Political Economy for the End of Times: Gareth Dale on Capitalism and Climate Breakdown
A three-part interview on capitalism and climate breakdown from the podcast Political Economy for the End Times. Listen to the full interview with Political Economy for the End Times.
Javier Moreno Zacares (JMZ) from Political Economy for the End of Times: I wanted to start this interview by exploring the broad question of the relationship between capitalism and the environment.
I think that a good entry point is the conceptual distinction that you draw between ‘capitalist time’ and ‘ecological time’. Can you explain what these two temporalities are and how they relate to one another?
Gareth Dale (GD): Human beings relate to various systems through different temporalities. That is, the different rhythms of time and the different ways in which humans relate to time. In my essay for The Ecologist that you are referring to, I look at three of those: geological time, ecological time, and capitalist time. All social systems are ways of organizing behaviour and time.
Under capitalism, the aim is to increase profit and save time. This accounts for some of its central dynamics: The systematic disciplining of labour and the segregation of labour from the rest of human experience, which enables labour-time to be marked out and measured. The continual acceleration of labour-processes through technical and social change. The fetishism of technology, which has a key role in displacing labour and decreasing the circulation time of capital. And also, of course, the systematic degradation of the natural environment. In a sense, capitalism eats time, and in the process erases nature.
Capitalist time is abstracted from ecological time in a way that is very different from previous societies. As capitalism took over the world from the seventeenth to twentieth centuries, it imposed its regime of abstract time. It weaponised it and used it as a justification for the occupation and domination of the peoples it encountered. Even the concept of ‘the savage’ was based on the belief that to be fully human required you to have your rituals and behaviours sharply separated from the rhythms of nature.
So, what about ecological time? The term was coined by the anthropologist Evans Pritchard and it refers to human beings’ interaction with natural processes. It’s been generally understood as something cyclical and continuous, something that endures. And although in the past humans have destabilised their environments (and therefore their ecological times as well), what we are seeing today is ecological time changing on a global scale, which means that we can no longer think of the planetary future as a stable predictable continuation of the present.
The capitalist system is producing profound twists in temporality. This is occurring above all through fossil fuel extraction and here you can see here the temporalities at work quite vividly. Fossil fuel companies dig down into the lithosphere, through the geological layers, the layers of time if you like – the Carboniferous layer, the Jurassic, the Cretaceous – and from there they exhume carbon deposits from the geological past. This brings profits to those companies in the present, through the energy which they sell. This energy is then pumped out as exhaust carbon into the atmosphere, which cues up multiple infernos for the future.
And then there’s the twist that comes with the inertia of climate processes, including oceanic thermal inertia, and because of the role of climate feedback mechanisms in accelerating climate change into the future, we are not yet experiencing anything like the full impact of the acts of fossil fuel companies in the present.
All this affects our sense of temporality. If you look at traditional socialist or liberal perspectives, the assumption was always one of an unchanging environment stretching away into the future. The future society that socialists, for example, imagined, would be constructed in an essentially static and bountiful natural environment.
But climate change and the trashing of the other biophysical limits that we are seeing at the moment has turned all this upside down. It raises the question – what is the timescale of human need?
In the traditional leftist dichotomy, the left presents itself as for ‘people,’ an economy based on human need, against the right, who favour an economy geared to profit. In temporal terms, ‘profit’ refers to the short-term financial interests of the rich and the annual shareholders’ dividend; that’s the dominant force that shapes the world today.
But what of the temporality of ‘people’? Is this a short-term category or long-term? If we are arguing for a society based on human need and not corporate and shareholder profit, do we mean the needs of people today, in fifty years time, or five thousand?
Our hope must be that if people gather in social movements, engage collectively and gain strength, you tend to see the compass of human concern extending across space—from the individual and the family to the world as a whole; hopefully that’ll occur on the temporal plane too: the scope of care and solidarity will stretch towards the future.
JMZ: You talk about how preceding political theories have always assumed the linear continuity of the world and the environment. What does the possibility of a civilizational collapse mean for the left? How should the left tackle this idea?
