Capitalism is leading us to total disaster

[From Change the System, Not the Climate (Resistance Books: Sydney, 2007); an edited version appeared in Green Left Weekly #693, December 6, 2006]

The fundamental problem facing humanity today is catastrophic climate change brought on by runaway greenhouse gas emissions. The relatively narrow band of climatic conditions within which we can function has been destabilised. As average temperatures rise extreme weather events are increasing (cyclones, floods, heat waves and droughts) and ocean levels look like rising dramatically, potentially making refugees of hundreds of millions of people. The very survival of the human race has now been called into question.

Human societies have always impacted on their environment. But the source of our current crisis is quite specific: it is the operations of modern capitalism. The drive for profits by the giant corporations (predominantly Western) has been relentless and has been pursued in complete disregard of any impact on the environment.

A recent letter to Green Left Weekly attributed the problem to overpopulation. In my opinion this notion is dead wrong. Increasing populations obviously put some pressure on resources but the fundamental conditions under which we live — how we generate our power, how we get around, how our food is grown, etc. — are not decided by us but rather by the big corporations that control society's means of production. Without the rule of corporate capital we could set in place radically different and ecologically sustainable arrangements.

For example, the cars which most of us use are a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions. But what choice do we really have? The favouring of private motor vehicles over public transport hasn’t come about because we are a society of petrol-heads but is a consequence of the deliberate policies of a succession of capitalist governments loyally protecting the interests of their big business masters. The auto industry and its associated sectors make up a very large part of each national capitalist economy.

Can capitalism make a course correction?

Having brought about the climate change crisis, there is little evidence that capitalism is capable of making the course correction required to deal with it.

Trying to stabilise the carbon dioxide level in the atmosphere and then reduce it is a life-and-death challenge for humanity. We need to phase out fossil fuels and all the problems that go with them (carbon dioxide emissions and the fact that they will not last forever). But big business thinks it can make a few adjustments and carry on as usual. The changes required are simply too wrenching, too fundamentally in contradiction with huge economic interests, to be easily contemplated. That's why John Howard drags his feet on the whole issue of climate change.

For example, by any rational criterion Australia's massive coal industry should be progressively phased out but instead it is looking to develop new mines and boost exports. At the recent G20 gathering in Melbourne, federal treasurer Peter Costello was raving about developing an "energy freeway" to Asia. Does he live on the same planet as the rest of us? Hasn’t he noticed lately that something isn't quite right with the weather? Or perhaps he thinks the sun and the wind need our help to get around!

Even if the sheer pressure of circumstances forces neo-liberal governments to alter course we can be certain that they will drag their feet and that particular capitalist sectors will resist and sabotage the required changes. Of course, some specific industries will orient to the crisis and profit from it, offering new technology and so on, but this is not the main game.

Coping with the social crisis

The social fallout from climate change and any attempt to deal with it will be immense. Here too, we should be extremely sceptical of capitalism's ability to cope.

In 2005 Hurricane Katrina wrecked the city of New Orleans and many settlements on the Gulf of Mexico. The response of the US authorities was shambolic from the start. Over a year later it is clear that several hundred thousand poor people have simply been abandoned. The authorities have neither moved to rebuild the city nor to build new permanent settlements anywhere else.

And this is the human fallout from one just city in the developed West. What happens when whole regions — both in the West and in the Third World — are rendered uninhabitable by climate change? What happens when hundreds of millions of people have to be relocated? What happens when our food supplies are disrupted — are we to be left to the tender mercies of the market? The Australian banana crisis of 2006 will become generalised to basic foodstuffs, resulting in dietary deficiencies, if not mass starvation.

Furthermore, to bring greenhouse gas emissions under control whole economic sectors will have to be run down or phased out and large numbers of workers redeployed into new ones. Can we have any confidence that the neo-liberal Howard government that introduced the savage Work Choices and the Dickensian Welfare-to-Work legislation will manage such a huge social transformation with justice and equity? Simply to pose such a question is to supply the answer.

Emergency mobilisation needed

What is needed to cope with the crisis is a sharp change of direction. We need an emergency mobilisation of society, a five- or 10-year plan to achieve a drastic reorientation of our economy and use of energy. Anything else is simply not serious.

Some of the key elements in a program to meet the crisis are:

1. The entire power and energy sector should be put under public control and run as public utilities under democratic control.

