We cannot shop our way out of environmental crisis, ‘green’ or not

20 08 2014

1Guest post by Pete Dolack.  Pete is an activist, writer, poet and photographer. He wishes he could keep all those balls in the air but keeps dropping some of them. He has worked with a variety of groups as an activist, and currently works with Trade Justice New York Metro as part of the effort to stop the Trans-Pacific Partnership. He writes about the economic crisis, and ideas for a better world in his blog Systemic Disorder. He is also the author of the upcoming book, It’s Not Over: Lessons from the Socialist Experiment.

Originally published at Generation Alpha

 

 

There is no alternative to a dramatic change in the organization of the global economy. We cannot make ‘green’ what cannot be green. A powerful 33-page paper by Dr. Richard Smith, Green capitalism: the god that failed, demonstrates this as effectively as anything I have read. Richard, from the Institute for Policy Research & Development in London, argues that:

  • “Green capitalism” is “doomed from the start” because maximizing profit and ecological sustainability are broadly in conflict; the occasional time when they might be in harmony are temporary and rare exceptions. This is because corporations are answerable to private owners and shareholders, not to society. Profit maximization trumps all else under capitalism and thereby sets limits to ecological reform.
  • No capitalist government can impose “green taxes” effective enough to end the coal or other destructive industries because the result would be recession and mass unemployment.
  • Green-capitalism proponents vastly underestimate the speed with which environmental collapse is coming. No amount of tinkering can alter the course of environmental destruction under the present system. Humanity, therefore, must replace capitalism with a post-capitalist ecologically sustainable economy.
  • Resource extraction is inherently polluting but can’t be shut down without chaos. It is not possible to “dematerialize” much of the economy, as green-capitalism proponents believe possible. The only way to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions is to “enforce a drastic contraction of production in the industrialized countries.” This is not possible under capitalism because the affected industries would be committing suicide. It could only be carried out through a socialization of industry and a redeployment of labour to sectors that need to be developed for social good.
  • Consumerism and over-consumption are not “cultural” or the result of personal characteristics — they are a natural consequence of capitalism and built into the system. Problems like climate change and other aspects of the world environmental crisis can only be solved on a global level through democratic control of the economy, not by individual consumer choices or national governments.

 

Cap-and-trade equals profits by polluting

European attempts to implement “cap and trade” schemes to limit greenhouse-gas emissions were countered from the start by industry lobbyists asking for exceptions because, they argued, they would lose competitiveness. Some threatened to move elsewhere, taking jobs with them. Governments gave in. Polluters and traders took in windfall profits, with no real effect on emissions. Dr. Smith writes:

“German electricity companies were supposed to receive 3 per cent fewer permits than they needed to cover their total emissions between 2005 and 2007, which would have obliged them to cut emissions by that amount. Instead the companies got 3 percent more than they needed — a windfall worth about $374 billion at that time.”

A proposal to directly tax carbon in France, proposed by the administration of Nicolas Sarkozy, was ruled unconstitutional because most of France’s major polluters would have been let off the hook entirely while households would have assumed the burden. Dr. Smith put the farce of this failed proposal in perspective:

“The court said that more than 1,000 of France’s biggest polluters could have been exempted from the charges, and that 93 percent of industrial emissions would not have been taxed at all. But even if Sarkozy had successfully imposed his carbon tax, this tax would have raised the price of gasoline by just 25 US cents per gallon. Given that the French already pay nearly $9 per gallon for gasoline, it’s hard to see how an additional 25 cents would seriously discourage consumption let alone ‘save the human race.’ ”

Some advocates of cap-and-trade or carbon taxes in the United States try to get around industry pushback by advocating they become “revenue-neutral.” But if “carbon tax offsets are revenue neutral, then they are also ‘impact neutral,’ ” Dr. Smith writes. That brings us back to the reality that imposing drastic cuts would be the only way to effect the significant reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions necessary to prevent catastrophic climate change in coming decades. That, in turn, can’t be done without massive dislocation.

