Monday 29 July 2019

The UK Left Needs a Strategy to Fight this Extreme Right Wing Tory Government

Although I think it fair to say that you can never be sure that new UK prime minister, Boris Johnson, means what he says, all of the signals coming out of the new regime point to the most extreme right wing government in modern times has been formed. The make-up of Johnson’s Cabinet, for instance, containing many characters who were on the far right fringe of Tory party only a few years ago, should set off alarm bells amongst all in the broad UK left.

This is not just about Brexit either, although that is a part of the general direction of the Tory government, a first step in the move to deregulate employment and environmental standards and reduce human rights protections in the UK. 

Logic suggests that is the only way that the UK can move to attract investment and growth in the economy, from a right wing perspective. A kind of super-sized Singapore on the edge of Europe, under cutting European Union (EU) standards, so as to be able to compete in our newly isolated position.

To those on the left who do support Brexit, and I know that many relish the idea of the EU being out of the way, so that full on clash with the Tories becomes inevitable, I say you are playing a dangerous game. What if the Tories win this battle, using simplistic racist messages and encouraging delusions of the long gone days of Empire - the country could become a very nasty place indeed.

Whether you support Brexit or not, a campaign against the Tories vision of the future needs to be started now, and it should be of the broadest left if we are to be successful, whatever reservations we have in general about the more centrist elements of this broad alliance. I should add that I’m not suggesting an electoral alliance of some sort here, although that will probably be a part of it, but we need to mobilise civic society as well, outside of electoral politics.

It may well be, that this will be largely a campaign in England and Wales, with the Scots having a possible escape hatch in seeking independence, but I see no reason why this cannot dove-tail with resistance south of the border. Indeed the possible loss of Scotland should add weight to the need to defeat these extreme Tories across the UK. We can choose to meekly accept our fate, or we can fight this government tooth and nail, for a future worth living. I know what I will do.

It is highly likely that there will be general election soon, perhaps as early as the autumn, as Johnson aims to capitalise on the ‘honey moon’ period that all new prime ministers get. Conversely, it may be forced on the government if they pursue a hard no deal Brexit, with probably enough ‘liberal’ Tory MPs prepared to support a no confidence vote in the government, which almost certainly will lead to a general election. It is possible that some cooperation will happen between anti-Tory parties, but this may not be enough on its own   

For those who are anti-Brexit, they should support the anti-Brexit demonstration on Saturday 12 October in London and other places around the country. I see no reason why those who are pro-Brexit, but anti-Tory, should not organise their own demonstrations against the government. It needs to be spelt out what this Tory government has install for the country. Demonstrations like this have a limited effect, but are valuable in giving the feeling to protesters that they are not alone, and can boost confidence that success is possible.

I think the template here should be the anti-poll tax campaign of 1990, which not only stopped the policy itself, but also brought down the once all-powerful prime minister ,Margaret Thatcher. These type of campaigns are best if a simple single issue is the focus, and I would suggest that in this case it should be the future of the NHS. We know that any post Brexit trade deal with the US, will have to include the opening up of the NHS to US private health care corporations. We really don’t have much more to offer the US, so this is a highly likely scenario.

In the anti-poll tax campaign, there were different strands of people against the poll tax. Those who rioted in Trafalgar Square, those who refused or in some way avoided paying the tax, and those, mainly Tory voters in northern England who stood to pay much more tax under the policy. There was stiff resistance in Scotland too, which piloted the new tax. Hence the need for a broad based campaign. We need to re-create something along these lines.

If we can manage this, we have a good chance of success. We have to try, not doing so is unthinkable.  

Wednesday 24 July 2019

Eight Principles of a New Economics for the People of a Living Earth

Written by David Korten and published at Radical Ecological Democracy

We’re running out of time. There’s spreading awareness of the institutional failure that is driving humans toward self-extinction, and related calls for a deep transformation of our economy. This is happening in every quarter, from college campuses to the Vatican to the U.S. presidential debates. Everywhere we hear calls for an economy that serves the well-being of people and Earth. Pope Francis has spoken of the social and environmental failures of an economy devoted to the idolatry of moneyWorkers and their unions are joining in with the wrenching observation that, “There are no good jobs on a dead planet.”

There is a related rising awareness of the need for a serious update to the economics that serves as our guide to structuring and managing the economy and preparing young people for their roles as future leaders. With few exceptions, economics, as it’s taught in universities, relies on the same badly flawed theories and ethical principles that bear major responsibility for the unfolding crisis and hamper our efforts to take corrective action.

That economics values life only for its market price; uses GDP growth as the defining measure of economic performance; assures students that maximizing personal financial return benefits society; recommends policies that prioritize corporate profits over human and planetary well-being; and ignores the natural limits of a finite planet.

Here are eight guiding principles for a reformed economic theory to guide our path to a new economy for the 21st century:

Principle #1: Indicators. Evaluate the economy’s performance by indicators of the well-being of people and planet; not the growth of GDP.

Growing GDP serves well if our goal is only to increase the financial assets of the rich so they can claim an ever-growing share of the remaining real wealth of a dying Earth. If our priority is to meet the essential needs for food, water, shelter, and other basics for all the world’s people, then we must measure for those results. Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics provides a useful beginning frame.

Principle #2: Beneficial Use. Use resources only to support life’s capacity to regenerate.

