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The Climate Crisis is Capitalism


Much Western discourse around environmental crisis reiterates the self-serving frame that ‘the world,’ rich and poor, global North and South, capitalist and communist, produced global warming. The assertion is posed as pragmatic, as avoiding the Cold War oppositions that tend to shut down discussion of important issues. If ‘we all’ are responsible for this or that catastrophe then we all have a responsibility to solve it. But what if, in terms of facts and history, a very specific and well defined form of political economy contains the guiding principles, modes of social organization, necessary technocratic skills, motive and two hundred years of easily assignable history of environmental destruction, can be blamed?

The question of whether or not capitalism is responsible for climate crisis is more pragmatic than ideological. A first step to solving a problem is to understand what is causing it. Capitalism as a form of political and economic organization— political economy premised on guiding principles about human ‘being’ and a ‘science’ of economic organization tied to a specific idea of economic ‘efficiency,’ arose in its early industrial form in mid-eighteenth century Britain. From the birth of capitalism to the rapid growth of industrialization beginning around 1850 to the growing dominance of state capitalism in China today, the carbon emissions responsible for global warming have followed the spread of capitalism.


Graph (1) above: atmospheric CO2 levels from burning fossil fuels to power industrial production began to rise dramatically around 1850. The widespread use of automobiles and other fossil fuel powered transportation began in the early twentieth century. Framed by Western economists as ‘consumption,’ transportation is necessary to get to and from work in much of the West because of decisions around economic organization made by self-interested industrialists. Note the drop in CO2 emissions in the 1930s, the Great Depression. While the data in the graph ends in 1960 to avoid outsourced production that misrepresents national CO2 emissions, total emissions doubled again between 1970 and 2011. Units are MtCO2. Source CAIT.

The residual Cold War ‘competition of ideologies’ behind reluctance to address capitalism relies on the Western conceit that ideology determines history rather than evolves with it. Capitalism became ossified as ideology when it served the political and economic interests of its proponents to ossify it, usually in the context of engineered crisis like the ‘stagflation’ of the 1970s. As an effort at historical explanation, the idea of capitalism ‘competing’ with other ideologies makes sense only through deference to factual political economy. Colonial history, sequential devastating wars, different ‘endowments’ in terms of unifying social tendencies and natural resources and different ‘starting’ times have been flattened to ‘equivalence’ in improbable opposition.

This is to make the point that capitalism in its facts neither implies nor requires ideological opposition— the facts are what they are without any. Capitalist theory, a/k/a Western economics, has been used to organize and motivate these facts. The profit motive pays capitalists for environmental destruction. This destruction is a ‘cost’ of production absorbed by ‘the world’ to the benefit of the capitalist. This same profit motive provides the imperative to mechanize and automate to lower costs. From about 1850 forward this mechanization became increasingly reliant on fossil fuels as the energy source that powers it. And the burning of fossil fuels is the major source of carbon emissions over the history of capitalist production.

Graph (2) above: from the large scale industrialization of the second ‘industrial revolution’ to the most recent waves of globalization the overwhelming preponderance of CO2 emissions were directly tied to capitalist production. In the 110 years between 1850 – 1960 ‘ the West,’ the U.S., U.K. and Germany, put over ten times as much CO2 into the atmosphere as the far more populous combined Russia and China. China didn’t evolve into the world’s largest emitter of CO2 until the U.S. and Europe began outsourcing dirty production there in the 1990s. Units are MtCO2. Source: CAIT

Western economics is capitalist economics in dimensions that appear largely invisible its practitioners. These dimensions include the relation of ‘civil’ government to capitalist production and the relation of ‘consumers’ to the ‘system’ of capitalism. From the integrated state-capitalism of mercantilist Britain to the military-financial-industrial state capitalism of the U.S., and more recently China, distinguishing state from economic actors is the product of an improbable theoretical overlay over integrated political economy. And the high-capitalist conceit that consumer demand drives economic production faces the facts that modern ‘consumers’ were born into developed economic contexts where ‘consumption’ could reasonably be framed as production.

Both of these conceits are a function of the theoretical time-space that is the basis of Western economics. The separation of ‘economics’ from political economy is the product of deductive theories of ‘economy’ and economic ‘system’ that have no place for ‘the political.’ This leaves the theoretical and methodological constraints used to define the realm of the ‘economic’ inferred back as social description. It is deduced imposition, simple assertion put forward as ‘fact.’ Today this maneuver finds a broad swath of Western economists incredulous that Wall Street bailouts, guarantees and subsidies; subsidies and wars for military and oil and gas interests and the public-private surveillance state are evidence of class interests driving corporate-state policies.


Graph (3) above: a favorite conceit of Western economists, that ‘we are all in this economy together,’ is placed in context when CO2 emissions are considered. North America— overwhelmingly the U.S., emits roughly 2X more CO2 per capita (per person) than Europe and more than 4X as much as Asia as of 2011. While total CO2 emissions are the relevant metric for resolving global warming, per capita emissions point to who benefits and who pays for capitalist production. Even per capita emissions understate the disproportionate benefit received by the capitalist West because dirty production from the U.S. and Europe has been outsourced to China. Units are MtCO2 per person. Source: CAIT.

