Radical Agriculture in the UK: Soil as Social Property (Part Four)


Radical Agriculture 

“The future does not belong to individual property, to the peasant penned in a fragment of land that barely sustains him. It belongs to communist cultivation.” — Kropotkin, 1885

As ecologist Bob Scholes said in part one, soil “is social property because humankind depends heavily on it for food production”. We have seen how capitalism has disregarded the integrity and life of our soil. To escape this we need, as Bookchin expounded, a model of “radical agriculture” which

“seeks to transcend the prevailing instrumentalist approach that views food cultivation merely as a “human technique” opposed to “natural resources.” This radical approach is literally ecological, in the strict sense that the land is viewed as an oikos – a home. Land is neither a “resource” nor a “tool,” but the oikos of myriad kinds of bacteria, fungi, insects, earthworms, and small mammals. If hunting leaves this oikos essentially undisturbed, agriculture by contrast affects it profoundly and makes humanity an integral part of it.” (Bookchin, 1994)

This agricultural model is radical not only in opposing the dominant industrial capitalist approach to agriculture, but also in opposing the existence of the state and capitalism and their presence in our food systems, as well as identifying their inability to adapt or change sufficiently to rectify their damaging effects – as Dr Julia Wright reminds us, “To date, organic and localized systems have occurred often in the face of prevailing policy and institutional arrangements, rather than because of them” (Wright, 2009: 26). It is up to us, the “multitude” (Hardt & Negri, 2004), to ensure that our agricultural systems are managed “not for the profit of a few, but in the interest and for the security of all” (Proudhon, 1840). A rational, sustainable form of agriculture is “incompatible with the capitalist system” (Marx, 1894).

It is important to remember that capitalism uses the threat of hunger or starvation as a weapon to control the working class, weakening their power and demands. As autonomist Harry Cleaver described,

“Internationally, famine in one part of the world has come to serve as a stern lesson to workers everywhere on the extent of capital’s power: if, given today’s high agricultural productivity and the sophisticated means of transportation, a group of people can still be allowed to starve, then workers everywhere are threatened by the same possibility.” (1997: 31)

Proudhon seems especially relevant here when he said “every man who makes a profit has entered into a conspiracy with famine” (Proudhon, 1840). The threat of hunger can be seen in contemporary times, through the return of rickets (McVeigh, 2014) and the increased numbers of UK families requiring food aid (Lambie-Mumford et al, 2014). As the Out of the Woods collective noted, hunger is not “an incidental problem in capitalism but a condition of its possibility” (Out of the Woods, 2014).

It is also important that we confront the issues of food security and self-sufficiency, concepts that have much in common but are not identical. Although there are parallels, self-sufficiency refers to “the extent to which a country can meet its own food needs from home-grown production” (Maynard, 2008), whereas food security can be met via either domestic production or imports, and has a broader definition:

“Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.” (FAO, 1996).

As will be described further on, there is a trade-off between complete reliance on imports and an autarkical reliance on domestic production – our model radical agriculture must find a balance between the two poles (Sundkvist et al., 2005), aiming to provide food security for all people.

We can turn to some of the previously mentioned thinkers for inspiration for our radical agriculture. The FAO Rome Declaration on World Food Security (see above) echoes Murray Bookchin’s declaration of freedom, where “True freedom, in effect, is an equality of unequals that does not deny the right to life of those whose powers are failing or less developed than others” (1974). It is a directly egalitarian and anti-capitalist statement, underlying the anarchist notion that all members of a community should be supported regardless of contribution – a principle Bookchin studied known as the “irreducible minimum” (Bookchin, 1982: 56). As Italian anarchist Errico Malatesta said, “The lame, the weak and the aged should be supported by society, because it is the duty of humanity that no one should suffer” (1981: 10-11). To achieve this a revolution in agriculture would require expropriation of land, being careful not to produce “large-scale cultivation as certain authoritarian reformers image” but to “expropriate all land that was not cultivated by the hands of those who at present possess the land” (Kropotkin, 1885). But the small-scale farms (which we will learn more about later) would not be touched. As Kropotkin explains

“…when we see a peasant who is in possession of just the amount of land he can cultivate, we do not think it reasonable to turn him off his little farm. He exploits nobody, and nobody would have the right to interfere with his work. But if he possesses under the capitalist law more than he can cultivate himself, we consider that we must not give him the right of keeping that soil for himself, leaving it uncultivated when it might be cultivated by others, or of making others cultivate it for his benefit.” (1998: 104)

Not only that, but our future agriculture must be more humble and holistic, embracing not just different methods of cultivation and food production but “a new non-Promethean sensibility toward land and society as a whole” (Bookchin, 1994). This will alter both our view of the environment and of the social world à la social ecology, but should stray away from the misguided and potentially devastating attempts of primitivism to reestablish the human-nature relationship via the abolition of agriculture (Sheppard, 2003).

A future, fairer form of agriculture non-dependent on fossil fuels is not a new concept – Heinberg (2007) lists several permutations of the same concept, including “ecological agriculture, Biodynamics, Permaculture, Biointensive farming, and Natural Farming”, all linked through a reduction in mechanisation and an increased knowledge of soil biology, climate, and ecological interactions. But such a transition requires planning, forethought, and education – the sudden absence of fossil fuels before an appropriate alternative system was in place would be catastrophic (Heinberg and Bomford, 2009) as some primitivists would hope. As Wright (2009) detailed earlier, policy reform and existing institutions cannot be trusted to change our agricultural systems for the better. Some actions appropriate for a future “radical agriculture” will be detailed below.

Firstly, as Warner explains, the farms of our future will be forced to “operate on ecological principles”:

“Farms of the future will likely have to be energy conserving, feature both biological and genetic diversity, be largely self-regulating and self-renewing, be knowledge intensive rather than energy intensive, operate on biological synergies, employ adaptive management strategies, practice ecological restoration, and achieve optimum productivity through multi-product, synergistic production systems that feature nutrient density, rather than monocultures that feature maximum yields.” (Warner, 2006: xii-xiii)

A focus on holism versus industrial productivism is necessary, and there is a need for new metrics of efficiency – Pimentel & Pimentel (2008) find that the closer an agricultural system “resembles the original natural ecosystem” the less energy and inputs it requires (28), a key requirement in a potentially resource-constrained future. Similarly in the interests of those who work the land, farms that run on organic (1) principles typically demonstrate lesser environmental impacts (Hansen et al., 2001; Tuomisto et al., 2012), such as reducing inputs and building soil carbon and nitrogen stocks (Pimentel et al., 2005). Similarly, permaculture (“permanent agriculture”) revolves around mimicking ecological relationships in producing food, timber, fibres etc. whilst emphasising self-sufficiency and environmental sensibility (Cribb, 2010).

But what of our ability to feed ourselves? As we mentioned, modern agriculture has become dependent on non-renewable sources of energy and nutrients. In this regard, according to one peer-reviewed paper, organic agriculture systems usually have lower yields than non-organic, but are capable of almost matching yields via “good management practices” (Seufert et al., 2012: 229). Another paper modelled global food supplies under different agricultural methods and found that “organic methods could produce enough food on a global per capita basis to sustain the current human population…without increasing the agricultural land base” (Badgley et al., 2007: 86). They also found that due to the over-saturation of soils with fertilisers and biocides, conversions to organic agriculture typically produce the oft-reported decline in yields which is then reversed “as soil quality is restored” over time (92).

However other analyses report greater yield disparities – in England and Wales for example, wheat and barley yields would drop by about 30%, and “there is wide consensus that organic production results in yields perhaps 40% lower” (Jones & Crane, 2009: 13). Another meta-analysis reported “organic yields of individual crops are on average 80% of conventional yields” but there was substantial variation between different crops (de Ponti et al., 2012: 1).

These yield gaps can be rectified through the more efficient recycling and waste minimisation that would characterise our future agriculture. For example, the 500 litres of waste a human body produces annually contains enough nutrients to grow the crops that would feed that person for a year (McEachran, 2015). Capturing these lost nutrients would help substitute for previously applications of inorganic inputs, and help mitigate potential threats such as peak phosphorus (Beardsley, 2011), and have a variety of processing and application methods as well as being renewable and reducing transport issues due to their local nature (Cordell et al., 2009). On top of this there is potential for massive waste minimisation – food waste caused by sales promotions and marketing standards for “cosmetically perfect foodstuffs” (IME, 2013: 25) would be eliminated, and the practice of throwing away “surplus food” by supermarkets would be prevented.

