Capitalism, Climate Change, and the Fate of Humanity

Capitalism is an economic system profoundly and irrevocably at odds with a sustainable planet, as it requires ever-greater material and energy throughput to keep expanding.  Capitalism simultaneously and of necessity exploits the land and the people and sacrifices the interests of both on the altar of profit. (Williams, 57)

Every so often, I read something that I feel should be read by everyone.  Whether it is a book or an article, it is something that I think needs to have much more attention paid to it.  I just finished reading the second half of a pretty long article that appeared in two issues of Internationl Socialist Review.  It appeared in issues 62 and 64 under the title, ” Hothouse Earth: Capitalism, climate change, and the fate of humanity.”  The title sounds pretty heavy but considering how important climate change is, I think it is appropriate.  While it is difficult to predict exactly what will happen because of global warming, all the estimates point to a world that will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to live in.  More important than what the world will look like is what we need to do now to fix things.

In Hothouse Earth, Chris Williams lays out exactly what is to blame for climate change and why individual action will not be enough to save us.  In other words, we can put in compact florescent bulbs, recycle our cans and bottles, and even carpool to work, but if systemic changes are not made to our entire economy and society we will like end up destroying ourselves and most species on the planet.

In addition, Williams explains how the global economic system of capitalism is to blame for the situation we find ourselves in and how it will not be able to get us out of it.

There are many who believe that if we incentivise pollution controls, such as cap-and-trade schemes or show how profitable “green” technology can be, we can allow the free market to usher in the new carbon-free utopia.  But Williams argues that even if companies were to decide that this were the way to go in search of profits, it would be too little, too late.  We cannot wait for the markets to decide that green is the new gold.  Instead, he argues that massive government action is the only way that we can go from here to where we need to be.

Allowing the markets to do their magic or telling people that they need to weatherstrip their homes will only get us so far and it will not be far at all.  We are heading towards a cliff.  We may not know we have crossed the edge and are in free fall until it’s way too late, but if we don’t apply the brakes now, instead of letting off the gas a little, it will most certainly be too late.

The first part of the article is now online, and I think the second half will be available in the near future.  Please read the first half of the article or get your hands on the hard copies of ISR 62 and 64.

Only with massive effort from below can we push those in power to do what needs to be done.  If it’s not too late already, we certainly don’t have much time.

  • Williams, C. (2009) “Hothouse Earth: Capitalism, climate change and the fate of humanity.”  International Socialist Review, no 64, 57.
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3 Responses to “Capitalism, Climate Change, and the Fate of Humanity”

  1. I agree with Williams’s major claim that capitalism has caused climate change. In fact, his point is so obvious that I don’t know why he has to spend so much of the article spelling it out. I can explain the idea in one sentence: Capitalism was the driving force behind industrialism, and industrialism has created GCC. Ok. Fine. But calling cap-and-trade a laissez-faire endeavor is a bit disingenuous. The capitalists won’t police themselves, so obviously there must be laws in place to do it for them. Let me be clear: I agree with Williams about government intervention, but that means getting Congress to pass tough legislation. However, the last time I checked, its members were quite beholden to their financial backers. (This is what watered down the recent House climate bill). To get Congress to pass laws that go beyond cap-and-trade we need a massive movement on a grassroots level. The constituencies of the various representatives and senators would have to create an outcry so that the issue would be taken seriously. As it stands right now, not enough of the public believes (or even understands) the severity of the effects of GCC. That means that a lot of people need to be convinced and educated before we can have a chance at a movement.

    Being “green” has become more trendy nowadays. But it’s a low-level concern for most people. Environmentalists need to create a more compelling narrative that middle America can buy into. They seem to buy into implausible bullshit when they feel their safety is being threatened by people from the other side of the globe (as evidenced by people’s willingness to believe that we needed to invade Iraq in 2003.) Global climate change has yet to create something catastrophic, at least not for Americans. Only then will we get much movement on this issue, and, unfortunately, by then it may be too late.

  2. I agree with almost all of what you said. The only issue I have (and it’s a small issue) is with your characterization of cap-and-trade. CAT is clearly the capitalist answer to the problem. Granted there are laws (hence the caps) involved but at its core is the idea that we can buy and sell our way out of this. CAT would probably be a good idea if we weren’t so close to the precipice (if we haven’t already crossed the rubicon). CAT will clearly take too long to be effective, but it allows the market to do its thing, so capitalist should be all for it.

  3. Yes, CAT is capitalist at it’s core. There is no doubt about that. But it’s also regulation. It may be too little, too late. Hell, it probably is, but so far it’s the only thing that Congress (this Congress, the one with the supermajority) has been able to pass. I believe I’ve already expressed my disappointment at the agri-dems, the ones that watered down the House climate bill. They are so concerned with the immediate economic future of their states that they don’t see the bigger picture: that we may not have an agriculture sector if GCC causes cataclysmic drought. The Senate will probably pass an even more watered down bill, if they pass one at all. I’m not happy with any of these developments. Again, I”m not saying that Williams is wrong about the cause or the severity of GCC. However, his solution seems to ignore political reality. I wish it were not so, but it is.

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