1 May 2009


My good friend Ian Angus will be speaking in Britain on 12 September

(Part One)

By Ian Angus

[Ian Angus was a featured guest at the World at a Crossroads: Fighting for Socialism in the 21st Century conference , in Sydney Australia, April 10-12, 2009. The event, which drew 440 participants from more than 15 countries, was organized by Democratic Socialist Perspective, Resistance and Green Left Weekly. The following is Ian's talk to the plenary session on "Confronting the climate change crisis: an ecosocialist perspective." He has lightly edited the text for publication.]

The world is getting hotter, and the main cause is greenhouse gas emissions produced by human activity. Enormous damage has already been done, and we will have to live with the consequences of past emissions for decades, perhaps even centuries. Unless we rapidly and drastically cut emissions, the existing damage will turn to catastrophe.

Anyone who denies that is either lying or somehow unaware of the huge mass of compelling scientific evidence.

Many publications regularly publish articles summarizing the scientific evidence and outlining the devastation that we face if action isn't taken quickly. I highly recommend Green Left Weekly as a continuing source. I'm not going to repeat what you've undoubtedly read there.

But I do want to draw your attention to an important recent development. Last month, more than 2500 climate scientists met in Copenhagen to discuss the state of scientific knowledge on this subject. And the one message that came through loud and clear was this: it's much worse than we thought.

What were called "worst case scenarios" two years ago by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change actually understated the problem. The final statement issued by the Copenhagen conference declared: "The worst-case IPCC scenario trajectories (or even worse) are being realized …"

Nicholas Stern, author of the landmark 2006 study, The Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change now says, "We underestimated the risks … we underestimated the damage associated with the temperature increases … and we underestimated the probability of temperature increases."

Seventeen years of failure - with one exception

Later this year, the world's governments will meet, again in Copenhagen, to try to reach a new post-Kyoto climate treaty. Will they meet the challenge of climate change that is much worse than expected?

The politicians' record does not inspire hope.

Seventeen years ago, in June 1992, 172 governments, including 108 heads of state, met at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.

That meeting produced the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the first international agreement that aimed "to achieve stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a low enough level to prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system." In particular, the industrialized countries promised to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions below 1990 levels.

Like the Kyoto Accord that followed it, that agreement was a failure. The world's top politicians demonstrated their gross hypocrisy and their indifference to the future of humanity and nature by giving fine speeches and making promises - and then continuing with business as usual.

But there was one exception. In Rio one head of state spoke out strongly, and called for immediate emergency action - and then returned home to support the implementation of practical policies for sustainable, low-emission development.

That head of state was Fidel Castro.

Fidel began his brief remarks to the plenary session of the 1992 Earth Summit with a blunt description of the crisis: "An important biological species is in danger of disappearing due to the fast and progressive destruction of its natural living conditions: mankind. We have become aware of this problem when it is almost too late to stop it."

He placed the blame for the crisis squarely on the imperialist countries, and he finished with a warning that emergency action was needed: "Tomorrow it will be too late to do what we should have done a long time ago."

After the 1992 Earth Summit, only the Cubans acted on their promises and commitments.

In 1992 Cuba amended its constitution to recognize the importance of "sustainable economic and social development to make human life more rational and to ensure the survival, well-being and security of present and future generations." The amended constitution obligates the provincial and municipal assemblies of People's Power to implement and enforce environmental protections. And it says that "it is the duty of citizens to contribute to the protection of the waters, atmosphere, the conservation of the soil, flora, fauna and nature's entire rich potential."

The Cubans have adopted low-fertilizer agriculture, and encouraged urban farming to reduce the distances food has to travel. They have replaced all of their incandescent light bulbs with fluorescents, and distributed energy efficient rice cookers. They have stepped up reforestation, nearly doubling the island's forested area, to 25% in 2006.

As a result of these and many other projects, in 2006 the World Wildlife Federation concluded that Cuba is the only country in the world that meets the criteria for sustainable development.

