The End of the Myth of Green Capitalism
The IPCC report landed in public consciousness on Monday. By Tuesday it was forgotten. On the day the most comprehensive and chilling prospectus on climate breakdown was published most newspapers in Britain led with Strictly Come Dancing. In the evening the BBC’s flagship Newsnight invited a Trump-supporting climate denier on television. Today the UK govt announced they would re-start fracking. Brazil are on the brink of electing a fascist who wants to cut down the Amazon rain forest.
The report wasn’t so much apocalyptic as precise.
A queue of professional climate science deniers were sufficiently unsettled to evoke their well-trodden disinformation. Over at Steve Bannon’s alt-right Breibart, James Delingpole called the IPCC report: “wailing hysteria and worryingly eco-fascistic policy prescriptions”. Similar panic could be read in all the usual outlets: the Spectator; Sun; Telegraph, Daily Mail; and across the BBC.
The crisis-non-crisis leaves many people in turns utterly despondent, or consciously, doggedly oblivious.
Why can’t we make the changes we need to make?
The first and the most obvious reason is the myth of green capitalism, the myth that any of this is redeemable. Instead of wondering why Exxon or BP aren’t converting their business model, we need to be taking them over, shutting them down and switching them off. Instead we’re rinsing out our bottle tops and demanding a Plastic Straw ban.
Hyper-capitalism requires hyper-individualism. This is incompatible with our species surviving.
As Martin Lukacs has written:
“Anything resembling a collective check on corporate power has become a target of the elite: lobbying and corporate donations, hollowing out democracies, have obstructed green policies and kept fossil fuel subsidies flowing; and the rights of associations like unions, the most effective means for workers to wield power together, have been undercut whenever possible.
At the very moment when climate change demands an unprecedented collective public response, neoliberal ideology stands in the way. Which is why, if we want to bring down emissions fast, we will need to overcome all of its free-market mantras: take railways and utilities and energy grids back into public control; regulate corporations to phase out fossil fuels; and raise taxes to pay for massive investment in climate-ready infrastructure and renewable energy — so that solar panels can go on everyone’s rooftop, not just on those who can afford it.
Neoliberalism has not merely ensured this agenda is politically unrealistic: it has also tried to make it culturally unthinkable. Its celebration of competitive self-interest and hyper-individualism, its stigmatization of compassion and solidarity, has frayed our collective bonds. It has spread, like an insidious anti-social toxin.”
Hyper-individualism isn’t just ineffective it’s isolating and dispiriting.
You can’t buy your way out of climate breakdown, nor can you recycle your way out of this level of crisis. Changing the means of production, changing the endless cycle of productivism and consumerism is the only way back.
Ending the obsession with growth and accumulation is the only way to avoid the catastrophic species loss, collapse in biodiversity, rising sea levels, an ice-free Arctic, ocean acidification, crop failure and the loss of our coral reefs that the report lays out in minute detail.
But this isn’t what the people who run the world want to do.
The problem isn’t that we don’t know what to do.
We know exactly what needs to be done.
As the Canadian author Naomi Klein explains:
“We have not done the things that are necessary to lower emissions because those things fundamentally conflict with deregulated capitalism, the reigning ideology for the entire period we have been struggling to find a way out of this crisis. We are stuck because the actions that would give us the best chance of averting catastrophe — and would benefit the vast majority — are extremely threatening to an elite minority that has a stranglehold over our economy, our political process, and most of our major media outlets. That problem might not have been insurmountable had it presented itself at another point in our history. But it is our great collective misfortune that the scientific community made its decisive diagnosis of the climate threat at the precise moment when those elites were enjoying more unfettered political, cultural, and intellectual power than at any point since the 1920s.”
Umair Haque suggest that the “mathematics of catastrophe” means that the other, competing reason we will not manage to survive this process is that the challenge comes at the moment when capitalism is morphing into a form of fascism as it struggles with it’s own failures.
He charts the descent, the closing of a window since the Kyoto Protocol, during which America elected the King of Idiots (“Why Catastrophic Climate Change is Probably Inevitable Now“):
“Before the neofascist wave, the world might have indeed “solved” climate change. Maybe not in the hard sense that life would go on tomorrow as it does today — but in the soft sense that the worst and most vicious scenarios were mostly outlandish science fiction. That is because before the neofascist wave, we could imagine nations cooperating, if slowly, reluctantly, in piecemeal ways, towards things like protecting life, reducing carbon, pricing in the environment, and so on. These things can only be done through global cooperation, after all.