We should seek to eliminate war, financial speculation, advertising promoting consumption of harmful or unnecessary products, and industrial agriculture that pollutes the soil, air, and water and produces food of questionable nutritional value. We can eliminate most automobile use by designing infrastructure to support people living within walking or bicycling distance of where they work, shop, and play. We can eliminate most global movement of people and goods by keeping production and consumption local, using recycled materials, and substituting electronic communication for global business travel.

The labor and resources thus freed up can be redirected to raising and educating our children, caring for the elderly, restoring the health and vitality of Earth’s regenerative systems, rebuilding the social infrastructure of community, and rebuilding physical infrastructure in ways that reduce dependence on fossil fuels and simultaneously strengthen our beneficial connections with one another and nature.

Principle #3: Use Rights. Put use rights and responsibilities in the hands of those who provide the labor on which the well-being of the community depends, not in the hands of those who exploit life’s labor to grow personal financial assets.

Life depends on the labor of nature and people. Too often, the current economic system rewards those claiming ownership rather than those performing useful labor. Instead we should follow the model set by traditional societies, in which people earn their share in the surplus of the commons through their labor in service of it. Much of the current economy’s dysfunction can be overcome by eliminating the division of society between owners and workers—a problem corrected through worker ownership combined with an ethical frame that recognizes our responsibilities to and for one another and Earth.

Principle #4: Money. Create society’s money supply through transparent public processes that advance the common good; not through secret processes that grow the unearned profits of for-profit banks and financiers.

In a modern society, those who control the creation and allocation of money control the lives of everyone. It defies reason to assume that society benefits from giving this control to global for-profit banks dedicated to maximizing profits for the already richest among us. The system of money creation and allocation must be public, transparent, and accountable to the people. It must reside in democratic governments and be administered by public banks supplemented by individual community-owned, cooperative banks whose lending supports local home and business ownership.

Principle #5: Education. Organize and manage education to support lifetime learning in service to life-seeking communities; not preparing for standardized tests on the way to obedient service to profit-maximizing corporations.

Most university economics courses currently promote societal psychopathology as a human ideal and give legitimacy to institutions that serve only to make money, without regard for the common good. We must prepare youth for future leadership that builds on a moral foundation that recognizes our individual and collective responsibility for one another and Earth.

No one knows how to get where we now must go, and education cannot provide us with answers we as a species do not have. Education can, however, prepare us to be lifelong learners, skilled in asking the right questions and in working together to find and share our best answers.

Principle 6: Technology. Create and apply technology only in ways that serve and augment the processes of natural regeneration.

Technology must be life’s servant. Deciding what technologies to apply based solely on what will produce the greatest short-term financial return is madness. Humans have the right and the means to assure that technology is used only to serve life. For example, prohibit technologies that harm people and environment, and promote technologies that restore the regenerative capacity of Earth systems, advance global understanding, social justice, cooperation, and learning.

Principle #7: Community. Make living communities that strive for self-reliance while sharing technology and resources to that end, the defining units of societal organization.

We can sustain ourselves in perpetuity only if we meet our needs through constant cyclical flows of resources. That was the standard way of living for most people until less than 100 years ago. We can do it again. Urban and rural dwellers can rediscover their interdependence as cities source food, timber, fiber, pulp, and recreational opportunities from nearby rural areas and rural areas regenerate their soils with bio-wastes from nearby urban areas, and enjoy the benefits of urban culture. Suburbs can convert to urban or rural habitats.

It will be necessary to break up monopolistic transnational corporations and restructure them as worker or community cooperatives accountable to the communities they exist to serve.

Principle #8: Population. Seek a stable and mutually beneficial human population size and distribution to achieve optimal balance between humans, Earth’s other species, and the generative systems of a finite living Earth.

The health of any natural ecosystem depends on its ability to balance the populations of its varied species. For humans, this end is served by free access to reproductive health care options and removing barriers to women in education and the workplace. Only starting from this point can we both maintain a free society and manage our population size.

The basic frame of 21st century economics contrasts sharply with that of the 20th century economics it must now displace. The new frame is far more complex and nuanced. Yet most people can readily grasp it because it is logical, consistent with foundational ethical principles, reflects the reality that most people are kind, honest, find pleasure in helping others, and recognizes that we all depend on the health of our Mother Earth.

David Korten, independent scholar and engaged citizen, holds M.B.A. and Ph.D. degrees from the Stanford Business School and was a professor at the Harvard Business School. He is co-founder of YES! Magazine, president of the Living Economies Forum, and author of When Corporations Rule the World. Follow him on, Twitter @dkorten, and Facebook.

Friday 19 July 2019

UK Right Wing Think-Tank Aims to Discredit the Extinction Rebellion

Policy Exchange, the right wing British think-tank published a report this week entitled ‘Extremist Rebellion – A Review of Ideology and Tactics. Written by Richard Walton, a former Head of the Metropolitan Police Counter Terrorism Command, and Tom Wilson, a Senior Research Fellow in the Security and Extremism Unit at Policy Exchange, the report looks into the Extinction Rebellion campaign, which began in the UK, but has now spread around the world.

The think-tank describes itself on its website as ‘the UK’s leading think tank. As an educational charity our mission is to develop and promote new policy ideas which deliver better public services, a stronger society and a more dynamic economy.’

According to the ‘Who Funds You’ website which promotes funding transparency among think-tanks and political campaigns, Policy Exchange had an annual income of £3,553,565, in the year ending on 30 September 2017, but does not reveal the source of its funding.

