Chapter 2 Burning Planet

Updated: Nov 25

System Crash

An Activist Guide to the Coming Democratic Revolution

Neil Faulkner, Phil Hearse, Simon Hannah, Rowan Fortune and Nina Fortune.

The Covid-19 pandemic is only one instance of an accelerating breakdown in the relationship between the human species and the natural world.

Humans are part of Nature. On the one hand, we are animals with material needs and organic form. On the other, our actions impact upon the rest of Nature, sometimes degrading it, sometimes remodelling it, always having an effect.

All the products of human labour are therefore part of Nature. Everything we do to provide ourselves with a livelihood involves drawing upon the resources of Nature and refashioning them into new forms.

These processes are not reversible, but they may be repeatable. If a glacier melts because the temperature rises, the water of which it is formed flows away. If a new glacier forms in the same place when the temperature falls again, it must be comprised of another body of water. In Nature, as in Society, everything is process and motion.

The energy involved in natural processes is a constant: it can be endlessly recycled, but it cannot be destroyed, so whatever you do, it will still be there in one form or another. This is one of the basic laws of physics (known as ‘the First Law of Thermodynamics’).

It follows that human beings may interact with Nature in ways that are ‘renewable’ or ‘sustainable’ – where energy is recycled in essentially repetitive ways – or in other ways that cause a metabolic ‘rupture’ or ‘rift’ – where energy is reconstituted as a destructive force.

Let us take two contrasting examples. A hoe-cultivator who harvests a garden plot of cassava, feeds the tubers and leaves to her pigs, and then lets them roam to manure the plot, is engaged in a recycling of energy that is ecologically sustainable.

Corporations that extract oil, refine it into petroleum, and then sell it to other corporations to burn in jet engines are doing something quite different: theirs is not a renewable process, but a release of carbon waste into the atmosphere and a permanent remodelling of the Earth’s metabolism.

Previous human societies have experienced metabolic rifts. Pre-industrial societies often failed to keep the land ‘in good heart’, so that soil became exhausted or vegetation overgrazed. Sometimes entire civilisations were brought to collapse by human-made ecological disaster.

But there are critical differences between all pre-industrial societies and modern capitalism. The former were agricultural societies whose basics rhythms were determined by the cycle of the seasons; the latter is a system of competitive capital accumulation hard-wired by the profit motive for exponential growth. The former were always essentially local or regional, so that what happened in one place had limited impact in others; the latter is now a fully globalised system which has the whole of humanity and the entire global environment in its grasp.

Marx sensed this danger in his analysis of the system at its inception. He talked about the way in which the factory system and the growing separation between town and country were creating a rupture in the metabolic relationship between human beings and the rest of Nature.

William Morris, who was both a great artist and a revolutionary socialist, railed against environmental devastation and the way in which workers’ lives were ruined by sweated factory labour, foul industrial cities, and lack of both leisure for self-development and access to the natural world.

Hugo Blanco, the Peruvian Marxist, peasant leader, and environmental campaigner, argues that the struggles of indigenous people in the Global South are inseparable from the defence of Nature against corporate power.

John Bellamy Foster, a leading US Marxist academic, has written a series of books analysing the links between Marxist theory, modern capitalism, and climate change. He has been in the forefront of the renewal of Marxist ecology in the face of the apocalyptic scale of the environmental disaster now unfolding.

Foster’s contributions have been extended by those of other Marxist writers, from Geoff Mann and Joel Wainwright’s book Climate Leviathan, which argues for an emancipatory movement of Marxist and indigenous struggles, to McKenzie Wark’s ambitious Molecular Red.

Andreas Malm’s Fossil Capital is also seminal. It attacks the conventional but deeply flawed historical view that traces the fossil economy to alleged scarcities. On the contrary, Malm argues, historical analysis shows that the transition to steam power was motivated by the fact that it allowed a greater subordination of labour to capital than the alternatives. This situates the climate crisis within the logic of capital accumulation itself.

It is impossible to exaggerate. The planet is slowly dying. It first became sick about 250 years ago, at the start of the Industrial Revolution, when the world economy began to grow at an exponential rate. The sickness is now approaching a terminal crisis.