But after the neofascist wave, global cooperation — especially of a genuinely beneficial kind, not a predatory kind — began to become less and less possible by the day. The world was unravelling. When countries were trashing the United Nations and humiliating their allies and proclaiming how little they needed the world (all to score minor-league wins for oligarchs, who cashed in their chips, laughing )— how could such a globe cooperate more then? It couldn’t — and it can’t. So the neofascist wave which we are now in also means drastically less global cooperation — but less global cooperation means incalculably worse climate change.”
That doesn’t sound good does it?
Molina, Ramanathan and Zaelke, writing for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, point to the fact the IPCC largely ignores the issue of feedback loops, what happens as integrated systems fail and collapse? They write:
“So far, average temperatures have risen by one degree Celsius. Adding 50 percent more warming to reach 1.5 degrees won’t simply increase impacts by the same percentage—bad as that would be. Instead, it risks setting up feedbacks that could fall like dangerous dominos, fundamentally destabilizing the planet. This is analyzed in a recent study showing that the window to prevent runaway climate change and a “hot house” super-heated planet is closing much faster than previously understood.
These cascading feedbacks include the loss of the Arctic’s sea ice, which could disappear entirely in summer in the next 15 years. The ice serves as a shield, reflecting heat back into the atmosphere, but is increasingly being melted into water that absorbs heat instead. Losing the ice would tremendously increase the Arctic’s warming, which is already at least twice the global average rate. This, in turn, would accelerate the collapse of permafrost, releasing its ancient stores of methane, a super climate pollutant 30 times more potent in causing warming than carbon dioxide.
By largely ignoring such feedbacks, the IPCC report fails to adequately warn leaders about the cluster of six similar climate tipping points that could be crossed between today’s temperature and an increase to 1.5 degrees—let alone nearly another dozen tipping points between 1.5 and 2 degrees. These wildcards could very likely push the climate system beyond human ability to control.”
There are of course other feedback loops, like the issue of climate migration fuelling the shift to fascism that Umair Haque outlines.
Writing in The Intelligencer (“UN Says Climate Genocide Is Coming. It’s Actually Worse Than That”) wrote that:
“…the action needed is at a scale and a speed almost unimaginable to most of us. The IPCC report called it unprecedented. Other activists often see one precedent, in all of human history, citing the model of how the United States prepared for World War II, and calling for a global mobilization of that kind — all of the world’s rivalrous societies and nationalistic governments and self-interested industries organized around the common pursuit of a stable and comfortable climate as though warming was an existential threat.
It is. And the World War II mobilization metaphor is not hyperbole. To avoid warming of the kind the IPCC now calls catastrophic requires a complete rebuilding of the entire energy infrastructure of the world, a thorough reworking of agricultural practices and diet to entirely eliminate carbon emissions from farming, and a battery of cultural changes to the way those of us in the wealthy West, at least, conduct our lives. And we need to do all of that in two, or possibly three, decades. As a comparison, simply the last phase of the recent three-stop extension of New York City’s Second Avenue subway line took 12 years.”
If all of this sounds apocalyptic, I’m sorry.
Molina, Ramanathan and Zaelke, suggest that “neither fatalism nor despair are warranted, but rather a sense of urgent, or even running-scared, optimism.”
There is no doubt that we have the resources, the innovative capacity, drive and imagination to salvage the situation. Jim Skea co-chair of IPCC Working Group III. said that limiting global warming to 1.5 degree C is “possible within the laws of chemistry and physics” …”But doing so would require unprecedented changes.”
As contrived indifference meets abject poverty and celebrity moronism, it’s difficult to have faith that this is feasible.
We will need to overturn Frederic Jameson’s famous dictum that “it has become easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism”. This is not just a socio-economic crisis of systemic proportions, but also a crisis of the imagination. We’ll need to upset all of the internalised myths we’ve consumed and been groomed to believe in: growth is good, choice is good, endless choice is best; accumulation is a goal in itself, we are masters of nature.
If we can’t throw off these myths we will die of consumption.