees this century (World Bank, 2012; Connor, 2015). From next year the Earth’s climate will be entering a new “permanent reality” of high CO2 concentrations and corresponding ecological disruptions (Vaughan, 2015). The increase in global temperatures is already predicted to have a variety of effects, from ocean acidification (Mora et al., 2013) to crop yield loss (Challinor et al., 2014) to widespread coastal flooding (National Research Council, 2011). Additionally the danger of large-scale climatic “tipping points” occurring is likely to increase as temperatures rise (Lenton et al., 2008). The impacts of global warming, according to the IPCC, are likely to be “severe, pervasive, and irreversible” (IPCC, 2014).
As Keefer (2006) maintains capitalism is inextricably linked with fossil fuels and the resulting climate change as “at the root of industrial capitalism and its astonishing conquest and transformation of the world in the past 250 years is the fossil fuel powered machine” (8). “Perhaps, one day,” Eric Pineault muses, “capitalism will succeed in breaking away from its dependence on fossil fuels as a source of energy…but all signs indicate that for the moment, this material dependence is only becoming more profound” (2015: 3). The idea that capitalism can “save the world from a crisis caused by capitalism” has been thoroughly disproven (Klein, 2014: 252) and attempts at “green” economic growth have been ambiguous and abortive (probablyasocialecologist, 2015). This, as Wallerstein (1979) asserts, is because capitalism is based on the “endless accumulation of capital” (272). A “crisis of justice”, climate change in fact represents a potential source of profits for capitalism as it seeks opportunities in disaster (Klein, 2007; Schneider, 2014). Janet Biehl summarises it well when she says “capitalism and the global ecology simply cannot coexist indefinitely” (1998: 140).
Part Three coming soon
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