A brief look at their website tells you that Policy Exchange is on the right politically, with stories such as ‘Monarchy helps unify the country post-Brexit, new poll finds’ a typical example. So it should come as no great surprise that the organisation is very much a defender of the establishment status quo. 

The popularity of Extinction Rebellion’s campaign, particularly of the protests that took place in London and other UK cities in April this year, is clearly a worry for the writers, and it seems to me that this report is an attempt to discredit the campaign and reduce its public support.  

The report complains about the costs of policing the April event, especially in London, and of the loss of revenue incurred by retail outlets in and around the protests. Whilst the report acknowledges genuine public concern at the prospect of catastrophic climate change, it seeks to undermine support for the rebellion by claiming that the organisers are politically ‘extreme’. Take this example from the foreword to the report written by Richard Walton:

…the leaders of Extinction Rebellion seek a more subversive agenda, one that is rooted in the political extremism of anarchism, eco-socialism and radical anti-capitalist environmentalism. The ‘civil resistance model’ they espouse is intended to achieve mass protest accompanied by law-breaking —leading eventually to the breakdown of democracy and the state. Obscured from public view, these objectives mark Extinction Rebellion’s campaign out as an extremist one that seeks to break down the established civil order and liberal democracy in the UK.

The report traces Extinction Rebellion’s roots in the London based Rising Up group, which devised and initiated the campaign. RisingUp’s website, which does say that some of the information contained there may now be out of date. states that we need:

A revolution, meaning a rapid change in wealth distribution and power structures, preventing the rich elite from perpetuating a self-serving ideology. Our democracy, our media, our academia, our think tanks and businesses (organisations whose purpose should be to meet our needs) must serve all people and a healthy ecology.’

The authors of the report say that Rising Up, and so by extension Extinction Rebellion, has an eco-socialist or green anarchist ideology, and to be fair it certainly does look that way, and aims to draw attention to this, so as to put the public and indeed some of its participants off the actions of the campaign. They point out that the underlying thinking of Extinction Rebellion, is that only by changing our system of bourgeois democracy, can the climate crisis be solved.

Regular readers of this blog will be aware that this is the exact the same position taken by this blog and the wider ecosocialist community. The necessity of accumulation and exponential growth for the capitalist system to survive, and the corrupt nature of the corporations first democracy, makes it unsuitable, in fact impossible, for our current political economy to resolve the climate crisis that it has set going in the first place.

The report emphasises the use of emotional appeal in its recruitment of activists, talk of children dying in the future, and attempts to paint Extinction Rebellion as some kind of cult, but this is an emotional subject. All life on earth is in danger of ending on our current trajectory. How could this not be an emotional subject?

Although the report is clear that Extinction Rebellion only advocates non-violent protests, and indeed acknowledges that the organisers see violent protest as counter-productive. It does hold out the possibility though of ‘breakaway fringe elements’ of activists turning to violence, but presents no evidence that this is likely to be the case.

The writers recommend that stiffer penalties be handed out to those who break the law, non-violently, but again concedes that leading lights within this leaderless campaign, welcome the chance to have a platform for stating their case in court trials, and even the publicity generated by activists being sent to jail. They note that hunger strikes are talked about in some of the presentations that aim to recruit activists.

In the report’s conclusion it states:

This paper proposes that the Extinction Rebellion campaign – one that politicians and the public associate with environmentalism – is deeply rooted in a much wider extreme political agenda. Those running this campaign, which enjoys significant public sympathy, appear sincere about urgently wanting to prevent ecological crisis but argue that capitalism is irredeemably entangled with the ecological crisis which they have set themselves against. It is therefore, unlikely that these leaders would settle for any accommodation that proposed to address environmental damage while keeping the present economic and political system in place.

They are definitely worried that this campaign might catch on, and this report is probably only the first attempt to discourage it getting any larger. But the climate crisis is not going away, and will get even worse, and the authors of this report have offered no solution to the problem, except clamping down on the protests. I think they will fail.

Tuesday 16 July 2019

Climate Change and Capitalism: A Political Marxist View

Written by Simon Mair (@simon_mair) and first published at New Socialist

Viewed from the perspective of geological history, our current climatic and economic conditions are unusual. For most of the last 60 million years, the climate has been wildly unstable. It was only 10,000 years ago that it settled into its current stable state, and within this period that the Holocene emerged, during which human societies shifted their relationship with nature though agriculture, and then creating complex settled socio-economic forms, including capitalism.

Despite its omnipresence today, capitalism itself is very young. But it has its roots in that stabilisation of the climate and the subsequent development of agriculture. Fully-fledged global capitalism has been with us for no more than 300 years. In the 4.5 billion year history of the earth, capitalism is a brief moment within the blink of an eye that is human existence.

But this brief moment is a global force. It is capitalism that has placed us on a path to leave the stable climate of the Holocene. Thanks to capitalist development, the earth is currently 0.8 of a degree warmer than the pre-industrial average. Without overthrowing capitalism, we are likely to warm the earth to levels that humans as a species have never lived with.

This should terrify socialists. As I will argue here, the environmental system and the economy have co-evolved. The economy is dependent on the environment. Once we leave the stable climatic conditions of the last 10,000 years, we have very little guidance on how to build a socio-economic system that works. There is no particular reason to think the systems we have developed in one set of environmental conditions will flourish in another. There is also no reason to believe that such conditions provide fertile ground for the development of a more compassionate or humane socio-economic system.

