You Can Have Capitalism, Or You Can Have a Planet — But You Probably Can’t Have Both

Climate Change Isn’t Just “Man-Made” — It’s Made by Capitalism

umair haque
Dec 6, 2018 · 8 min read
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It’s looking pretty apocalyptic out there. We’re not just losing the fight against climate change — we’re losing it badly. Carbon emissions aren’t just not falling — they’re accelerating: 2018’s going to be the highest year ever.

What’s going wrong here? I think that we need to change the story that we tell about climate change, if we want to change our world. So far, it goes like this.

Climate change is “anthropogenic”, man-made, an inevitable outcome of a crowded, industrializing world. This story is vague, imprecise. It says that we are all responsible. It assigns us all some measure of guilt and shame, and therefore, some measure of responsibility and grief, too. The problem is that this story is true only in the most limited way — and for that reason, it limits our power to ever really fight climate change, too.

If we look a little deeper, I think we see a truer truth. Climate change isn’t just “man-made”, as in caused by all of us, “humankind”, a sad but inescapable outcome of more people using more stuff. This story — which is a Malthusian one — dooms us to impotence, through fatalism, resignation, and sheer powerlessness. But climate change isn’t some kind of hopeless tragedy — whose lines were written by sociobiological destiny.

Climate change isn’t just “anthropogenic.” It’s caused by capitalism. If we’re wise, we’d start calling it CCCC, capitalist caused climate change, or corporate caused climate change if you prefer.

Mom!! Umair’s being mean to me again!! Calm down, Tucker. Before you accuse me of being a college leftist, I invite you to consider two stark empirical realities, which lead me to that conclusion. When I put these two facts together, there is simply no other conclusion that I think any reasonable person can really come to, except that the story of climate change as merely “anthropogenic” is inadequate, a half-truth, a polite evasion — but I’ll return to all that. First, the two realities.

The vast majority of carbon emissions come not from just 100 companies — a full 71% of them. That’s a stunning figure, isn’t it? But what does it tell us? Well, nearly all of them are oil and gas suppliers — and most of them are corporations. It’s a truism to say something like “those companies supply your energy!” Of course they do. The point is that as corporations, they have no incentive to do so on what we might call genuinely economical terms. Their sole purpose is to profit, and sweep their “externalities”, their hidden and unwanted costs, under the rug, or shift them right back to you and me. Hence, you and I pay a far larger chunk of our incomes in taxes than the corporations responsible for 71% of carbon emissions do — and we go on hoping that one day maybe the hugely disproportionate tax dollars we pay will rein these giants in.

That, my friends, is a recipe for disaster — because while government can tax you and me, doing so won’t really alter how energy is supplied in the first place. Under capitalist terms, the supply of energy will always be as dirty, brutal, and costly to society and the planet as a corporation can possibly get away with. Hence, stark evidence emerging that these very same corporations have tried to brush the facts of climate change under the rug, turning what should be a fact into a “controversy”, funding propaganda and pseudoscience and so forth, just like with tobacco.

(That isn’t to say something like “every oil and gas supplier is bad!” Or “India and China are bad!” I want you to really understand the point. The rules of global capitalism still simply don’t count environmental costs as “real”, even while cities are beginning to drown (LOL), and therefore, the way that energy is extracted and supplied has little incentive to ever really change. The cheapest, dirtiest forms, kinds, and methods will always be used until they simply run out. Capitalism needs fundamental, systemic transformation at the level that global GDP is counted, measured, and conceptualized.)

Now, the superconcentration of carbon emissions amongst capitalists might be a damning enough indictment of capitalism — but try this one.

The only region of the world where greenhouse gas emissions have fallen is Europe. They’ve risen in China, America, and India. What does that mean? Let me translate that fact into the hard terms of political economy.

The only system of political economy that we know of which appears capable of reversing or mitigating climate change is social democracy. Wherever we see capitalism — whether it’s Chinese state capitalism, or American predatory capitalism, or Indian export-led capitalism — nations fail, and fail badly, to address climate change in any way whatsoever. In stark contrast, European social democracy has led to emissions falling — which is exactly what the world needs.