Yet reductions are not only necessary, but will be required by physical limits — the world’s population is using the resources at the rate of 1.5 Earths and the United Nations predicts we’ll be using two Earths by 2030. Moreover, if all the world’s peoples used resources at the rate that the United States does, “we would need 5.3 planets to support all this.” Needless to say, we have only one Earth available.

 

More efficiency leads to more consumption

One of the pillars on which green capitalists rest their advocacy is increased efficiency of energy usage, achieved through technological innovation. But energy usage has been increasing, not decreasing, despite greater efficiencies gained out of a range of products. Gains in efficiency can, and frequently are, used to expand production; given that capitalist incentives reward expansion, that is what is done. Moreover, “green” industries are not necessarily green. The paper points out:

“Even when it’s theoretically possible to shift to greener production, given capitalism, as often as not, ‘green’ industries just replace old problems with new problems: So burning down tracts of the Amazon rainforest in order to plant sugarcane to produce organic sugar for Whole Foods or ethanol to feed cars instead of people, is not so green after all. Neither is burning down Indonesian and Malaysian rainforests to plant palm-oil plantations so Britons can tool around London in their obese Landrovers.”

Making motor vehicles more fuel-efficient, although a goal that should be pursued, nonetheless falls far short of a solution. Fuel usage from the increasing number of vehicles and longer distances travelled are greater than all the savings from fuel efficiency. And focusing on only when the vehicle is being driven leaves untouched most of the pollution caused by them. Dr. Smith writes:

“Most of the pollution any car will ever cause is generated in the production process before the car even arrives at the showroom — in the production of all the steel, aluminium, copper and other metals, glass, rubber, plastic, paint and other raw materials and inputs that go into every automobile, and in the manufacturing process itself. Cars produce 56 percent of all the pollution they will ever produce before they ever hit the road. … [S]o long as [automakers] are free to produce automobiles without limit more cars will just mean more pollution, even if the cars are hybrids or plug-in electric cars.”

Those electric vehicles are only as “clean” as the source of electricity used to power them. Many plug-in electric vehicles are coal-powered vehicles because coal is a common source of electricity. Looking at it holistically, such an electric vehicle would be more polluting than a gasoline-fuelled vehicle; and the majority of the pollution from the manufacturing (for the vehicle itself) would be there just the same. Then there is the pollution and greenhouse-gas emissions of the electric-car battery. Nickel is a primary input; the Russian city that is the site of the world’s largest source of nickel, Norilsk, is one of the world’s most polluted places.

“I would not be surprised if the most ecological cars on the planet today are not those Toyota Priuses or even the Chevy Volts with their estimated [seven- to 10-year] lifespan, but those ancient Fords, Chevrolets, and Oldsmobiles cruising round the streets of Havana. For even if their gas mileage is lower than auto-producer fleet averages today, they were still produced only once, whereas American ‘consumers’ have gone through an average of seven generations of cars since 1960 (when the U.S. embargo ended car imports to Cuba), with all the manufacturing and disposal pollution that entailed.”

 

Consumerism props up capitalist economies

Planned obsolescence is part of the problem, across the spectrum of manufactured products. Capitalist manufacturers don’t want products that last a long time; repeatedly selling new products is far more profitable. But it would be overly simplistic to lay full blame for this on greed, however much greed is rewarded by a capitalist economy. Household consumption — all the things that people buy for personal use from toothbrushes to automobiles — accounts for 60 to 70 percent of gross domestic product in almost all advanced capitalist countries. If people aren’t buying things, the economy struggles.

Proponents of green capitalism fail to grasp the structural causes of over-consumption. However much better for the environment, and the world’s future, drastic reductions in consumerism would be, moral exhortations can’t be effective. Trapped in an idealist mirage that capitalism can be “tamed” or “repurposed,” green capitalists, through seeking individual solutions to structural and systemic problems, not only miss the forest for the trees but leave the economic structure responsible untouched. People in the global North should consume less, but to place the blame on individual behaviour lets the manufacturers of useless products off the hook and is blind to the economic realities should the system be left in place intact.

