The case for ecosocialism

February 27, 2010

The rapid melting of the Arctic sea-ice is one of the most alarming examples of the looming climate change catastrophe. But where most see disaster, some of the world's richest corporations see a business opportunity.

The rate of Arctic ice melt in recent years has surprised and worried experts. It is not just the fragile Arctic ecosystem that is under threat. As the ice retreats due to global warming, less sunlight is reflected back into space by the white surface.

This means the whole planet has likely already begun to warm faster, as more heat is absorbed by the darker ocean. This, in turn, could help trigger other climate tipping points — such as the release of millions of tonnes of methane gas trapped in Siberia's frozen soils — and make runaway climate change a reality.

In 2007, NASA glaciologist Jay Zwally delivered a blunt warning: "The Arctic is often cited as the canary in the coal mine for climate warming. Now as a sign of climate warming, the canary has died. It is time to start getting out of the coal mines."

Time to get out of the coalmine

However, as greenhouse gasses destroy the Arctic, oil giants such as Shell, BP and Exxon Mobil are rushing to exploit the newly accessible fossil fuel reserves that lie underneath it. The US Geological Survey thinks the area could hold up to 30% of the world's untapped natural gas and 13% of the world's oil.

From the standpoint of securing a safe climate future for humanity, the Arctic "oil rush" is the height of insanity. Yet for the companies that stand to profit, and for capitalism as a whole, it's an entirely predictable response.

In 1950, the German-American economist William Kapp came up with an apt description of the capitalist system: "Capitalism must be regarded as an economy of unpaid costs."

He described the reality of an economic system that creates immense waste and pollution but makes nature (and the sections of human society that did not reap the profits) bear the "disposal" costs.

For centuries, capitalism has treated the air, rivers and oceans as a global sewer. The long-term damage to natural ecosystems are never reflected in any corporate bottom-line. And as capitalism has developed into a global system, the environmental havoc it creates has been globalised too.

As public concern about the climate crisis rises, pro-capitalist economists and politicians are under pressure to find answers. But the business-as-usual solutions they offer generally rely on extending the market to more aspects of nature.

The various carbon-trading schemes promoted by capitalist governments around the world all promise that putting a price on pollution will make environmental vandalism unprofitable and eventually cause it to disappear. In practice, such schemes have led to financial scandals, windfall profits for polluters and almost no environmental gains.

Another common response is to argue that it's not the economic system that has to change, but people's wasteful consumption habits. Environmental writer Michael Maniates has pinpointed a big problem with this idea, which "embraces the notion that knotty issues of consumption, consumerism, power and responsibility can be resolved neatly and cleanly through enlightened, uncoordinated consumer choice".

Of course, reducing personal waste is a good thing. But you can't shutdown a coal-fired power station or decide to build a public transport system from the supermarket aisle. We need political action to win these things.

Grow or die

The various "green capitalist" responses to climate change have to ignore another related problem —capitalism must grow or die. It needs infinitely expanding markets and ever-growing consumption to exist.

US sociologists Brett Clark and Richard York have argued that the short-term need of capitalist markets to constantly expand is at odds with the long-term cycles of regeneration required by the natural world.

They said in the November 2008 Monthly Review: "The pursuit of profit is the immediate pulse of capitalism, as it reproduces itself on an ever-larger scale. A capitalist economic system cannot function under conditions that require accounting for the reproduction of nature, which may include time scales of a hundred years or more, not to mention maintaining the particular, integrated natural cycles that help sustain living conditions."

In a talk at Green Left Weekly's 2009 World at a Crossroads conference in Sydney, Canadian ecosocialist Ian Angus said green capitalism is a contradiction in terms.

"Capitalism combines an irresistible drive to grow, with an irresistible drive to create waste and pollution", he said. "If nothing stops it, capitalism will expand both those processes infinitely. But the Earth is not infinite. The atmosphere and oceans and the forests are very large, but ultimately they are finite, limited resources — and capitalism is now pressing against those limits."

The climate crisis requires a total restructure of our economy and society along sustainable lines. Burning fossil-fuels for energy must be rapidly phased out and renewable energy put in its place. Our entire food system, another big emitter of greenhouse gasses, must be redesigned along sustainable lines. Public transport must be made widely available in our cities. Improvements in energy efficiency must be made in all areas.

A fast transition to a low-carbon economy will be far from easy, but the technical means to make the transition do exist today.

The reason we are not already on our way is that capitalism is also a system of minority rule. Economic and political power is concentrated in the hands of the corporate elite who inevitably put profit before people and the planet. The road towards an ecological society is closed unless decision-making power is taken away from these elites and given to the people.

Grassroots democracy

The ecosocialist vision of change is grounded in a vision of grassroots democracy and full equality for all people in the world. Unlike capitalism, the purpose of the economy would be to make sure everyone had enough. Under capitalism, much of the world's population is condemned to extreme material hardship, while others are constantly urged to consume more.

A central goal of ecosocialists is to fight for a society that allows every human being to develop to their full potential — free of racism, war, poverty and discrimination. This goal of genuine human development, which applies to current and future generations, is unachievable unless society can be transformed to exist in harmony with nature's limits.

This point was made forcefully by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez at December's UN climate summit in Copenhagen. "A spectre is haunting the streets of Copenhagen, and walks silently through this room", he said.

"This spectre is capitalism — almost nobody wants to mention it ... Capitalism, the model of destructive development, is killing people, and threatens to put an end to the human species. They are saying in the streets: If the climate were a bank, it would have been saved already."

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