By contrast, the countries responsible for the great majority of greenhouse gas emissions followed one of two paths. Some gave lip service to cleaning up their acts, but in practice did little or nothing. Others denied that action was needed and so did little or nothing.

As a result we are now very close to the tomorrow that Fidel spoke of, the tomorrow when it is too late.

Why Cuba?

The World Wildlife Federation deserves credit for its honesty in reporting Cuba's achievements. But the WWF failed to address the next logical question. Why was Cuba the exception? Why could a tiny island republic in the Caribbean do what no other country could do?

And the next question after that is, why have the richest countries in the world not cut their emissions, not developed sustainable economies? Why, despite their enormous physical and scientific resources, has their performance actually gotten worse?

The first question, why Cuba could do it, was answered not long ago by Armando Choy, a leader of the Cuban revolution who has recently headed the drive to clean up Havana Bay. His explanation was very clear and compelling:

"This is possible because our system is socialist in character and commitment, and because the revolution's top leadership acts in the interests of the majority of humanity inhabiting planet earth - not on behalf of narrow individual interests, or even simply Cuba's national interests."

General Choy's comments reminded me of a passage in Capital, a paragraph that all by itself refutes the claim that is sometimes made, that Marxism has nothing in common with ecology. Karl Marx wrote:

"Even an entire society, a nation, or all simultaneously existing societies taken together, are not the owners of the earth. They are simply its possessors, its beneficiaries, and have to bequeath it in an improved state to succeeding generations."

I've never known any socialist organization to make this point explicitly, but Marx's words imply that one of the key objectives of socialism must be to build a society in which human beings work consciously to be Good Ancestors.

And that is what the Cubans are doing in practice.

The idea that we must act in the present to build a better world for the future, has been a theme of the Cuban revolutionary movement since Fidel's great 1953 speech, History Will Absolve Me. That commitment to future generations is central to what has justly been called the greening of the Cuban revolution.

The Cubans are committed, not just in words but in practice, to being Good Ancestors, not only to future Cubans, but to future generations around the globe.

Why not capitalism?

But what about the other side of the question? Why do we not see a similar commitment in the ruling classes of Australia, or Canada, or the United States?

If you ask any of them individually, our rulers would undoubtedly say that they want their children and grandchildren to live in a stable and sustainable world. So why do their actions contradict their words? Why do they seem determined, in practice, to leave their children and grandchildren a world of poisoned air and water, a world of floods and droughts and escalating climate disasters? Why have they repeatedly sabotaged international efforts to adopt even half-hearted measures to cut greenhouse gas emissions?

When they do consider or implement responses to the climate crisis, why do they always support solutions that do not work, that cannot possibly work?

Karl Marx had a wonderful phrase for the bosses and their agents - the big shareholders and executives and top managers and the politicians they own - a phrase that explains why they invariably act against the present and future interests of humanity. These people, he said, are "personifications of capital." Regardless of how they behave at home, or with their children, their social role is that of capital in human form.

They don't act to stop climate change because the changes needed by the people of this world are directly contrary to the needs of capital.

Capital has no conscience. Capital can't be anyone's ancestor because capital has no children. Capital has only one imperative: it has to grow.

The only reason for using money to buy stock, launch a corporation, build a factory or drill an oil well is to get more money back than you invested. That doesn't always happen, of course - some investments fail to produce profits, and, as we are seeing today, periodically the entire system goes into freefall, wiping out jobs and livelihoods and destroying capital. But that doesn't contradict the fact that the potential for profit, to make capital grow, is a defining feature of capitalism. Without it, the system would rapidly collapse.

As Joel Kovel says, "Capitalism can no more survive limits on growth than a person can live without breathing."

A system of growth and waste

Under capitalism, the only measure of success is how much is sold every day, every week, every year. It doesn't matter that the sales include vast quantities of products that are directly harmful to both humans and nature, or that many commodities cannot be produced without spreading disease, destroying the forests that produce the oxygen we breathe, demolishing ecosystems, and treating our water, air and soil as sewers for the disposal of industrial waste.

