Plant Trees SF Events 2006 Archive: 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018 2019 2020 2021


The Guardian 
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 
tomorrow morning. 

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 Guardian Unlimited
Guardian  Newspapers Limited 2006,,1700409,00.html
For updates and info, contact scott at planttrees dot org.