If we want to stand a chance of building socialism in the near future, we must become eco-socialists and stop catastrophic climate change now. At the same time, to stop catastrophic climate change, environmentalists must also become eco-socialists. The dynamics that drive climate change are core to capitalism. Serious action on climate change will necessarily amount to the first steps of a programme to end capitalism.

The economy, the energy system, and the environment: co-evolutionary systems

The economy, the energy system and the environment have evolved together. They draw on one another, passing materials between them and absorbing one another’s wastes. All economic activity ultimately rests on the transformation of material resources. These must be drawn from the environment and then worked by labour. Marx makes this interdependency explicit:

The use values… i.e. the bodies of commodities, are combinations of two elements–matter and labour. If we take away the useful labour expended upon them, a material substratum is always left, which is furnished by Nature.1

Marx uses the example of linen–which is produced by workers (labour) who transform the fibres of the flax plant (environment). But this interdependency also holds true for more modern commodities. For example, the servers that host the files for music streaming services are made of up various minerals and metals that have been rearranged by labour.

An additional interdependency comes in the form of energy. At every stage of the production of a commodity, energy is being used to transform matter from one form to another. Metals are heated, melted and transformed into iPhones. Cotton is grown, harvested, woven, and dyed to make scrubs worn by surgeons. The energy used in these processes cannot be created. It can only be transformed.

All energy used in the economy is entropic: it comes from a repurposing of energy found in the earth system, and exacting it in return for a cost. Coal is dug from the ground and burnt, solar energy is captured by photovoltaics, or in plants that we cook and eat. The energy system which enables economic activity is entirely dependent on the environment.

We see here how the environment influences the economy. The economy is the process of transforming materials extracted from the environment by repurposing energy flows from the earth system. The result of this, is, to quote Marx’s citation of the economist William Petty, that when it comes to material wealth, “labour is its father and the earth its mother”.2 But at the same time, the environment and the energy system are shaped by the economy. The priorities of the economic system determine the valuation of each element, as well as which materials are extracted, changing the composition, look and dynamics of the environment.

The practice of extraction itself is not exclusive to capitalism. Agricultural practices that pre-date capitalism have reshaped our landscapes. Take sheep farming, for example.3 Heavy grazing tends to change the biological make up of heathland. Eventually, heathland may lose all of its herbs and woody species and become grassland. As grasses can survive for longer as the sheep eat them than woody plants and herbs, the transition from heathland to grassland can make conditions more favourable for sheep grazing as the sheep have more to eat. 

This is less helpful for bird life, as the grasses are a poor habitat substitute and the sheep compete with birds for certain types of fruit, and reduce the availability of various insects. Through pastoral grazing economic activity has transformed former heathland landscapes.

Climate change is another example of the co-evolution of the economy and the environment, but this time, one specific to capitalism. As we will see, the two are inextricably linked. Without fossil fuel deposits, capitalism could not have become the dominant force it is today. Similarly, without capitalism, fossil fuels may never have become the backbone of the economy.

Coal, the great divergence and the origins of capitalism

Between the mid 1500s and 1900, there was an explosion of coal use in England. On average, English coal use more than doubled every half century during this time period. By 1900 coal represented 92% of English energy use and was providing 25 times more energy than all energy sources combined had in the mid 1500s.

Over this time period the English economy also grew rapidly. For mainstream economic historians, the period from 1700 onwards marks the start of ‘the great divergence’. England began the industrial revolution and its economy took off, becoming much larger than other economies that had until that point been a similar size.

It is not a coincidence that coal use and economic growth expanded simultaneously. Coal is a high quality fuel. It offers a much greater amount of energy out for every unit of energy required to produce it than wood, for example. Consequently, it enables more work to be done–more materials transformed – than muscle power alone, or even wood or water–the dominant fuel sources in the nascent English industrial economy.

But the geographical distribution of coal is not, by itself, enough to explain English economic growth or the ‘great divergence’. In 1700, China had widespread domestic coal use, just like England. And until 1700 China had a similar sized economy, with similar levels of market activity. But neither Chinese coal use nor the Chinese economy grew exponentially in the way that England’s did.

The difference was the consolidation of capitalist social relations in England. We can locate the pressures that lead to capitalism, and the capitalist exploitation of coal, in the agrarian economy of 1500s England. As these pressures grew, they drove coal use and economic growth in England. 

Though pre-capitalist China was incredibly well-developed, had an extensive use of wage-labour within markets, it never became dominated by proto-capitalists, and so did not develop the same systematic pressures. Coal use and the economy, subsequently, did not see the same qualitative expansion.

Political Marxism and the Fossil Economy

Archetypical of the Political Marxist approach to modes of production, Ellen Meiksens Wood argues that a capitalist economy is one where a majority of people depend on the market to meet their basic needs.4 This distinguishes capitalism from feudalism, in which there is a large peasant class largely self-sufficient in terms of basic needs, and in which the more powerful classes depend not on market power to support their consumption, but on military and extra-economic power. 

Wood further distinguishes between the form of markets under capitalism and those that characterise pre-capitalist economies. She argues that markets originally functioned and made profit by providing a means of getting goods that could only be produced in one part of the world to other parts, where those goods could not be produced. She goes on to argue that capitalist markets operate differently: profit here is achieved by reducing costs and improving productivity.