The Covid-19 pandemic has, of course, triggered a global depression. The world economy is set to contract by about 5% during 2020. Further shocks – renewed lockdowns, disrupted supply-chains, a global financial crash, a succession of corporate bankruptcies – could deepen the depression in 2021. Falling demand and rising debt could mire the system in long-term stagnation.

But the world’s political and corporate elites are determined to reopen for business (whatever the health risk), and their aim is a return to pre-pandemic ‘normality’ – that is, to the unplanned, unlimited, unsustainable capital accumulation that is destroying the planet.

Global production increased more than 80 times between 1750 and 1980. Nowadays it tends to double every 25 years. Because of this, energy consumption has soared. World coal production has risen from 15 million tons in 1800 to 8,000 million tons today. World oil production was 150 million barrels in 1900, but is now around 30 billion barrels a year.

Exponential economic growth has meant exponential growth in population and cities. The world was home to about 750 million people in 1750, 1.25 billion in 1850, and 2.5 billion in 1950; now it is 7 billion. Only 2.5% of a much smaller global population lived in cities in 1800. Today city-dwellers are the majority of humanity.

More output, more power, more people, more cities: the result has been massive strain on the Earth’s resources. It takes many forms. Wild Nature is appropriated and deadly pathogens spread through agribusiness complexes and mega-city slums. Forests are cut down, wetlands drained, soils eroded. Water extraction turns farmland into desert. Habitats are destroyed and 75 species become extinct every day. Chemicals are dumped in oceans, lakes, and rivers. Toxins leak into groundwater. Fertilisers, herbicides, and pesticides contaminate food supplies. Landfills overflow with synthetic waste. Nuclear power plants melt down and fill air, land, and sea with carcinogenic particles. Plastic waste degrades into trillions of microscopic specks that infect every living organism.

But one dimension of the ecological crisis predominates. In the last 200 years, the burning of coal, oil, and gas has increased the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from 280ppm (parts per million) to 410ppm; and the rate of increase is accelerating.

The effects are already upon us. They take the form of storms and floods, droughts and bush-fires, with the rate of extreme weather events rising rapidly across the globe. In 2019, for example, Australian bush-fires destroyed an area the size of Britain, tropical cyclones did $60 billion of damage worldwide, and a total seven million people were displaced by climate impacts.

All the measures of climate change are on a steep upward curve. Some authorities predict that a further billion people will be plunged into extreme poverty over the next decade on current climate forecasts. Hundreds of millions will be displaced and forced to move as homelands are scorched into deserts.

The capitalist carbon machine

The international ruling class knows that we face climate catastrophe. They know that it threatens them and their system – not just the working class and the poor – and they would stop it if they could.

But they cannot. Their wealth and power are embedded in the world capitalist system and its relentless drive for expansion and profit.

We can easily measure the failure of the global political elite to manage the climate crisis by reference to the pitiful achievements of their flagship forum, the United Nations Climate Change Conference. This met for the first time in Berlin in 1995. Conferences have taken place every year since. They are attended by all the world’s 193 nation-states.

For a quarter of a century, COP (Conference of the Parties) conferences have been the principal attempt to agree an international response to the global climate crisis. They have resulted in major ‘agreements’ like the Kyoto Protocol (1997) and the Paris Agreement (2015).

It is now clear that these conferences have failed. This is evident in the following:

Accelerating carbon emissions

Only two billion tonnes in 1900, annual carbon emissions had reached 26 billion tonnes when COP met for the first time in 1995. They reached 34 billion tonnes in 2010, and hit an all-time high of 37 billion tonnes in 2018.

Accelerating atmospheric concentrations

Below 285ppm (parts per million) in pre-industrial times, atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide hit 330ppm in 1975, 350ppm in 1990, 375ppm in 2005, and now stand at 410ppm.

Accelerating temperature rises

Average global temperatures have risen by an estimated 1.2ºC since pre-industrial times. Three-quarters of that warming has occurred since 1975. Half has occurred since 1995. The ten hottest years on record have all occurred since 2002. The year 2019 was the second hottest on record.

Accelerating polar-ice melt and sea-level rise

The average volume of Arctic sea-ice has roughly halved in the last 40 years. It is now declining at a rate of about 13% per decade. Comparable ice-melts are occurring in Antarctica and mountain regions like the Himalayas. For 2,000 years before 1900, global sea-levels were static. Between 1900 and 1990, they rose by 1.2mm to 1.7mm on average. By 2016, the rate had risen to 3.4mm per year.

