Capitalism and Climate Change Redux

GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade), the first of the modern ‘free-trade’ agreements to promote supranational corporate governance, was signed in the immediate aftermath of WWII. WWII had at that point destroyed the burgeoning industrial economies of Europe, Japan and to a lesser extent Russia. Twenty-eight countries signed the original agreement. One year later in 1948 the Marshall Plan to ‘rebuild’ war torn Europe in the image of American capitalist democracy was implemented. Relative geographical isolation had left the U.S. with intact industrial infrastructure, abundant resources and the political will and wherewithal to claim imperial rights under the guise of promoting market capitalism.

GATT did indeed reduce some tariffs and global trade was due to rebound if only to rebuild from the devastation of war. As with the mercantilist policies of imperial England in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, ‘free-trade’ was the marketing term chosen to sell imperial rights to imperial subjects. In the U.S. there remained enthusiastic ‘debate’ around industrial quotas up to and through the ‘laissez-faire’ Reagan administration. It wasn’t until the (Bill) Clinton administration that the infrastructure existed for a true global corporate ‘state.’ And the rise of the supranational corporate ‘state’ is inextricably tied to the political incapacitation of the nominal state except inasmuch as state power is used to serve the interests of multi-national corporations.


Graph (1) above: the carbon emissions tied to global warming tend to be given generalized causal assignment— to overpopulation, to capitalism or to human nature. This graph illustrates their relation to American style industrial production that was spread around the globe following WWII. This production is a corporate-state hybrid that squares with (V.I) Lenin’s description of state control by wealthy capitalists acting in their own interests. Today this notion can be extended to the executives who control Western corporations for their own interests. Sources: The World Bank and the World Resources Institute.

Today the ‘logic’ of capitalism is fully instantiated in the West with privatization of public resources, the granting of extra-personal rights to corporations, the diminution of local and regional governance in favor of corporate privilege and rights and heavily militarized public-private police forces used to enforce corporate ‘rights’ and to protect the privilege of the wealthy. But it is corporate globalism that makes political resolution in any dimension, including environmental issues like global warming, so intractable. Even if local and regional political control could be recovered the ability of large corporations to shift production to areas more fully under corporate-state control means that global issues must be dealt with globally.


Graph (2) above: the typical frame of environmental ‘negotiations’ is of state control of national boundaries. Within the frame the U.S. and other Western states can ‘reduce’ greenhouse gas emissions by ‘outsourcing’ ever more economic production to other countries. This produces the illusion of incremental rectification but not its fact. The rise in greenhouse gas emissions from China comes in large measure from its (mercantilist) strategy of industrial development through building an export economy. The Chinese government is now moving to stage two of the mercantilist playbook that is the broadening and deepening of domestic (American style) consumption in China. Under no configuration of circumstance can seven billion people live in McMansions and drive SUVs. Source: U.S. Census Dept.

The large scale dislocations likely to be caused by global warming, by dead and dying oceans and by ‘private’ control over crop seeds, arable land and water supplies, suggest that current circumstance and trajectory are dire. They also suggest that global warming is only one of a host of related environmental issues in need of rectification. Even without the overwhelming evidence that already exists that environmental degradation and destruction are radically altering the world basic prudence would argue for dramatic measures toward environmental reconciliation. The challenge for / to climate change deniers is that if they are wrong ‘the world’ in any form recognizable to us will no longer exist. The risks of doing nothing versus something to resolve environmental destruction are wildly asymmetrical.

Not usually addressed, particularly in the U.S., is that ‘we,’ people broadly considered, don’t have equal stakes in environmental outcomes. Graph (1) above illustrates that the U.S. is overwhelmingly responsible for total greenhouse gases emitted over the last century, for the spread of American style industrial production and for the outsourcing of greenhouse gas emissions going on today. And in terms of capacity to construct temporary remedies like the seawalls to be built around New York to protect it from flooding, the very capitalists most responsible for global warming and its political irresolution are using ‘their’ wealth to assure that the consequences that they are likely to face are mitigated, at least temporarily. Global warming and other environmental devastation are forms of economic imperialism of the first order.