Though substantially debated, this approach was developed by Wood (alongside Richard Brenner) as a reaction to what she saw as ahistorical explanations of the role of markets in the development of capitalism—particular the claim, coming from Adam Smith, that capitalism is “…the necessary, though very slow and gradual consequence of a certain propensity in human nature…the propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another.”5 Against this, Wood argues that capitalism began in England because of its unique constellation of social conditions.

In her landmark work The Origin of Capitalism,6 Wood argues that capitalism could only have begun in agrarian England. Unlike other nations with similarly sized economies, England had the unique combination of a large national market, substantial numbers of tenant farmers (as opposed to peasants, tied to the land by social convention), and highly centralised state power. These three components come together to create a transition to a market dominated economy. 

Highly centralised state power took political and military power away from land owners. So unlike in Holland, for example, the primary way for landowners to exploit the surplus of their workers was through market means rather than direct coercion. This was possible because of the existence of the large national market in which they could sell goods for a profit, and because of the existence of tenant farmers, which meant they could remove unproductive farmers from their land.

It is the development of capitalist markets, as Wood describes them, that creates the conditions for fossil fuel exploitation. Capitalist markets, like all economic systems, turn on the necessity of using economic tools to extract surplus. This dynamic creates capitalism’s drives to reinvest in productivity growth and to discipline the workforce in order to increase output. Because landowners were now dependent on the market for their own livelihoods, they tried to reduce costs and maximise outputs. 

This fundamental change in the nature of production created a system in which the ability of energy to do extra work became very attractive. Although Wood never directly discusses energy, her work has influenced Andreas Malm, whose Fossil Capital 7 does pick up the energy question.8

Malm argues that under the conditions of capitalism, coal came to be a tool of social control. Coal centralises production, bringing workers under one roof. This serves the dual purpose of making them less able to embezzle from their employers, allowing improved scales of production, and also enabling employers to more easily regulate the times of work and levels of production. In addition, coal—alongside the machinery it allows—improves productivity: by giving them a greater source of energy than food and their muscles alone, coal increases the amount of output that can be produced by workers.

Only in England did the capitalist class benefit from these features of coal. Economic structures elsewhere followed fundamentally different logics that did not reward productivity and output growth. Though markets existed outside of England, central power and surplus was derived from military and political power, and only peripherally from economic power. Consequently, although productivity increases may have occurred by chance, societies were not systematically driven by the need to continuously produce more, or to do so more productively. As Debeir et al. put it, Chinese coal use:

…did not create new social needs, did not constantly push the borders of its own market outwards…proto-industrialisation and economic growth were remarkable achievements but failed to generate an accelerated division of labour.9

To understand this more fully, let us now examine the nature of capitalist markets in more detail.

Capitalist Markets and the Pressures to Grow

The ecological economists Tim Jackson and Peter Victor call the above dynamic the “productivity trap”.10 It occurs because, under capitalism, workers must be able to sell their labour to be able to obtain a decent standard of living. Capitalists depend on market power for their profits and therefore constantly reinvest in productivity gains. 

Productivity gains mean fewer workers are needed to produce a unit of output. So if output stops growing, employment will fall. This creates a legitimate desire amongst workers for more growth, and gives governments a mandate to do everything they can to expand economic activity.

Moreover, this ‘productivity trap’ is self-reinforcing. The expansion of markets drives the division of labour. Adam Smith argued that as workers become more specialised, they are better able to improve the production processes they’re engaged with. And at a higher level of specialisation you develop whole classes of workers whose job is purely to make production more efficient. In this way market expansion itself leads to productivity gains. 

But as people become more specialised this means that they come to depend on markets to get more and more of their goods—because (to use a personal example) people who sit in offices reading long-dead economists for a living don’t spend much time growing food, sewing clothes, or saving lives. So the expansion of markets creates both the conditions for further growth and the need for it.

We also need to talk about consumer capitalism. Innovations leading to productivity gains do not in themselves create a market for the greater volume of goods produced. This means that capitalism must alter consumption as well as production. Today, this increasingly involves the stimulation and artifical creation of consumer needs and desires by the capitalist class—who need us to keep consuming if they are to continue earning profits. 

William Morris argued that in order to get and maintain profits, capitalists must sell a “mountain of rubbish…things which everybody knows are of no use”. In order to create demand for these useless goods, capitalists stirred up:

a strange feverish desire for petty excitement, the outward token of which is known by the conventional name of fashion—a strange monster born of the vacancy of the lives of rich people

A substantial body of more modern work suggests that current society encourages the idea that consumption is the path to self-betterment. Psychologist Philip Cushman argues that the dominant present configuration of the “self” is as an empty vessel that requires filling up with consumer goods.11 The emptiness, he argues, comes from a lack of community, tradition, and shared meaning. 

These are not things that will be solved through consumption. Under consumer capitalism, there comes a collective inability to imagine social and personal change except through consumption. As a result, even ‘radical’ leftist futures tend to revolve around ever increasing levels of material consumption, rather than imagining new ways to live that prioritise our need for community and purpose beyond consumption.

No decarbonisation under capitalism

Because of the structural drivers towards growth that we see under capitalism, it is extremely unlikely that capitalism can avoid catastrophic climate change. The structural drive for growth means that efforts to reduce carbon emissions will be overwhelmed by the expansion of economic activity. This is controversial to most mainstream environmentalists (and to many socialists). But it is the clear experience of the history of capitalism.

