Socialist Studies Socialist Studies

Is This The End?

Environmental Crisis

Climate Scientists now agree that global warming of 4 degrees by 2100 is a real possibility. In an article, “Climate Change: The heat is on”, the environmental journalist, Gaia Vince explained what would happen to the planet if temperatures reached an additional 4 degrees by this date. She said that although human beings will not become extinct:

We risk great loss of life and perhaps the end of our civilisations. Many of the places where people live and grow food will no longer be suitable for either. Higher sea levels will make today’s low-lying islands and many coastal regions, where nearly half the global population live, uninhabitable generating an estimated 2 billion refugees by 2100. Bangladesh will lose one-third of its land area”.

Vince went on to say:

From 2030, more than half the population will live in the tropics, in an area that already struggles with climate impacts. Yet by 2100, most of the high and mild latitudes will be uninhabitable because of heat stress or drought; despite stronger precipitation, the hotter soils will lead to faster evaporation and most populations will struggle for fresh water. We will have to live on a smaller land surface with a larger population.” (OBSERVER 20th May 2019)

This bleak future is a consequence of capitalism and the private ownership of the means of production. The capitalist class own energy resources, factories, transport and communication systems to the exclusion of the majority of people on the planet. Different capitalists and their politicians jealously guard and further their own economic interests, even if the use of commodities like fossil fuel continues to have a detrimental effect on the environment. The fossil fuel lobby have used their political power to eliminate state subsidies for renewable energy while maximising state subsidies for fossil fuel companies, like coal, oil and gas.

G20 nations have almost tripled the subsidies they give to oil-fired power plants, despite the need to cut the carbon emissions causing the climate crisis. It was over a decade ago that the EU promised to phase out all fossil fuel subsidies. Elsewhere in the world, China and India give the biggest subsidies to coal, with Japan third, followed by South Africa, South Korea, Indonesia and the US. While the UK frequently runs its own electricity grid without any coal power at all, a parliamentary report in June criticised the billions of pounds used to help to build fossil fuel power plants overseas (GUARDIAN, G 20 Nations Triple Coal Power Subsidies despite Climate Crisis 25th June 2019)

In desperation, the Union of Concerned Scientists recently wrote:

Burning coal, oil, and natural gas has serious and long-standing negative impacts on public health, local communities and ecosystems, and the global climate. Yet the majority of fossil fuel impacts are far removed from the fuels and electricity we purchase, hidden within public and private health expenditures, military budgets, emergency relief funds, and the degradation of sensitive ecosystems”.
https://www.ucsusa.org/clean-energy/coal-and-other-fossil-fuels/hidden-cost-of-fossils

Although scientists are very good at presenting evidence based papers on climate change and other environmental problems, they stop short at a political critique of capitalism. There is nothing in the above article drawing attention to the damage inflicted to the environment by the profit-motive and the powerful political machinations of the fossil fuel industry. The private ownership of the means of production and distribution is unquestioned. There is silence on proposing an alternative social system which would allow production and distribution to take place in harmony with the environment.

The reality is that global warming is not only caused by capitalism, but is a problem set within a social system of power relationships and private property ownership. Capitalism has the primary short-term imperative to make profit, accumulate capital and to expand and grow. Here is Marx;

Accumulate, accumulate! That is Moses and the prophets!...Accumulation for accumulation’s sake, production for production’s sake” (CAPITAL, VOLUME 1, Ch. XXIV, p. 595).

Investors invest their capital into companies who will give a profitable return on their investments. To be able to live off the profit and to re-invest again, investors expect companies to deliver profitable outcomes despite the environmental consequences.

In response environmentalists have urged fund managers to disinvest from the world’s biggest polluters. This has led to Legal and General Investment to remove $5 billion “ethical” investment from carbon-intensive companies, including US oil giant ExxonMobil. Yet LGI still retains investments in these polluting companies in its other funds for fear of losing investors. It claims it will vote against the boards of polluting companies but their voting strength is marginal compared to other institutional investors (OBSERVER 23 06 2019).

Many capitalist governments do try to act to resolve environmental problems, but their actions are constrained by a world split into competing nation states and the conflicting interests of one set of capitalists against another. The United Nations has spent decades trying to get countries to agree to a common way forward in order to mitigate global warming.

Yet the UN refuses to charge capitalism as the cause of the problem of global warming and conclude that the only solution is its removal by the establishment of socialism. The UN cannot think and act outside its capitalist box. This is hardly surprising, when all the countries of the world are pro-capitalist, pro-profit and pro-growth. There can be no criticism of capitalism for fear of people considering an alternative social system. They do not want “system change”.

Things are getting worse

The 2015 Paris Agreement, for example, aimed to strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change by keeping a global temperature rise this century well below 2 degrees. The United States delivered notice to the United Nations in August 2018 of the country's intention to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, joining Syria as one of only two countries in the world not party to the treaty.

Yet the Treaty itself is problematic. According to an article in SCIENCE DAILY:

Two new studies published in the AGU journals Geophysical Research Letters and Earth's Future now show some of the goals set forth in the agreement might be difficult to reach without much sacrifice.

The new research shows future climate extremes depend on the policy decisions made by major emitters, and that even if major emitters were to strengthen their commitments to reducing emissions, the rest of the world would have to immediately reduce their greenhouse gases to zero to achieve the Paris 2015 goal
” (April 23 2019).

In an interview with the BBC, the UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, warmed that with the rise of nationalism around the world, there had been “a reduction in political will of some countries to work collectively to tackle global warming” (BBC NEWS 29 November 2018). Seven months later Guterres said the situation had worsened:

We are not on track to achieve the objectives defined in the Paris agreement, and the paradox is that as things are getting worse on the ground, political will seems to be fading” (AL JAZEERA 12 May 2019).