Anaerobic digestion (AD), “the process of decomposition of organic matter by a microbial consortium in an oxygen-free environment” can be utilised to treat food waste and produce crop fertiliser and biogas (Ward et al., 2008: 7928). Although there are government strategies to facilitate increased AD (DEFRA, 2011) there is much room for improved adoption of this technology. Additionally sensible use of AD would focus on food waste that could not be utilised in any other way (Linehan, 2014) rather than the use of farmland to produce “energy crops” (Amon et al., 2007).

An integral component of radical agriculture is the breaking-up of land ownership and the reversal of centralisation for political-ecological reasons. There is a large body of research that finds that despite the economic efficiencies of monocultures, smaller farms are more productive if “total output is considered rather than yield from a single crop” (Altieri, 2009: 105). Altieri, a professor of agroecology, also asserts that “redistributing farmland may become central to feeding the planet” especially with the recent rise of agricultural land being used to grow biofuels (106). His assertions are backed up by Peter Rosset (2006), who reports on data that shows “small farms almost always produce far more agricultural output per unit area than larger farms, and do so more efficiently…This holds true whether we are talking about industrial countries or any country in the Third World” (315). He also cites a report that found that “relatively smaller” farms produced up to two to ten times more than larger farms (315). Other studies report similar inverse relationships between farm size and productivity (Rosset, 1999; Naranjo, 2012).

Land redistribution would reduce the power of agricultural capitalists and absentee landowners and give people greater autonomy and freedom regarding agricultural management techniques and desired foodstuffs. Like the anarchist society in Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, there should be “no controlling centre…no establishment for the self-perpetuating machinery of bureaucracy” (1974: 77). However it is important to remember as Bookchin said that in reducing farm size we do not need to “surrender the gains acquired by large-scale agriculture and mechanization” but must treat agricultural land “as though it were a garden”, with careful attention and ecological sensibility (Herber, 1964). As Rigby & Cáceres (2001) explain, “it is undoubtedly mistaken to simply equate sustainable agriculture with low- yield farming” (32).

The decentralisation and size-reduction of farms will also be required in order to adapt to our potential unstable climate. With land degradation and yield reductions predicted in the future (see introduction) it is imperative that we have a resilient form of agriculture that can survive new unpredictable weather systems. As Heinberg describes, farms have previously relied on “relatively consistent seasonal patterns” but now face “climate chaos: droughts, floods, and stronger storms in general” (2007). In an agricultural context, the risk of major “shocks” to global food production “will be three times more likely within 25 years because of an increase in extreme weather brought about by global warming” (Howard, 2015). In the UK specifically:

“Average annual temperatures across the UK could rise by 2° to 3.5°C or more by the 2080s, depending on future levels of greenhouse gas emissions. The unprecedented heatwave that affected Europe in 2000, when crop yields fell by 25- 30% across France and Italy, gives an unpleasant foretaste of what is predicted to become a more frequent event.” (Maynard, 2008: 8)

Adaptations to future sea level rise and increased flood risk may also entail “the abandonment of prime agricultural land” via “managed land retreat” and developing new flood plain areas (Rounsevell & Reay, 2009: S163). About 57% of high quality agricultural land in the UK is less than 5m above sea level  and as such is at increasing risk from flooding, erosion and saltwater intrusion as sea levels rise (Harrison et al., 2008).

To this end the conversion to smaller farms is even more necessary as they tend to be more resilient to climate shocks, exhibiting more stability and smaller yield declines in extreme weather. Altieri (2009) cites evidence where after Hurricane Mitch hit Central America in 1998 smaller farms with intercropping and diversification “had 20 to 40 percent more topsoil, greater soil moisture, less erosion, and experienced lower economic losses than their conventional neighbors” (108; see also Holt-Gimenez, 2002). Similarly, one study comparing organic and conventional farming systems found the higher levels of soil carbon in the organic system “helped conserve soil and water resources and proved beneficial during drought years” (Pimentel et al., 2005: 580). Another study identified the issue that most comparisons between conventional and organic agriculture

“have been made under optimal conditions, and extrapolations of future crop yields must take into account the high likelihood that climate disruptions will increase the incidence of droughts and flooding in which case, based on evidence presented earlier, OA [organic agriculture] systems are likely to out-yield CA [conventional agriculture] systems.” (Lotter, 2003: 10-11)

It is even clearer then that to survive the coming climate chaos a new form of agriculture will be required.

Part One | Part Two | Part Three

Part Five coming soon

(1) “Organic agriculture refers to a farming system that enhance soil fertility through maximizing the efficient use of local resources, while foregoing the use of agrochemicals, the use of Genetic Modified Organisms (GMO), as well as that of many synthetic compounds used as food additives. Organic agriculture relies on a number of farming practices based on ecological cycles, and aims at minimizing the environmental impact of the food industry, preserving the long term sustainability of soil and reducing to a minimum the use of non renewable resources.” (Gomiero et al., 2011: 96) However, it is important to note that “it is a common misconception that organic crops are necessarily pesticide free. Some traditional but highly toxic, persistent, and broad spectrum synthetic pesticides – such as copper sulphate – are often allowed, as is the ‘natural’ Bacillus thuringiensis bacterium (from which transgenic Bt maize’s toxins are derived)” (Out of the Woods, 2015).



Radical Agriculture in the UK: Soil as Social Property (Part Three)

Capitalist Agriculture in the Present 

“The manipulated people in modern cities must be fed, and feeding them involves an extension of industrial farming.” — Herber, 1964

Under capitalism the means of production belong to the minority of the population, and the means of production include the agricultural systems that feed us. As every society “extends its own perception of itself into nature” (Bookchin, 1986), the society dominated by capitalism sees agricultural land as a means to make profits and control the working class with the threat of hunger (Cleaver, 1997: 3). Capitalism sees the production of food as a “business enterprise”, sees soil as a “natural resource”, and treats agriculture no different than “any branch of industry” (Bookchin, 1994). It is impersonal and bureaucratic, and cares nothing for natural limits. For a more in-depth look at capitalist agriculture it is worth quoting Dr Julia Wright at length:

“The dominant agricultural approach of the twentieth century in industrialised countries relies upon manufactured pest and disease controls and fertilisers, and emphasises maximising production through simplification, the use of external technologies, and minimising labour requirements. Goewie classifies mainstream, intensive and conventional agriculture within this industrialised group, and also suggests integrated, precision, high-tech and certain sustainable definitions as falling within it. An industrialised production system is associated with socio-economic issues of external dependency, long marketing chains, cost externalisations, and free-market principles as a driving force. Guiding and driving all this is a particular set of attitudes and perspectives surrounding agriculture, such as the belief that mankind can break free from and take control over the natural environment and natural processes, and that this is a positive step. The development of GM crops is a contemporary example of this belief.” (Wright, 2005: 35)

Murray Bookchin, writing under the pseudonym Lewis Herber (1964) goes further, adding that this results in agricultural land being reduced to a “factory floor”, tightly regulated to maximise production, and treating the soil as “a mere resource, an inorganic raw material.” Supply chains are often massive, and only about 10% of people who work in the food industry are actually farmers or farm workers (Maxwell & Slater, 2003: 535). Due to ignorance or bureaucratic oversight, the capitalist structures of food production, distribution, and marketing “often ignore local solutions” which may be more efficient or appropriate, and actively prevent the creation of sustainable solutions (Koc et al., 1999: 4). In large part the introduction of “modern” farming techniques was simply due to pressure to increase productivity for the mass marketing of agricultural goods (Lyson & Green, 1999), which led to intense resource-extraction, widespread mechanisation, and the creation of “monocultural cropping systems” (Jarosz, 2000: 279). Ultimately, capitalist agriculture is an attempt to “subordinate the substance of society itself to the laws of the market” (Polanyi, 1957: 71).