To date, resources have not been conserved under capitalism. Rather when we become more efficient or find new resources, this frees up resources that are used by other parts of the capitalist machine. 

This explains why, for example, renewable energy and nuclear power remain only a small part of the global energy system (Figure 2). Under capitalism, low-carbon energy sources have grown but they have not replaced fossil fuel at any meaningful scale. Instead low-carbon energy is simply another energy pot available to fuel growth in economic activity in order to generate profits.

Figure 2 Global Primary Energy Use by type, 1900-2014. Source: Author’s own calculations based on data from De Stercke, 2014.

The same is also true of energy efficiency gains. Energy efficiency can be a key contributor for decarbonising the global economy. But only if it is coupled to a plan to limit the size of the economy. Under capitalism, energy efficiency measures actually drive economic growth. This happens for the same reason renewable energy doesn’t lead to decarbonisation. Energy efficiency improves productivity and reduces costs. In this way it reinforces capitalist growth imperatives, driving the expansion of the economy which requires more energy to be used overall.

This is also why progressive action on climate change will undermine capitalism. We will only successfully avoid catastrophic climate change if we are able to break the dominance of the market, and break the social imaginary that ineffectually ties fulfilment to consumption.

So, where do we go from here?

The economy, the energy system, and the environment are all inextricably linked. Combining ecological economics and Political Marxism, I have set out a framework in which climate change can be seen not only as a consequence of capitalism but as fundamental to it. Widespread fossil fuel use was enabled by, and necessary for, the capitalist dynamics of productivity growth and expansion. Climate change is a feature, not a bug of capitalism.

To avoid catastrophic climate change, we have to break the expansionary cycle of the economy. Otherwise technological improvements, renewable energy, and energy efficiency gains will do nothing but add to the stock of ways that capitalists grow the economy and their profits. Likewise carbon taxes and other market mechanisms will simply reinforce the core dynamics of the market and any positive effects will be overwhelmed by growth. Growth will increase energy use, including fossil fuel use. 

This will plunge us into a world that we do not know how to live in. It is likely that ‘hothouse earth’ will eventually destroy capitalism. But not before destroying the livelihoods of millions through extreme weather, greater incidence of disease, and ecological breakdown. There is no reason to believe this will lead to a better future.

Breaking the expansionary cycle of the economy in a just way requires rolling back markets. We must instead use commons, household, and state-based production as the principal means of meeting the collective needs of society. Only in this way can we break the societal drive for productivity growth and expansion. 

There is nothing inherently more sustainable in non-market forms of production (all economic activity uses energy), but these systems lack the expansionary drive of markets. Consequently, energy efficiency gains and new technologies can be used to replace fossil fuels rather than add to them.

This transition has the potential to be hopeful, a chance to build a more humane system. This system will be materially poorer than today’s society. But this is not ‘eco-austerity’. Much of the energy we use today is in producing goods that we do not need, that do not fulfil our needs. Richard Seymour articulates this in the context of the labour theory of value:

The overproduction of ‘stuff’ is largely achieved by making a costly withdrawal from the worker’s body, a form of life-impoverishing austerity. And a great deal of that ‘stuff’ is not for workers’ consumption, but rather, where it is not consumed as profit and dividends, is dead labour whose main effect is to achieve a further extraction of labour. We might think of energy conservation as class self-defence.

Put another way, consumption is an ineffective way of building a good life. Collectively limiting our consumption could open a path to a better economic system.

There are links between such a program and other radical leftist programs for change. Freedom from the market and repurposing of production along the lines of social need rather than profit are central to the post-work movement.12 But this movement lacks a critique of consumerism, and its analysis of capitalism fails to engage rigorously with insights from ecological economics. 

Visions of mass space flight continue the fantasy that consumption can fulfil us, and rely on the notion of continued expansion of output and energy use. It is unclear why those who advocate ‘fully automated luxury communism’ (for example) believe that a political programme whose key appeal lies in having more stuff will find itself able to break free from the expansionary cycle that lies at the heart of the ecological catastrophe. If the promise is more mass consumption, doing away with the most reliable and efficient energy sources to which we have access will be a hard political sell. 

There can be no avoiding growth in fossil fuel use under capitalism. But this does not mean that anti-capitalist programmes are all equally good solutions. The route forward is to embrace these radical impulses, but critique their obsession with consumption, and highlight the destructive dynamics they share with capitalism.

This marks out the terrain for political struggle. Socialists must engage mainstream environmentalists and work with them. We have a common foe in the big capital of the fossil industry. Many environmentalists are critical of the economy as it is, but lack a full analysis of its mechanics. Extinction Rebellion is a key example of this: a critical yet ‘apolitical’ movement. Yet they offer perhaps our best hope for building institutions that give us community, autonomy, and purpose, and for breaking with the expansionary capitalist fossil economy.


1 Marx, Karl. (1856) 1990. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy Vol. 1. Translated by Ben Fowkes. London: Penguin, p.133

2 ibid. p.134

3 Ross, L.C., Austrheim, G., Asheim, LJ. et al. ‘Sheep grazing in the North Atlantic region: A long-term perspective on environmental sustainability’. Ambio (2016) 45(5):551-566.