GD: A fascinating paper came out a year or two ago called ‘Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene.’ The scientists that wrote it describe vividly the track that the earth system is on. The trajectory is of the planet barrelling towards a ‘hothouse earth,’ with escalating feedback mechanisms: the ice melting and no longer reflecting the sun’s energy back into space, forests burning, oceans releasing more and more carbon dioxide, methane emitted from tundra, and so on.
The threat is cascading tipping points, leading to escalating climate catastrophe – conceivably a rise of 7°C by the end of the century, which would be devastating for the planet.
And then they chart an alternative: with radical action on a global scale very soon, you could perhaps see a stabilisation of the earth system. Think of it in terms of the trolley car meme. If you look down the tram track we are on, you will see most of the species of the planet are clamped onto the main track and they are all going to be run over, including possibly homo sapiens. But we’re at a junction and the tram could fork and avoid much of that damage. The problem is: the driver up front is capital, it works to keep most of us in our seats, and we have not yet found a way to rush up and apply the emergency brake.
In a sense, then, this is an incredibly exciting time to be alive because the future of the world is at stake in a very material way, the habitability of the biosphere for most mammals, we could materially influence if we act quickly, but it’s also a frustrating, a maddening moment because the driver of the tram is capital and because most of the earth is bound up in circuits of capitalist competition under the compulsion of revenue growth, and because it owns most of the world, including our jobs and our economic futures, much of the time we have to do what it tells us.
Then again, it’s also possible that we have already gone past that critical junction. A recent report in Nature journal entitled ‘Climate tipping points – too risky to bet against’ portrays the risk of climate change accelerating unstoppably, the feedback mechanisms unleashing extraordinary force, massive bombs of methane hydrates bubbling up from under the seas, and so on. Sometimes people warn that talking in such terms is ‘catastrophist’, but in truth it’s sober realism. It’s a recognition that the worst-case scenarios are very extreme—and more likely than the IPCC has countenanced in its reports until recently.
So we might be standing at an all-or-nothing moment in human and planetary history. There might be a window of just a couple of decades in which with a radical reduction in emissions some kind of stabilization would be possible. But perhaps not, perhaps the window has already been smashed. Perhaps the tipping points will inevitably cascade, taking the carbon in the oceans and in the atmosphere soaring past levels where humans can do anything to pull it back. But would this mean we should give up fighting? No, the opposite.
If the window is still there we must do everything we can to urgently bring emissions down and stop the madness of an economic system driven by the imperative of capital accumulation. But even in the second case, if the window has been smashed, it makes the imperative of class struggle and socialism all the more urgent. In the second case, some kind of global civilizational collapse would likely occur at some point.
How? It could look like a multiple concurrent breakdowns in the production of several staple crops—a series of ‘multi-breadbasket failures’, with problems of drought and water provision. In the recent drought in South India, the state was able to contain it there by bringing in water by the trainload. But what if state capacities were breaking down and food prices soaring at the same time? What then?
Some environmentalists assume it would be a kind of Malthusian catastrophe: food production insufficient to feed the human population, leading to the mass starvation of poor people. (The rich world would of course buy the food it needs.) But that’s misleading, for several reasons.
First, there is far more food being produced than is needed. Half of it is wasted; a great deal is badly distributed (too much for some, too little for others). But beyond that, we have the ability to produce far more efficiently. So, for example, instead of huge swathes of the US Midwest covered in crops for biofuels, why not plant crops to feed humans instead?
Or look at meat production, which is an astonishingly inefficient way of converting soil, sunlight and rain into amino acids, carbohydrates and so on. In the space of a few years, you could switch from industrial agriculture (efficient only in terms of profit) to small farm-based agroecology (efficient in terms of resource use).
So, what does this mean? It means that if a multi-breadbasket failure were to occur, it would only be at the most a semi-Malthusian crisis (a crisis of ‘too little’). Largely it would remain a crisis of distribution—and that can be solved politically. You’d need to stop the agri-businesses and speculators from cornering the market to profit from spikes in food prices. You’d need perhaps to locate the granaries, break into them, fight off the security guards and the police, commandeer ships, sail the grains to where they are needed, and distribute them. All of this is possible and would be urgently necessary in that kind of scenario.