It all contributes to profits, and thus to the growth of capital - and that's what counts.

In Capital, Marx wrote that from a capitalist's perspective, raw materials such as metals, minerals, coal, stone, etc. are "furnished by Nature gratis." The wealth of nature doesn't have to be paid for or replaced when it is used - it is there for the taking. If the capitalists had to pay the real cost of that replacing or restoring that wealth, their profits would fall drastically.

That's true not only of raw materials, but also of what are sometimes called "environmental services" - the water and air that have been absorbing capitalism's waste products for centuries. They have been treated as free sewers and free garbage dumps, "furnished by Nature gratis."

That's what the pioneering environmental economist William Kapp meant nearly sixty years ago, when he wrote, "Capitalism must be regarded as an economy of unpaid costs."

Kapp wrote that capitalism's claims of efficiency and productivity are: "nothing more than an institutionalized cover under which it is possible for private enterprise to shift part of the costs to the shoulders of others and to practice a form of large-scale spoliation which transcends everything the early socialists had in mind when they spoke of the exploitation of man by man."

In short, pollution is not an accident, and it is not a "market failure." It is the way the system works.

How large is the problem? In 1998 the World Resources Institute conducted a major international study of the resource inputs used by corporations in major industrial countries - water, raw materials, fuel, and so on. Then they determined what happened to those inputs. They found that "One half to three quarters of annual resource inputs to industrial economies are returned to the environment as wastes within a year."

Similar numbers are reported by others. As you know, about a billion people live in hunger. And yet, as the head of the United Nations Environmental Program said recently, "Over half of the food produced today is either lost, wasted or discarded as a result of inefficiency in the human-managed food chain."

"Inefficiency" in this case means that it is no profit to be made by preventing food waste - so waste continues. In addition to exacerbating world hunger, capitalism's gross inefficiency poisons the land and water with food that is harvested but not used.

Capitalism's destructive DNA

Capitalism combines an irresistible drive to grow, with an irresistible drive to create waste and pollution. If nothing stops it, capitalism will expand both those processes infinitely.

But the earth is not infinite. The atmosphere and oceans and the forests are very large, but ultimately they are finite, limited resources - and capitalism is now pressing against those limits. The 2006 WWF Living Planet Report concludes, "The Earth's regenerative capacity can no longer keep up with demand - people are turning resources into waste faster than nature can turn waste back into resources."

My only disagreement with that statement is that it places the blame on "people" as an abstract category. In fact the devastation is caused by the global capitalist system, and by the tiny class of exploiters that profits from capitalism's continued growth. The great majority of people are victims, not perpetrators.

In particular, capitalist pollution has passed the physical limit of the ability of nature to absorb carbon dioxide and other gases while keeping the earth's temperature steady. As a result, the world is warmer today than it has been for 100,000 years, and the temperature continues to rise.

Greenhouse Gas Emissions are not unusual or exceptional. Pouring crap into the environment is a fundamental feature of capitalism, and it isn't going to stop so long as capitalism survives. That's why "solutions" like carbon trading have failed so badly and will continue to fail: waste and pollution and ecological destruction are built into the system's DNA.

No matter how carefully the scheme is developed, no matter how many loopholes are identified and plugged, and no matter how sincere the implementers and administrators may be, capitalism's fundamental nature will always prevail.

We've seen that happen with Kyoto's Clean Development Mechanism, under which polluters in rich countries can avoid cutting their own emissions if they invest in equivalent emission-reducing projects in the Third World. A Stanford University study shows that two-thirds or more of the CDM emission reduction credits have not produced any reductions in pollution.

The entire system is based on what one observer says are "enough lies to make a sub-prime mortgage pusher blush."

CDM continues not because it is reducing emissions, but because there are profits to be made buying and selling credits. CDM is an attempt to trick the market into doing good in spite of itself, but capitalism's drive for profits wins every time.

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