Changing the conversation

8 12 2017

I have to say I have been baffled by some of the comments readers of this blog have left behind when I challenged the sustainability of planting a wind farm in the middle of nowhere in Australia’s outback…… well my friends, I am no longer the only one voicing the need for de-industrialisation. This piece from Resilience dot org, by Richard Smith, and originally published by Common Dreams and another I will soon also republish agree with me.  The time to add ANY MORE CO2 to the air is over…

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For far too long, polite conversation, public debate and consideration of policy initiatives have been subordinated to the imperatives of capitalist reproduction, above all profit maximization. Profit maximization and job creation go hand in hand and crucially depend upon economic growth. All “reasonable” solutions to the crisis of global warming take that as their starting point, a fundamental principle that cannot be challenged. This is the unspoken premise of carbon taxes: Carbon taxes do not threaten growth. They’re simply another cost of doing business, another tax which moreover can be passed along to consumers. This is why ExxonMobil, Shell, BP and most big fossil fuel companies support carbon taxes as the lesser evil (cap and trade is the greater evil precisely because a cap would threaten growth, which is why cap and trade are not acceptable to business and why such schemes have all been either rejected outright as in the United States or so watered down as to be useless charades as in Europe, British Columbia and elsewhere). The oil companies are not looking to put themselves out of business. Industry and IEA studies project that global demand for fossil fuels will rise by 40% over the next few decades and the oil companies intend to cash in on this growth. To do so they need to deflect criticism by being good citizens, paying their carbon taxes, contributing to the “solution” or at least appearing to do so.

The problem is, we live in an economy built on perpetual growth but we live on a finite planet with limited resources and sinks. To date, all efforts to “green” capitalism have foundered on this fundamental contradiction: maximizing profit and saving the planet are inherently in conflict and cannot be systematically aligned even if, here and there, they might coincide for a moment. That’s because under capitalism, CEOs and corporate boards are not responsible to society, they’re responsible to private shareholders. CEOs can embrace environmentalism when it boosts profits, as with energy efficiency, recycling, and new “green” products and the like. But saving the world requires that the pursuit of profits be systematically subordinated to ecological concerns—and this they cannot do. No corporate board can sacrifice earnings, let alone put itself out of business, just to save the humans because to do so would be to risk shareholder flight or worse. Profit-maximization is an iron rule of capitalism, a rule that trumps all else, and this sets the limits to ecological reform within capitalism—and not the other way around as the promoters of “green capitalism” imagined.

To save the humans we know we have to drastically cut fossil fuel consumption. But “Keep It in the Ground” is not just an abstraction and not just about future supplies. If we’re going to radically suppress fossil fuel consumption in the here and now as we must, then this has to translate into drastic retrenchments and closures of industrial plants across the economy—and not just of coal mines, oil and gas companies but all the fossil fuel dependent industries: autos, trucking, petrochemical industries, airlines, shipping, construction and more.

What’s more, the global ecological crisis we face is far bigger than just fossil fuels. We’re not just overconsuming fossil fuels. We’re overconsuming every resource on the planet, driving ourselves and countless other species to extinction. Ultimately, if we really want to save the planet, we’re going to have to shut down or at least drastically retrench all kinds of resource-hogging, polluting, unnecessary, unsustainable industries and companies from fossil fuels to bottled water, from disposable products to agrichemicals, plastic junk to military weapons of destruction.

Take just one: Cruise ships are the fastest growing sector of mass tourism on the planet. But they are by far the most polluting tourist indulgence ever invented: Large ships can burn more than 150 tons of the filthiest diesel bunker fuel per day, spewing out more fumes—and far more toxic fumes—than 5 million cars, polluting entire regions, the whole of southern Europe – and all this to ferry a few thousand boozy passengers about bashing coral reefs. There is just no way this industry can be made sustainable. The cost of the ticket for that party boat cruise is our children. The same can be said for dozens if not hundreds of industries, thousands of companies around the world. We can save these industries, save capitalism, or we can save the planet. We can’t save both.

