Coincident with now regular meetings between fossil fuel and financial industry representatives pretending to address climate change and a smattering of their victims, the current being COP21, OXFAM has released an analysis arguing that ‘inequality’ is a central cause of climate crisis. While in a broader sense the claim has merit, the Western technocratic counter is that having everyone emit approximately equal amounts of carbon— ‘democratic’ mass suicide, would resolve it. It is this formulation of the problem that is the motivating principle of the ‘developed’ contingent at COP21— to spread Western consumerism around the globe under the improbability of ‘clean’ consumption.
The base insight of the Oxfam report, that looming environmental catastrophe is a product of Western consumerism, is approximately on target. The question of the genesis of this consumerism points to broad efforts to sell capitalist acquisition as natural whereas the very act of selling it creates a contradiction— why expend energy selling what comes naturally? Prior to the nineteenth century history was replete with wealth inequality that contributed very little by way of greenhouse gas emissions. And disparate economic distribution is the entire point of capitalism. It is the inequality associated with capitalist economic production that is the culprit in environmental crisis.
Wittingly or not, the report revives a Marxian-globalist class analysis applied to environmental destruction. By foregoing the universalist-humanist ‘anthropogenic’ claim that ‘we all’ are responsible for global warming, dead oceans and Frankenfood, Oxfam clearly identifies the relative sliver of humanity, a/k/a wealthy ‘nations,’ that is overwhelmingly responsible for them. What unites these ‘nations,’ as if nations existed without their constituent beings and institutions, is economic practices that tie directly to capitalist economic development. The ‘wealth’ in question is clearly capitalist wealth measured in mansions and bank accounts and not in clean water, clean air and the number of close social relations that people have.
Within this frame the economic production causing global warming is entropic without it being so stated— Western ‘goods’ are inexorably linked to Western and non-Western bads like environmental and social destruction. If the goods can be produced without the bads, where is the evidence? Here the history of COP (Conference of Parties) is brought to bear— 21 conferences and counting with greenhouse gas emissions continuing to rise after every single one. Even the frame of ‘climate change’ is designed to understate the breadth of environmental devastation being caused— what theory of environmental isolation suggests that dead and dying oceans and the ongoing loss of interrelated ecosystems are any less pressing than global warming?
Oxfam breaks out the class dynamic both within and across countries. The COP frame of national interests is both arbitrary and misleading when capitalist and state-capitalist production is transnational. From the late 1980s forward dirty Western production was shifted, first to the Maquiladoras in Mexico and then on to the neo / post-colonial East and global South. Related to mainstream explanations of ‘technology’ as the cause of declining wages in the developed West, ‘clean’ production is touted to explain the decline in greenhouse gas emissions by developed nations when in fact trade flows support the argument that the shift in dirty production away from the U.S. and developed Europe to China explains a substantial proportion of any actual decline. By tying environmental destruction to wealth, and with it intra and inter-national class divisions, focus is kept where it belongs— on the beneficiaries of environmental calamity.
Adding complexity to the role of political economy in this process is the quasi-private money creation of capitalist banking that places fungible ‘wealth’ as a lever of social control over the means of Western economic production. In this case economic entropy provides a useful scalar given the contextual nature of environmental catastrophe— it is the scale of capitalist production that has aggregated to global warming. ‘Efficient’ offloading of the unwanted consequences of this production produces profits. Finance facilitates mobility and with it the capacity to dump the detritus of capitalist production on those least able to resist it. With reference to the Malthusian inferences of economic entropy, the history of greenhouse gas emissions follows capitalist development far too closely to be claimed incidental.
The purpose of the COP21 conference as it relates to ‘developed’ nation interests is to provide the appearance of climate action without its facts. Hopes pinned to climate ‘leaders’ who represent the economic interests that are the source of their power and position are misplaced. Related, and providing useful analog, is the treatment by Western ‘leaders’ of the financiers who so recently crashed the global economy through self-dealing. This ‘local’ self-dealing that is the ordinary working of capitalism becomes globally catastrophic through the aggregation of individually ‘unintended’ by-products that leads to regularly recurring crises. The relation of individual and institutional actions to systemic crisis is socially burdensome when applied to business but potentially world-ending when it is applied to the environment.
The inequality relevant to climate change lies with disproportionate social power through instruments of political coercion and their historical link to capitalist production. The state-market relations of early British capitalism have been an approximate template for Chinese economic development with environmentally destructive export production leading ‘up’ the global supply chain. The Chinese government has been actively trying to raise internal consumption under the premise that a self-sustaining consumer economy will provide political stability. This dynamic sets in motion is the proverbial race-to-the-bottom where short term demands perpetually take precedence over environmentally sustainable development. Whatever the environmental commitments, recurrent threats and crises will keep them perpetually on the back burner.
The past-present-future of capitalist ideology moves seamlessly from a crude and environmentally destructive past to an ‘improving’ but imperfect present to a gleaming, prosperous future. The facts are of these various stages existing together motivated by the promise of a future that never arrives. Dirty production was never left behind and ‘developing’ market capitalism will serve as the locus of outsourced environmental destruction for as long as people will put up with it. Environmental commitments are never but one capitalist crisis away from reversal driven by engineered desperation. The careful parsing of these crises as accidents unrelated to the normal workings of capitalism provides cover for imperial machinations posed as facts of nature. In crisis political discourse shifts to self-serving trade-offs while economists center their efforts on how best to clean up the inexplicable messes that nature has wrought.
Recent ‘trade’ agreements like the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) and TTIP (Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership) represent efforts to retain the state institutions that support ‘private’ enterprise while precluding state actions in the public interest that impinge upon ‘private’ economic power. Through ISDS (Investor State Dispute Resolution) tribunals corporations are quantifying the entropy of capitalist production as their compensation for harms not caused. The ‘pay us or we’ll burn your house to the ground’ strategy is buried beneath layers of legalese, social mythology and poorly considered economic theory. However, extortion is extortion regardless of the intricacy of the institutional arrangements that accompany it.
The mythology of capitalist development compares regions like Appalachia destroyed by coal mining in the eighteenth century to the ‘clean’ capitalism of hedge fund management when the more relevant comparison is to the regions of China, Africa and the Philippines destroyed in the present to manufacture exports to the U.S. and Europe. The capitalist conception of the consequences of economic production is more precisely the gambler’s accounting where only the credits get booked. Breathable air, drinkable water and arable land are considered but industrial toilets, the ‘free’ stuff used to make products with economic value. The ‘paradox’ of these unvalued necessities versus the value of un-necessities is imperial consequence posed as a theory of life— they are only ‘free’ once the people who depend on them for their existence have been removed from consideration.
The power differential at work, ‘inequality,’ pits the Western myth that ‘we all’ benefit from capitalist production against the facts that rich people do while poor people don’t. Even if the consequences of environmental destruction were evenly distributed they would still represent an economic taking because their source is Western ‘wealth’ production. That these consequences fall disproportionately on people who see little to no benefit from this production establishes a clear class dynamic. Western ‘solutions’ combine shell games like relocation of dirty production with perpetual promises that at some future date real action will be taken. The only certainties are that capitalists and their apologists are in the process of making the planet uninhabitable and any real solutions will be found in spite of ‘official’ meetings and not because of them.