JMZ: So, it’s ecosocialism or barbarism.
GD: Yes, very much.
Javier Moreno Zacares (JMZ): In your work, you historicise the emergence of what you call the ‘growth paradigm’ – the self-conscious pursuit of linear growth. You argue that this logic is not built into the human species, but is a relatively recent historical construction that only comes about with the emergence of capitalism. Can you briefly explain how the lineage of the growth paradigm maps to the rise of capitalist accumulation?
Gareth Dale (GD): Pre-capitalist forms of civilization knew various commitments to certain particular kinds of growth. You had intellectuals drawing up plans to increase trade or improve agriculture, kings and lords fighting for greater territory, and so on. But this peculiar form of ideology, the growth paradigm, the idea of economic growth – which presupposes the existence of an economy for which growth is natural, continuous, and potentially infinite– that is relatively recent. It only took on its fully-fledged form in the twentieth century, but you can see its beginnings earlier.
I used to think that its first breakthrough was in the work of Adam Smith. He did not conceive economic growth as infinite, but many other ingredients of the growth paradigm were there in his work. Then I looked back at late-mercantilist and proto-liberal economists, particularly English ones, of the mid to late seventeenth century and you can see clearly the ingredients of the growth paradigm forming.
The context was formed by various shifts in social structures and sensibilities. There was a concern with quantification and the reconceptualization of space and time as abstract, infinite, and uniform. There was the rise of the market system and the market paradigm—the idea that there exists an economy with abstract laws and tendencies, the threads of which are connected through the market. There was the scientific revolution, which spurred conceptions of ‘the economy’ as a law-governed system. There was a long-term shift in attitudes to gain, luxury, avarice, greed and commerce: valorising them in contrast to the previous religiously-based frowning on them as sinful in excess.
As far as I can make out, the crucible for several key changes was seventeenth-century England. It was here that you saw a fascination in and a commitment to ‘improving’ agriculture—there was a cult of improvement. It was here that you saw the development of pseudo-scientific economics – and the idea that the economy is an entity subject to dynamics (including growth). And the referent of growth itself began to change.
Previously ‘growth’ had only been applied to organic particulars (trees, plants, populations) but it shifted gradually to inorganic generalities (trade for example). Also here you see stirrings of the notion that growth is of existential interest to the state itself. You see that above all in England’s colonisation of Ireland.
Who was the great innovator in national income accounting, which was crucial to the emergence of the growth paradigm (because you can’t talk of systematic growth unless you can measure it)? It was William Petty, one of the English colonisers of Ireland who in the process developed these systems.
As ideology, growth functions to naturalise capital accumulation. If capital accumulation is re-presented as growth, it persuades us we’re ‘all in it together,’ which in immediate terms has a kernel of truth to it.
JMZ: In recent years the ideologists of capitalism have tried to incorporate environmental concerns into their worldview – giving rise to the idea of ‘green growth’.
Green growth implies that technological innovation through capitalist competition can outpace the climate breakdown by rebooting the capitalist economy in a more sustainable way. You have been critical of this idea – can you give us a sense of what green growth would involve and why you think it’s not viable?
GD: I don’t think the ‘green growthers’ have a measure of the scale of the problem. Reducing emissions and new technologies that enable efficiency savings is just not going to cut it. Emissions need to be reduced to zero, a fundamental challenge. Secondly, they don’t recognise the problem of ‘rebound effects’ in a market economy. Say for example we spend less on petrol: the price of petrol falls, so demand for petrol rises and people drive more.
When you’re in a hole, stop digging. If the hole is climate breakdown, stop digging coal. Green growthers pretend to recognise this, they say we must stop digging coal, but they assume business as usual can carry on – same economic system, different sources of energy. But the digging will continue, on a massive scale.
If all fossil fuels are switched for renewables, if the world’s vehicle fleet is replaced by electric alternatives, then the planet’s lithium reserves will all be mined—and the process of mining will in itself take an immense amount of energy. Much of this will reproduce relations of imperialism as well—look at Germany’s lithium-grab in Bolivia. The rich car-producing states are lining up.