The concept of ‘consumer-driven’ economic production is an artifact of this same theoretical time-space. The Western economists’ separation of consumption from production places the housing, clothing, food and transportation necessary to work as consumption when work can’t be done without them. Economic ‘freedom’ in this context is the choice between competing products, not the choice of form of economic organization. The ‘environmental’ choice between a hybrid car and a gas guzzler has little bearing on the social organization that makes driving a car necessary to economic existence. Placing ‘responsibility’ on consumers for environmental resolution arbitrarily conflates consumption with production and it places the locus of social resolution with an improbable ‘individual.’

Additionally, this conflation ‘naturalizes’ consumer culture when it is demonstrably a creation of technocrats in the service of capitalist plutocrats. Modern consumer culture required about a century of capitalist propaganda, a/k/a advertising, to evolve to its current state. ‘Public relations,’ efforts at public suasion through appeals to psychology, was straightforwardly tied to ‘propaganda,’ the use of psychology for political suasion, until the Nazis gave it a bad name in WWII. Advertising is premised on psychological suasion, on appeals to ‘buried’ understanding. The Western economists’ concept of ‘consumer choice’ excludes psychological suasion because appeals to ‘buried’ understanding, psychology, challenge the idea of ‘free’ choice. Adding irony is the billions that capitalist enterprises pay to advertise.

Graph (4) above: the blue line across the bottom of the graph represents the wealth of the bottom 90% of U.S. households. The red line represents the wealth of the richest 0.1%. With environmental destruction, including CO2 emissions, being the detritus of capitalist production— costs shoved onto ‘the world’ that show up as profits to capitalists and corporate executives, the differences in wealth are rough measure of this economic taking. The American aversion to discussion of class warfare is well earned. The benefits of environmental destruction are so narrowly distributed while the costs are so widely distributed that class warfare launched from above is the only viable conclusion. Units are constant 2010 dollars. Source: Emmanuel Saez

Given the historical, geographical and direct physical ties of capitalist production to environmental destruction, including potentially catastrophic global warming, the contention that capitalism can continue without its unwanted consequences requires implausible parsing. The problem isn’t just global warming per se; it is the swath of environmental destruction that is the product of the approach to the world that is capitalism. With industrial fishing as fact and metaphor, capitalist ‘competition’ takes until there is nothing left to take— the seas are being systematically emptied of fish. And half or more of the sea life slaughtered in industrial fishing is thrown back into the ocean as garbage. This is capitalism.

The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) provides an analysis of global warming suggesting that large scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions must begin immediately and go far beyond proposals currently under consideration for catastrophe to be averted. As illustrated by per capita CO2 emissions, the geopolitical tension is that the West has the wealth from two hundred years of economic exploitation of the environment in the pockets of a few thousand astonishingly wealthy people while the associated environmental destruction is distributed around the globe. Convincing the Chinese people to forgo economic development for environmental resolution while Americans produce four times as much CO2 per capita seems unlikely.

Ideas like taxing the profits of oil and gas companies to fund programs of environmental resolution assume that these programs exist; are plausible and won’t result in unintended environmental and social destruction in other dimensions. In the 2000s the production of ‘green’ solar panels and wind turbines was outsourced to China and the result was environmental catastrophe estimated to be 4X more expensive than cleaner Western production when environmental costs were considered. They also assume that the governments of the West held captive by business interests for the last four decades will suddenly become responsive without a full-scale revolution.

The base social tension of environmental resolution is illustrated in the graphs above. Resistance to changing the status quo begins with the very rich in the West who have the most to lose from change. From there resistance comes from high per capita CO2 emissions countries— the ratio is direct evidence of the benefit received versus the cost not (yet) borne. Within rich countries the ‘external’ division of global class interests also exists internally. Cynical plutocrats like the Koch brothers have ‘invested’ heavily to frame class division in the mythology of economic ‘freedom.’ But the ‘freedom’ of some to destroy the world creates a clear division.

Reluctance to address capitalism directly might be pragmatic if there were any evidence that it is effective. The ‘better than nothing’ incrementalism of Western economists proceeds from the premise that ‘no one knows’ what needs to be done when the IPCC analysis is a decent place to start. A ‘rational’ plan of resolution might turn the report into programmatic action. But a ‘rational’ plan, one where peoples and governments work together, assumes a unity of interests that capitalism assures will never arise. And the cautionary chide that ‘we’ move slowly to minimize social dislocations runs up against the past, present and future dislocations of two hundred years of capitalist environmental exploitation.

Rob Urie is an artist and political economist. His book Zen Economics is forthcoming.


Rob Urie is an artist and political economist. His book Zen Economics is published by CounterPunch Books.

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