Capitalism & Climate Change
Capitalism dominates the globe. It has become so enmeshed into the cultural narrative that it seems almost axiomatic. Private owners (of capital) control the means of production. The goal: build profits. The best part about it is that if everyone pursues self-interest, the market will grow and society will benefit. The invisible hand helps the market to self-regulate, creating socially desirable results.
No. When it comes to dealing with issues such as poverty, the income gap, unemployment, economic crises, human rights, war, imperialism, and the externalization of costs on society and the environment, the invisible hand that Adam Smith once imagined is not invisible, it is nonexistent.
We are currently experiencing, without a doubt, the greatest crisis to face human kind. Indications of climate change are being seen around the globe: accelerated melting of the Arctic sea ice, rapidly receding glaciers, rising sea levels, warming oceans and ocean acidification, more frequent and longer-lasting droughts, stronger and more frequent storms, higher temperatures than ever recorded, and a rapid extinction of species are direct result of a warming climate.
There is a scientific consensus that the climate is rapidly changing and that these rapid changes are due to anthropogenic causes. The science is clear: the human-caused emissions of great amounts of greenhouse gases – primarily carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide – are causing global environmental damage.
Many argue that market and techo-based approaches are the way to combat climate change. They push for carbon taxing and trading, geo-engineering, and renewable energy without considering the fact that the system itself is incompatible with sustainability. By its very nature, capitalism seeks only to grow and accumulate – an idea that is diametrically opposed to a sustainable existence.
In this series, I will examine how the capitalist system has brought us to climate disaster, and why it cannot get us out of it.
Technology will save the planet; at least, that’s the assertion. The claim is that capitalism, if allowed to flourish, will naturally lead to technologies that are more sustainable and cause less harm to the environment through market pressures. The sheer power of the human mind to innovate will be our redemption. Production can continue unabated, meanwhile our emissions and use of natural resources will decrease.
This is the idea of dematerializing the economy – or reducing the throughput of raw materials and energy into the system without decreasing the system’s output of goods and services. Basically, the economy will do more with less. By switching to more sustainable sources of energy like wind and solar, increasing the efficiency of machinery and appliances, and through geoengineering, proponents of the technological solution to climate change argue that man’s ingenuity can pull us back from the brink of disaster. Economist Anthony Giddens writes in The Politics of Climate Change that we must take bold action to combat climate change, and this means “taking the plunge” on geoengineering projects that could save humanity from the harmful effects of climate change. “We have no hope of responding to climate change unless we are prepared to take bold decisions. It is the biggest example ever of he who hesitates is lost.”
However, further investing in technologies and in geoengineering is not a bold, new decision, as Giddens contends. It is doubling down on exactly what we have been doing for decades. Solar Radiation Management (SRM) techniques (one area of geoengineering) such as adding sulfate aerosols to the stratosphere to increase the albedo effect – the amount of the Sun’s energy that is reflected back into space – and cool the planet are being seriously considered by many scientists and policy makers. The absurdity of pursuing massive projects that would greatly alter the natural systems of the earth and that could have disastrous side effects is evident. Gavin Schmidt, climate modeler at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, created the following analogy for geoengineering: Imagine the climate as a small boat on a choppy ocean, rocking back and forth. One of the passengers in the boat decides to stand up and deliberately rock the boat violently to the protests of the other passengers. Another passenger suggests that with his knowledge of chaotic dynamics, he can counterbalance the rocking of the first passenger. To do so, he needs many sensors, computational resources, and so on so that he can react efficiently, though he cannot guarantee that it will absolutely stabilize the boat, and since the boat is already unsteady, it may make things worse. Schmidt asks,
Market reactions to large-scale geoengineering such as releasing sulfate aerosols, would result in the continued acceleration of resource use and further capital accumulation, not to mention, it would do little to solve our problems. Sulfate injection, to start, doesn’t actually help to remove any CO2 from the atmosphere. It also doesn’t address other areas of climate change, including ocean acidification, which has far-reaching implications for many species of marine life. What’s worse, since sulfate injection only manages to reflect more of the sun’s energy without addressing any of the systematic causes of the increase of greenhouse gases (GHG) in the atmosphere, further increases of GHGs can continue, thus assuming the deployment of future sulfate injections and other geoengineering “solutions” to no end.
Pursuing ‘sustainable’ energy sources is an equally dubious response to the climate crisis. Just as with geoengineering, the thought is that human ingenuity and investment in new technologies will lead to cleaner and more efficient industrial practices, thus reducing our GHG emissions. Yet this ignores the very nature of the capitalist system of endless growth and accumulation, and given the opportunity to expand further while expending less on energy and resources, capitalism will naturally expand to fill the newly opened space. This concept is often called Jevon’s Paradox, after William Stanley Jevons, a 19th century economist who sought to examine why increased efficiency in the use of coal led to increased consumption. What Jevons noted was a positive correlation between efficiency and resource consumption, observing that as the use of coal became more efficient and thus more cost effective, it became more desirable to consumers, creating more demand and thus more production and consumption. On and on it goes.