The solutions that the green growthers are projecting don’t add up. Of course, they’ll respond: ‘lithium was only discovered as a chemical for batteries in the 1990s and in ten years time there’ll be a new one discovered’. Maybe. But we can’t bet the future of the planet on this kind of speculation.
I first looked into this around fifteen years ago when I was researching strategies of corporations towards climate change. Most of them centred on introducing biofuels into their vehicle fleets and reducing energy use (although all must admit this is what capitalist businesses do anyway—given the imperative to reduce costs, attempts to cut energy inputs are normal).
The oil companies were making token investments in renewables. There was a great deal of faith in technological innovation. The CEO of Virgin Atlantic at the time, Richard Branson, claimed that his planes had to keep flying for if they did not, a “less responsible” firm would fill the gap. He had a vague knowledge of climate change and wished to use biofuel to run planes. The magical ingredient at the time was coconut oil. I looked into the sums involved: even if the technology worked, to run just one airport, Heathrow, for 18 days would require the world’s entire coconut supply!
Lifting planes into the air takes a lot of energy. This faith that green growthers have in technological innovation just isn’t working. Technologies do matter, of course. In aviation we are seeing, roughly, a 1 percent saving in carbon efficiency each year. But the industry is growing at a 4-5 percent each year! And Virgin Atlantic is now a major lobbyist for Heathrow expansion.
Or take Gatwick Airport. It’s decked with signs declaring ‘Gatwick Airport is carbon neutral!’ The claim is based, firstly, on the fact that the power to run its premises is drawn from renewable sources—but the airport isn’t constructing additional windfarms. Secondly, it undertakes offsetting—yet this is a nonsense, a scam. Thirdly and most obviously, the planes themselves are excluded!
Another example is the ‘smart sustainable’ city of Songdo in South Korea. A poster child ‘green growth’ city, it was selected by the UN to host its ‘Climate Fund.’ But go to the Songdo website. You’ll see much talk of sustainability, and then, lower down, you notice an unusual word: ‘aerotropolis’. What’s this? Songdo, it explains, is a “compelling aereotropolis, strategically located only seven miles from Incheon International Airport.” So, Songdo was designed as a commuting hub designed to expand air travel.
I’m focusing on aviation as these provide the crassest examples, but similar applies in other sectors. Absolute decoupling of resource throughput and GDP just isn’t possible. No matter the individual ethics of a CEO, their actions are governed by profitability: to use inputs from labour and nature as cheaply as possible, to maximise profits.
Capitalism is a future-blind system that’s driven to sabotage its conditions of possibility; it can’t be adapted in the way the green-growthers suppose.
JMZ: Let’s move onto ‘red growth’, so to speak. There has always been a strand of socialist thought fascinated by the idea of accelerating growth. To bring up a famous example from the Soviet Union, Lenin claimed that communism was ‘Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country’. The implicit argument is that an expansion of material abundance is a necessary precondition for an advanced egalitarian society.
In recent years, there was been a revival of this way of thinking in the Anglo-American left, often under the label ‘left accelerationism’. Authors argue that growth shouldn’t be rolled back, but rather accelerated beyond capitalism’s limits. The underlying premise is not only that there are technological solutions to climate change, but that an acceleration of technological improvements in areas like solar energy or automated production would usher into the world a degree of material abundance that could unlock a path to a communist society.
In response, you have cautioned not only against technological fixes to climate change but also against such faith in the emancipatory potential of technology – can you explain your critique of what you call ‘techno-socialism’?
GD: I recall reading science fiction when a kid. One story involved someone who invented a technique to extract gravity from objects. He had an old car and couldn’t afford to run it. So he extracted the gravity, to enable it to work cheaply—he hardly had to buy petrol. That’s a case of sci-fi magical thinking, and there’s a lot of the same drug around right now.