Capitalist agriculture is ultimately unsustainable and wasteful, hindering the natural recycling systems of nature and disturbing “the circulation of matter between man and the soil” (Marx, 1887). This presents a serious issue as our society has a profound and direct effect on the environment, immediately affecting “food webs and biogeochemical cycles” (Bookchin, 1994) – our actions have passed a “tipping point in our relationship with the world” and we now influence the environment “at every level” (Orrell, 2007: 12). Recycling is “enforced” in the natural world (Commoner, 1974), so our ignorance of the cycles of waste and organic matter will have grave consequences.

As mentioned, monocultures “integrate efficiently into economic markets” but because of their ecological instability the resulting agricultural system is “brittle and unstable” and relies on constant chemical inputs to maintain productivity (Warner, 2006: 157), the production and selling of which produces profit for other parts of the capitalist agriculture system. Amongst other degradations they also contribute to rural poverty and the concentration of land ownership (Corporate Watch, 2008). This leads to the centralisation of agricultural production due to economies of scale (Heinberg, 2007) – in Britain for example, the number of farms “fell from 454,000 in 1953 to 242,300 in 1981” (Fotopoulos, 1997: 150). In short, the “monopolisation of markets results in the monoculture of nature” (McKay et al, 2008). This monopolisation, like the enclosures centuries past, reduces farm employment and encourages rural-to-urban migration. In less than two hundred years the UK agricultural workforce has dropped from 21% of the working population to about 2% (Trobe & Acott, 2000; Maynard, 2008), and it currently stands at just over 530,000 people (Angus et al, 2009; DEFRA, 2011).

In a specific UK context agriculture is the largest type of land use, accounting for around 75% of total land area which equates to 17.5 million hectares (ha) (Rounsevell & Reay, 2009) with another 1 million ha that is utilisable but not currently farmed (Maynard, 2008). About 28% (4.74 million ha) of agricultural land is used for crops and 6% for woodland – the rest (66%) is used to grow grass for meat production (Angus et al, 2009). The use of markets and free trade is seen by the government as the ideal solution to securing national food supplies (Maynard, 2008), reducing the significance of local food and increasing the dependence on international trade (Kirwan & Maye, 2013).

The rampant use of fossil fuels in agriculture, while increasing the yields and consistency of agricultural production, has meant that not only is the reliability of our food production tied to rapidly depleting nonrenewable energy sources, but has also resulted in a slew of environmental imbalances such as soil carbon loss, eutrophication of water sources, biodiversity loss, and environmental contamination from pesticide overuse (Reganold et al., 2001; Cruse et al., 2010; Weis, 2010), all of which are treated as externalised costs and are never factored in capitalist calculation, leaving biophysical “debt” that is taken up by the wider society. Ignorant of the dangers of catastrophic climate change, fossil-fueled powered agriculture is still the norm for the UK and the world at large. Modern farm machinery requires petroleum, nitrogenous fertilisers require natural gas, common biocides require oil as a feedstock, and foodstuffs are frequently transported via fossil-fuel powered transportation (Heinberg, 2003). We rely on fossil fuels in all steps of agriculture – seeding, maintenance, harvesting, processing, and transportation (Pfeiffer, 2006). Utterly ignorant of the impending shocks of peak oil (probablyasocialecologist, 2014), in the UK “95% of our food is oil dependent” (Maynard, 2008), with oil accounting for 30-75% of agricultural energy inputs (Woods et al., 2010). As a result the “modern food chain” is extremely vulnerable to interruptions in energy supply (DEFRA, 2008: 23). The energy required for fertiliser production and usage alone constitutes 0.5% of the UK’s total energy supply (Dawson & Hilton, 2011). As a report from City University London aptly says, “the era of western food and farm efficiency reliant on oil is probably coming to an end” (Barling et al., 2008: 33).

This reliance on fossil fuels for agriculture can be called “soil mining” where, as Bookchin described, soil is seen as an inorganic mineral and subsequently mistreated, causing long-term damage to soil regeneration and replenishment. With vast tracts of agricultural land predicted to be too degraded to grow crops in the coming decades (Pimentel & Pimentel, 2008) and demand for food rising this issue cannot be overstated. The UK alone is losing around 13 million tonnes of carbon annually due to soil degradation and erosion, a large part of this due to “intensive farming” (Maynard, 2008: 9).

Like fossil fuels, modern agricultural systems have become inextricably linked to inorganic fertiliser use. The issue is that despite their unsustainability it may be difficult for farms to do without these inputs. Vaclav Smil estimates that, thanks to the “125-fold increase” in global nitrogenous fertiliser applications “today’s global crop harvest would be cut in half without the applications of nitrogen fertilizers” (Smil, 2001: 156; see also Erisman et al., 2008 and Dawson & Hilton, 2011). In the UK nitrogenous fertiliser consumption increased by about 300% between 1961 and the 1980s – this, coupled with a decline in total agricultural land, meant an increase in the application rate per unit area of land (Rounsevell & Reay, 2009). Quoting the Soil Association, the UK’s food security “is based predominantly on vast inputs of nonrenewable, oil-derived and climate-change exacerbating artificial inputs” (Maynard, 2008).

Smil, 2001

Smil, 2001

Rounsevell & Reay, 2009

Rounsevell & Reay, 2009

It is a similar situation with phosphorus fertilisers – under capitalist agriculture it is economically efficient to mine phosphate-based rock to produce mineral fertilisers instead of recycling organic waste, but phosphate rock “is a finite resource that cannot be manufactured” and extraction “is predicted to reach its peak this century” (Neset & Cordell, 2011: 2) despite growing demand (part of which is from the increased share of meat in human diets leading to increased demand for animal feed and fertiliser applications (Van Vuuren et al., 2010)). As Beardsley (2011) details, “there are no possible substitutes” for phosphorus, and the worst-case scenarios forecast significant depletion of phosphorus reserves within this century (Cordell et al., 2009; Van Vuuren et al., 2010).

On top of this, despite the usual claims of capitalist efficiency, vast amounts of food is wasted under modern agricultural systems. As the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IME) reports:

Today, we produce about four billion metric tonnes of food per annum. Yet due to poor practices in harvesting, storage and transportation, as well as market and consumer wastage, it is estimated that 30–50% (or 1.2–2 billion tonnes) of all food produced never reaches a human stomach. Furthermore, this figure does not reflect the fact that large amounts of land, energy, fertilisers and water have also been lost in the production of foodstuffs which simply end up as waste. This level of wastage is a tragedy that cannot continue if we are to succeed in the challenge of sustainably meeting our future food demands. (2013: 2)

Most of this food in the industrialised north of the world is wasted not due to poor technology (e.g. inadequate refrigeration or transport) but due to consumer preferences or supermarket behaviour. Supermarkets, the IME continues, “will often reject entire crops of perfectly edible fruit and vegetables at the farm because they do not meet exacting marketing standards” and globally “retailers generate 1.6 million tonnes of food waste annually in this way” (IME, 2013: 3). In the UK, this manifests as 30% of the UK’s vegetable crop never being harvested, a colossal waste of resources and an example of capitalism’s anti-ecological character. A significant portion of this waste is caused by the “redirection” of foodstuffs to destinations other than human beings:

“We produce 4600 kcal per person of edible food harvest, enough to feed a global population of 12-14 billion, but after waste and conversion to animal feed and biofuels, we end up with no more than 2000 Kcal per person.” (Pol, 2015: 4)

This wastage also contributes massively to anthropogenic climate change, as the carbon footprint of wasted food equates to 3.3 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide released annually – “as such, food wastage ranks as the third top emitter after USA and China” (FAO, 2013: 6).

As per the neoliberal hatred of barriers to the free movement of capital and goods, foodstuffs are transported all across the world regardless of their inefficiency or environmental damage – all that matters is profit and economic “common sense”. To this end, according to then-Defra Minister Margaret Beckett, “it is freer trade in agriculture which is key to ensuring security of supply…it is trade liberalisation which will bring the prosperity and economic interdependency that underpins genuine long term global security” (Maynard, 2008: 3-4). It is this belief that led, for example, to Britain importing about 62,000 tonnes of poultry meat from the Netherlands in 1998 whilst at the same time exporting about 33,000 tonnes of poultry meat to the Netherlands (Lucas & Hines, 2001).

