Let them eat growth

by cominsitu

Radicals are right to point out capitalism’s need for growth at all costs is the road to ruin, but does runaway climate change wreck the prospect of a communist society too?

A tale of two charts

Two charts have been doing the rounds. The first (pictured above) is from a newly published paper in Nature Climate Change. The authors show that the current emissions pathway is actually tracking above the highest of the IPCC’s four ‘Representative Concentration Pathways’, RCP 8.5. In layman’s terms, we’re doing worse than the worst case scenario: on course for 5 degrees or more warming by 2100, with ‘runaway’ climate change almost certainly following. For the authors, the likelihood of changing direction is sufficiently low, that:

…to continue to focus on a 2 °C (or more aggressive) temperature target as the singular inviolate metric of long-term success is to engage in a form of climate denial.

The other image was tweeted by economics professor Richard Tol, from a paper of his published last year:

A century of climate change is not as bad as a lost decade of economic growth http://t.co/MCSpOhlW76 pic.twitter.com/Od6mqVHCOZ

— Richard Tol (@RichardTol) February 26, 2014

Tol’s argument here is fairly consistent with mainstream economic thinking. The 2006 Stern review for example, says that “it is difficult to secure emissions cuts faster than about 1 percent a year except in instances of recession.”1 Indeed, a 1997 piece in Foreign Affairs, by Nobel Prize-winning economist Thomas Schelling, even argued that because agriculture only accounts for a small percentage of GDP, it was rational, for developed countries at least, to allow a massive collapse in productivity as long as growth in other sectors more than compensated.2 It’s telling that this was written during the dotcom bubble, but the attitude of ‘let them eat growth’ is remarkably persistent.

Tol considers “a cost-effective emission reduction trajectory towards stabilization at 625 ppm CO2e”.3 This isn’t really how the climate system works. It can’t be stabilised at arbitrary concentrations that suit cost-benefit analysis, as once positive feedbacks kick-in, the climate will keep on changing over the course of centuries and millennia. This is also a problem with the Stern Review’s 550ppm CO2e target, and according to recent research, even the official 450ppm CO2e ‘2 degree’ one.4 James Hansen’s advocacy of reducing atmospheric concentrations to 350ppm CO2e seems the most prudent in light of the scientific evidence and uncertainty over tipping points. This is not compatible with economic growth, at least for several decades until the transition is complete.5

But in any case, Tol’s paper concludes that “it is unlikely that a benefit–cost analysis would justify stabilization of the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases (…) as that would require zero carbon dioxide emissions.” Those valuable fossil fuels do have to be burned, after all. He does concede that “catastrophic risk is a more powerful argument for more stringent climate policy, but to a limited extent as emission reduction has downside risks too” (emphasis added). Catastrophe is bad, but is it really as bad as forgoing GDP growth? No wonder we’re in the shit.

Climate chaos or communism, is that the question?

The science is very clear, and says we need an urgent u-turn. Economists say ‘accumulate, accumulate, Moses and the prophets!’6 As Naomi Klein’s recent piece put it, science is telling us to revolt. This seems to confirm a new twist on the old slogan, socialism or barbarism. For John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark and Richard York:

Humanity cannot expect to reach 350ppm and avoid planetary climatic disaster except through a major global social transformation, in line with the greatest social revolutions in history.7

For Ivan Mészáros:

The uncomfortable truth of the matter is that if there is no future for a radical mass movement in our time, there will be no future for humanity (…) [because] the extermination of humanity is the ultimate concomitant of capital’s destructive course of development.8

For the Internationalist Communist Tendency, “the alternative is social collapse or socialism”, and therefore “we need to create a higher form of social organisation before the present system destroys us all.” There is a line of criticism that this amounts to confirmation bias – critics of capitalism seizing upon any opportunity to bash the system they oppose anyway.9 But this is hardly a convenient truth! ‘I told you so’ is a very Pyrrhic victory if the price is climate catastrophe. Indeed, in traditional Marxism, the possibility of communism was premised on the abundance created by the development of the productive forces:

At a certain stage of their development, the material productive forces of society come in conflict with the existing relations of production, or — what is but a legal expression for the same thing — with the property relations within which they have been at work hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters.