As people get more desperate to deal with the challenge of climate change, escapism can take the magical route: technology will save us. As the global economy has industrialised it has become more abstract to people’s perceptions, there has been a loss of artisanal consciousness. As people have less immediate connection to production processes of the goods that we use, it becomes easier to imagine that these things can be produced by snapping your fingers, as if they’re conjured up from nowhere.
On my social media feed I see countless reports of technological discoveries: solar farms on the oceans that can create methane for conversion to hydrogen, trains that run on hydrogen, and so on. These reports become part of our background music of our consciousness, lulling us into the assumption that these gadgets have been invented and can simply be plugged in. This relates to a common experience these days: when we need something to consume, we just click on a button and hey presto it comes the next day to the door; all conditions of production and distribution are occluded.
On the left, this kind of thinking can have a particular function. Take the example of Aaron Bastani’s book, the one that I reviewed for The Ecologist. Bastani’s argument relies on his belief, his faith, that socialist states nationalising corporations can develop rocket technologies to send rockets far into the Solar System and harpoon some asteroids to bring them closer to earth, for mining. This way, we can all be billionaires, thanks to the gold and platinum that is found on these lumps of rock in the heavens.
This nonsense is clever because most people on the left who wish to believe that we can all live like billionaires have to find somewhere where we can extract all those resources and that means confronting the problem of extractivism, north-south inequality, imperialism, exploitation, and the pollution that comes with it, and so on.
But Bastani has a way around all those tricky questions, by a sleight of hand, by imagining asteroid mining. Now all of this has to be done very rapidly because of the window of opportunity I was talking about earlier. Maybe asteroid mining can happen in a hundred years from now, I don’t know, but the technological obstacles are far too great be dealt with in the next thirty to forty years.
I’m not suggesting that technological innovation will not play a vital role in any programme to deal with the climate problem. Of course it will. Take for example concrete. The production of windfarms and the improvement of people’s houses and laying rail track, all of that is going to require a lot of concrete. Already there’s a lot of concrete in the world: by one estimate, it outweighs the combined carbon mass of every tree, bush and shrub on the planet.
Perhaps much more needs to be used…but with restraint. For the problem with concrete is that it’s among those materials causing massive greenhouse production – only coal, oil and gas are worse. But with new technological developments that could be improved and research needs to be poured into that.
So I’m not anti-technology, but I do think that discussions about climate change solutions lean far too much to the techno-utopian. And why is that? It’s because a core feature of capitalist ideology is techno-fetishism. This arises from the role of innovation in enabling capitals to steal a march on their rivals, to accrue the super-profits that give them a lead, to charge technological rents.
Innovation is the elixir of success for firms. Another reason is there’s an importance to capital accumulation of continual novelty, developing new product lines, that’s the way of ensuring your firm will keep ahead of the rest of the pack. So, businesses are always trying to persuade us we need the latest gadgets or we can’t play a full part in social life.
Here’s the puzzle, then: when is the green enthusiasm for tech simply a manifestation of tech fetishism? Is, for example, the electric car a vital element in any green revolution? Or just another product line, to encourage the junking of existing models and purchase of new ones, to keep the wheels of accumulation spinning?
I’m not arguing against electric cars per se. But they’ll require more and more energy, and where do we get it from? For every ten MW for renewably generated electricity, only around 1 MW is actually displaced. Plus there’s the problem of scaling up technologies. Take solar farms on oceans. They may be possible, but can they be scaled up? Similar applies to carbon capture and storage.
A book on this by Holly Jean Buck suggests this can be seriously implemented to address the climate challenge, yet she also says “it’s not going to happen under capitalism.” But how long will capitalism last? 20 years at least, surely. Yet that’s the period that we have to act. These tech ‘solutions’ give cover to the business-as-usual mentality that forms the basis of the corporate agenda: we can keep pumping oil, for someone will somehow one day catch the emissions and put them underground.
JMZ: Now let’s go to the opposite extreme – the idea that the most plausible way of avoiding catastrophe is by rolling back growth, or ‘de-growth’. The de-growth paradigm is a broad church that counts eco-liberals, eco-socialists and anarcho-primitivists amongst its ranks.
