Imagining postcapitalism: global warming

(10 am. – promoted by ek hornbeck)

For this installment of the “Imagining postcapitalism” series, I will offer an introductory perspective upon global warming, continuing the invitation to rethink the politics of global warming suggested in this diary.  

Awhile ago, I suggested that the Federal government’s failure to create a bill addressing abrupt climate change constituted an invitation to rethink the political strategy typically followed by activists in pursuit of a “solution” to this issue.  Then I argued that we were getting nowhere on the issue in this election cycle, so we had better gear up for the wider future.  

Nothing since 2010 appears to have changed in that regard.  The wider future I have in mind will be something along the lines of the wider future envisioned in Joel Kovel’s The Enemy of Nature.  The key principles which will hold the social order together will be 1) a sort of decentralized, small-scale socialism and 2) what Kovel calls “ecocentric production,” production directly attuned to human use in a system in which ecosystem stability matters.  If you haven’t read my diary on Kovel, go ahead and take a look.

Here are some basic global warming realities which will become apparent in our path toward that future:

1) Nothing the government was even thinking of trying (during the last legislative term) would have worked.  Cap-and-trade is a shell game meant to obscure the fact that “emissions” will not be decreasing.  “Carbon taxes,” should we see any such thing after 2013, will either be insufficient (and for good reason — capitalist governments stand or fall on the strength of “the economy,” and if “the economy” depends upon fossil fuel consumption, then cutting fossil fuel consumption will hurt “the economy”), or limited — industry will get out of them by moving business outside of the taxed area.  Techno-fixes will not solve the problem.  “Alternative energy” will simply prove to be a supplement (and not a replacement) to fossil energy.  There is simply no way around it; the capitalist system, with its reliance upon strategies of capital accumulation, is addicted to fossil energy, and will not be able to shake the habit until it is too late.  Thus the GOP-controlled Congress may be looking to eliminate the EPA’s role in controlling climate change, but the EPA wasn’t going to be allowed to do anything effective anyway.

There is a fundamental reason for this, as I pointed out in the Kovel diary — the “history of power” tends to congeal in various states of domination.  The current state of domination, thus the most triumphant one to date, is capitalist domination.  The capitalist system’s overreliance upon fossil fuel energy is a byproduct of its being a state of domination — and it would be less effective as a state of domination were it to consume less energy.  Thus the fundamental question of oil addiction is a question of domination — are we to give up the latter to give up the former?

2) Therefore, at the very least, a rational strategy to mitigate the problem of abrupt climate change will have to be a path away from capitalism.  As Joel Kovel points out in The Enemy of Nature, the effective purpose of restrictions upon “carbon burning” is to keep fossil fuels in the ground, yet under capitalism no government has the courage to demand that fossil fuels themselves be kept in the ground.  Why is this so?  I would argue that the point of putting restrictions upon fossil fuel consumers (as opposed to producers) is to create “environmentalist theater” while leaving the real machines of destruction untouched.  

In the end, if you want to avoid burning fossil fuels, they have to stay in the ground.  Yet this requires taking said reserves out of the circle of commodities exchange, and devaluing them.  This is why the Saudis proposed before Copenhagen that they be compensated for their “loss” of revenue should the developed nations actually succeed in not consuming their oil.  Expect to see more resistance from capital as the expressed need for a solution to global warming increases.

3) The further away from capitalist practice we get, the more capable of conservation we will be.