Then begins an epoch of social revolution.10

But the problem with the framing of ‘social collapse or socialism’ is that it seems to accept that once runaway climate change is locked in, social collapse is inevitable and socialism is impossible. That point is rapidly approaching, or may even have passed. Of course, it’s only a slogan, but does runaway climate change really end the possibility of a society based on human needs? Capitalism can exist with chronic hunger, communism, by definition (‘…to each according to needs’), cannot.

Avoiding dangerous climate change now requires a rapid and sustained economic contraction. Policymakers aren’t going to embark on such ‘degrowth’ voluntarily.11 But even if they did, it would dwarf the austerity programmes that have provoked misery, riots, strikes, occupations, and movements of the squares around the world. Under such conditions, a communising movement could probably, in theory, still stop the juggernaut. This would involve a dramatic collapse in production combined with efforts to redirect resources to meet human needs. Nobody’s going to work in a sweatshop if we sweep away the value form, so this redirection of resources would likely self-organise as people prioritise food and other essentials. But the window for this to happen is rapidly closing, and the technical challenges would still be formidable.

Therefore, we have to pose the question of communism and climate change. This means taking seriously the biophysical aspects of materialism: food production, water supply, clean energy, housing. This isn’t only a question of transforming social relations -it requires consideration of the fundamental constraints of thermodynamics that economists typically ignore. Is it going to be possible to feed and house 7-10 billion people under conditions of climate chaos? ‘Disaster communism’ is our holding term for this problematic. We’re currently researching the questions of agriculture, ecosystem restoration, and the worst case scenario of unmitigated climate change. We’ll be following up these issues in subsequent posts.

  • 1.The Stern Review: the economics of climate change, Box 8.3, page 204.
  • 2.“Agriculture is practically the only sector of the economy affected by climate, and it contributes only a small percentage – three percent in the United States – of national income. If agricultural productivity were drastically reduced by climate change, the cost of living would rise by one or two percent, and at a time when per capita income will likely have doubled.” Thomas C Shelling (1997), [url=http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/53573/thomas-c-schelling/the-cost-of-combating-global-warming ]The cost of combating global warming[/url],Foreign Affairs.
  • 3.CO2e = carbon dioxide equivalent.
  • 4.Kevin Anderson, Alice Bows, “Beyond ‘dangerous’ climate change: emission scenarios for a new world” Phil. Trans. R. Soc. A 13 January 2011 vol. 369 no. 1934 20-44http://rsta.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/369/1934/20.abstract
  • 5.“Rapid emissions reduction is required to restore Earth’s energy balance and avoid ocean heat uptake that would practically guarantee irreversible effects” (source). If this means James Hansen is engaging in climate denial, by the argument of the Nature Climate Change paper, it can be countered that capital denial is just as big a problem.
  • 6.Yes, there are heterodox, ecological economists who reject this cavalier attitude to the environment, but they’re relatively marginalised. The shortcomings of ecological economics we’ll have to take up another time.
  • 7.John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark and Richard York, The ecological rift: capitalism’s war on the earth, p.118.
  • 8.Quoted in Bellamy Foster et al, op cit, p.413.
  • 9.See Mike Berners-Lee & Duncan Clark, The burning question, p. 124: “climate change is an attractive concept for people who, for whatever reason, are excited by the idea of modern capitalism imploding.” We are not excited, we’re deeply worried.
  • 10.This has also been true for ecological, social anarchism – see Murray Bookchin, Post-scarcity anarchism.
  • 11.We hope to discuss some of the proposals for degrowth and steady-state economics in future blogs.