At the moment the private power operators (and the corporatised entities still under nominal state ownership) have a direct interest in making things worse! The more power they sell, the more profits they make. The more airconditioners that are bought, the more electricity is consumed and the more it helps their corporate bottom line.

We need to break with the neo-liberal privatisation policies pursued by both Labor and the Coalition. Bring the whole power and energy sector under public control so that this key lever is in the hands of society. Then we can steer the ship where we want it to go.

2. We are endlessly told that we need more and more power and hence more and more power stations. What about getting serious about energy conservation — really serious? Then we might be able to begin phasing out coal-fired power stations, the main source of our greenhouse gas emissions.

For example, what if the only lightbulbs permitted were the low-power high efficiency ones, all other ones being taken off the market? Furthermore, what if they were distributed free to households by the state-owned power company? Think of how much power could be saved. What if a similar approach were applied to household refrigerators? After all, what is a few hundred million or even a few billion dollars if it could achieve the closing down of several big coal-fired power stations?

What if gas-powered cogeneration were far more widely encouraged? The efficiency of the big coal-fired power stations is very low (about 30%). With cogeneration the low-grade "waste" heat is used, thereby boosting overall efficiency to far higher levels (around 70-80%). This means siting the plants, not far away in the coalfields, but much closer to home where the output is actually used. Of course, this would be a transitional form of power generation since it still uses fossil fuels but it would greatly assist in reducing our dependence on coal and helping make big cuts in greenhouse gas emissions.

Under the national plan each sector of industry and each firm should be set hard annual targets for energy efficiency. Consistent failure of an enterprise to achieve the goals set would result in nationalisation and reorganisation.

Energy use by offices and homes could be slashed by setting strict new energy standards for new construction and embarking on a vast program to retrofit the existing stock of buildings.

The scope for energy efficiency measures is enormous. Very significant gains could be achieved relatively easily — provided there is the political will.

3. We need a big switch to renewable energy. There is a wealth of possibilities. But Howard has gone the other way, abolishing the Mandatory Renewable Energy Target, minimal though it was. Victoria has its own MRET but this is just greenwash. The real line of the state government is the oxymoronic one of "clean coal".

Nuclear power — currently being pushed by Howard — is no solution to anything (except the corporations' thirst for ever more profits and hang the consequences for the rest of us). Apart from all the safety and waste disposal issues, nuclear plants actually require very big energy inputs for their construction.

Nationalise public transport and freight

1. Cars and trucks are a major source of fossil fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. We need to achieve a drastic substitution of public transport for cars and rail freight for trucks. This has to be done and serious results obtained quickly.

Let's make sure that all metropolitan public transport systems are firmly in public hands. Stop all expenditure on roads (except for essential maintenance) and put the funds into covering the big cities with dense integrated networks of trains, trams and buses which run frequently and at all times. Only then will it be possible to radically reduce the use of cars in cities and towns.

2. We also need to nationalise the freight industry (road and rail) to bring about a big reduction in the use of trucks for moving goods. Real planning for the sort of economic shifts that are needed cannot be done if the key economic levers remain in the hands of the profit-crazed corporations.

3. Big business should be forced to pay realistic prices for the power it uses. This will focus their minds on the task at hand. In Victoria, for example, one particular running sore in this regard is the Portland aluminium smelter which consumes a very significant proportion of the state's electricity at concessional rates. We need to assess how sustainable such operations are.

Levers for change

If our society were simply an egalitarian collection of people, we could have a big society-wide discussion, work out a plan to meet the crisis of climate change and begin collectively trying to implement it.

But under capitalism this is impossible. Society is sharply divided between a handful of capitalists who own the economy (the mines, the factories, the supermarkets, the banks, the media, etc.) and the great working-class majority, who are forced to work for them in order to live. Nothing can be done which seriously hurts the interests of the ruling rich. Governments claim to be governing on behalf of everybody but in reality they represent only the capitalists. So the obvious route of a democratic social plan is ruled out.

Instead, as we approach absolute disaster the capitalists are screaming ever louder for "carbon trading" whereby the notorious "hidden hand" of the market is supposed to achieve the desired outcome. But in our opinion this simply will not work.

We reject the idea that everything can be left up to the market through various economic mechanisms, incentives and disincentives. The normal operations of the so-called "free market" have brought us to where we are now. We need less of it, not more. At most, market mechanisms can play a minor role. Energy waste and inefficiency by big business should be penalised but the main levers for change should be enforceable targets, direct control and regulation coupled with the sorts of measures sketched above.