Why the market can't fix the climate crisis

May 2, 2014
Delegates at the World People's Conference on Climate Change in Bolivia.

Last year we had the hottest week, hottest day, month and year on record broken in Australia.

Worryingly, the fossil fuel companies already have 2795 gigatonnes of fossil fuels in reserves they planning on burning.

That is five times more than the planet can handle if we want to stay below two degrees of warming their business plans, the planet tanks. We need to rewrite this script and go down a different path.

Capitalism is completely incompatible with environmental sustainability. For these basic reasons, the motivating force of capitalism is the never-ending quest for profits and accumulation – all other areas must be deprioritised and suffer as a result.

Capitalist economies must continually expand — this is incompatible with the Earth's defined boundaries and finite resources.

Social and environmental costs are externalised and unable to be accounted for.

We can't just reform the system or promote “green” capitalism because ecological destruction is built into the innate inner logic of the present system of production and distribution.

This is summed up well in the people’s agreement which came out of the 2010 World People’s Conference on Climate Change in Cochabamba, Bolivia.

This was a great example of the climate justice movement in the global south led by left-wing countries in Latin America.

The agreement reads: “The capitalist system has imposed on us a logic of competition, progress, and limitless growth. This regime of production and consumption seeks profit without limits, separating human beings from nature and imposing a logic of domination upon nature, transforming everything into commodities: water, earth, the human genome, ancestral cultures, biodiversity, justice, ethics, the rights of peoples, and life itself.”

We know there can be no lasting solution to the environmental crisis as long as capitalism is the dominant mode of production on this planet. To quote President of Bolivia Evo Morales: “We have two paths – either capitalism dies or mother Earth dies.”

Why ecosocialism?

Ecosocialism is born out of ecology and Marxism. Ecology gives us the powerful tool for understanding how nature works as an interrelated system and offers essential insights into how humans impact the planet. But its weaknesses include a lack of social analysis and it reduces humans to numbers and biology and proposes solutions that tinker around the edges.

What Marxism brings to this is a comprehensive critique of capitalism and an analysis of why the social order has been so destructive. It also shows us another way. Ecology was fundamental to the thoughts of both Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, as well as many other 20th century Marxists.

But on the whole, the movements of the 20th century largely ignored environmental issues and large ecological disasters have happened under countries that have called themselves socialist. So why would we expect better under a new socialist society?

I think we can expect better, because eliminating capitalism actually makes it possible to have a sustainable society. It doesn’t make it inevitable, but by eliminating the profit motive and the drive for accumulation from the economy it removes the drive to pollute.

We can learn from the past. We can learn from the awareness of demonstrated by Cuba, which is the only country widely considered sustainable. So the lesson we have to learn is that ecology has to have a central place in socialist theory and socialist practice today.

An ecosocialist society would be socialist — committed to democracy, egalitarianism and social justice based on the collective ownership of the means of production — it would eliminate exploitation, accumulation and profit as the driving forces of the economy.

It would also be based on best ecological principles, stop prioritising anti-environmental practices and start restoring ecosystems.

Socialists in the environment movement

It is not enough for us to criticise neoliberal and liberal responses to the climate crisis. We should actively support and be involved in movements that directly confront the problem.

This means that rather than campaign for market mechanisms or vague calls for climate action, we need to build a grassroots mass movement that can call for and demand large scale renewable energy, ideally publicly funded and owned, and the immediate phase out of fossil fuels.

This is a useful transitional demand because it is absolutely necessary and a practical step towards a fossil free economy, it's technologically achievable and something that people can readily support.

However, publicly funded and owned energy production is also a highly controversial demand in a period dominated by neoliberalism and private ownership, where intervention in the market is minimised.

These demands have radicalising effects on people because they highlight the contradictions inherent in the capitalist system and its inability to solve the climate crisis, as well as the need for popular control over production.

There have been some inspiring campaigns that have brought together a whole range of people from different backgrounds who are learning the strength of collective action firsthand. It’s given us the opportunity to work alongside people we may never had a chance to speak to before.

These campaigns are useful because they demonstrate lessons about people power and about how social change comes about. People's consciousness develops through the struggle and it triggers different questions for people about how society works.

Anyone involved for long enough soon realises politicians don't give concessions out of the goodness of their hearts, and they really do serve the interests of the minority elite — including the fossil fuel lobby.

My involvement in environmental campaigns has taught me not to underestimate the ability of working people to come to their own highly-developed conclusions through the process of engaging in struggles that affect their own community directly.

As we do the on-the-ground hard slog that is needed within the campaign groups, we also have to keep in mind the ultimate goal of changing the system — we will need an ecosocialist revolution to solve this crisis.

We have to bring more people with us within the movements, to the view that as long as a small minority of people control the economy and run it in their interest. The ecological crisis will worsen.

Twenty-first century Marxists have to learn from the mistakes of 20th century Marxism and this includes the fact we ignore ecological issues at our own peril.

Marx and Engels famously urged the “Workers of the world to unite because they had a world to win and nothing to lose but their chains. Well now the stakes are higher than ever, we still have a world to win but we also have a world to lose.

US author Naomi Klein wrote: “Responding to climate change requires that we break every rule in the free-market playbook and that we do so with great urgency ... a green left worldview, which rejects more reformism and challenges the centrality of profit in our economy, offers humanity's best hope of overcoming these overlapping crises.”

[This article is based on a speech Weedall made to the Marxism 2014 conference in Melbourne.]

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