This is called the “rebound effect” whereby gains in efficiency lead to a drop in the price of a given commodity and a rise in demand and consumption. Any gains in efficiency, then, do not lead to a decrease in consumption, but often have the opposite effect. In fact, over the period of 1975 to 1996, carbon efficiency increased dramatically in the US, Japan, the Netherlands, and Austria. However, studies show that during the same period, total emissions of carbon dioxide and per capita emissions increased across the board. Thus gains in fossil fuel efficiency have resulted in increased use by the capitalist, industrialized societies. As Karl Marx noted, capitalism prevents the rational application of technologies because gains are only reinvested in the capitalist system and used to further expand and grow capital accumulation.
Renewable energy poses similar problems. Drastic measures would need to be taken to change the entire infrastructure currently built around fossil fuels. In order to keep global warming to a 2°C increase by purely technical means, about 80% of the world’s energy use would have to be switched to carbon-neutral technologies like wind, solar, and bio-fuels. An article in the New Yorker on inventor Saul Griffith noted that this “would require building the equivalent of all the following: a hundred square metres of new solar cells, fifty square metres of new solar-thermal reflectors, and one Olympic swimming pool’s volume of genetically engineered algae (for biofuels) every second for the next twenty-five years; one three-hundred-foot-diameter wind turbine every five minutes; one hundred-megawatt geothermal-powered steam turbine every eight hours; and one three-gigawatt nuclear power plant every week.” To construct all of this carbon-neutral technology would require emitting huge amounts of GHGs into the atmosphere, over and above what we are already emitting to continue running the current system.
Furthermore, large-scale renewables can be just as destructive as other forms of energy. Large-scale dams used for hydropower – a supposedly “clean” energy – have led to destruction of habitats for both aquatic and land species, destruction of flood plains, river deltas, wetlands, and ocean estuaries, reduction of water quality and nutrient cycling and have been known to cause earthquakes. Biofuels, similarly, cause huge environmental damage, sometimes using more energy to grow and transport the crops than energy gained from it, not to mention the issue of creating competition for arable land with the food industry. Once again, a boon for the capitalist economy in creating new industry in ‘sustainable energy’ is to the great detriment of the environment and the climate, so long as the harms caused by these new technologies can be written off as externalities. Focusing on technology – whether through methods to increase efficiency, through sustainable energy, or through geoengineering – do nothing to change the underlying capitalist system of unfettered growth that has been at the source of the climate change problem from the beginning. They are merely attempts at treating the symptoms of climate change, not the cause.
Karl Marx first employed the concept of metabolic interactions between humans and nature in the 19th century, recognizing the “complex interdependence” between the two. Since man lives from nature and derives the very necessities to survive from it, nature is his body. He is a part of nature and they are inextricably linked and so man must be in “dialogue” with it in order to survive. This complex interchange he likened to the metabolism – or material exchange – within the body.
But as man began to adopt practices that disrupted this interchange, a rupture occurred with the relations between man and the natural world. This rupture, driven by capitalist expansion, intensified with large-scale agriculture, harmful industries, and the global market. Marx saw this rupture, or metabolic rift, occur as populations began to flock toward cities. In contrast to traditional agriculture, where waste from food is recycled back into the soil, this new type of agriculture meant nutrients (food) were being shipped to cities to feed the growing population, and thus not cycled back into the soil. This caused the natural fertility of the soil to decline and nutrients in the city to accumulate as waste and pollution. As soil fertility worsened, more and more intensive agricultural methods were needed, increasing the use of artificial fertilizers, further harming the nutrient cycles of the soil. Capitalism continued to demand higher and higher yields, requiring more and more intensive and harsh farming methods, greater fertilizer use, and so on, creating a cycle of deterioration of the natural processes, and a rift between man and nature.
Humans have disrupted the natural processes of the earth in unimaginable ways. The very composition of the air we breathe is being altered by our ever-growing emissions of GHGs. The system we have put our faith in for many years rests on a ceaseless hunger for accumulation, spurred on by fossil fuels. As our energy sources become more and more scarce and difficult to find and extract, instead of scaling back and recognizing nature’s natural boundaries, capitalism doubles down and employs even more dangerous methods.
Searching for market-based solutions to the climate crisis will not work. When capitalism attempts to put a price on the natural world, it takes into account only the interests of those with the greatest purchasing power. Capital accumulation is the primary objective, and any costs that can be externalized onto nature and the global poor will be.
Technology in the capitalist system has helped us to create ever-more energy-efficient processes, yet a paradoxical relationship arises, where increased energy-efficiency leads to increased economic expansion, negating any reduction in resource-use. Likewise, transforming our infrastructure to more sustainable energy sources would require a such massive output of GHGs from fossil fuels to build that implementing the change would push us over the climate cliff. Geoengineering, the solution touted by many cheerleaders of the capitalist system as the saving grace of humanity, absurdly argues for altering the earth’s natural systems even further, hoping that capitalism can continue undiminished. Technology may help pass the buck to future generations, but it will not solve the problem.
Capitalism would have us grow indefinitely, but the earth’s natural carrying capacity would have us reverse this trend. The interminable drive for accumulation on which capitalism is solely focused has led humanity down a path of near-disaster with the very systems that we rely on to sustain life – human and otherwise. If we continue down this path of relentless accumulation inherent in the capitalist system, we cannot stop the climate disaster.