As I pointed out in an earlier diary on the concept of utopia, there are quite a few professions which could be eliminated if we created an economy which eliminated paper-shuffling, domination, exploitation, and money-based scams (i.e. legal and otherwise permitted greed), and moved directly to a union of free producers.  Here is Victor Wallis’s list again, from the December 1997 issue of Capitalism Nature Socialism — we could potentially eliminate these professions for the good of Earth’s ecosystems:

    * The advertising industry, together with private insurance, banking, and associated communications, accounting, and legal services;

      * The construction, resource-use, and services arising from the automobile/ shopping mall/ suburban sprawl complex;

      * Excess energy use arising from the global integration of production processes and from over-reliance on long-distance trade;

      * The development of a highly specialized fuel-intensive agriculture with heavy reliance on chemical fertilizers and pesticides;

      * Certain fuel-intensive, typically macho recreational activities giving their users an artificial sense of power (car-racing, snowmobiles, jet-skis, speedboats, etc.);

      * A growing sector of purely status-related luxuries, defined as such by (a) their frivolity — including pandering to sexist or racist norms (e.g. cosmetic surgery to disguise age or ethnicity) — and (b) their highly restrictive prices;

      * The police, private protection, penal, and military services built up in response to the threat and/or the reality of challenges — whether individual (delinquent) or collective (revolutionary) — to concentrated private wealth;

      * Whatever proportion of general production (and construction) or ancillary services — including health care — is accounted for by demands placed upon the system, or upon individuals, by the abovementioned practices. (49)

Now, the thing we should consider here is that eliminating such professions and moving to a regime of necessary production for the sake of the direct satisfaction of human need, i.e. socialism, will create an enormous potential for energy savings.  Moreover, once this enormous slack allows us to be free from the capital-driven compulsion to consume 85 million bbls./day of crude oil (and an equal carbon-equivalent in coal energy), we will then be free to improvise energy production without regard to cost (or, as the economists call them, “price signals.”)

4) “The problem isn’t really that bad”

I don’t suppose it’s surprising that this is the main crutch the defenders of the status quo use to defend the indefensible.  All of the evidence points to the fact that our industrial, capitalist society has already put enough CO2 into the atmosphere to cause irreparable damage to Earth’s ecosystems.  Let’s look at that graph from Petit et al. (1999) again:

Savor this graph — it came from measurements made in soon-to-be-disappearing ice caps in Antarctica.  You can see that the measurements for atmospheric carbon dioxide and for average temperatures are very strongly correlated.  The relationship between the former and the latter is inversely logarithmic — as carbon dioxide multiplies, average temperature increases by a set amount.  

Now, looking at the measurements in this graph, we can guess that a 50% increase in carbon dioxide, say, from 180 parts per million to 270 parts per million, will give planet Earth a five- or six-degree increase in average temperature.  We can also guess, then, that another five- or six-degree increase will eventually occur if atmospheric carbon dioxide ascends to 405 parts per million, another 50% increase.

Now Mark Lynas, who’s researched all of the relevant literature, thinks that such a temperature increase would be catastrophic to the Earth’s ecosystems.  Civilization would collapse, and the Earth would become a desert.  Yet we are in fact already almost there!  The Earth is currently afflicted with 393 parts per million of atmospheric carbon dioxide, with 2.3 ppm added to the air each year.  405 ppm will not be far off: give it a few years.

This, then, explains James Hansen’s insistence that atmospheric CO2 is already beyond safe limits, and that we must reduce atmospheric CO2.  This would require a remedy far beyond anything currently being dreamed by the political class.  

By the way — does anyone here have any idea how we are to continue the predatory society of global capitalism while reducing global atmospheric carbon dioxide by fifty parts per million?  We’re all going to compete for a limited number of career positions “saving the Earth” while consuming its resources in the manufacture of “green technologies”?  Yeah, I didn’t think so.

I personally am uninterested in the campaign to get solar panels atop the White House.  Deck chairs atop the Titanic.

4) “But carbon dioxide levels were higher in earlier periods of natural history!”

Solar luminosity was also lower then, too.  If you want the bigger picture, start here.  The point of calling it “abrupt climate change” was that, because it’s so abrupt, Earth’s ecosystems will not have the chance to bounce back from it, or for that matter any of the other tortures industrial society has inflicted upon Earth’s ecosystems.

5) “But we can’t wait for socialism!”

The only people doing the waiting are those in denial about the need for such a thing.  Don’t wait for any revolution — build the new society now.  Otherwise we will be in the pickle Gramsci described, in which the old society dies but the new society has yet to be born.

