From the November 2015 issue of the Socialist Standard
Damage to the environment is a major threat to the stability of human life on this planet, and moreover this is directly attributable to human activity. The truth is that we as human beings interfere with our environment – and this is not always with the most long-term awareness. From the forest clearances of the Neolithic and early Bronze Age through to the planned exploitation of the melting North Pole, we interact with this planet in a way which has a major impact on existing ecosystems. This is nothing new however – what is new is the extent to which we are now doing things which may be pushing us towards environmental tipping points and which may cause irreversible damage to the world we inhabit.
Human beings are not passively compliant with the environment. We are constantly intervening in and altering it, with profound consequences for other species. By some estimates, 140,000 species are going extinct every year, leading some to describe the modern era as the sixth great mass extinction event. We have to find some means by which we can ensure that this unavoidable interfering activity does not prejudice our continued safe existence on this planet.
Accepting that the environmental problems we face at the moment are as a result of human activity, some important questions arise. Firstly, what kind of economy and what kind of material expectations can we have that would enable us to live sustainably? Secondly, questions relating to the politics of any society that might persist in order to promote such sustainability.
A bit of biochemistry
Material consumption on this planet undertook a step change starting with the industrial revolution in Britain, powered by cheap and accessible coal. Coal is fossilised wood from the Carboniferous period. The reason why there is so much wood from this period is that when trees first appeared on the planet the particular substance which gives wood its hardness, namely lignin, was something which no animal or plant was able to digest, and therefore for many millions of years when trees fell down, there were no bacteria or microorganisms that could recycle the wood into anything else, so they just stayed there and built up generation upon generation of trees on top of each other, finally being covered up and compressed under the earth and turning after millions of years to coal.
Trees and plant life are means of storing carbon. Trees absorb carbon dioxide and emit oxygen, and a simple look at the chemical equation demonstrates that the carbon is missing. The carbon is trapped within the tree and when a tree decomposes or is burnt the carbon is given off and recombines with oxygen to give CO2. The Carboniferous period therefore represents a time when a huge amount of atmospheric carbon was removed and stored. This resulted in a very oxygen rich atmosphere which may in turn have allowed air breathing animals to emerge from the water. Since the dawn of the industrial revolution we have been burning fossil fuels and returning this trapped carbon to the atmosphere.
The foregoing is a quick and dirty outline of what has led us to the problem of the greenhouse effect: the atmosphere acts like glass in a greenhouse, letting in light from the sun during the day, but preventing the resulting heat from dissipating into space at night. This means that, as carbon and other greenhouse gases increase, the planet is warming up… and much of life on Earth is adapted to temperatures below those to which our global temperature appears to be heading. This should sound alarm bells. However this is simply one aspect of the corrosive impact of our activity on this planet. There is also toxicity in the air, earth and water; increasing acidification of the seas and air; degradation of our top soil and loss of drinking water. The list goes on with agrichemicals, hormones, antibiotics, radioactive waste, noise and light pollution…. Suffice to say we have arrived at a situation where we could well be on a downward slide.
Markets and short-termism
As the world has become progressively global and markets especially so, much attention has centred on the actions of ‘hot money’; hot because it doesn’t stay in your hands for very long. Large amounts of this money swoop in and out of particular markets because there is a quick kill in sight. Commodities, financial markets and stock markets, futures, all variety of assets – any of these can be prey to a sudden rush or a loss of interest by investors. Financial investment computer packages are now built to identify these and play them accordingly. These minute fluctuations can result in huge payouts for big investors and large bonuses for the guy executing the deal. It’s the casino economy in operation. This metaphor reveals much about the nature of this business, because few who enter a casino are looking to the longer term. Likewise, those who execute a split second investment decision are unlikely to be thinking about the potential impact it might have on the employees, or anyone else at all come to that. They are almost certainly not thinking about how this will play out in several months, and certainly not in years: rather grab the winnings and get out quick before something goes wrong.
Politicians of all colours repeatedly talk of ‘rebalancing’ this economy because so much of this nation’s earnings arise from exactly this kind of activity and, as the banking crisis showed, it can have its downside. However the power and attraction of City finance, of working on fine margins, of split second deals, are both too attractive and too lucrative: amongst the reasons that the greatly trumpeted market reforms amounted to not very much. Moreover these very financiers are often the funders of political parties and want those parties to reflect their interests in return for the cash donations.
But it reveals something deep about the thinking of our society; the thinking behind the throne in our society. It shows that the precept is to make money today and not think about tomorrow. And supposedly there is a theory to support it: as long as markets are free and traders can do what they want, then what happens will reflect the priorities of the active agents: supply and demand ensures that we get what we want and need. Or so we are told. But how is the future factored into this? How are the interests of our children added into the calculation? Where does their demand figure?
