The bleak future from capitalism's past

Last year was the hottest year on record in Australia.

The Bureau of Meteorology’s Annual Climate Statement issued on January 3 confirmed that last year was the hottest year on record in Australia. Average temperatures were 1.2 degrees above the long-term average. Every month of the year had national average temperatures at least 0.5C above normal. The previous record was set in 2005 when the long-term average was up by 0.17C.

Globally, each of the past 13 years since 2001 has ranked among the 14 warmest on record, with most of the warming occurring since 1950. This was the period when world industrial production increased at rates unprecedented even by the standards of the explosive growth that accompanied the spread of the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century.

From 1950 to 1970 world manufacturing output quadrupled and world trade in manufactured products rose tenfold. Carbon dioxide emissions tripled. By 1972, Limits To Growth, a study by ecologists and economists that extrapolated into the future the economic growth realised in previous decades, predicted ecological and economic collapse by the middle of the 21st century if this overuse of resources continued unchecked.

We were warned more than 40 years ago, but the logic of capitalism is unlimited growth, so the science was attacked with the result that irreversible climate change is now under way.

The bleak future has led to some people proposing false solutions.

For example, respected US climate scientist, James Hansen, with academic colleagues, Ken Caldeira, Kerry Emanuel and Tom Wigley, issued a statement last November that supported the increased use of nuclear power to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

This was answered in early January by 311 US and international environmental and clean energy groups with a response organised by the Civil Society Institute and the Nuclear Information and Resource Institute. The statement said: “It is simply not feasible for nuclear power to be part of a sustainable and affordable future for humankind.”

It said the answer lay in renewable energy and called on Hansen to publicly debate the issue of climate change and nuclear power.

For many reasons, nuclear power is not the answer. As Fred Magdoff and John Bellamy Foster have said, in order to keep global warming to only 2 degrees C by “technical fixes”, about 80% of all the energy used in the world would need to be replaced by CO2-neutral technologies.

Another false solution is the idea that large-scale geo-engineering projects — such as blocking sunlight or adding sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere — can neutralise carbon emissions and allow polluting industries to carry on with business as usual. Al Gore last week described these proposals as “insane, utterly mad and delusional in the extreme".

Australian research group Beyond Zero Emissions has also formulated a plan that does not require nuclear power or genetic engineering, which could convert Australia to a 100% renewable economy in 10 years. The plan focuses on a network of concentrating solar thermal power plants and wind turbines, and the group says all the necessary technology is already commercially available.

Unfortunately, there are no quick fixes to the climate crisis. What is needed most is a transformation of social relations. As Magdoff and Bellamy Foster say, “the continuation for any length of time of capitalism, as a grow-or-die system dedicated to unlimited capital accumulation, is itself a flat impossibility.” It has to be replaced by a system that establishes a new synthesis of production, distribution and consumption based on the social ownership of the means of production and social production organised by workers that satisfies human needs and respects nature.

The bleak alternative to urgent action now is the questionable hope born of tragic destitution, expressed by Terry Eagleton that, “on the other side of some inconceivable disaster, men and women are forced by material circumstances into sharing and solidarity with one another.”

[Fred Magdoff and John Bellamy Fosters book, What Every Environmentalist Needs to Know about Capitalism, is available at all Resistance Bookshops.]