Under capitalism, there is a constant clash of interests between competing nation states which undermines any co-operation to resolve environmental issues. Even in the European Union, three countries; Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic do not want to sign with the other EU countries, a common accord to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050 because it will affect their respective coal industries and energy requirements. According to EUOBSERVOR:

Poland's permanent representation in Brussels said in a tweet that prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki "defends [Poland]'s interests in discussion about climate policy... "Fair distribution of climate protection costs means taking into account the specificities of [member states]. Climate goals are important in the same way as their implementation, taking into account citizens & economy
https://euobserver.com/environment/145227

Besides governments wanting to protect their economic interests the EU is also besieged by well-funded lobbyists acting for companies like Shell and BP. Centrica, RWE and E.On also lobbied the EU to remain with its existing plans to reduce emissions by between 80% to 95%, despite concerns that the cuts do not go far enough to limit severe global warming (GUARDIAN June 20th 2019).

Species Extinction

According to the UN intergovernmental science-policy Platform on diversity and Ecosystem services, up to a million species “are at risk of extinction” thereby threatening human life on the planet. (GUARDIAN, May 20th 2019). Loss of plants and animals on the planet reduces humanity’s ability to survive. Scientists around the world can work together for a common aim but not politicians and governments.

The Center for Biological Diversity recently stated:

Scientists estimate we're now losing species at up to 1,000 times the background rate, with literally dozens going extinct every day. It could be a scary future indeed, with as many as 30 to 50 percent of all species possibly heading toward extinction by mid-century”.
https://www.biologicaldiversity.org/programs/biodiversity/elements_of_biodiversity/extinction_crisis/

No government admits that capitalism –commodity production and exchange for profit - is the cause of global warming and environmental degradation. Governments are in denial that capitalism is actually causing detrimental harm to their profit system and the class they represent. This is one of the many contradictions in capitalism. The profit motive actually harms profit-making. And the vested interests of the fossil industry have been very successful in propagating global warming denial despite the scientific evidence to the contrary.

As for the share holders, profit is what they expect from their investments not in mitigating global warming. According to al Aljazeera, in May of this year, Exxon Mobil shareholder rejected a proposal that would have forced the company’s board to create a special committee on climate change. The report went on to say:

Shareholders also defeated measures requiring the company to report the risks of climate change at chemical plants on the Gulf Coast in the United States and to report political contributions and lobbying.
>https://www.aljazeera.com/ajimpact/exxon-shareholders-reject-climate-change-proposal-190529181834709.html

President Trump does not believe the data on climate change and thinks pollution is caused by other countries not the US. According to Vanity Fair, there is a:

White House proposal to make it significantly easier for energy companies to release methane—a powerful greenhouse gas and a main contributor to climate change—”into the atmosphere”. (M. Kosof, Trump’s Ignorance Is Exacerbating an Ecological Apocalypse, VANITY FAIR, November 28 2018).

The effects of such a large rise in temperature will be extreme, says Vince in her OBSERVER article. She recommends an urgent and immediate revolutionary change in society and the way in which we live and relate to each other and to nature. Vince, like other environmentalists, does not have the establishment of socialism in mind.

Is this the End?

The passive direct action of Environmental Extinction, school children demonstrations and article after article in scientific journals clearly demonstrating the consequences of global warming, all refuse to name capitalism as the cause and socialism as the answer. There is supposed to be a “citizen’s assembly” on the “global emergency” as it is now called. If the assembly is held, it is doubtful if the profit-motive will be criticised or the private ownership of the means of production questioned. The interests of businesses will be given centre stage. There has been a call for a world-wide general strike against the inaction of governments in September 2019. It will change nothing.

However, a revolutionary change to the relationship between human production and the environment is possible. However, it first requires the formation of a world-wide socialist majority within capitalism. It requires socialists taking conscious, democratic and political action within socialist parties to end the profit system. The solution to the problems caused by capitalism is socialist revolution.

If society is to be able to organise its production and distribution in an environmentally sustainable way, then a socialist majority must first abolish the profit imperative and the need for capital accumulation. This requires society as a whole to democratically set production to directly meet the satisfaction of human needs.

Without the establishment of socialism – the common ownership and democratic control of the means of production and distribution by all of society - the revolutionary change required to avert continued environmental degradation is not going to happen. Without socialism the consequences of global warming, pollution and destruction of the bio-sphere will continue.

In the film APOCALYPSE NOW (1979), the director Francis Coppolla used the Doors’ THE END at the beginning and end of the film to drive home the hopelessness and pessimism of the heart of darkness, which is the central theme of the films apocalyptic vision of the world. Using Jim Morrison’s lyrics: “This is the end, beautiful friend / This is the end, my only friend, the end / Of our elaborate plans, the end / Of everything ... “, the film’s violence apocalyptically fades to black. With the future possibility of drowned cities, intolerable heat waves, uninhabitable parts of the world, migration, war and death so too is the future sketched out by Gaia Vince. However, this does not need to be the case.

Socialists are few on the ground. Yet we remain optimists in the face of a potentially grim capitalist future. There is nothing preventing reasonable workers with open minds from accepting the socialist case against capitalism and becoming socialists. Not leadership but mass socialist understanding.

The solid basis of socialism has not disappeared; the problems facing the working class will force upon workers an ever clearer understanding of the source and the solution of their difficulties, making workers readier to accept the socialist case against capitalism. A socialist majority is possible as is the establishment of socialism and a social system in harmony with the natural environment.

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