Can you help us make sense of the different strands of this movement, and in doing so, can you give us your diagnosis on the de-growth paradigm?
GD: The degrowthers get a lot right. They certainly recognise the scale of the problem and the need for radical solutions, for an overhaul of the way society is organised, focused on a very rapid reduction of energy and resource throughput.
In a recent essay in The Ecologist I tried to give a survey of the de-growth camp, and defended the de-growthers from some of their critics. Sometimes it is claimed that they are completely anti-technology, which is not true. Sometimes it is said that they are committed to a ‘politics of less’, to simply tightening one’s belt in a manner akin to Thatcherite austerity.
That’s not fair at all – they are arguing for an overall social transformation, for a society where there would be much less material, resource, and energy throughput but the people who would be hit the most would be the rich, and the people who would gain would be the very poor. In their utopia, there is better housing, sanitation, clean water for all, public transport, quality amenities.
Yes, some people would make some sacrifices. If you’re addicted to beef, you would eat rather less. There would be fewer cars and hardly any planes. But there would be many benefits – a higher quality of life in general. There would also be a large-scale expansion of certain technologies: public transport, renewables, passive houses, etc. All of this would require major construction programmes around the world. And there would be strong unions in the perspective of some de-growthers at least. Why? Because for them, strong unions are crucial for making the gains in social equality on which their programme depends and for greatly reducing the working week.
So the broad argument I was trying to make in that essay was that on the anti-capitalist edge of the de-growth movement, there’s actually much convergence with Green New Deal positions.
You can compare the de-growthers to the Russian narodniks. (I borrowed this from a footnote in a wonderful book by Joan Martínez Alier, a prominent de-growther.) The narodniks in nineteenth century Russia were urban intellectuals, students and so on, who were concerned for the condition of the peasantry; there’s a parallel there. The question for the de-growthers is, will they be able to upscale their movement in the way that the narodniks were ultimately able to do?
One might add that the Russian revolutionaries learned a lot from the narodniks about the conditions of the peasantry and so on. Again, this is part of my argument that there is convergence between anti-capitalist de-growth and Green New Deal positions. That includes Marxists in both camps.
You can read Marx and Engels as critics of the growth imperative. Yes, they maintained that humans are a needs-expanding species, and yes of course, they championed the development of the human capacity to understand and shape nature. But all this is compatible with reductions in resource use. In the Communist Manifesto, they believed that the productive forces had reached a stage at which a transition to communism could be envisaged. This was 1848: before the invention of the car, before the invention of the telephone, before even the invention of the safety pin.
So for these and other reasons you can read Marx and Engels as critics of the growth imperative, and also of course as proponents of the idea that the key human need is a habitable planet. Marx and Engels were concerned with their environment, as authors such as John Bellamy Foster, Kohei Saito, Jason Moore, Andreas Malm have helped us understand in the last couple of decades.
Javier Moreno Zacares (JMZ): Somewhere in between left accelerationism and de-growth lies the idea of a ‘Green New Deal’ now being championed by social-democratic forces in different countries. Despite its different incarnations, what unites all these Green New Deals is the idea of rolling out large-scale public investment to engineer a transition toward a more environmentally-sustainable society.
This is the most likely strategy to be implemented, so let’s explore it in a bit more detail. Are the Green New Deal proposals being floated around any better than the alternatives put forward by growth-boosters, or do they fall into the same pitfalls?
Gareth Dale (GD): The Green New Deal proposal has transformed the landscape of debate around the question of climate breakdown and made a radical politics around climate much more real for many people. So we have to thank its early theorists, like the New Economics Foundation, Larry Elliot of The Guardian, Ann Pettifor, and many others. And then of course, the fact that it was taken up by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, easily one of the most inspiring politicians in the world, by the left of the Democratic Party, and now by Momentum and the Labour Party.
The Labour Party passed a motion on the Green New Deal at its last conference – a huge number of constituency Labour parties submitted proposals on this issue, more than for any other motion. It was backed by the trade unions, such as the fire brigade union and the communication workers union. It was a radical motion, targeting 2030 for net zero carbon, and arguing for climate refugees to be accepted as well; and for a soaking of the rich – for radical redistributive policies.
