February 2, 2006
It's capitalism or a habitable planet - you can't have both
Our economic system is unsustainable by its very
nature. The only response to climate chaos and peak oil
is major social change
By Robert Newman
There is no meaningful response to climate change
without massive social change. A cap on this and a
quota on the other won't do it. Tinker at the edges as
we may, we cannot sustain earth's life-support systems
within the present economic system.
Capitalism is not sustainable by its very nature. It is
predicated on infinitely expanding markets, faster
consumption and bigger production in a finite planet.
And yet this ideological model remains the central
organising principle of our lives, and as long as it
continues to be so it will automatically undo (with its
invisible hand) every single green initiative anybody
cares to come up with.
Much discussion of energy, with never a word about
power, leads to the fallacy of a low-impact, green
capitalism somehow put at the service of
environmentalism. In reality, power concentrates around
wealth. Private ownership of trade and industry means
that the decisive political force in the world is
private power. The corporation will outflank every puny
law and regulation that seeks to constrain its
profitability. It therefore stands in the way of the
functioning democracy needed to tackle climate change.
Only by breaking up corporate power and bringing it
under social control will we be able to overcome the
global environmental crisis.
On these pages we have been called on to admire
capital's ability to take robust action while
governments dither. All hail Wal-Mart for imposing a
20% reduction in its own carbon emissions. But the
point is that supermarkets are over. We cannot have
such long supply lines between us and our food. Not any
more. The very model of the supermarket is
unsustainable, what with the packaging, food miles and
destruction of British farming. Small, independent
suppliers, processors and retailers or community-owned
shops selling locally produced food provide a social
glue and reduce carbon emissions. The same is true of
food co-ops such as Manchester's bulk-distribution
scheme serving former "food deserts".
All hail BP and Shell for having got beyond petroleum
to become non-profit eco-networks supplying green
energy. But fail to cheer the Fortune 500 corporations
that will save us all and ecologists are denounced as
anti-business. Many career environmentalists fear that
an anti-capitalist position is what's alienating the
mainstream from their irresistible arguments. But is it
not more likely that people are stunned into inaction
by the bizarre discrepancy between how extreme the
crisis described and how insipid the solutions
proposed? Go on a march to the House of Commons. Write
a letter to your MP. And what system does your MP hold
with? Name one that isn't pro-capitalist. Oh, all right
then, smartarse. But name five.
We are caught between the Scylla and Charybdis of
climate change and peak oil. Once we pass the planetary
oil production spike (when oil begins rapidly to
deplete and demand outstrips supply), there will be
less and less net energy available to humankind.
Petroleum geologists reckon we will pass the world oil
spike sometime between 2006 and 2010. It will take,
argues peak-oil expert Richard Heinberg, a second world
war effort if many of us are to come through this
epoch. Not least because modern agribusiness puts
hundreds of calories of fossil-fuel energy into the
fields for each calorie of food energy produced.
Catch-22, of course, is that the very worst fate that
could befall our species is the discovery of huge new
reserves of oil, or even the burning into the sky of
all the oil that's already known about, because the
climate chaos that would unleash would make the mere
collapse of industrial society a sideshow bagatelle.
Therefore, since we've got to make the switch from oil
anyway, why not do it now?
Solutions need to come from people themselves. But once
set up, local autonomous groups need to be supported by
technology transfers from state to community level.
Otherwise it's too expensive to get solar panels on
your roof, let alone set up a local energy grid. Far
from utopian, this has a precedent: back in the 1920s
the London boroughs of Wandsworth and Battersea had
their own electricity-generating grid for their
residents. So long as energy corporations exist,
however, they will fight tooth and nail to stop whole
postal districts seceding from the national grid. Nor
will the banks and the CBI be neutral bystanders, happy
to observe the inroads participatory democracy makes in
reducing carbon emissions, or a trade union striking
for carbon quotas.
There are many organisational projects we can learn
from. The Just Transition Alliance, for example, was
set up by black and Latino groups in the US working
with labour unions to negotiate alliances between
"frontline workers and fenceline communities", that is
to say between union members who work in polluting
industries and stand to lose their jobs if the plant is
shut down, and those who live next to the same plant
and stand to lose their health if it's not.
We have to start planning seriously not just a system
of personal carbon rationing but at what limit to set
our national carbon ration. Given a fixed UK carbon
allowance, what do we spend it on? What kinds of
infrastructure do we wish to build, retool or demolish?
What kinds of organisational structures will work as
climate change makes pretty much all communities more
or less "fenceline" and almost all jobs more or less
"frontline"? (Most of our carbon emissions come when
we're at work).
To get from here to there we must talk about climate
chaos in terms of what needs to be done for the
survival of the species rather than where the debate is
at now or what people are likely to countenance
If we are all still in denial about the radical changes
coming - and all of us still are - there are sound
geological reasons for our denial. We have lived in an
era of cheap, abundant energy. There never has and
never will again be consumption like we have known. The
petroleum interval, this one-off historical blip, this
freakish bonanza, has led us to believe that the
impossible is possible, that people in northern
industrial cities can have suntans in winter and eat
apples in summer. But much as the petroleum bubble has
got us out of the habit of accepting the existence of
zero-sum physical realities, it's wise to remember that
they never went away. You can either have capitalism or
a habitable planet. One or the other, not both.
· Robert Newman's History of Oil will be broadcast on
More4 next month
· rnewman dircon.co.uk Guardian Unlimited
Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006