Although the UK has long been a net importer of food (DEFRA, 2006; 2008) self-sufficiency in food has steadily declined, “falling from 78% to 60% in the last 30 years” (Carrington, 2014). For the last century it can be argued the UK has relied on imports to meet its needs (Barling et al., 2008), not just regarding food but also “imported inputs such as fertiliser, fuel and machinery” (DEFRA, 2006: iv). It’s food imports are also at risk – for example, nearly half of the UK’s food imports are sourced from areas of high water risk (Morgan, 2015).

However, it is important to note that capitalism’s ability to adapt means it has seized the opportunity to profit from the rise in environmental awareness and the damages of industrialised agriculture. Organic agriculture represents a thriving business, to the point where the UK has to import about 34% of its organic produce to meet demand (SIPPO, 2010). This occurs despite the misconception about organic agriculture being completely pesticide-free and that scientifically speaking “organic” farming is a meaningless term (Out of the Woods, 2015). More about organic agriculture will be detailed in the next section.

So after centuries of mismanagement and abuse we are left, both globally and here in the UK, with a system that in the pursuit of profit wrecks the environment, destroys social structures, and has made us suicidally reliant on rapidly depleting substances, all to grow food which, half the time, is never eaten. To change is not a choice – a transition to a fairer and sustainable agricultural system “does not constitute a distant utopian proposal” (Heinberg, 2007). It is immediate and required for our survival.

Part Four coming Soon

Part One | Part Two


Radical Agriculture in the UK: Soil as Social Property (Part One)

“Soil fertility is both a biophysical property and a social property – it is a social property because humankind depends heavily on it for food production.” — Bob Scholes, 2013


Farming and agriculture exists as a fundamental link between humanity and the land it inhabits. The soil from whence we grow our food and feed our society acts as a “metabolic relationship binding nature and society” (Warner, 2006: 1). It’s importance means that it, and its fertility, is a form of social property (Wits University, 2013) that ought to belong to the whole of society. As Pierre-Joseph Proudhon stated, our agricultural land “is indispensable to our existence”, a “common thing” that “must be regulated, not for the profit of a few, but in the interest and for the security of all” (Proudhon, 1840). To take away the soil from common ownership, to take away “the means without which life is impossible” is, as Bookchin reminds us, “outright homicide” (1989: 187). But the land, the soil, and its fertility, has been taken away. Over centuries it has been taken by a minority who have mistreated it, plundered it, mined it. Now, the damage from its misappropriation is further compounded by a terrifying biocrisis (1) that approaches us from the horizon.

The climate of planet earth is shifting and destabilising (NASA, 2015), producing unpredictable systems that will play havoc with the consistent and seasonal weather patterns farmers require to feed us (Heinberg, 2007; Charles, 2014). Our global “stocks” of soil are facing constant degradation, with 1% of the global land area degraded every year (Wits University, 2013). Our ability to produce food will suffer (Delgado-Baquerizo et al, 2013) even as we attempt to expand the global cropland area in anticipation for an increasing demand for food (UNEP, 2014). The world’s staple crops will experience worsening yield losses as the century advances (Challinor et al., 2014) at the same time as our conversion of land to agriculture releases more carbon into the atmosphere (University of Montana, 2014). At current rates almost half of the land currently being cultivated “will be unsuitable for food production by the middle of the twenty-first century” (Pimentel & Pimentel, 2008: 364). Here in the UK, anticipating a  2° to 3.5°C temperature rise by the 2080s means readying for heatwave-induced crop yield reductions of 25-30%, even as our national soils are in various stages of erosion and degradation (Maynard, 2008).

On top of this our agricultural systems are dependent on unsustainable inputs of fertilisers (Smil, 2001; Neset & Cordell, 2011) and fossil fuels (Heinberg, 2003; Pfeiffer, 2006) to maintain production levels, even as reserves of phosphate and fossil fuels are set to peak in the near future (Beardsley, 2011; Hughes & Rudolph, 2011; Murray & King, 2012). Additionally, our farming arrangements themselves are responsible for vast amounts of ecological degradation (Reganold et al., 2001; Patel, 2008; Weis, 2010).

The neoliberal government in the UK has aggravated these issues by reducing the food security of its citizens, increasing those requesting food aid (Lambie-Mumford et al, 2014) and using food banks (Butler, 2015). “Workfare” programs and changes in state benefit have been directly linked to “one of the world’s richest countries” witnessing unprecedented numbers of hospital admissions for malnutrition-related illnesses (Just Fair, 2014).

Where we stand, then, is at the culmination, a vortex, of political failures, environmental degradation, and mismanagement of the means of life. Our agricultural systems, and our relation and outlook to these systems and the wider environment, will have to change if we are to survive the upcoming storm. Here the focus will be on the state of farming and agriculture in the UK, its history, and its future, but many of the lessons and solutions written here will be broadly applicable to other countries and farming systems, as well as to the global agri-complex as a whole. Drawing heavily on radical left-wing theory, this essay will combine scientific observations of “what was/is” and theoretical insights into “what could be” to produce a goal and broad ideal of “what we want/need” – that is to say, radical agriculture (Bookchin, 1994).


“The land is indispensable to our existence — consequently a common thing.” — Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, 1840

Is is important to first define the distinction between “farming” and “agriculture”. In this essay the definition relies heavily on Henry Bernstein’s work, where “farming” is “what farmers do and have always done – with all the historical diversity of forms of farm production, their social and ecological conditions and practices, labour processes” (Bernstein, 2013: 22) and “agriculture” is farming plus economic activities and interests, including the supply of instruments of labour, markets for land and produce, and the processing and distribution of produce (Bernstein, 2010: 65). Despite these two distinct definitions we have to realise how interconnected the two are – in today’s capitalist system there can be no farming without markets and “agri-business”; likewise there can be no form of agriculture without the fundamental processes of plant production. Here we will focus on agriculture, exploring as we do so how the capitalist zeitgeist has shaped and controlled it.

As stated previously this essay draws heavily on radical left-wing theory. There are many thinkers on the radical left who in their works successfully analysed the problems inherent in capitalism and its dangerous and inherently anti-ecological character. Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1840), a French anarchist and mutualist, was arguably one of the first to recognise that due to its indispensability, agricultural land had to be regulated “not for the profit of a few, but in the interest and for the security of all”. Soon after Karl Marx (1869) identified that the soil was “the original source of all wealth” and that agriculture under capitalism robbed not only the worker of the means to life, but the soil of its fertility (1887). About a hundred years later Murray Bookchin helped to connect the environmental problems modern humanity faced, including degradation of the soil and climate change, with our social structures – “nearly all our present ecological problems arise from deep-seated social problems” (1993). Conversely, as he explained in his theory of Social Ecology, these environmental problems could not be resolved without resolving first the contradictions and injustices of capitalist society. “Every society extends its own perception of itself into nature” (1986) – so a capitalist society that treated human beings as profit-making resources would see the wider environment via “the operational systems of modern corporate society”.

Part Two coming soon

(1) “We can call the real wave of extinctions caused by extreme ecological degradation the “biocrisis” … The biocrisis is the true in the moment of the apocalyptic false.” (Institute for Experimental Freedom, 2009)


The Failures of Atmospheric Commodification

Climate protesters: 'more future, less capitalism'

“The rush to make profits out of carbon-fixing engenders another kind of colonialism.” — Centre for Science and the Environment, 2000


Are carbon markets just another wave of capitalist accumulation, or is there an inkling of hope that in commodifying the atmospheric commons we will stave off catastrophic climate change?

By now we’re all familiar with the ongoing planetary biocrisis1 and anybody who isn’t is more than scientifically illiterate. Global temperatures are predicted to potentially rise by 4°C by 2100 (University of New South Wales, 2013), with recent research warning of a 6°C rise by 2100 (Connor, 2015), a far cry from the 2°C target deemed safe by many (Hope & Pearce, 2014). The warming of the atmosphere now poses risks to the integrity of our energy systems (World Energy Council, 2014) and agriculture (Challinor et al., 2014). The world’s oceans are increasingly acidifying due to the increased atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2) (Mora et al., 2013), our forests are unable to absorb the excess CO2 we’re releasing (Philips & Brienen, 2015), and despite these warnings the world’s biggest fossil fuel companies continue to increase their fuel reserves, straying dangerously close to any safe emissions limit (Carrington, 2015). Even now research shows that the 1972 book Limits to Growth, previously characterised as doomsday fantasy, has recently been vindicated and that we should start to “expect the early stages of global collapse” (Turner & Alexander, 2014).