There was a commitment to nationalising the fossil fuel industries, which is not necessarily a solution (many of the big oil companies are nationalised), but a necessary step nonetheless. So, it was a very inspiring moment and gives us a glimpse of the kind of policies needed.
But the Green New Deal is a contested field. There’s a spectrum: from the far left, which see it as a way towards a socialist transformation of the world, through to people like Thomas Friedman, the rightwing New York Times columnist, who coined the term ‘Green New Deal’. And all points in between. This has been discussed by Thea Riofrancos in a piece for Viewpoint magazine, which is well worth reading, where she discusses the Green New Deal as a terrain of struggle.
Take the Labour Party motion as an example: it initially included a call for an end of airport expansion. This was not to shut down all airports (which I think is necessary, unless they are used for dirigibles for rather slower long-distance travel), but only to curtail expansion. Yet even thus was nixed by a couple of reactionary union leaderships (of the GMB and Unite). So there’s conflict there. Yet despite the loss of that aspect it was a very positive development and in a diluted form entered the Labour Party manifesto.
The implementation of any Green New Deal programme would meet robust resistance from business and would need huge support from grassroots movements, such as the school strikes, Extinction Rebellion, and others that will spring up. It is unlikely such a radical proposal would have been discussed at the Labour conference had it not been for social movements pushing from the outside. If global heating is going to be mitigated meaningfully under capitalism it’s going to require a lot more of those movements.
I’ve been circling around your question – are Green New Deal proposals any different to those put forward by green growth boosters? Yes there’s a clear overlap. Even the Labour party’s proposal tended to focus on growth, increase, investment, and not on shutting down coal production and oil production and so on. That’s an inevitable tendency considering the Green New Deal is being put forward by parties that appeal to voters, in a capitalist system where most of the world is owned by businesses and we depend upon businesses for our jobs.
So, it’s useful to think of the detailed consequences of some of these demands. Take for example high-speed rail. Broadly, it’s an attractive and rational proposal that should, I suppose, be rolled out around the world—do you think? But there might be a catch. If you connect up all cities over, say, the size of New Orleans, that’s 50 cities in the US, add up the links between them – whatever the map you use, the network topology, that’s a lot of track.
You’ll agree, I hope: the rest of the world deserves prosperity and capacities at the same level as the USA. So the Salvadorian would need to rapidly get to events in Manaus, and the Muscovite to Omsk and so on. Where are you going to extract all these materials?
This will be a colossal construction project, even on top of the other projects we’ve been discussing (passive houses and so on). Can we even do it without burning the planet to a crisp? Maybe, but you could reach a stage where so much cement has been manufactured and so much iron ore dug for all this construction that, say, the breakneck expansion of material throughput that we’ve recently seen in China appears a little burp of emissions by comparison.
To build the planned 100 miles expansion of new high-speed rail track in England, 20 million tonnes of concrete will be poured. To produce a tonne of concrete releases the same tonnage of CO2 under present technologies. Of course, these proposals need to be developed, but also consider the material details: the materials and energy required.
Similarly, we could carpet the world with wind farms, and we probably should, but bear in mind that although turbines are powered by thin air, they are not made of it, but of concrete, steel, copper, glass fibre, neodymium, etc. Much of this requires highly pollutive mining, with mines surrounded by toxic lakes and workers and neighbourhoods suffering and so on.
Of course, under capitalism, these expansive proposals are the ones that are going to filter to the top, because they can bring to agreement among radicals, unions and the businesses that will profit from them. And those who instead advocate shutting down the mines, decreasing consumption, and tackling the rich directly, will face the power of business.
There is, then, a dilemma. I accept that the overturning of capitalism is unlikely in the next thirty years, but that’s the same time we have for the world to act very rapidly – so that’s a conundrum. Capitalism is a system where competitive accumulation is threaded into inter-state competition, so that states want to foster rapid capitalist growth in their territories in order to outcompete the rest. Yet, these states are really the only powers capable of mobilising the resources and manpower necessary for mobilising a Green New Deal!
