Capitalism root cause of climate crisis, new book shows

March 12, 2013

Global Capitalism & Climate Change
By Hans Baer
AltaMira Press, 2012

The science says it is now far beyond sensible doubt that we can’t keep dumping greenhouse gases into the sky without terrible results. These range from more extreme floods, droughts and storms, to the disappearance of the Arctic ice cap, dramatic cuts in food yields and the drying out of the Amazon rainforest.

Despite this knowledge, the problem is being made worse. US oil production is booming again. World gas production is surging. World coal production is reaching new highs.

So why, in defiance of all basic human instincts for self preservation, is climate change being made worse and worse? You cannot answer this without grasping the real causes of the crisis.

Hundreds of books on the climate crisis have been published in the past few years, but there is little consensus on how we got into this mess. A common answer, favoured by mainstream politicians and economists, is that the problem is not enough capitalism. They propose creating new markets that trade in parts of the natural world (such as forests or carbon dioxide) in the hope it will make pollution unprofitable.

Others say the problem is mostly to do with bad technology and argue for various “techno-fixes” — such as geo-engineering, genetically modified foods or nuclear power — as solutions. Many ecologists put an equal sign between people and pollution and say human overpopulation is tanking the planet.

Others still take refuge in various kinds of psychological approaches, saying the climate crisis results from the amoral greed of the super-rich, or the unthinking selfishness of everyday consumers. A few even find a perverse comfort in misanthropic ideas about human nature: that human beings are simply hardwired to destroy the natural world no matter how society is organised.

And, of course, the climate deniers neatly “solve” the climate crisis by saying: what crisis?

Hans Baer, a Melbourne-based anthropologist and radical activist, says all of these answers are unsatisfactory, and many downright dangerous. His new book, Global Capitalism and Climate Change, probes for answers in the web of social and economic relationships that define modern life.

He says the root cause of the climate emergency is capitalism — a global economic system that “systematically exploits human beings and the natural environment”. He concludes we need “a vision of an alternative world system, one based on two cardinal principles — namely social equity and justice and environmental sustainability.”

Baer says environmental destruction is inherent to capitalism because it only thrives on “profit-making” and “continued economic expansion”. Unable to jump off its “treadmill of production and consumption”, the system must continue to generate ever higher levels of waste and consumption, even though this threatens life on the planet.

The book critically examines the claims that capitalism can be reformed and made “green”. It rejects the argument that “the market will ultimately safeguard environmental values by placing a price on the planetary ecosystem and its components, including water, air, fauna, flora, and presumably human beings themselves”.

Furthermore, Baer says the notion of “green capitalism” does “not address the issue of social justice or equity and ultimately privileges profit making and economic expansion over environmental sustainability”.

Baer strongly supports the roll-out of renewable energy, public transport and other green measures, but he also cautions that technological change alone cannot overcome the anti-ecological drive inherent in capitalism: “Technological innovations ... must be part and parcel of a shift to a steady-state or zero-growth global economy if they are able to circumvent … global capitalism and its need for constant economic growth.”

Baer calls his vision of the alternative “democratic eco-socialism” and gives five principles that would define it.

First, it would require an “economy oriented to meeting basic social needs — namely, adequate food, clothing, shelter and health care”. Democratic eco-socialism would also require “a high degree of social equality”, “public ownership of the means of production”, “representative and participatory democracy” and “environmental sustainability”.

Baer says such a system would also depart from the capitalist economy’s need for endless growth and also from the environmentally disastrous and undemocratic “socialism” of the former Soviet Union.

He says: “Democratic eco-socialism rejects a statist, growth-centred or productivist ethic and recognises that humans live on an ecologically fragile planet with limited resources that must be sustained and renewed as much as possible for future generations.”

Baer insists that any shift towards democratic eco-socialism in any single country would have to be part of a “global process”, a “permanent revolution”. However, he also devotes a chapter to what he terms “progressive transitional reforms”, more immediately achievable measures that “can contribute to deeper systemic changes”.

It is an impressive work of scholarship, which draws on the work of a huge array of ecological writers and theorists. But the book also includes a meticulous analysis of the climate justice movement, in Australia and globally. Baer says this movement must develop into a much stronger global force if people are to have any hope of overcoming capitalism and solving the climate crisis.

Compared to most books published about climate change, Baer’s book is striking for its analytic rigour and its political commitment. It is easy to agree with Monthly Review editor John Bellamy Foster, who said of the book: “In his concrete and relentless examination of the social aspects of the climate problem, Baer has few, if any, equals.”

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