The question of what to do, of how to bring about resolution, requires taking a look at current circumstance, trajectory and the range of possible solutions. Current circumstance is of a world being radically transformed by environmental devastation. The sixth major die off of plants and animals in global history is underway. Ocean dead zones surround major industrial economies and are growing. Oceans are so over-fished that global food chains are being radically reconfigured. And political incapacity exists in exact proportion to the hold that capitalist interests have over state power with the U.S. being the central hindrance to global resolution. Those most responsible for global warming are the least inclined to do anything to ‘fix’ it.



Graph (3) above: speculation abounds that ‘green jobs’ will offset the economic impact of resolving global warming. Illustrated above is the relation of energy consumption to economic production as measured by GDP? Over the last thirty years the relation has varied modestly but exhibited no overall trend lower. Another way to say this is that energy consumption is very closely tied to American style economic production. This absence of ‘progress’ has occurred with implementation of auto emissions standards, mandatory use of catalytic converters and broad moves toward energy ‘efficiency.’ And limiting greenhouse gas emissions will do little to resolve dead and dying oceans and other environmental calamities. Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Current environmental circumstance and trajectory suggest that urgent action is needed. However, complex economic inter-relationships, engineered dependencies, mean that actions must be well considered and mitigation of the adverse consequences of environmental resolution made a first priority. This written, it is continuation on current trajectory that poses the greater risk of profound adverse consequences to hundreds of millions of people. For example, was the drought currently underway in the desert Southwest U.S., particularly in California, to last for another decade or two tens of millions of people would be displaced. And the loss of fruits and vegetables grown in California would have profound impact on Western food supplies. Regardless of whether or not this comes to pass, similar outcomes are predicted around the world. How welcome would forty million people be when they relocate to areas already experiencing severe food shortages?

This is to recognize that populations have grown to fill ‘the world’ through particular configuration of political economy. What is conceived and perceived as capitalist innovation like industrial agriculture becomes a system of massive destruction when its resulting environmental consequences are forced back onto it. But what is pushing environmental calamity isn’t just one aspect of economic production like industrial agriculture; it is the totality of Western consumption with the U.S. at the center.

The existing and future world population could be fed and the degree of environmental resolution needed to stave off catastrophe achieved through radically limiting non-essential economic production / consumption. However, even if a meaningful majority of the citizens of the West ‘agreed’ to forgo much of their current consumption to achieve environmental resolution, how likely is it that the rulers of the corporate state would allow such and outcome without being forced to?



Graph (4) above: should global warming cause the current drought in California to persist for years, or even decades, major dislocations of both people and food supplies would result. This illustrates the paradox that while global warming risks growing catastrophes so does ending current modes of agricultural production without alternative means of feeding people in place. The alternative to this binary either / or choice is to determine what is essential to the well being of the existing global population and find environmental resolution by eliminating economic production that isn’t essential. Source: USDA.

‘Rational’ solutions like combining energy conservation, increased ‘efficiency’ in economic production and radically reducing non-essential consumption have been developed and put forward. Part of the reason they aren’t adopted is corporate control over state policies and part of the reason is that capitalism as predominant political economy is a system of economic exploitation— its rationale is to lower the costs of economic production by using ‘the world’ as a garbage dump. Capitalist economists like former Obama administration economic advisor Larry Summers have developed theories of what constitutes the ‘appropriate’ amount of environmental destruction ‘justified’ by economic production. And with all of their theories about national ‘development,’ left unsaid is that capitalist production is overwhelmingly an imperial diffusion process with the U.S. at the center.