The answer to our problems seems deceptively simple: if global warming is such a danger to our (and the biosphere’s) wellbeing, then we just need to stop emitting all that carbon dioxide and other pesky greenhouse gases2. The solution is more complex when we realise the primary inducer of climate change is the burning of fossil fuels, which have become inextricably linked with the world’s capitalist economies as they have continued to grow over the centuries (Keefer, 2006; Leigh, 2008; Lohmann & Böhm, 2012).

One of the many solutions put forward by the establishment in addressing the prevention of dangerous climate change is the idea of a carbon market, or carbon trading. This is defined innocuously by the Financial Times as “a market that is created from the trading of carbon emission allowances to encourage or help countries and companies to limit their carbon dioxide emissions” (Financial Times, 2014), or quite simply subjecting climate change to market logic via allocating property rights to carbon emissions (Newell & Paterson, 2009). Is it possible that the trading of permissions to release CO2 could help pave our way to a low-carbon future? Could the pricing of carbon, as the World Bank asserts, help to “incentivize cleaner decisions and innovation” for the global economy (World Bank, 2015)? Or alternatively, is the concept of a carbon market simply another example of neoliberal hegemony, an attempt for capitalism to enclose yet another round of commons in its attempt to profit from disaster à la Naomi Klein’s “Disaster Capitalism” (Klein, 2007)?

This essay will attempt to investigate the concepts of the carbon market, focusing on its history and origins, contemporary examples of carbon markets in the world today, and whether they succeed or fail in their goal of slowing down/preventing climate change and instituting a low-carbon, renewable-powered future. Alternatives will be considered at the end of the essay, and the success and relevancy of carbon markets will be evaluated.

The Origins of Carbon Markets

“[T]he pollution rights scheme, it seems clear, would require far less policing than any of the others we have discussed.” — Dales, 1968, p. 97

The precursor to the idea of carbon markets, that of controlling emissions via market mechanisms, can be traced back to the 1960s where the idea of internalising the costs of pollution via taxes and property rights unsurprisingly first emerged from economists (MacKenzie, 2008; Tokar, 2014; Koch, 2014) as a supposedly cost-efficient alternative to government intervention. The first arguably successful pollution market was the sulphur dioxide (SO2) trading mechanism in the USA, established in the 1990s. This was introduced in a market-friendly attempt to reduce the SO2 emissions from coal-fired power stations in order to reduce the occurrences of acid rain (Likens & Bormann, 1974), after previous attempts to pass bills in the US congress to address the problem failed in the 1980s with “Reaganomics” and free market beliefs ascendant. The successful 10% reduction of SO2 emissions between 1995 and 2003 (Lohmann, 2010a) seemed to vindicate the idea of market environmentalism, and subsequently shaped the Clinton administration’s insistence of market mechanisms in international climate negotiations.

It was the US delegation that introduced the idea of market instruments in the 1997 Kyoto Protocol (Searles, 1998; Koch, 2014) although the helpful role of the International Emissions Trading Association (IETA) which sent almost 1,500 lobbyists to encourage the use of these mechanisms cannot be discounted (Fernandes & Girard, 2011). It was in fact Al Gore, then the US Vice President, who advised that the US would only agree to the Protocol if the “trading of ‘rights to pollute’” was implemented (as well as mandated emission reductions to be much lower) (Tokar, 2010). This helped to consolidate the idea of using markets and property rights in attempts to prevent climate change, despite the fact that as negotiations came to a close the USA refused to adopt the Protocol. Since then the design and development of carbon markets has predominantly fallen into the hands of the theorists and architects of financial markets (Lohmann, 2010b; Koch, 2014). Once these financial groups realised the potentials of this market, emissions trading “became almost unstoppable” (Newell & Paterson, 2009, p. 8).

These ideas can be better placed in a historical view of capitalist accumulation. It is another case of the state (or states) enclosing the commons, this time the atmosphere, in order to forcefully create a new market. Capitalism has attempted to make something irreducibly complex (the climate) into something easily quantifiable (a carbon price). As David Harvey states, “Creating markets where there have been none before is one of the ways in which, historically, capital has expanded” (Derbyshire, 2014). Sullivan (2009) drives the point further when he says the modern era represents a “wave of enclosure and primitive accumulation to liberate natural capital for the global market” (p. 26). Capitalism’s requirements have always required either geographical expansion, technological/financial innovation, or both (Moore, 2011). Emissions trading and carbon markets are another example of this.

Fast forward to the present day and the previously fringe belief of pollution trading is now a key part of dominant capitalist logic. Scientists and researchers frequently endorse the idea of putting a market price on carbon to help tackle global warming (e.g. Nuccitelli, 2015). Corporations experiment with internal carbon pricing in attempts to save money and reduce emissions (e.g. Hepler, 2015). The World Bank now estimates that “40 national and over 20 sub-national jurisdictions are putting a price on carbon” which accordingly represent “about 12% of the annual GHG [GreenHouse Gas] emissions” emitted (World Bank, 2014, p. 14). Carbon markets now form an integral part of an “emerging global policy framework” that also includes renewable subsidies and carbon taxes (Office of News & Communications, 2015) in an attempt to halt GHG emissions.

Contemporary Developments

“We’re going to see a worldwide market, and carbon will unambiguously will be the largest non-financial commodity in the world.” — Richard Sandor (Carr, 2009)

Despite the now famous assertion of Nicholas Stern (2006) that climate change “is the greatest market failure the world has ever seen” (p. viii), it is not surprising to witness the size and scope of carbon markets in the modern era of neoliberalism, austerity, and the unassailable forces of markets. From Chile to New Zealand, California to Japan, South Africa to Kazakhstan, emissions trading or carbon pricing instruments are popular globally (World Bank, 2014), with eight new markets emerging in 2013 alone (Henbest, 2015). Leonardi (2012) references this proliferation as a sign of the “carbon trading dogma” (p. 13), the political assumption that only markets can provide a solution to climate change. Indeed, it would seem entirely logical to the capitalist hegemony that reducing carbon emissions can go hand-in-hand with economic growth, as Sweden’s Finance Minister Magdalena Andersson asserted recently (World Bank, 2015). To think otherwise would be tantamount to heresy and questions the ability of capitalism to solve hitherto intractable problems.

Carbon markets come in many forms, and it is beyond the scope of this work to go into full detail, but some brief information is required. The largest emissions trading system currently in existence is the European Union Emissions Trading Scheme, commonly abbreviated as the EU ETS or ETS, and established in 2005 (Ellerman & Buchner, 2007). It is a prime example of a cap and trade system (an excellent summary of which can be found from Lohmann, 2010a). Additionally there are “project-based” carbon offsets, where “instead of cutting their emissions industries, nations or individuals finance “carbon-saving” projects elsewhere” which are cheaper to implement (again from Lohmann, 2010a, p. 10). Under the Kyoto Protocol there are also “flexibility mechanisms” such as the Clean Development Mechanism3 (UNFCCC, 2014a) and Joint Implementation (UNFCCC, 2014b), the former being similar to cap and trade and the latter being a form of offsetting.

In 2009 Richard Sandor, the founder of the Chicago Climate Exchange, stated that “We’re going to see a worldwide market, and carbon will unambiguously will be the largest non-financial commodity in the world” (Carr, 2009). Those words are close to the truth given the growth and extent of carbon markets today. The global carbon market has doubled in size every year since 2005 with an estimated value of US$2 trillion in 2014 (Suppan, 2009) and an expected market value of US$3.1 trillion in 2020 (Friends of the Earth, 2009). In 2009 carbon markets traded over US$100 billion a year (Lohmann, 2009) and were worth €64 billion in 2014 (Smedley, 2015). The EU ETS alone had a turnover of €90 billion in 2010 (Gale, 2015), and a proposed national carbon market in China to be launched in 2016 will have an estimated annual turnover of 100 billion yuan, equivalent to roughly US$16.1 billion (Staff Reporter, 2015).