Once again, we cannot shop our way out of economic and environmental problems. Even not shopping would bring its own set of problems, Dr. Smith writes:

“[H]ow can we ‘reject consumerism’ when we live in a capitalist economy where, in the case of the United States, more than two-thirds of market sales, and therefore most jobs, depend on direct sales to consumers while most of the rest of the economy, including the infrastructure and not least, the military, is dedicated to propping up this super consumerist ‘American way of life?’ Indeed, most jobs in industrialized countries critically depend not just on consumerism but on ever-increasing over-consumption. We ‘need’ this ever-increasing consumption and waste production because, without growth, capitalist economies collapse and unemployment soars. …

[I]t’s not the culture that drives the economy so much as, overwhelmingly, the economy that drives the culture: It’s the insatiable demands of shareholders that drive corporate producers to maximize sales, therefore to constantly seek out new sales and sources in every corner of the planet, to endlessly invent [new needs]. … ‘[C]onsumerism’ is not just a ‘cultural pattern,’ it’s not just ‘commercial brainwashing’ or an ‘infantile regression.’ … Insatiable consumerism is an everyday requirement of capitalist reproduction, and this drives capitalist invention and imperial expansion. No overconsumption, no growth, no jobs. And no voluntarist ‘cultural transformation’ is going to overcome this fundamental imperative so long as the economic system depends on over-consumption for its day-to-day survival.”

There is no way out other than replacing capitalism with a steady-state economy based on meeting human needs, and that could only be attained through bottom-up, democratic control. No one promises new jobs to those who would be displaced under capitalism; logically, then, those who jobs and ability to earn a living is dependent on polluting or wasteful industries resist environmental initiatives. The wholesale changes that are necessary to prevent a global environmental catastrophe can’t be accomplished under the present economic system; it would require a different system with the flexibility to re-deploy labor in large numbers when industries are reduced or eliminated, and one that would have no need to grow. Inequality would have to be eliminated for any kind of global democratic economy to be able to function.

Dr. Smith pronounces this “a tall order to be sure.” That it is. But with many world cities, and entire countries, at risk of becoming inhabitable due to rising sea levels, more erratic weather and an accelerated timetable to deplete the world’s resources, what choice do we have? Green capitalism is not only not green, it is worse than illusion because of the false hope it dangles in front of our eyes.

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6 responses

21 08 2014
Gordon

“Cars produce 56 percent of all the _pollution_ they will ever produce before they ever hit the road. …”

I think the more relevant quote from the original German Environment and Forecasting Institute report is, in relation to CO2 emissions:
68% of all a car’s emissions comes from processing and transporting the raw materials;
10% is emitted as a result of manufacturing, scrapping, and constructing roads and garage facilities;
and only 22% of CO2 emissions comes from the actual operation of the car. [http://www.solarpolis.de/Archiv/Seiten/solarmo2.htm#Kap7Unterkap2UU1]

So assuming that this distribution of emissions applies broadly to electric vehicles, a total changeover to electric cars would save only around 20% of the car-related emissions.

21 08 2014
Idiocracy

Correct… assuming all the electric cars are magically charged by pixie dust, and not brown coal fired power plants! 🙂

22 08 2014
lockyervalley

I’d have thought the logical alternative to pixie dust and brown coal power would be solar, wind or other already available renewables.

21 08 2014
mikestasse

Wow…….. that is amazing information. Thanks Gordon.

23 08 2014
kika

amazing – not one mention of population – the constant companion of over-consumption.

23 08 2014
Gordon

Population growth _is_ covered, on pages 126-127 of Smith’s paper, but I would argue that the author’s major objective is to bring to people’s attention the real nature of the capitalist system, and the way in which it captures states and attitudes while promoting overconsumption, to the point where it is pretty much unassailable without bringing down the system and replacing it with something else. Population is a side issue in this discussion, both because capitalism will promote harmful levels of over-consumption and externalisation of costs regardless of the population level, and because there is no chance of turning turning around population growth, let alone reducing population to sustainable levels, in time to avoid disastrous climate change.

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