4 Wood, Ellen Meiksens. 2017. The Origin of Capitalism: A Longer View. London: Verso.

5 Smith, Adam. (1776) 1976. An Enquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, p.17.

6 Wood (2017).

7 Malm, Andreas. 2016. Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming. London: Verso.

8 ibid. p.258, 263

9 Deléage, Jean-Paul, Jean-Claude Debeir, Daniel Hémery. 1991. In the Servitude of Power: Energy and Civilisation Through the Ages. London: Zed Books, p.59

10 Jackson, Tim and Peter Victor. ‘Productivity and work in the ‘green economy’: Some theoretical reflections and empirical tests’. Environmental Innovation and Societal Transitions (June 2011) 1(1):101-108.

11 Cushman, Philip. ‘Why the Self is Empty: Toward a Historically Situated Psychology’. American Psychologist (1990) 45(5):599-611.

12 Weeks, Kathi. 2011. The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Anti-Work Politics and Post-Work Imaginaries. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.  

Thursday 11 July 2019

New Climate Data Points To Mass Extermination

Written by Jennifer Chu and first published at MIT News

Carbon dioxide emissions may trigger a reflex in the carbon cycle, with devastating consequences, study finds.

In the brain, when neurons fire off electrical signals to their neighbors, this happens through an “all-or-none” response. The signal only happens once conditions in the cell breach a certain threshold.

Now an MIT researcher has observed a similar phenomenon in a completely different system: Earth’s carbon cycle.

Daniel Rothman, professor of geophysics and co-director of the Lorenz Center in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, has found that when the rate at which carbon dioxide enters the oceans pushes past a certain threshold — whether as the result of a sudden burst or a slow, steady influx — the Earth may respond with a runaway cascade of chemical feedbacks, leading to extreme ocean acidification that dramatically amplifies the effects of the original trigger.

This global reflex causes huge changes in the amount of carbon contained in the Earth’s oceans, and geologists can see evidence of these changes in layers of sediments preserved over hundreds of millions of years.

Rothman looked through these geologic records and observed that over the last 540 million years, the ocean’s store of carbon changed abruptly, then recovered, dozens of times in a fashion similar to the abrupt nature of a neuron spike. This “excitation” of the carbon cycle occurred most dramatically near the time of four of the five great mass extinctions in Earth’s history.

Scientists have attributed various triggers to these events, and they have assumed that the changes in ocean carbon that followed were proportional to the initial trigger — for instance, the smaller the trigger, the smaller the environmental fallout.

But Rothman says that’s not the case. It didn’t matter what initially caused the events; for roughly half the disruptions in his database, once they were set in motion, the rate at which carbon increased was essentially the same.  Their characteristic rate is likely a property of the carbon cycle itself — not the triggers, because different triggers would operate at different rates.

What does this all have to do with our modern-day climate? Today’s oceans are absorbing carbon about an order of magnitude faster than the worst case in the geologic record — the end-Permian extinction. But humans have only been pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere for hundreds of years, versus the tens of thousands of years or more that it took for volcanic eruptions or other disturbances to trigger the great environmental disruptions of the past. Might the modern increase of carbon be too brief to excite a major disruption?

According to Rothman, today we are “at the precipice of excitation,” and if it occurs, the resulting spike — as evidenced through ocean acidification, species die-offs, and more — is likely to be similar to past global catastrophes.

“Once we’re over the threshold, how we got there may not matter,” says Rothman, who is publishing his results this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.“Once you get over it, you’re dealing with how the Earth works, and it goes on its own ride.”

A carbon feedback

In 2017, Rothman made a dire prediction: By the end of this century, the planet is likely to reach a critical threshold, based on the rapid rate at which humans are adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. When we cross that threshold, we are likely to set in motion a freight train of consequences, potentially culminating in the Earth’s sixth mass extinction.

Rothman has since sought to better understand this prediction, and more generally, the way in which the carbon cycle responds once it’s pushed past a critical threshold. In the new paper, he has developed a simple mathematical model to represent the carbon cycle in the Earth’s upper ocean and how it might behave when this threshold is crossed.

Scientists know that when carbon dioxide from the atmosphere dissolves in seawater, it not only makes the oceans more acidic, but it also decreases the concentration of carbonate ions. When the carbonate ion concentration falls below a threshold, shells made of calcium carbonate dissolve. Organisms that make them fare poorly in such harsh conditions.

Shells, in addition to protecting marine life, provide a “ballast effect,” weighing organisms down and enabling them to sink to the ocean floor along with detrital organic carbon, effectively removing carbon dioxide from the upper ocean. But in a world of increasing carbon dioxide, fewer calcifying organisms should mean less carbon dioxide is removed.

“It’s a positive feedback,” Rothman says. “More carbon dioxide leads to more carbon dioxide. The question from a mathematical point of view is, is such a feedback enough to render the system unstable?”

“An inexorable rise”

Rothman captured this positive feedback in his new model, which comprises two differential equations that describe interactions between the various chemical constituents in the upper ocean. He then observed how the model responded as he pumped additional carbon dioxide into the system, at different rates and amounts.

He found that no matter the rate at which he added carbon dioxide to an already stable system, the carbon cycle in the upper ocean remained stable. In response to modest perturbations, the carbon cycle would go temporarily out of whack and experience a brief period of mild ocean acidification, but it would always return to its original state rather than oscillating into a new equilibrium.