The problem isn’t capitalism in an abstract sense but rather the particular configuration of corporate-state power that is its current fact. Put differently, capitalism is ideology embedded through history in the institutions of the West, in the institutions of the U.S. in particular. Dis-embedding it isn’t simply a matter of changing minds. There is no unity of interests in environmental resolution. Failure to understand the economic implications of the ‘uncompensated’ environmental destruction of global warming leaves most in the West with the view that they have ‘earned’ their right to consume without making the relation that those who don’t participate in this consumption are being forced to pay for it through ‘unearned’ environmental catastrophe. Environmental destruction is the quantum of this taking.

Is there a way to achieve environmental resolution within the existing order? On the ‘political’ side the corporations with vested interest in maintaining the status quo control Western political ‘systems.’ A large bureaucracy of feckless ‘professional’ environmentalists is dedicated to developing and proposing ‘solutions’ that aren’t solutions because their goal is to forestall resolution, not to bring it about. It is no accident that liberal Democrat Barack Obama’s environmental policies are virtually identical to those of conservative Republican George W. Bush. The political leadership that is brought to nominal ‘power’ in the West is that which best manages public perceptions and maintains political and social control while assuring that the only state policies implemented are those that benefit their corporate masters.

Recent U.S. (Obama administration) restrictions on the amount of coal that can be used to generate electricity will serve to relocate environmental catastrophe, not to resolve it. The coal that won’t be used by U.S. utility companies is being sold to China. With growing (net) U.S. consumption of Chinese goods (Graph (2) above) the capitalist-state strategy is a never-ending game of whack-a-mole where environmental ‘resolution’ in one dimension quickly pops back up as environmental irresolution in another. There exists no global infrastructure to render ‘cap-and-trade’ of carbon emissions plausible. Capitalist ‘solutions’ to the problems that capitalism creates produce an infinite feedback loop where ever-increasing environmental devastation creates ever more market ‘opportunities’ for resolution creating a business of environmental irresolution.

Technological solutions to environmental destruction face several challenges (1) they add institutional complexity that serves to cover up problems, not solve them, (2) they create unintended consequences and (3) they emerge from the same logic that caused the problems. The U.S. has spent the last forty years trying to figure out how to dispose of nuclear waste that has a half-life of 50,000 years, 10X.longer in human history than when the pyramids in Egypt were built. Efforts to get rid of toxic chemical waste by injecting it far underground have resulted in earthquakes and contaminated groundwater. Underground ‘sequestration’ strategies for scrubbed carbon emissions face all of these problems. And the logic of capitalist exploitation is irresolvable from the ‘inside’ because it contains no public interest.

In terms of direct political action toward environmental resolution here are a few considerations. Again, there is no unity of interests. Those who benefit from environmental destruction are less likely than those who don’t to resist change. This difference is generally analogous to economic class with global warming being class warfare launched from above. Because of the global nature of environmental imperialism global solutions are required and this infers global alliances. ‘Professional’ environmentalists emerge from the logic of capitalism and have their lots tied to the system that pays their bills. They are by and large the problem, not the solution.

In an effort to create ‘workable’ solutions the starting position of the environmental ‘left’ has tended toward isolating and minimizing problems when their genesis in capitalist production is a unifying factor. Is ‘solving’ global warming without solving dead and dying oceans really a solution? Limiting the scope of concern is to leave the logic that created the problems intact. Finally, environmental devastation isn’t a problem that most people in the world asked for. It is a problem created by the ‘approach to the world’ that is capitalism. Part of opposing it is to step outside of its logic. Stop being ‘consumers.’ Challenge the logic everywhere you find it. Build alternative institutions that operate on principles of shared interests. Resist.

The New York Climate March departs from Columbus Circle at 11:30 AM on Sunday, September 21.

Flood Wall Street / Occupy actions begin at Battery Park at 9 AM on Monday, September 22. There is a potential for mass arrests so those who can’t be arrested should listen to action organizers and be aware of enclosed areas conducive to ‘kettling.’ (A lawsuit against the NYPD for the Brooklyn Bridge arrests is moving forward).

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.