Viewed collectively, we are living in a great mansion where we are ripping out parts of the floor and walls to sling on the fires and are not worrying because the house has not yet fallen down. We are carrying on smoking because we haven’t developed lung cancer yet…
If you have ever looked at a set of company accounts you’ll notice that there is hardly ever anything beyond a five-year projection. Just to add to the mix, governments seldom last for more than 4-5 years. We want results, folks, and we want ‘em now: what government ever swept to power on the ticket that things will be better in 25 years?
Adam Smith is the daddy of much capitalist ideology and his view of supply and demand is seen to underpin much of the rhetoric which argues in support of the market system. However, even accepting the theory, for supply and demand to operate correctly all active agents must have perfect information: buyers must know all available options and their relative merits, and this information must be accurate and timely. However Adam Smith was writing in the days before the advent of the PR industry.
Starting in the 20th century, the science of psychology was utilised in the cause of shaping public opinion, both spawning the PR world and heavily influencing advertising/propaganda. Welcome to the world of false consciousness writ large, a world where in the UK 98 percent of climate scientists assert the reality of human-made global warming whereas many people still think it’s a con. Perhaps as an example the fact that Exxon can offer $10k to any scientist who publicly criticises the International Panel on Climate Change shows the way they can distort the picture…
Fossil fuel companies have an amazing track record of funding genuine-sounding groups with the sole intention of spreading confusion about climate change. In the same way that tobacco companies knew the dangers of their products way before they were revealed by Richard Doll's research in the 1950s, and pharma companies suppress negative test results, so we have fossil fuel giants distorting the debate with misinformation, personal diatribes, threats of legal action, and simple lies. The problem with supply and demand is that it assumes everyone is equally able to access information; it doesn’t work if key players can tilt the playing field to their advantage. And as fossil fuel companies are in the game to make money, and as climate change information represents a threat to their money-making potential, they will use their power to damage it and deflect it; to minimise its impact on their business.
What is hard to understand about the climate change deniers is how they can reconcile their activities with the fact that they are exacerbating a problem which threatens them also, as well as their children and so forth. How can they act as if in some sense they might be able to breathe all this money they have made; or they can buy another planet to live on? If there is anything in this climate change stuff – and everyone must accept it sounds like a risk – then do they not worry about the future at all? How can they park all these potential concerns?
Naomi Klein has suggested, plausibly, that it is because they cannot conceive of a world unlike this one; and so cannot countenance the idea that it has to change. Essentially they grasp that this system and environmental degradation are synonymous but that this system is the only means to support the life style and world view they have and therefore this system of consumption must be defended at all costs, even if that involves bringing down everything with it. Like the crazed old dictators of history who would rather the entire empire collapsed than they relinquished power, these capitalist titans would rather have it all smashed to smithereens than share any of it. Classic dog in a manger attitude, but with far worse consequences: I’d rather watch it all destroyed than hand it over and become like the rest of you…
Where do we go from here
So, to summarise:
(1) Climate change (amongst other environmental threats) is happening and is a serious problem for all of us.
(2) Climate change has resulted from human activity.
(3) Capitalism by focussing on the short term is unlikely to take the longer term, and hence the environment, into account
(4) Capitalists and corporations will seek to distort the facts of the matter so they can carry on as usual
(5) Capitalists are ideologically blinkered against climate change since it exposes the dangers of capitalism as an environmental threat
What does this mean?
Firstly, that we cannot expect the problems to be solved within capitalism; all the powers tilt the opposite way. Consider the fact that this has been on the international agenda for 30 years and nothing has been achieved; emissions have increased over this period (and were only halted as an effect of the global recession). Additionally, note that the government has publicly stated that the environment must come second to the economy – but isn’t that what got us into this mess?
Secondly, we cannot believe much of what we hear in the mainstream media.
Thirdly, the agenda of all Green groups and so-called leftwing parties, who seek to change things without completely scrapping this system, is a hiding to nothing. The approach advocated by the Green Party of tough regulation is a sham. If regulation worked, wouldn’t big corporations be paying their taxes? The legal systems which govern these matters end up as the preserve of well-paid lawyers of whom the corporations have more than the governments.
Ultimately the issue of the environment is an issue of power: who has the power to determine what happens to this planet? Only in a society where we have the power to determine what can and cannot be done will we be able to stop this headlong rush to environmental devastation. That means a world of common ownership and democratic control. Anything else which anyone offers is merely using an Elastoplast to seal a volcano. Only socialism can deliver on the environment.