The warning from the author of two scientific studies on environmental degradation, published last month, could not, on the face of it, be starker. “It’s clear the economic system is driving us towards an unsustainable future and people of my daughter’s generation will find it increasingly hard to survive,” said Professor Will Steffen of the Australian National University and the Stockholm Resilience Centre.
Humans are “eating away at our own life support systems”, his research found, through human-driven climate change, land degradation, species loss, and pumping agricultural fertilisers into the seas.
I say, “on the face of it”, because in one way the warning was deliberately vague. The force that is driving us inexorably towards this dystopian future in which we, as a species, will struggle to survive is left frustratingly ill-defined. The culprit is presented simply as “the economic system”. Which economic system that is – presumably it’s not feudalism, mercantilism or anarcho-syndicalism – remains unstated.
Behind climate change, industrialised agriculture, relentless urbanization and the pollution of the oceans, perhaps the real threat to human existence is that we can bring ourselves to spell out what the threat actually is. Life on earth, you might say, is at risk from a euphemism.
But before I draw back the curtain (I suffer from predictable endings, I know), it’s worth pointing out that not all the blame can be laid at capitalism’s door. At another point in the article Steffen refers to “economic system[s]” and his research stretches back to 1950. At that stage in history, Communism was rivaling capitalism as the world’s dominant economic system (the Chinese revolution was in 1949), and still had about four decades to run.
And Communism did not baulk at mass environmental degradation. In the 1980s, the worst air pollution in Europe could be found in Communist Czechoslovakia. Communist Czechs and Russians had higher per capita carbon footprints than Australians and Canadians. The nuclear disaster at Chernobyl became emblematic of the environmental failings of Soviet-style Communism in general.
But two economic facets Communism did not excel at were trade across borders and satisfying consumer desires. And these elements are precisely what has enabled our present-day capitalist system to, in Steffen’s description, go into “overdrive”.
Here, for example, is a paragraph from Naomi Klein’s 2014 book, This Changes Everything, describing what happened to CO₂ emissions after 2000:
“As the free trade system was put in place and producing offshore became the rule, emissions did more than move – they multiplied … before the neoliberal era, emissions growth had been slowing, from 4.5% annual increases in the 1960s to about 1% a year for the 1990s. But the new millennium was a watershed: between 2000 and 2008, the growth rate reached 3.4% a year, shooting past the highest IPCC projections of the day. In 2009, it dipped due to the financial crisis, but made up for lost time with the historic 5.9% increase in 2010 that left climate watchers reeling.”
And it’s no use seeking refuge in the effects of internal Chinese development. Yes, by 2007 China was responsible for two-thirds of the annual increase in global emissions. But between 2002 and 2008, nearly half of China’s emissions total was related to producing goods for export. Chinese coal use actually declined slightly between 1995 and 2000, but skyrocketed after the country’s open door policy for western corporations saw it become a manufacturing hub. Transportation of goods from one part of the globe to another by container ships has risen by 389% in twenty years and CO₂ emissions from shipping are poised to double or triple by 2050.
According to a Swedish writer on the history of coal, Andreas Malm, there is a “causal link between the quest for cheap and disciplined labour power and rising CO₂ emissions”. And the global quest for cheap labour, technically known as global labour arbitrage, is one of the defining characteristics of contemporary capitalism.
The question implicitly raised by Klein’s book is not whether this capitalist system, as opposed to a nebulous and misleading “economic system”, is responsible for looming environmental catastrophe. It obviously is. But rather the question is whether there are there are other forms of capitalism that can peacefully co-exist with the natural world or, alternatively, is capitalism itself the problem? Klein has the honesty to blame a “deregulated, global capitalism” for our plight, but is a regulated, localised capitalism possible?
What needs to change is fundamental, not cosmetic. “Encouraging the frenetic and indiscriminate consumption of essentially disposable products can no longer be the system’s goals,” Klein writes. “Goods must once again be made to last and the use of energy-intensive long-haul transport will need to be rationed – reserved for those cases where goods cannot be produced locally or where local production is more carbon-intensive.” Klein backs a basic income, an unconditional wage paid to everyone, as a way of discouraging jobs that simply fuel consumption. Paul Mason, the economics editor of the UK’s Channel 4 News, has predicted that if a basic income was introduced, “corporations would rebalance their business models towards a high pay, stable consumption, low-ish profit world, and the tax take would rise as a result."
All this is eminently desirable as well as necessary, and has been advocated at various times in this blog, but what I doubt is that corporations would meekly “rebalance their business models” towards this low profit, reduced consumption, worker-secure, environmentally friendly world. I doubt they could even if they wanted to. It’s worth understanding how we got to this point. In the 1970s, in the era of un-globalised capitalism, marked by a government regulations and strong trade unions, corporations experienced a profit squeeze, as the proportion of national income going to wages rose. This was reversed by, in the words of one American politician, “zapping labour” and, in time, globalisation – scouring the globe for a cheap and disciplined labour force. This is why we are now suffering a wages squeeze and the problem of exponential private debt.
The Marxian geographer David Harvey has said capitalism oscillates between repressing labour, which then leads to the problem of who will buy all the products, and allowing labour more power which solves the problem of profit absorption through consumption, but then creates the problem of a profit squeeze. To deal with the threat of climate change alone, would require an almighty profit squeeze, an end to globalisation and the export of hyper-consumption to the middle and upper classes of China and India.
Quite apart from the absence of enlightened self-interest on the part of capitalists, and the fact that the traditional drivers of change, trade unions, have been rendered toothless, there are sound reasons why the pendulum cannot simply swing back again. The prospect of an end to “indiscriminate consumption”, making goods that last and not relying on planned or perceived obsolescence, and the introduction of a basic income rendering low paid exploitation much more difficult, is, all told, a recipe for the end of capitalism not its rejuvenation. It is true, as Stewart Lansley and others have pointed out, that business in Europe and the US was compelled to put up with lower profits and a better paid workforce in the aftermath of World War Two, and the result was three decades of the highest economic growth in history. But those thirty glorious years were inextricably tied up with rebuilding society after the annihilation of war and meeting consumer desires that needed little arousing. We now live in a society saturated with products, burdened with masses of debt and one that attains profit mainly through inflating assets, such as house prices.
Naomi Klein makes the astute observation that the Right is often more aware of what is really going on beneath the surface that the Left. Maybe the reason the Right is peddling so furiously in the direction of enlarging low wage exploitation, blaming public debt for a private debt crisis and denying climate change, is that they sense the darkness that lies in wait in the opposite direction. The economist Harry Shutt posits a “post-capitalist” future in which external shareholders “rapidly become an endangered species”. Limited liability is not granted, by the state, to enterprises that fail to advance the public interest; corporations can’t exist just to maximise profit, they can’t externalise costs onto the wider community and they aren’t able to perpetually exploit or invent consumer desires, or ship in products from the other side of the world. In that scenario, a much larger basic income becomes the way to distribute the “value added” that results from the manufacture of products or provision of services.
Looming environmental collapse is the inescapable sign that society can’t afford capitalism any more. Klein’s book is subtitled tellingly, Capitalism vs the Climate. But external shareholders, the 1% and 0.1%, are one vested interest that won’t go quietly into the night.