Here the tactics of the anarchists have plenty of lessons to give us.  Traditions such as Food Not Bombs are important in building community while delivering necessities independent of money economies.  The rebellion against neoliberalism in South America offers a necessary resistance to US imperialism — nevertheless, it appears to have become dependent upon its control of South America’s oil reserves, especially in the case of Hugo Chavez and Venezuela.  This will eventually present a problem.

Derek Wall’s new book The Rise of the Green Left points the way, however.  Wall suggests that, in every continent of the world, an intellectual confluence of political activists is coming together behind an environmentalist socialism which he calls “ecosocialism.”  


It’s hard for me to believe that a civilization as versatile as ours could collapse.  Yet the Kogi note correctly that we are killing off the planet.  The fundamental problem of human society, however, remains beyond the reach of the Kogi — the history of power tends to favor a system in which human beings are (to use Michel Foucault‘s words) stuck in a “carceral continuum” in which repression and brute force continue not because they serve any real purpose but rather because they are winning tactics in competitions.  Thus pointless war continues even though nobody really wants it.

In this regard, rather than pinning our hopes on peace, it might be more expedient to count on the continuation of conflict and to prepare for it expediently.  A good book to mine for philosophical strategies might be something like Terry Dobson and Victor Miller’s Aikido in Everyday Life: Giving In to Get Your Way.  Dobson and Miller suggest a variety of strategies for dealing with conflict, the least important of which is “Fighting Back.”  And even their version of “fighting back” looks rational and peace-oriented.  For most problems, the authors suggest strategies such as withdrawing, parleying, doing nothing, deception, and confluence.  Nevertheless, against a foe as devoted to consuming the planet as is capital, we do best to give nature and society the chance to fight back.


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    • Diane G on February 14, 2011 at 2:38 pm

    People just cannot wrap their heads around it.

    Add carbon and global warming, and their heads go into the sand.

    A few of us are trying to envision that future, but we are a tiny group.

    BTW? I tried to get into dk4 last night for the meet up and it wouldn’t let me, kept glitching out 🙁

  1. it’s hard to grasp how FUBAR our global situation geopolitical is. The disconnect between our politics and the reality of cause and effect especially here in the US is delusional. It doesn’t matter were you weigh in on the fictional political spectrum all roads lead back to Rome. Human society is all structured on the various aspects of ‘the vampire squid on humanities face’. This is where I break down. Like you said even Venezuela is plugged into the inevitable scam, the engine that creates the world as we find it. I can imagine a post capitalist society but I cannot envision how to create it in the here and now. Resistance, rebellion and death? or just pushing that eternal rock up that crmbling mountain.  


    We push data for survival, I make art for art’s sake, he makes music for the elegance. Were contributors to your list of what needs to go. Advertising and marketing, the voodoo behind the money, the polls of mass destruction. When I was young I lived off the grid for about 6 years. did this help? I still burned wood, used tools and drove to town for supplies. Had to work at the paper mill or be a  waitress occasionally for the money. The poverty was rehabilitating and time consuming, and left you powerless, twisting in the wind.  

    What you said about the futility of the gestures toward conservation, ecology within the present system applies to the individual also. So far all I can think of is it has to get worse before people can/will restructure in smaller units. Oregon where I live is playing out this fork in the road like the rest of our country. We have a Dem. governor who proclaims ‘Where open for business’ and proceeds to use the Columbia to ferry coal to China, and a lefty wing in the state legislation pushing for a state bank.  I keep coming back to community and local, that I can envision, it has boundary’s my mind can comprehend. Strangely I’m not depressed my only faith is in people ability to use the informational/social tools at hand, globalism has two sides. No global domination is ever inevitable.    