Needless to say, retrenching and closing down such industries would mean job losses, millions of job losses from here to China (pdf).  Yet if we don’t shut down those unsustainable industries we’re doomed. What to do? There’s no point in chanting “Keep It in the Ground” if we don’t have a jobs program for all those workers whose jobs need to be excessed to save those workers’ children and ours. This is our dilemma.

Planned, managed deindustrialization or unplanned, chaotic ecological collapse

Capitalism cannot solve this problem because no company can promise new jobs to unemployed coal miners, oil-drillers, automakers, airline pilots, chemists, plastic junk makers, and others whose jobs would be lost because their industries would have to be retrenched—and unemployed workers don’t pay taxes. So CEOs, workers, and governments find that they all “need” to maximize growth, overconsumption, even pollution, to destroy their children’s tomorrows to hang onto their jobs today. Thus we’re all onboard the high-speed train of ravenous and ever-growing plunder and pollution.

And as our locomotive races toward the cliff of ecological collapse, the only thoughts on the minds of our CEOS, capitalist economists, politicians and labor leaders is how to stoke the locomotive to get us there faster. Professor Fong is right: Corporations aren’t necessarily evil. They just can’t help themselves. They’re doing what they’re supposed to do for the benefit of their owners. But this means that so long as the global economy is based on capitalist private/corporate property and competitive production for market, we’re doomed to collective social suicide and no amount of tinkering with the market can brake the drive to global ecological collapse.

We can’t shop our way to sustainability because the problems we face cannot be solved by individual choices in the marketplace. They require collective democratic control over the economy to prioritize the needs of society and the environment. And they require local, national, regional and international economic planning to re-organize our economies, to provide new jobs to replace those jobs we need to abolish, and to rationally and fairly redeploy resources to those ends. In a paper I wrote for The Next System Project last year—”Six Theses on Saving the Planet—I laid out my argument for ecosocialism as the only alternative to market-driven ecological collapse in the form of six theses:

  1. Capitalism, not population is the main driver of planetary ecological collapse and it cannot be reformed enough to save the humans.
  2. Green capitalism can’t save us because companies can’t commit economic suicide to save the humans. There’s just no solution to our crisis within the framework of any conceivable capitalism.
  3. The only alternative to market-driven ecological collapse is to transition to some sort of mostly planned, mostly publicly owned economy based on a global ‘contraction and convergence’ around a sustainable level of resource consumption that can provide a dignified living standard for all the world’s peoples while leaving enough for future generations and other species.
  4. Rational planning requires bottom-up democracy.
  5. Democracy requires rough socioeconomic equality – which requires that we abolish extreme differences in incomes and wealth and enforce those rights already in theory guaranteed to us in the Universal Declaration of Rights (1949) including the right to work at fair compensation, the right to equal employment, the right to adequate food, housing, medical care, education, social services, and a comfortable retirement.
  6. Far from “austerity,” an ecosocialist future offers us liberation from the treadmill of consumerism, from the fetishism of commodities. Freeing ourselves from the toil of producing unnecessary and /or harmful products and services would free us to shorten the work day, to enjoy the leisure promised but never delivered by capitalism, to redefine the meaning of the standard of living to connote a way of life that is actually richer, while consuming less, to realize the fullest potential of every human being. This is the emancipatory promise of ecosocialism.

For some readers, my arguments may raise as many questions as they answer. Fine. But if we don’t change the conversation, if we don’t deal with the systemic problems of capitalism and come up with a viable alternative, our goose is cooked.  So if not ecosocialism, then what? This is the public debate we need to be having right now. What are your thoughts?

One of my Facebook allies has written a reply of sorts to this article, because we both agree it doesn’t really go quite far enough……  some of us are true radicals…! I will post Saral’s essay soon.  Mike.