Green capitalism: saving the planet or savings in the planet?

Based on a talk I have given and hope to give again. A friend has let me borrow Jonathan Neale’s book on ecosocialism, so I will have more insights soon hopefully.

Believe it or not, I think that climate change has not been politicised enough. It is central to questions of austerity and nationalisation, and is likely to affect the world’s poorest people the most. There are certainly some useful parallels therefore to be found between class struggle and environmentalism. We cannot expect “green capitalism” to work. If a radical new socialist way of organising society is needed, it should include investment in jobs, technology, and scientific research that will reduce the effects of global warming.

A few weeks ago, I noticed what I see as a contradiction between two publications of the Green Party of England and Wales. The first text is the third page of a welcome pamphlet, on which the party’s ten core values are listed. They are simple, thoughtful, and difficult to disagree with. The second core value in particular sounds very Marxian:

“The Earth’s physical resources are finite. We threaten our future if we try to live beyond those means, so we must build a sustainable society that guarantees our long-term future.”

This principle weirdly echoes chapter 32 of Marx’s Capital Volume 1, which argues that capitalism cannot go on indefinitely, and that crises and an eventual collapse is inevitable, because of overproduction and other contradictions inherent in the capitalist mode of production.

The other text is from the last Winter Issue of Green World, the “party organ” of the Greens. The article in question, titled “How does your money grow?” by financial journalist Andrew Newby, starts by saying that most Green Party members are hostile to capitalism. He still seems to believe that in the mean time, ethical capitalism is possible though, advocating taking “a proactive approach to where your money goes” to “help the development of a sustainable and ethical economy.” We can apparently do this by investing – note the assumption of wealth! – in local wind power ventures or biomass plants, or using ethical banks. Unless he lives on a set of It’s a Wonderful Life, I’m not sure what banks are available.

So what is the contradiction; why is this insufficient and even detrimental to the cause of environmentalism. To illustrate this I will use the reasoning from a Slavoj Žižek lecture based on his book First as Tragedy, Then as Farce. He claims that, from around 1968, charity has become the basic constituent of our economy.

It used to be that (before the “cultural capitalism” of ’68) we (those who can afford it) had two distinct activities: consumption, and anti-consumerist environmentalism, which might include donating to charities or planting trees. This still characterises the Bill Gateses of the world, who can be said to “fix with the left hand what they destroy with the right.” Now, some kind of “anti-consumerist consumerism” dominates, where the price one feels the need to pay to make up for being a stupid consumer is included in one’s act of purchasing. Starbucks is the best example, with their Coffee Ethics idea that makes us feel good about buying coffee. They had the slogan, “It’s not just what you are buying: it is what you are buying into.” The coffee is Fairtrade and maybe 5p from every hot chocolate helps some other cause like development in Congo. Another example: organic satsumas in supermarkets that we spend an extra pound on. Do we really think they are healthier, tastier, or mitigating the effects of global warming? Or do we just feel better for buying them (or buying into them)?

Obviously, when surrounded by poverty and disease, every right-thinking empathetic person has the impulse to help. But gifts for the very poor and altruistic attempts to alleviate these problems merely prolong and aggravate them. It seems obvious that the proper aim is to reorganise society in such a way that means these evils can never happen. Altruistic virtues, though admirable and often very successful short-term, have prevented the carrying out of this aim. Another direct quote from Žižek sums this up, but should not be taken too literally:

“The worst slave owners are those who are kind to the slaves.”

His means by this that improving conditions of slavery, without actually liberating the slaves, prevents them from seeing the horror of their own situation. “It is immoral,” I am quoting him again, “to use private property to alleviate the evils caused by the institution of private property.” An imaginary example can show how charity is, in this way, insufficient. A boy in an impoverished nation, with no welfare, has somehow raised enough money for a doctor from a nearby country to operate on his cleft palate. The doctor performs a flawless operation, shakes hands with the boy’s parents, and returns home. What has changed? The child has an increased quality of life but remains trapped in the same crippling situation that made his cleft palate such a threat to begin with.