Carbon markets have widespread support amongst at least 1,000 companies and 84 governments (Marcacci, 2015a). Perhaps unsurprisingly as a locus of financial capitalism the City of London has become the focal point for carbon trading, with financial institutions opening their own trading desks exclusively for carbon markets (Bumpus & Liverman, 2008) or even acquiring their own “carbon companies” (Lohmann, 2010c, p. 6), although in recent years some banks have scaled back these efforts (Henbest, 2015). Recent efforts have focused on attempts to link up existing carbon markets. The EU and California are looking to connect their regional markets together (Zetterberg, 2012), and California has begun assisting China with carbon market design (Marcacci, 2015a). Canadian provinces are beginning preparations to join up existing cap and trade systems (McDiarmid, 2015), and carbon markets are now set to expand across the rest of North America (Marcacci, 2015b). Carbon markets are not advancing homogeneously however: efforts to reform and fix the issues inherent in the EU ETS continue (Neslen, 2015a; 2015b; Krukowska, 2015) and following Tony Abbott’s current track record of facilitating environmental degradation Australia has become the first country to repeal a carbon price (White, 2014; Henbest, 2015).

It seems then that carbon markets are here to stay. They are hegemonic both politically and economically. But as with most capitalist efforts to rectify problems, they are fraught with problems fatal for both humans and the biosphere.

The Failure of Atmospheric Commodification

“The oil price shocks of the 1970s didn’t wean us off oil, so why should we believe that a high carbon price will wean us off carbon?” — Jim Watson (Lovell, 2007)

First, let us consider the actual attempts of carbon markets to accurately price carbon in order to prevent climate change. The prevailing logic is that a high enough carbon price, controlled by laws of supply and demand, will provide an incentive for market actors to invest in cleaner, less carbon-intense methods of production, transport, and energy generation in order to save money. “In generating a price for carbon, it is argued, an incentive is created to reduce emissions as efficiently as possible” (Bumpus & Liverman, 2008, p. 131).

A recent economic study (Lontzek et al., 2015) found that, factoring in potentially irreversible climatic “tipping points” 4 the cost of carbon should be “200% higher” than it is today, with most institutions “seriously underpricing carbon dioxide” (Yeo, 2015). A “glut” of emission allowances in the EU ETS has continued to undermine any possibility of its effectiveness, with some fearing the oversupply of allowances “may grow to more than twice the size of the emissions the EU ETS covers by 2020” (Carbon Market Watch, 2015). For a country like Germany to have enough economic incentive to switch from coal power to using natural gas (not to renewables, just a “cleaner” fossil fuel) would require an EU ETS price of €43 per tonne of carbon – it is currently at €7 per tonne (Henbest, 2015). Other economic studies have proven that carbon pricing mechanisms are not enough to ensure climate change is averted and to encourage investment in renewable technologies (Waisman et al., 2014).

It is interesting to suppose that emissions trading systems have been designed badly on purpose to, as Lucia (2009) asserts, produce “an elaborate way to disguise a lack of action and transfer wealth to polluters” (p. 237). The relentless growth of carbon markets, as Chester & Rosewarne (2011) suggest, symbolises a “subterfuge for maintaining the commitment to the continued expansion of economic activity as well as creating new opportunities for wealth enhancement” (p. 27). Even a homogenous global carbon price, the same in all applications across all institutions, “cannot adequately reflect the true social costs of carbon emissions, because the market mechanism only recognizes preferences when these are backed up by purchasing power” (Storm, 2009, p. 1025). The idea of markets ushering us into a low carbon future thus seem hopeless and impossible. As market-based solutions continue to prevail, the control of our atmospheric commons will remain in “the hands of polluting corporations and big players in the financial markets” (Lohmann, 2010a, p. 2) and the countries backing the global neoliberal regime, as our faith in the “efficiency“ of markets continues to harm ourselves and the wider environment (Albritton, 1999).

Indeed, it is vital to remember that the overarching concept of carbon markets – a market mechanism being able to facilitate a desired change quicker and more efficiently than command-and-control policies via the state – is a gross misunderstanding. Neoliberalism, and markets in general, have always used violence in the form of state intervention in order to secure property rights and enforce stability, as well as quash dissent (Wall, 2005; Bumpus & Liverman, 2008), and carbon markets are no different. A non-scarce “non-value” like carbon requires active state intervention for it to be commodified (Koch, 2014, p. 54), enforcing an “overarching regulatory framework” within which market activities can take place (Fletcher, 2012). The end result of which is that now “an ever-increasing portion of the world’s energy and material resources now flows in networks of market-based connections” (Manno, 2011, p. 2075).

It is fitting that like the world of abstraction and derivatives from which it was birthed carbon markets and emissions trading have since their inception been wracked with corruption and criminality. A reliance on corporate self-regulation and difficulties in offset measurement have helped to draw in millions of dollars (or pounds, or euros) into “climate fraud” with corporations lying about emissions reductions or exaggerating offset projects to generate carbon credits (Bachram, 2004). Even INTERPOL felt it necessary to release a report in 2013, the “Guide to Carbon Trading Crime” as part of its Environmental Crime Programme (INTERPOL, 2013). It details the vulnerabilities of carbon markets to embezzlement, money laundering, insider trading, and cybercrime, and details how the capacity to cut corners, falsify information, or receive bribes has been found in institutions of all kinds including supposedly independent GHG accounting firms, national authorities, and companies. In recent years the full extent of “carbon crime” has become apparent, involving computer hacking, VAT fraud, bomb scares, and even funding for terrorism (Day & Bawden, 2014; Funk, 2015).

So what about emissions? Carbon markets are an attempt to quickly and efficiently allocate pollution rights in order to prevent climate change, so what evidence do we have for GHG reductions? As with setting a workable price for carbon, the carbon markets have failed in this regard. To start, many of the trading processes themselves have no inherent environmental benefits and do not actually reduce greenhouse gas emissions (Baldwin, 2008)! The growing expansion and coupling of carbon markets have done nothing to reduce emissions, and “evidence of the CDM to date suggests that offsetting increases rather than reduces” these emissions (Reyes, 2012, p. 28), or at the very least these CDM projects have done nothing to halt the rise in emissions (Fernandes & Girard, 2011). The billion (and potentially trillion) dollar market in carbon and offsets has now created an economic structure with “vested interests whose opportunities for making money rely on maintaining GHG emissions, not reducing them” (Spash, 2010), thus making any attempt to reduce GHG emissions impossible. There have been localised emissions reductions, such as those in the EU, but these have been a result of short-term fuel switching (e.g. coal to natural gas) and do not constitute a sustainable strategy (Calel & Dechezleprêtre, 2012). One can even see the unabated increase in emissions through the online measurements of the Mauna Loa Observatory (CO2Now, 2015)5.

This would seem to suggest that whether the carbon markets are designed well or not, it is impossible for them to reduce emissions in any significant way. Let alone the fact that the global carbon market is vulnerable to financial “shocks” (and that financial “firewalls” to enable resilience will never sit well with neoliberal orthodoxy (McKibbin et al, 2008, p. 13)) a safe carbon budget cannot actually enable carbon trading due to supply constraints. As Childs (2012) describes at length:

“The global carbon budget to avoid dangerous climate change is too small to allow trading. If a temperature target of 1.5 degrees is chosen with a reasonable to high chance of avoiding it, then the global carbon budget will be tiny. Carbon trading relies on countries having ‘spare’ carbon emissions that they can sell to others who do not have enough. Under a tiny carbon budget it is almost certain that no country will have any spare emissions to sell. Rich countries would need to make significant cuts very quickly and developing countries would have to develop predominantly through low carbon technologies.” (p. 15)

Again, this confirms the impossibility of carbon markets having any role to play in emissions reductions. To produce a workable carbon market, the climate will have to be endangered, and as Spash (2010) describes, GHGs are so well-embedded and pervasive in the global economy (via fossil fuels – see introduction) that their emission cannot be slowed down via simple market mechanisms. Further, this ignores the existence of huge fossil fuel consumers/GHG emitters that are not and cannot be subsumed under markets – the US military for example, “by some accounts the largest single consumer of petroleum in the world”, would hardly allow itself to be charged a carbon price as it released “56.6 million metric tons of CO2” in 2011 (Klein, 2014, p. 99).