Accelerating climate-change impacts

More frequent and more intense heat-waves are causing increases in wildfires, droughts, and desertification. Rising and warming seas are causing heavier rainfall, more serious flooding, more frequent mega-storms, and the inundation of coastal areas. These changes are driving the world’s sixth mass extinction, with species loss running at 1,000 times the normal rate. Climate change is destroying livelihoods, increasing disease, and displacing people.

Accelerating risks of hitting one or more irreversible tipping-points

Changes in the Earth’s ecosystem are characterised by both incremental shifts and sudden tipping-points. Among the tipping-points that may, sooner or later, be triggered by incremental global warming are: abrupt collapse of the West Antarctic ice-sheet; abrupt collapse of the East Antarctic ice-sheet; abrupt collapse of the Greenland ice-sheet; thawing of Arctic permafrost and release of methane gas; rapid deforestation of the Amazon; and failure of the Atlantic Gulf Stream. Some scientists fear a ‘global cascade’ of interacting tipping-points.

Whatever measure is chosen, the evidence shows that the global political elite have failed to halt climate change. It also shows that far more radical action is now necessary. It would be political idiocy – on the evidence of the last 25 years – to assume that the existing system will deliver what is necessary.

The failure of the global political elite is systemic. It is not that we do not know what to do. It is not that the wrong policies have been adopted. It is that the economic and geopolitical system – the current world order – cannot deliver the radical action necessary.

The OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development), representing the world’s leading industrial economies, considered the pre-pandemic global growth rate of 3% to have been too low. Yet a 3% annual growth rate means a doubling in the size of the world economy every quarter century.

The fossil-fuel corporations plan to extract twice the amount of coal, oil, and gas between now and 2030 than can be burned if we are to restrict global temperature rise to the 1.5ºC ‘aim’ of the Paris Agreement.

This ‘aim’ is not ambitious enough: most climate scientists predict severe damage to the Earth’s eco-system with this level of warming. But even this ‘aim’ falls well below the ‘pledges’ of the participants, which, even if implemented, are expected to result in a disastrous 3ºC of global warming. Many leading scientists think we are heading for at least 4ºC of global warming.

The ecological crisis has triggered global protests on a scale comparable with the anti-globalisation and anti-war protests of the early 2000s. Beginning in Britain in November 2018 and continuing around the world for the next year, tens of thousands of climate activists organised by Extinction Rebellion (XR) took part in a rolling series of direct-action protests, typically blocking roads and bridges, refusing to move, and allowing themselves to be arrested.

Overlapping with the XR protests, a succession of school climate strikes inspired by young Swedish activist Greta Thunberg took place during 2019; these involved a million people and 2,200 strikes in 125 countries on 15 March, and peaked at 4 million people and 4,500 strikes in 150 countries on 20 September.

The protests have pushed the ecological crisis right up the political agenda. Before the pandemic, one survey of opinion in eight major states showed a clear majority of voters in seven of those states citing it as ‘the most important issue’ – ahead of terrorism, migration, and the economy. Even in Britain – the exception – three-quarters agreed that climate change was driving extreme weather events, and two-thirds believed it was a direct threat to ordinary people and that ‘time is running out to save the planet’.

Labour’s Green New Deal was another measure of the political prominence of ecology. The 2019 Labour Conference agreed ‘one of the most comprehensive ecological proposals ever put by a major political party challenging for office’ (in Alan Thornett’s words). It included a £400 billion ‘National Transformation Fund’ of which no less than £250 billion was to be funnelled through a ‘Green Transformation Fund’ dedicated to ‘renewable and low-carbon energy and transport, biodiversity, and environmental restoration’. Labour was committed to creating a million climate jobs – on union rates and conditions – many of them in retrofitting all of Britain’s 27 million homes for carbon efficiency.

The new Starmer leadership is already watering down Labour’s Green New Deal. The Tories, of course, are travelling in the opposite direction. Though Tory Chancellor Rishi Sunak has promised £2 billion for the retrofitting of the housing stock, the amount is paltry against the scale of the problem, and must be set against the £25 billion earmarked for ‘road improvement’. Post-pandemic, the carbon economy is to be rebooted.