I have already touched upon how the capitalist mode of production can’t go on indefinitely. The minority that benefit from charity serve as a distraction and slow down anti-capitalist reaction. Translated to the environment, organic apples are the distraction, and the proper aim is to have a system that prevents all possibility of further global warming. This is why, in the long-term, the well intentioned advice of the article in Green World is morally weak, and naïve for relying on markets to provide proper solutions.

Of course, it is possible for corporations to lead the way in combatting climate change, but only if it helps to maximise profit before all else. In the 2005 by Paul McGarr, Capitalism and Climate Change, he admits, “It is quite easy to imagine a capitalism that lived off the profit based on the production and sale of renewable energy… Capitalism can profit from anything it can turn into a commodity.” The truth is, though in cases like Starbucks it works particularly in their favour, ecological considerations are at first an inconvenience for corporate giants. They are a problem to be worked around, rather than a pressing need. Some people with great power in government or business happen to also be climate sceptics. (It is better to call them climate ‘deniers’.) This is no coincidence. We needn’t think further than George W Bush who not only headed the US government, but the oil giant Exxon as well. It is also no coincidence that more right-wing politicians tend to be climate deniers, or at least do nothing to help the problem. Tory energy minister John Hayes mocked wind power and made sure that only a minority of planned onshore wind farms get built.  Ukip has an openly anti-green policy. Claiming that the scientific evidence is dubious, they promise to cut all green spending and diminish any progress made so far. This is particularly dangerous when paired with their anti-immigrant stance. I’m thinking of Bangladesh and the Netherlands, whose entire states could be submerged if sea levels are allowed to rise. This alone is disastrous, but worse if it is harder to free. If that’s their idea of ‘independence’ then I choose tyranny. In parliament, minor energy policy spats between Clegg and Cameron are overplayed to distract from the real flaw of our energy policy. That is, to quote Martin Empsom, that “the free market can solve the environmental crisis.” He goes on, “The environmental problems we face are caused by an economic system where the blind accumulation of wealth for the sake of accumulation is the driving force of production.” New Labour is not blameless either. Tony Blair, encouragingly, gave a speech in November 2004 which acknowledge the certainly of global warming and was full of the latest statistics from climate scientists. Yet, they ruled out renationalising this country’s power generation industry.

After so much negativity it can only be fair that I offer some pointers, both in terms of action and acknowledgements.

Let’s consider climate change to be a class issue. In the USA, just under half of all fossil fuel emissions come from the wealthiest 1%. You can bet many of the 1% have households with the best insulation, energy-saving light bulbs, and bowls full of organic fruit. In June 2012, Oxfam described how “the poorest are paying the highest price” – think again of Bangladesh.

We need to understand the similarity of the two threats: global capitalism and global warming. Both point to the need for reorganising society in a fundamentally different way, with human needs placed above profit. Don’t rely on so-called ethical businesses to solve this crisis. It is as ludicrous as relying on the free market to solve inequality of wealth. Persuading businesses to prioritise the environment is a bit like asking Jupiter to stop being quite so big. Climate change activists can take inspiration if they wish from the first chapter of Lenin’s ‘The State and Revolution’, which argues that though states traditionally secure classism and should eventually be abolished, they can be used for empowerment.

Mobilise on this issue as widely as possible. Most people concerned with the future of the planet (I am thinking mainly of Green and Labour Party members) are not socialist and do not see it as part of a broader revolutionary task to create a classless society, so it is pointless to limit this message to one kind of person. Social democrats and welfare capitalists should still be vocal in demanding the renationalisation of power generation and the railways. I do hope though that more people can be persuaded that capitalism is the main cause of these ills, and expecting businesses and charities to have solutions is foolish, for, to quote the Green Party USA 2012 presidential candidate Jill Stein: “If the climate were a bank, the US would have already saved it.”

  1. cristoper said:

    Hi, just a quick note: the quote that goes “It is immoral to use private property to alleviate the evils caused by the institution of private property” is not original to Zizek but is from Oscar Wilde’s “The Soul of Man Under Socialism”

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