    I’ll now read your links, and thanks for the essay. I don’t know what I’m going to do about dkos but if I’m around I’ll look for the meet ups and send you a message begging for an invite. I seem to have made some peace with those that have a big hate on for my lefty privileged white ass.. I have no interest any more of flame throwing for the greatest or greatness of Obama and the fear or adoration of fictional heroes or villain’s. As Obama said about Aristides return to Haiti ‘it’s an unfortunate distraction.’    


    • rossl on February 15, 2011 at 3:06 am

    I’ve been reading some Derrick Jensen lately (haven’t gotten around to endgame yet) and I’m wondering why, and I read your diary about him, you haven’t given up entirely on civilization and embraced some kind of “anarcho primitivism,” as they call it.  I’m not suggesting that Jensen is 100% right – I’m really asking, why do you view civilization as redeemable?

    • banger on February 15, 2011 at 5:12 am

    The problem is not climate change the problem is why we are determined to destroy ourselves. It’s no longer a question that can be addressed through analysis or reason and the problem is not, strictly speaking, capitalism but the strange situation of being human at this moment in history.

    We live a fucked up and crazy life that lacks human warmth and connectedness. It is because we are sick that we over indulge. We are all junkies and we demand the fantasies that the system generates for us. We have no sense that life is possible outside of the Matrix that has been designed for us. We are unable to reason and we are unable to feel so we have to watch others do things on screens and get our brain chemistry balanced through that medium or through drugs that increase either dopamine or endorphins.

    What we need is for people to start standing up and being human. That in itself is revolutionary. Maybe no ideology is needed–maybe we just need to be human and stop allowing machines to be the intermediaries between not only relating to other people but even in relating to ourselves.

    There’s a story I heard that when the Dalai Lama first visited the U.S. he was at a conference of therapists and got very confused about what was going on there. He said that he really finally understood one of the main differences between the U.S. and Tibet. There is no word or concept in Tibet that means “self-hatred.” Why do we hate ourselves? Why are we ashamed of being human? Until we answer those fundamental questions we will not get to the source of our addictive life-style. We are now in the stage where we know, and I think most Americans actually know, unconsciously, that what we are doing is destructive not just to the earth but ourselves—but we are unable to stop because we have nothing else that can give our life meaning. It is we dissidents that must find a way to move in the direction of inquiring into and modelling what being human is in all its glory.  

  2. Now, looking at the measurements in this graph, we can guess that a 50% increase in carbon dioxide, say, from 180 parts per million to 270 parts per million, will give planet Earth a five- or six-degree increase in average temperature.  We can also guess, then, that another five- or six-degree increase will eventually occur if atmospheric carbon dioxide ascends to 405 parts per million, another 50% increase.

    It’s well known that, absent positive feedback loops (related to “tipping points”), temperature increase as a function of CO2 content is a logarithmic function. In fact, the vast majority of global warming, due to CO2, that will ever occur, has occurred, already.

    Furthermore, despite the propaganda about positive feedback loops, it appears that recent data has demonstrated a negative feedback loop is operant, at least in our current conditions. The methane being release in Russian tundras has me concerned, but frankly, the more I learn about global warming, the less I’m concerned about it!

    Google Lindzen for more info.

    Finally, while it’s not so obvious from the graph you ask us to “savor”, do note that the x-axis is quite “dense”. If you expanded the x-axis, you’d see that CO2 follows global temperature increases, by about 600 years.

    If you want to know why global warming catastrophism is still taken seriously, I suggest you follow the money. It’s true that oil companies back in the 80’s funded scientists who poo-poo’ed global warming, in a manner analogous to cigarette companies hiring doctors to tell the public that smoking was good for you.

    But that was then, and this is now.

    I wish somebody would report on details of which side of the global warming fence Exxon is on today, how invested in cap and trade they are, and how much they stand to profit. Matt Taibbi has done some work on the cap and trade scheme, but I don’t recall him discussing the oil companies. Goldman Sachs, IIRC, but not the oil companies.

    I had some nasty exchanges with Paul Rosenberg on OpenLeft on global warming, where I have provided quite a few references.  

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