When he introduced carbon dioxide at greater rates, he found that once the levels crossed a critical threshold, the carbon cycle reacted with a cascade of positive feedbacks that magnified the original trigger, causing the entire system to spike, in the form of severe ocean acidification. The system did, eventually, return to equilibrium, after tens of thousands of years in today’s oceans — an indication that, despite a violent reaction, the carbon cycle will resume its steady state.

This pattern matches the geological record, Rothman found. The characteristic rate exhibited by half his database results from excitations above, but near, the threshold. Environmental disruptions associated with mass extinction are outliers — they represent excitations well beyond the threshold. At least three of those cases may be related to sustained massive volcanism.

“When you go past a threshold, you get a free kick from the system responding by itself,” Rothman explains. “The system is on an inexorable rise. This is what excitability is, and how a neuron works too.”

Although carbon is entering the oceans today at an unprecedented rate, it is doing so over a geologically brief time. Rothman’s model predicts that the two effects cancel: Faster rates bring us closer to the threshold, but shorter durations move us away. Insofar as the threshold is concerned, the modern world is in roughly the same place it was during longer periods of massive volcanism.

In other words, if today’s human-induced emissions cross the threshold and continue beyond it, as Rothman predicts they soon will, the consequences may be just as severe as what the Earth experienced during its previous mass extinctions.

“It’s difficult to know how things will end up given what’s happening today,” Rothman says. “But we’re probably close to a critical threshold. Any spike would reach its maximum after about 10,000 years. Hopefully that would give us time to find a solution.”

“We already know that our CO2-emitting actions will have consequences for many millennia,” says Timothy Lenton, professor of climate change and earth systems science at the University of Exeter. “This study suggests those consequences could be much more dramatic than previously expected. If we push the Earth system too far, then it takes over and determines its own response — past that point there will be little we can do about it.”

This research was supported, in part, by NASA and the National Science Foundation. 

Saturday 6 July 2019

A Green Lib Dem Alliance in England? I Really Hope Not

With the announcement this week that Plaid Cymru has now joined with the Green Party in not standing a candidate in the Brecon and Radnorshire by-election in Wales, in favour of the Liberal Democrats, can we expect to see the arrangement spread to England?

Plaid Cymru of course does not stand candidates in England, being the Party of Wales, but an electoral arrangement between the Greens and Lib Dems in England is being talked about by members of both parties, and not just the leaderships. It wouldn’t be a first either.

In 2016, at the by-election in Richmond Park in south west London, the Greens stood down in favour of the Lib Dems, helping them capture the seat, but this wasn’t wholly supported by local Green party members. As it happens the seat was narrowly won back by the Tories in the general election a year later, despite the Green-Lib Dem alliance remaining in place.

In that 2017 general election the Greens and Lib Dems where part of the ‘progressive alliance’ and more local arrangements were entered into, in many constituencies, which benefited mainly the Lib Dems, but also quite a few Labour candidates, even though Labour offered nothing in return. The Lib Dems sole concession was not to stand against the Greens only MP in Brighton Pavilion, Caroline Lucas, which the Greens would have held in any case.

And this is thing with these type of arrangements, the Greens do other parties a favour, but get very little, if anything at all in return. The imperative in 2017 was to help deny the Tories, what looked like being a big majority in the House of Commons, and to that end it did contribute to the successful outcome of the Tories losing the small majority they had before the election.

What is currently being discussed is a kind of remain in the EU alliance, since both the Greens and Lib Dems are anti-Brexit, although for quite different reasons. For example, the Lib Dems are a neo-liberal party and have long championed ‘free trade,’ whereas the Greens are not neo-liberal and want to reform the EU into a more strongly social Europe, as well as working cooperatively on environmental policies, especially on climate change.

There are 16 million, perhaps more now, potential voters to be harvested by pro-Remain parties, if we include Scotland and Wales, where the nationalist parties might be brought into any alliance, so the rewards could be high. I have my doubts though that it would lead to many, if any, Parliamentary seats for the Greens, but would very likely be a considerable help to the Lib Dems in rehabilitating the party from the stigma of the austerity coalition with the Tories in 2010-2015.

That coalition’s policies in large part caused people to vote to leave the EU, even though the austerity policies pursued by the Tories-Lib Dems were completely home grown, and nothing to do with the EU. If you give people the opportunity to stick it up the establishment in such circumstances, there is good chance they will, and they did. Can the Greens really trust a party that supported such policies? I say no.

It is easy to see why the arrangement in Brecon and Radnorshire has been made for the by-election, to be held on 1 August. At the 2017 general election the Greens did not stand a candidate and although Plaid Cymru did stand, they received only 3.1% of the vote. The Lib Dems were a fairly distance second with 29.1% to the Tories 48.6%. I’m not against this arrangement and there may more constituencies whereby local Green parties do some kind of deal, but the Greens should be wary of anything too extensive.

The Greens are on about 9 or 10% in opinion polls at the moment, and what with climate change rising up the public’s agenda in the wake of the Extinction Rebellion protests and student's strikes. The Greens need to keep this momentum going, and I suggest that will not be helped by standing down in too many places in favour of the Lib Dems.

The Labour party could yet change its position on Brexit, to an unequivocal remain one, before the next general election, but I don’t think the Greens should be as passively supportive of Labour as they were in 2017. If Labour offer the Greens something worthwhile electorally, that would be a different matter though. But it won’t happen, Labour is not like that, and will just expect Greens to not stand, and bully them with ‘you are letting the Tories in’ type of rhetoric.

The Green party should be wary of any suitors just when we are making progress on our own.