There is a deeper problem – a systemic and existential problem for humanity and the planet. Even the most ambitious of green reformist policies – by which we mean policies compatible with, and therefore potentially achievable under, the dominance of capital – will be too little, too late to prevent disastrous ecological breakdown. That is the central lesson of 25 years of failure at COP.

The needs of humanity and the planet are represented by climate science, by declarations of intent from above, by the increasingly urgent demands of a growing mass movement from below, and by the programmes of some progressive political parties. But these needs – best met by a zero-growth, stable-state, carbon-neutral economy – are incompatible with the world capitalist system. Here is why.

Capitalism is the self-expansion of value

Growth – ‘the self-expansion of value’ – is inherent in the capitalist mode of production. It is expressed in Marx’s formula M – C – M+, where M is the money originally invested, C is the plant, materials, and labour used in the production process, and M+ is the money originally invested recouped plus profit. This cycle endlessly repeats, making capitalism a dynamic system of perpetual growth. If the cycle fails – if there is no growth and therefore no profit – investment collapses and there is mass unemployment and mass impoverishment. Capitalism is incompatible with a zero-growth or stable-state economy.

The world is divided into warring states

Climate change is a global issue. It requires agreement and action on a global scale in the interests of the planet and humanity. But the world is divided into 193 separate nation-states, ranging from superpowers like the United States and China to countries of fewer than a million people like Luxembourg, Malta, and Tuvalu. Most of these countries invest heavily in armaments and engage in geopolitical competition with their rivals. The world’s nation-states have killed at least 10 million people in their wars since 1945. They currently spend $1.8 trillion on armaments each year and have 21 million personnel in their armed forces. There are a dozen major wars currently raging. An estimated 70 million people are refugees from conflict. A world divided into warring states cannot be expected to make rational international decisions on climate.

The world is divided by grotesque class inequalities

The world’s richest 26 people own the same amount of wealth as the poorest 50% of humanity. The six richest billionaires in Britain own the same amount of wealth as the poorest 13 million Britons. These inequalities have been growing since the 1980s, and the wealth gap between the global rich and the mass of the world’s people is wider today than ever before in human history. Three billion people – nearly half the world population – live in poverty, and 1.3 billion live in extreme poverty. With a zero-growth or stable-state economy, satisfying the basic needs of the world’s poor would depend upon redistribution of wealth – from the corporate rich to the international working class – on a historically unprecedented scale.

A wave of creeping fascism and climate nihilism

A wave of nationalism, racism, and fascism represented by authoritarian leaders and far-right parties is sweeping the world. The politics of the far right is a combination of ultra-neoliberal corporate power and nationalist-racist reaction. Climate change is either denied or ignored. The far right represents climate nihilism.

Short-term systems and a long-term crisis

Capital accumulation involves circuits of capital in which investments are expected to deliver returns within a year, five years, at the most ten years. Each corporation has an essentially short-term perspective; one, moreover, that does not include such ‘externalities’ as environmental pollution. Political systems also operate on relatively short cycles, typically those represented by the electoral calendar. Both capitalists and politicians are wedded to short-termism. The climate crisis, of course, is unfolding over decades.

This is the greatest crisis in human history. The survival of the existing planetary eco-systems and the socio-economic lifeways based upon them are at stake.

Because solutions must be a) zero growth, b) radically redistributive, and c) internationally determined and applied, climate catastrophe can be averted only by global revolutionary action to halt the carbon economy, take over the corporations, dispossess the rich, and create a new political order based on mass participatory democracy and popular control over natural resources and human wealth.

In the interwar period, socialists argued that the world faced a choice between revolution and barbarism. They were right. The Left was defeated, fascism triumphed, and the world experienced the barbarism of the Second World War and the Holocaust.

Today, the world faces a similar choice between revolution and extinction. Either the Left builds a global mass movement for total system change – to create a new world based on democracy, equality, peace, and sustainability – or the capitalist system will destroy the planet.

Anti*Capitalist Resistance will soon be publishing this new book on the world crisis and the popular resistance in print format. Because of the urgency of the political situation, however, we will be publishing the book chapters as a series of long-read online articles over the next month or so. This is the second chapter.

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