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Climate and Capitalism


One doesn’t expect to see a full rant against capitalism in the New York Times, but I guess we are moving into different times. Benjamin Fong’s op-ed about capitalism being the problem in dealing with climate change reads exactly like something one would read in Jacobin, for good and for problematic. I compare this to the forestry article in the latter publication from awhile back–the problem is easy to understand, but the solutions were totally silly. Here the solutions are less silly because they grounded in deeper analysis, but they still go a bit too far in romanticizing people and evading how we might solve these problems.

Before I get to my critique, I want to be clear that Fong is largely right. Capitalism is destroying the planet and there is no solution to solving climate change in a world where profit reigns supreme. Flat out, there is no hope of fighting climate change effectively under a capitalist society. This is why I simply do not think there is much hope for humans or most of the species on the planet.

However, the cause of the disaster that, by all indications, we are already living through should be clearer. It is not the result of the failure of individuals to adopt the moralizing strictures of “green” consciousness, and it is a sign of just how far we have to go that some still believe reusable shopping bags and composting (perfectly fine in their own right) are ways out of this mess.

It is also not the deceit of specific immoral companies that is to blame: We like to pick out Volkswagen’s diesel scandal, but it is only one of many carmakers that “deliberately exploit lax emissions tests.” Nor does the onus fall on the foundering of Social Democratic reforms and international cooperation: Even before the United States backed out of the Paris Accord, we were well on our way to a 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit temperature rise by 2100, “a temperature that at times in the past has meant no ice at either pole.”

The real culprit of the climate crisis is not any particular form of consumption, production or regulation but rather the very way in which we globally produce, which is for profit rather than for sustainability. So long as this order is in place, the crisis will continue and, given its progressive nature, worsen. This is a hard fact to confront. But averting our eyes from a seemingly intractable problem does not make it any less a problem. It should be stated plainly: It’s capitalism that is at fault.

As an increasing number of environmental groups are emphasizing, it’s systemic change or bust. From a political standpoint, something interesting has occurred here: Climate change has made anticapitalist struggle, for the first time in history, a non-class-based issue.

I am highly skeptical of the idea that this is not a class-based issue, but it’s an interesting assertion at the very least. The problem for me, and it’s a relatively minor one given the scale of climate change, is more about the disdain for expertise in figuring out any way out of it.

When a company makes a decision that is destructive to the environment, for instance, it is not because there are bad or unintelligent people in charge: Directors typically have a fiduciary responsibility that makes the bottom line their only priority. They serve a function, and if they don’t, others can take their place. If something goes wrong — which is to say, if something endangers profit making — they can serve as convenient scapegoats, but any stupid or dangerous decisions they make result from being personifications of capital.

The claim here is not that unintelligent people do not do unintelligent things, but rather that the overwhelming unintelligence involved in keeping the engines of production roaring when they are making the planet increasingly uninhabitable cannot be pinned on specific people. It is the system as a whole that is at issue, and every time we pick out bumbling morons to lament or fresh-faced geniuses to praise is a missed opportunity to see plainly the necessity of structural change.

Put differently, the hope that we can empower intelligent people to positions where they can design the perfect set of regulations, or that we can rely on scientists to take the carbon out of the atmosphere and engineer sources of renewable energy, serves to cover over the simple fact that the work of saving the planet is political, not technical. We have a much better chance of making it past the 22nd century if environmental regulations are designed by a team of people with no formal education in a democratic socialist society than we do if they are made by a team of the most esteemed scientific luminaries in a capitalist society. The intelligence of the brightest people around is no match for the rampant stupidity of capitalism.

This is useful as far as it goes. There is no question that relying on corporations to solve climate change is inherently bankrupt. But I worry a little bit about the anti-expert tendencies on the left and a sort of fetishization about democratic participation. Look, a socialist society is inherently technocratic. That is socialism at its core. It’s not some sort of anarcho-syndicalism democratic extremism that will fall apart immediately. Socialism requires experts. If we are too find our way out of climate change, we will need experts on every issue involved–energy production, industry, biology, forestry, transportation, etc–at the table. I realize that Fong might be making more of a rhetorical point here by discussing how the experts are so corrupted by capitalism as to be worthless. And maybe he is right about this. But the problem of saving the planet is both political and technical. Certainly he’s correct that relying on the technical might make us feel that we are doing the right thing as we are doing absolutely nothing useful. But the problems of politics and technocracy can never actually be separated.

Also, can we please avoid the derpy “The Soviets were bad for the environment” too comments here? They literally add nothing to the conversation and reek of people who think they are clever for having watched a couple of History Channel documentaries on Stalin. Yes, we know the Soviets were not environmentally friendly. That says absolutely nothing about how capitalism is making it impossible to deal with climate change today.

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