JMZ: The next logical question is one of political strategy. There is no way around the fact that people’s lives and social reproduction are currently structured around fossil fuel infrastructure and that attempts to dismantle this infrastructure are likely to prompt a backlash.
For example, rising transport costs have been a common theme in many of the mass protests that have recently broken out around the world, from the Gilets Jaunes in France, to the uprisings of Chile and Ecuador. How can a Green New Deal strategy work around this problem?
GD: This takes us back to a previous point: there is enormous scope for improving the quality of life of pretty much all people while radically reducing carbon emissions. Of course, the rich would lose a lot of their toys, but I’m not sure those make them so happy anyway. (I even think the rich could be won over… not entirely peacefully perhaps, but ultimately to the idea that their quality of life can be improved too.)
That would have to include social reproduction issues, as you said, such as the costs of housing and transport. These have become major themes in recent mass protests, the Gilets Jaunes being the classic example. The obvious solution to that is free public transport, powered by renewables.
That would take a lot of investment and quite a lot of construction, and there are problems we’ve been discussing in that regard, but it is certainly possible, and would improve lives. It’d mean less auto congestion, much cleaner air, improved insulation on houses so old people don’t suffer from cold and fuel poverty, and so on.
And then there’s the whole issue of jobs – the Green New Deal and climate jobs campaigns offer ways of reaching out to people to argue that if you are unemployed or underemployed there is the potential for jobs for all in the transition to a decarbonised economy. This is going to take an enormous collective global human effort.
I was involved in the One Million Climate Jobs campaign, which included people like Jonathan Neale, John McDonnell, and trade union leaders in Britain. Those sorts of campaigns are becoming standard repertoire in left-wing parties.
When we’re talking of jobs and climate change, we’re thinking of specifically climate-related jobs, such as in tidal or geothermal energy. But also, in what some are calling ‘pink’ jobs, jobs in the care industry. I’m thinking here of the work of Alyssa Battistoni and other Green New Deal advocates on the US left, such as Tithi Bhattacharya, who wrote a piece in Jacobin on the role of jobs in care as a central plank for reorienting the economy around human need—including for a habitable planet.
There’s also been a lot of talk about retooling technologies involved in war settings to face up to the climate challenge. The American economy in the Second World War, for example, was able to turn around at incredible pace to retool factories from producing cars to producing tanks and planes and so on. That’s an argument that only partially applies to the climate challenge, because in the war the American state was able to gain the backing of corporations because this was a war from which these corporations where going to profit.
There is going to be much more resistance from the corporate sector towards efforts to seriously confront climate change. Nonetheless, the idea of unifying society towards a shared threat that confronts us is certainly there. And it doesn’t need to just be the retooling of factories, but also applies on the social reproduction front, or the ‘home front’ as Mike Davis called it in a very illuminating essay, where he talks of how Americans during the war transformed their lives. There was a ditching of the car for the bicycle, people tore up the concrete in their yards to plant cabbages. Nowadays you could imagine agro-ecology in the suburbs, with tearing up lifeless lawns and growing vegetables.
All of this would, as you say, encounter a backlash by capitalist interests but also from individuals who see themselves as losing out, as the Gilet Jaunes perfectly understandably did, since Macron’s carbon tax was not an environmental tax at all and there was no attempt to first provide public transport for the people affected by these taxes. So, that’s a reminder of how this is a class question.
You have to find ways of pushing back against the ruling class that is doing nothing on environment issues, but also develop programmes that can appeal to large numbers of people, who are increasingly seeing that the lives of their grandchildren, and even themselves, are imperilled, while showing that But also, that addressing climate change involves improving lives.
Javier Moreno Zacares is a Leverhulme research fellow at the University of Warwick. Follow him on Twitter @HarveyMurenow. He runs Political Economy for the End Times with Jack Copley, a lecturer in political economy at the university of Bath. Follow Jack on Twitter @JackCopley6.
Listen to the full interview with Political Economy for the End Times. The interview took place on 28 November 2019.