What of the other element of our low carbon future – that of enabling the transition to a future society powered by renewable energy? Again this is an abject failure showcasing how carbon markets cannot justify their raison d’être. Lohmann (2010b) provides us with evidence that, in the case of the EU ETS, the flagship of carbon markets, renewable energy “gains no demonstrable benefits” and quotes other experts who are adamant that carbon prices cannot “deliver the escape velocity required to get investment in technological innovation into orbit” (p. 16). Indeed, the EU ETS has been criticised for being in “direct competition” with the development and subsidising of renewable technologies (Gale, 2015, p. 1), and at best it has had “a very limited impact on low-carbon technological change” (Calel & Dechezleprêtre, 2012, p. 24). Koch (2014) comes to the same conclusion, stating “carbon prices have at no point in time been high enough to trigger behavioural change and technology investments” (p. 60). Carbon markets are thus able to trigger short-term changes (e.g. fuel switching, see Calel & Dechezleprêtre, 2012) for immediate profit but are unable to undergo any “long term structural changes” to promote a renewable future (Lohmann, 2006; 2010a). Even the economist Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute and an “apostate of market theology” (Storm, 2009, p. 1019) said that the “hands-off approach” of economists setting prices and unleashing market forces “will not work in the case of a major overhaul of energy technology” (Sachs, 2008).

A Mistaken Enemy: Capitalism, not Carbon

“Climate change must be defined as an issue of capital not carbon…there is no equitable technological solution to climate change.” — Steven, 2012

A more fundamental critique is thus required, a need to address the heart of the capitalist system, of the “grow or die” imperative (Bookchin, 1993) that has created carbon markets. As has been seen it is clear that carbon markets have failed in their objectives of reducing GHG emissions to prevent anthropogenically-induced climatic change and enabling a transition to renewably powered economies. Instead they have enabled a subterfuge of environmental protection and progressivism whilst maintaining and furthering inequitable wealth distribution. Whilst there appears to be minor conflicts between advocates of uncontrolled economic growth at all costs and what could best be called a “climate bourgeoise“ that seeks to use the biocrisis to facilitate another round of “accumulation by dispossession” (Harvey, 2004) or “Accumulation by Decarbonization” (Bumpus & Liverman, 2008) capitalism is still unrelenting in its commodification of genes, species, ecosystems (Sullivan, 2009) and now the atmosphere, maintaining the nature-society binary for its own ecocidal purposes (Out of the Woods, 2014a).

Perhaps unsurprising given its capitalist and neoliberalist background, carbon markets and emissions trading have done an excellent job of maintaining inequalities and facilitating wealth transfer from rich to poor. As with all markets, “wealthier participants may secure allowances on more favourable terms than impoverished users solely due to the information and arbitrage opportunities that accompany their superior wealth” (Page, 2012, p. 944). Similarly Steven and Böhm et al reinforce the idea that “there is no equitable technological solution to climate change. A de-carbonised global economy will still be a capitalist economy with all the social and environmental damage this entails” (Steven, 2012) and that “even if a decarbonized capitalist ‘green economy’ were possible, such an economy would be characterized by uneven growth and disparities of income, and by the unequal distribution of economic, social and environmental risks that global markets produce” (Böhm et al., 2012). The anti-ecological character of capitalism, as Tokar (2014) asserts cannot be denied “however skilled we may become at measuring our ecological footprint.” Existing wealth inequalities are only exacerbated within emissions trading, and in fact carbon markets offer up “wealth creating opportunities” to the wealthiest, who happen to also be the most polluting (Baldwin, 2008, p. 22).

As they maintain and perpetuate the disparities between rich and poor, carbon markets preserve the capitalist imperialist divisions of North and South, of “developed” and “developing”. As Howard Zinn stated, “globalization is in fact imperialism” under a different name (Lockard & Schalit, 2001). Areas of land (or water) that maintain a net absorption of carbon (under climate discourse a “carbon sink”) are becoming commodified as part of carbon offset schemes under capitalism, enclosing the commons and empowering dominant countries and elites at the expense of the geographical South (Shiva, 2001; Böhm et al., 2012). In effect the South is becoming a “carbon dump” for the industrialised nations, as “assets” like old-growth rainforests are seized from indigenous communities for them to be officially “managed” per international climate agreements (Bachram, 2004; Rights and Resources Initiative, 2014). Just one example of this is the plight of the Sengwer and Ogiek indigenous peoples in Kenya, who have been attacked and forcibly evicted from their ancestral forest homes in order to clear the forests for conservation and carbon offsets at the behest of the World Bank (Ahmed, 2014), but other examples are frequent (see Böhm & Dabhi, 2009). In the North land speculation for carbon credits also causes conflicts, though of a different nature (Hume, 2015). It then should be of no surprise that many developing countries “suspect that the newfound ecological concern of industrialized countries is merely the latest chapter in a long history of imperialism” (Litfin, 1997, p. 187).

It is clear then that carbon markets are simply another weapon in capitalism’s toolkit of domination and assimilation. As part of the “carbon trading dogma” (Leonardi, 2012, p. 13) reflecting the need for “everything” to “have a price” (Lander, 2011, p. 8) capitalism helps to present the image that “climate change does not contradict finance-driven capitalism” and thus helps stifle resistance or alternatives (Koch, 2014, p. 63) as part of a greater trend of absorbing environmental concerns into market activities (Kingsnorth, 2009). Following Klein’s (2007) concept of disaster capitalism “the energy and desire to act on climate change” has been appropriated and redirected into global capital flows (Paterson, 2009, p. 250), using the biocrisis as “a marketing opportunity and justification to expand neoliberal markets and regulatory mechanisms” (Fletcher, 2012, p. 108). If anything capitalism has proven how quickly it can shift its strategies and approach to climate change from “reactionary and obstructionist” to seeing “a business opportunity” in potential climate disaster (Fernandes & Girard, 2011, p. 20).

“Ultimately,” as Know-Hayes (2010) states, “carbon markets are designed to continue capitalist development and expansion.” The ideas of protecting the environment, reducing emissions, and promoting societal sustainability are secondary to the profit motive, as can be seen in the evidence Lohmann (2010c) cites where the vast majority of carbon market transactions are in derivatives, or the large amount of carbon funds established for financial gain. Carbon markets can also be characterised as an example of “weak ecological modernisation” characterised by technological solutions, technocratic control, and narrow-minded frameworks, in order to act as a “lifeline for capitalist economies threatened by ecological crisis” and nothing else (Gibbs, 1998, p. 5). Indeed, carbon trading can be seen as a form of “proxy commodification” in order to facilitate “green” accumulation (Koch, 2014, p. 54), turning the very problem of environmental degradation into “an asset, a tradable commodity” (Abboud, 2013). Even if the global economy were to be successfully “de-carbonised” it would still be capitalist at heart and in nature, a “more austere form of capitalism in which increasing unrest will require disciplining by increasingly authoritarian forms of state power” (Steven, 2012). In essence capitalism wishes to maintain the status quo, to allow business as usual, and carbon markets certainly allow our consumption (especially those of us in the North) to continue unabated as we purchase “green credentials” and personal offsets to make up for the ecological damage our economies cause (Bachram, 2004; Beder, 2014).

As Bookchin (1985) said thirty years ago, capitalism is not “decaying” by any means. It is an “ever-expanding order that grows beyond the capacity of any society” to contain it. Any attempt to “green” capitalism is destined to fail (Müller & Passadakis, 2009; Tokar, 2014; probablyasocialecologist, 2015). As Bookchin quipped “One might more easily persuade a green plant to desist from photosynthesis than to ask the bourgeois economy to desist from capital accumulation” (Bookchin, 1980, p. 66). Capitalism and the environment “are antagonistic in their very essence” (Amin, 2010) and as described its economic growth is both facilitated by and encourages the consumption of fossil fuels (Foster, 2008; Spash, 2010). A prime example brings us back to the World Bank who, despite its rhetoric of facilitating and financing the transition to a low carbon future, still paradoxically desires economic growth and a stable biosphere as it “continues to subsidise and support fossil fuel extraction on a scale 17 times larger than it supports clean energy initiatives” (Carton, 2009, p. 22). And as Keefer (2006) maintains it was fossil fuels that were responsible for “industrial capitalism and its astonishing conquest and transformation of the world”.

