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Peace News log archive: October 2010

Articles from the Peace News log.
For archive articles from the whole site, look here

Climate change and capitalism: Six points of view

PN: In your view, can we halt runaway climate change without overthrowing capitalism?

GC: I hope so – because if we can’t then it looks like we’re well and truly stuffed.

PN: Why?

GC: I think the burden of proof is on those who say that we can’t – not least because if they’re right then this severely limits the range of strategies that it’s sensible to pursue.

Some activists simply assert that it’s impossible, as if it’s a self-evident truth.

Too often the train of thought appears to be: “Climate change is an immense systemic problem that’s very difficult to address, and which may even threaten the future of human civilisation as we know it, therefore we can’t deal with it without getting rid of capitalism”. That’s just a non sequitur.

By the same “logic”, fascism couldn’t have been defeated and the 1987 Montreal Convention [limiting the production and use of ozone-depleting chemicals] could never have been signed.

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Climate change and capitalism: Six points of view

PN: How do you see the relationship between capitalism and climate change?

CC: I think they’re inherently linked because capitalism can only exist with continual growth based on turning natural resources, i.e. bits of planet, into money. And the way it does that is by chopping it up, excavating it, turning it into product, burning it, disposing of it. Basically whatever it takes, we’ll degrade, and that leads to climate change.

PN: Can we stop runaway climate change without overthrowing capitalism or at least altering the way our economic system works?

CC: That’s a difficult question—I don’t think so, no. Whether we can stop it at all is another question.

PN: Well do you think we can?

CC: I don’t see any signs that we can. I don’t think we can. I think we can maybe try to mitigate its effects or make it go a bit slower until we can handle it better but no, I don’t think you can stop it now.

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Climate change and capitalism: Six points of view

PN: Can we halt runaway climate change without overthrowing capitalism?

BC: No, it’s impossible. Short answer. Well, I really don’t believe it’s possible at all, because, for a start, the way capitalism is set up is based on growth, and it would basically disintegrate without growing. And so, a planet is finite, and all the resources that capitalism depends on are finite, so it’s not going to last, it’s not sustainable. But before it’s actually stopped by the laws of the physics, it’s going to get as much out of it—it being the planet—as it can with no regard to the consequences for future generations, or current ones for that matter.

But I don’t think it stops there. I’m not proposing any sort of alternative like communism…. I believe that the problem lies with civilization in general, really. It’s based on getting resources out of the countryside into the cities, and it’s impossible to do that in a sustainable way. So to a large degree, the problem started a lot longer ago than capitalism did.

PN: So in your opinion a civilization divorced of capitalism would still inevitably lead to the degradation of the environment?

BC: Yeah, because capitalism seems to be the most efficient way of getting stuff out of the ground and burning it up…but the domination of nature started with agriculture ten thousand years ago and the domination of nature is always going to lead to the degradation of nature because we’ve sort of taken ourselves out of the web of connectedness with beings that are alive.

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Climate change and capitalism: Six points of view

PN: In your view, can we halt runaway climate change without overthrowing capitalism as well?

PT: I think you’d have to take the first question, which is a quite valid one, which is: ‘can we halt runaway climate change.’ There are serious reasons to think that we won’t be able to and that we’re too late already…. It could be a more complex question in that, if we ever get into a situation in which something that dire is happening, we’ll be doing all sorts of things like geo-engineering solutions and stuff like that, all of which are likely to be very damaging in themselves.…

What is very clear is the moral imperative to try to stop it… With something so big and so calamitous, in a sense you might as well forget all the other struggles and moral questions and whatever that beset the world because if we don’t deal with the biggest problem it will lead to a kind of pervasive cynicism in dealing with anything.

When it gets to capitalism, as Campaign Against Climate Change, our organisation is focused on the climate change issue…. [Overthrowing capitalism] is not something the Campaign would identify itself with – or could. For me personally, I find that kind of thing is too vague to be useful really. What exactly does that mean? Because it’s too undefined to be useful, to be honest.

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Climate change and capitalism: Six points of view

PN: Can we halt runaway climate change without overthrowing capitalism?

EJ: It’s interesting that you talk about overthrowing capitalism because I think there’s a commonly used expression—overthrowing or dismantling or smashing—and I think that can sometimes be a little bit inaccurate about the nature of capitalism, which is a social relationship, an economic relationship that we are all participating in and reproducing on a daily basis. So I liked John Holloway’s description of how we need to stop the reproduction of capitalism, and I think that will enable us to be more honest and more self-critical about our own role in it. Not to individualize our relationship with capitalism, living under capitalism, but to personalize it more. I think we can all learn a lot from that process.

So yeah, of course, we absolutely need to stop the reproduction of capitalism because it’s the core driver of climate change because of its emphasis on a consumption-driven economy, on a fossil fuel-driven economy. Even if we manage to move away from fossil fuels and into more sustainable force of energy, we still have the problem of massive oversupply in some areas creating a false demand and massive inequality in wealth.

Wealth is not measured just in money—in terms of who has capital and who doesn’t—but it’s also measured in quality of life, access to healthy [air], access to land, access to the means of production and ownership of means of production wherever people are living…You can’t really divorce the global from the local, and I think climate change has taught us that.

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Climate change and capitalism: Six points of view

PN: In your view, can we halt runaway climate change without overthrowing capitalism? If not, why not? Or, if we can, why do you think that is possible?

MA: In theory, yes – capitalism has a built in drive to accumulate – and a structural incapacity to count effects on the environment into market valuations. So left to its own, with regulation, etc., it is not just incredibly harmful and destructive of human potentials, productive of poverty, and so on – but it also so violates the economy that not only would it be impossible to stop climate catastrophe – but, if capitalism had been functioning with zero restraints in the past, we would probably be fried – so to speak – already.

However, it is possible – technically possible – to have government intervention that is very effective to limited ends. You can outlaw child labour – it will still happen, but not much. You can put in minimum wage laws – people will violate them, but not too much. And so on.

So yes, you could image – technically – a mass upsurge in desire for climate sanity that propelled governments worldwide to impose very tough restraints on market choices and action – even to the point of redressing problems. Fact is, we saw this decades ago in regard to many ecological matters – not perfect, not even wonderful – but quite effective in some respects. Just like child labour laws…

The problem is, climate disaster arises from much more mainstream pursuits that are far harder to curtail and limit and reverse – so the movement pushing governments to behave thusly has to be much stronger – even than movements for child labour laws, affirmative action, and so on.

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Dariush Sokolov reports from No Borders' camp

Image25 June 2010, Steenokkerzeel by the airport outside Brussels, 60 people occupy the building site of the new 127 tris immigration detention centre, shutting down work for a day, taking direct action against the construction

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