Capitalism & the Environment

Contribution to Workers' Party seminar in Belfast

Justin O'Hagan, member of Central Executive, Workers Party

A Workers’ Party seminar on Capitalism and the Environmental Crisis took place in Belfast earlier this week. What follows is the contribution of Justin O’Hagan (South Belfast).

"I’d like to start looking at this global issue by touching on a recent local controversy, namely Environment  Minister  Sammy Wilson’s  refusal to engage with  the Act on CO2  campaign initiated by the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC)".

Wilson denied the reality of man-made climate-change, denouncing it as a “hysterical pseudo-religion” But the overwhelming scientific consensus is that climate change is happening because of CO2 and related emissions which result from human activity. The 2007 United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessment report written by a panel of leading scientists argues that it is virtually certain that human activities have been responsible for the global warming that has taken place since the industrial revolution. This is not, as Sammy Wilson put it in an interview with the Belfast Telegraph, a “giant con”.

Data show a long-term upward trend: from 315 ppm (parts per million) in 1958 to 387 ppm in 2008. Studies on the long-term trend show that the CO2 level remained stable  at around 280 ppm during the last 10,000 years until CO2 levels began to rise around the time of the Industrial Revolution. Levels of CO2 in the atmosphere are now 38% higher than they were in pre-industrial times

According to leading climate scientist, James Lovelock, if global average temperature rise approaches 3˚C relative to pre-industrial times and the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) rises above 500 parts per million, the world’s oceans and the rainforests will turn into net emitters of greenhouse gases and as a result global average temperature could rise by up to 6˚C. This would make most of the earth uninhabitable for human beings, raise the sea level by at least 25 meters and wipe out 90% of existing species. Of course, Wilson would cite this as an example of green scare-mongering but as Lovelock says (in an interview with the Sunday Times), “We are on the edge of the greatest die-off humanity has ever seen. We will be lucky if 20% of us survive what is coming. We should be scared stiff.”

As Socialists, we in the Workers’ Party do not lay the blame for the environmental crisis on the life-style choices of individuals, (although the choices that people make with respect to recycling and waste reduction are not insignificant). At the heart of the crises lies the expansionary logic of the capitalist system, which demands endless accumulation and growth no matter how wasteful and anarchic. This is accumulative logic is partly why the capitalist system cannot provide a “fix” to the crisis. As Marx and Engels put it in the Communist Manifesto, “Modern bourgeois society, with its relations of production, of exchange and of property, a society that has conjured up such gigantic means of production and of exchange, is like the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells.”

So what is to be done? Chinese socialist Li MinQi puts it well:

The technical requirements for climate stabilization are clear. The global energy infrastructure needs to be fundamentally transformed to be based on renewables. Much of the world’s economic infrastructure will have to be changed accordingly. Agriculture will need to be reorganized to follow sustainable principles and to be freed from dependence on fossil fuels for fertilizers and machineries. The entire transportation system will have to be re-built, with railways and public transportation operated by renewable electricity playing prominent roles. The scale of the world economy will need to be reduced in accordance with the emissions reduction objectives. All of these need to be accomplished without undermining the basic needs of the world’s population.
It is clear that capitalism cannot accomplish these objectives. If we do not want to undermine the ecological conditions that support civilization, what else can accomplish these goals other than socialism with public ownership of the means of production and democratic planning? (Climate Change, Limits to Growth, and the Imperative for Socialism, Monthly Review, July/August 2008)

For us in the Workers’ Party, our job is to lay the groundwork for such a revolutionary transformation on this island through the kind of Red-Green critique of capitalism as that outlined by Li Minqi.
Issued 13th February 2009

Further Reading: 
This contribution relies heavily on information and perspectives from “Ecology: Moment of Truth”, Monthly Review (New York) July/August 2008
Interview with James Lovelock, “Fiddling with figures while the Earth burns”, Sunday Times May 6th 2007

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