So not only are carbon markets failures at their own objectives but they, as a symbol of capitalism’s desire to co opt and commodify, are inherently anti-ecological. The widespread belief that market mechanisms can facilitate a prevention of climate change or transport us to a sustainable future is extremely dangerous. A new approach is required.

Are Markets Necessary?

“There are better ways of tackling climate change than by privatising the Earth’s carbon-cycling capacity.” — Lohmann (2006)

Capitalism, then, is a dead end. It can not solve the problem it helped to create and accelerate. “Capitalism is the origin of the biocrisis, the last and final crisis of capitalism” (Institute for Experimental Freedom, 2009, p. 12). Thankfully there are glimmers of hope we can aim towards. The global economy has recently begun “producing renewable energy at an industrial scale” (Steiner, 2015) and it has been estimated the entire world energy infrastructure could easily be replaced with renewables within twenty to forty years (Jacobson & Delucchi, 2010; Schwartzman Schwartzman, 2011). These developments leapfrog any need for carbon markets or other market mechanisms, and it is only political will that is required to realise them, a political will that we must spearhead quickly if we are to avoid conflict as fossil fuel reserves run dry (Hughes, 2008). As Podobnik (2010) states, “The historical record shows very clearly that deep, enduring changes in energy industries require the mobilization of mass social movements. We cannot simply wait for visionary politicians to forge the way” (p. 76-77).

But a solution cannot be a simple product of technics. Our society, and its view of the wider environment, has to change also. “Renewable energy is a necessity for a sustainable and equitable society, but not a guarantee of one” McBay (2011, p. 260) says, citing the US military and its renewable energy projects. We must remember that “The way we position ourselves in our view of the natural world is deeply entangled with the way we view the social world […] Every society extends its own perception of itself into nature” (Bookchin, 1986). A renewably powered capitalist economy would still view the natural world as nothing more than a resource to be managed and plundered, assigned market values and traded, the “terminology of contracts” poisoning our view of ourselves both as humans and as part of wider nature (Bookchin, 1998, p. 79).

The transition to a low-carbon, anti-capitalist social order will be a “transition to the unknown” (Levy, 2012). We will need to struggle against the “carbon trading dogma” and the overriding logic of markets, informing others of the alternatives we aim for. As the bourgeoisie ruin not just our world but “the Earth systems which sustain human civilisation” we have to steel ourselves for the struggles ahead and ask ourselves – who’s afraid of ruins? (Out of the Woods, 2014b)

1 I borrow the term “biocrisis” from the Institute for Experimental Freedom (2009), referring to “the real wave of extinctions caused by extreme ecological degradation.”

Often defined as the “Kyoto Basket”, the greenhouse gases most responsible for anthropogenic climate change are carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), and sulphur hexafluoride (SF6), hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), and perfluorocarbons (PFCs) (Eurostat, 2015).

3 “The CDM can be seen as a good example of what Peck and Tickell (2002) called rollout neoliberalism, in which the state intervenes to allocate and secure private property rights, provide scientific knowledge, or create stable market institutions.” (Bumpus & Liverman, 2008)

4 “These tipping points are the irreversible melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet, the collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, the dieback of the Amazon Rainforest, the reorganisation of circulation in the Atlantic ocean and the increase in the amplitude of the El Niño Southern Oscillation.” (Yeo, 2015).

5 There is even a Twitter feed run by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography that documents global CO2 concentrations – they can be followed at @Keeling_curve.

The author apologises for any references that can’t be accessed due to paywalls.


The Problem of Green Growth

The very concept of “green growth”, or of a green economy, is fraught with ambiguity. A collection of different, sometimes contradictory strategies and policies (Bullard & Müller, 2012; Ulrich, 2012), it seeks to reduce environmental degradation while failing to address the underlying causes, namely market structures and the capitalism accumulation imperative (Hoffmann, 2011). Indeed, the very concept of “saving the planet” is limited by the need to follow “the sacred rights of the free market” (Lander, 2011: 7), and ignores the fact that environmental protection goes against modern economic interests (Spash, 2012).

The economist Kenneth Boulding made the point succinctly when he said that “Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist.” (Heinberg, 2005). Yet continuous economic growth and profit for its own sake remains a basic element of today’s global society (Niccolucci et al., 2007; Dale, 2012), requiring further increases in resource extraction and commodity consumption, as mainstream economists maintain that technological innovation will surpass any and all biophysical limits (Brown et al., 2011). Faced with massive environmental degradation and upcoming resource limits the capitalist system creates a façade of “green growth” to mask the true crisis – that capitalism itself is unsustainable, and a new economic paradigm is required.

It is important to remember it is the very internal mechanisms of capitalism that produce resource depletion and environmental degradation in the quest for growth and profit (Macdonald, 2004). “Green growth” ignores the nonnegotiable “grow or die” imperative in modern capitalism that is the root cause of environmental problems (Bookchin, 1993). Additionally, advocates of a pro-market environmentalism stance will find it hard to explain how a system that has produced such environmental damage will reduce consumption and redistribute income, notions that are anathema to capitalism yet form the basis of sustainability itself (Nichols, 1999). Indeed, to reduce our impact on the planet and improve the sustainability of civilisation, the very tenets of capitalism – competition, greed and consumerism – will have to be replaced by sufficiency, mutual aid, and community connectedness (Rees, 2010; Manno, 2011). Ultimately, a new ecological-economic system is required to ensure a stable global economy and living space for humanity (Ehrlich, 1989) – what form it will take is unknown, but it will be very different from the present.

It must be admitted that a global transition to an economy shaped by “green growth” would produce tangible benefits, reducing humanity’s environmental footprint and enabling technological and social change (Hoffmann, 2011) as well as providing millions of “green jobs” worldwide (UNEP, 2008). Additionally, green growth has positive aspects that are much needed. It encourages collective action (Bowen & Fankhauser, 2011), something sorely needed in an era of international globalisation and competition, and allows for proactive measures without restraining entrepreneurship (Martinelli & Midttun, 2012). As mentioned earlier, it would also bring positive changes to society as well as providing “green employment” (Jackson & Victor, 2011). However, the detrimental effects outweigh the benefits.

The very concept of “growth” is unviable for an era of degradation and resource limits. We are already sacrificing natural capital for manufactured capital at an unsustainable rate (Daly, 2005). Importantly, economic growth eventually becomes a blight rather than a blessing for human wellbeing (Beddoe et al., 2009) and contributing to our modern economies becoming energetically unsustainable (Smil, 2008). Even if desired, it is unlikely that further economic growth is possible (Hall & Klitgaard, 2006; Murphy & Hall, 2011; Johnson et al., 2012).

What is needed is a fundamental restructuring of global economics. Modern economics is incapable of integrating environmental degradation and resource depletion (Gintis, 2000; Ayres, 2008; Farley, 2011), and carrying on as we are risks further ecological damage (Raskin et al., 2010). The “expand or perish” force in modern capitalism must be removed, along with the current consumption patterns and lifestyles of the industrial north (Haberl et al., 2011; Hoffmann, 2011). What to do? Should we aim for a “steady-state” economy (Daly, 1991)? Or is “degrowth” the answer, like in Cuba (Borowy, 2013)? Although economic fears regarding the consequences of degrowth are prudent, proof that a non-growing economy could maintain or increase levels of employment whilst reducing resource use and carbon emissions should reduce such fears (Simms et al., 2010; Jackson & Victor, 2011).

Some have emphasised poverty as a cause of environmental degradation (Duraiappah, 1996) and that growth is needed to lift these people out of poverty, but this is a harmful myth (Satterthwaite, 2002). It has to be remembered though that conventional methods of growth have thus far done nothing to aid the two billion people still surviving on less than $2 daily (Jackson, 2009). Concepts of green growth continue to fall short of what is needed to address both the environmental and poverty crisis (Bina & Camera, 2011), and despite the hopes of reduced energy use, economic growth of any kind is frequently correlated with increases in energy use (Hall & Klitgaard, 2006; Sterner & Damon, 2011). And as recounted at length previously, markets and capitalist structures are utterly unsuited for any form of transition to an environmentally sustainable form of economic governance (Martínez-Alier et al., 2010; Smith, 2011). Conventional economics brought us to the cliff’s edge; something new is required to bring us back.

The author would like to apologise for those references which are unfortunately behind paywalls at the time of writing.