Why is that? The reason isn’t too hard to put your finger on. Social democracy is better at fighting climate change because there’s (wait for it) less capitalism. Under social democracy, in much of the economy, profit isn’t maximized above all. Social investment can happen — whether in clean energy or in social systems, which support it, like town squares and bike lanes. Regulations and rules are easier to pass, and punishments are more severe. Cultural norms emerge which sanction corporate misbehaviour. Different constituencies — employees, investors, managers, citizens — can work together, instead of adversarially, as in capitalism. As a result, social democracies are able to take far more responsibility for their own true costs and benefits — instead of simply kicking the can down the road to the next generation, country, decade, or century. It’s not a surprise that Europe leads the world in terms of green innovation — it is the result of social democracy doing what capitalism can’t. Hence, Europe takes agreements like Paris and Kyoto seriously — it is able to because it’s political economy lets it do what capitalism alone cannot.

Let’s put the two facts together above now. Just 100 companies are responsible for 71% of greenhouse gas emissions, most of which are corporations — all of which are governed by a global capitalist system that still “externalizes” environmental costs. Wherever societies are governed by the logic of capitalism, even at this grim juncture, emissions are accelerating in a kind of runaway fashion. The only region in the world where those emissions have fallen is governed by social democracy, which is able to treat climate change very differently than capitalism, financially, economically, socially, and culturally.

Are you getting the picture I am yet? When I put all those dots together, here is what I see.

Climate change isn’t “anthropogenic”, caused by humankind in some kind of numinous, vague, general fashion, so much as it is caused by a very specific kind of political economy — capitalism.

Part of the challenge every great obstacle presents us with is really understanding it. And to do that, we must tell ourselves an accurate story about it. So far, the story we have told about climate change isn’t nearly that — it is a half-truth, or maybe just a fraction of the truth. It leaves probably the most important part of the story out — the cause, the reason, the motive, the purpose, the driver.

We should stop calling it “anthropogenic” climate change, and start calling it CCCC, capitalist caused climate change (corporate caused climate change if you like.) That way, we begin to tell a far more accurate, resonant, and powerful story of what really went wrong in the world. It wasn’t just that “more people” began to “consume more resources.” It was that the way that those resources were consumed was foolish, wasteful, and wrong. Corporations began to plunder and pillage the earth, sky, and oceans with abandon — institutions which didn’t have to pay the costs of restoring any of the damage they were doing, because, thanks to the rules of global capitalism, that damage was a benefit, not a cost. And so they ripped across the planet like locusts. But it didn’t have to be that way — and it still doesn’t have to be that way. It was that way because the rules of capitalism made it that way.

When we understand that part of the story, we have made a crucial link: we have connected environmental catastrophe with political economy. And that is still something we are reluctant to do at this stage, too often, even as severe climate changes, fire, flood, and famine, descend upon us. Don’t you think it’s strange we are still afraid, still hesitant, to connect the dots of political economy and environmental catastrophe — even while cities and states begin to sink, crumble, and burn? I do. How long will it take us to do so? Are we employing the logic Americans use for fascism — “you can’t say that person’s a fascist until the Holocaust arrives!” If that’s our logic — then haven’t we failed the test of reason?

Instead of a system that weighed the true social and environmental costs and benefits of consuming a resource — which is what social democracy begins to allow Europeans to do — the world stayed stuck in the capitalist paradigm that America had exported. But under the terms of this paradigm, the entire world could quite literally burn down, and GDP would “grow” — as long as you and I had to put out the fire. The capitalist paradigm, which is an American creation, is only concerned, perhaps obsessed, with maximizing profit — but that also means that it is dead set against ever assessing, counting, or weighing it’s real costs, much less ever paying them, much less ever investing in reversing them. Hence, the engine of world trade today, China lending to America so that Americans can buy cheap Chinese made goods on credit, would collapse in an instant, if environmental costs were added to the bill. But those costs don’t just disappear — they are simply shifted forward to the future with interest, like a debt. And the problem is that when that debt isn’t made of money any longer, but made of floods, fires, and famines — how is it to be repaid?

We need to change our story of climate change — and we need to change it now — so that we can change our world. Capitalism isn’t just “bad at” fighting climate change. It is what is causing climate change in the first place — it is incapable of “fighting” the very thing it causes. The moment that we understand that climate change is caused by capitalism, not just “humankind”, then we gain newfound power to really fight it. Then we understand that really rescuing the planet from flood, fire, and famine is going to require a paradigm change in political economy, too. It is going to require something like the dawn of global social democracy.

If that sounds impossible to you, then you have decided, in a way, that the future will be catastrophe. If it sounds possible to you, then perhaps you understand the scale of the challenge now in a different way.

The choice, as always, is yours.

December 2018

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