The Crisis of Growth and Capital
Something important has changed. The last two IPCC reports are significant in that they have identified the economy as the problem, not the solution. Faced with this harsh truth the ruling elites, supported by a pliant and cooperative media have engaged in a total backlash, attacking not just anyone who suggests an alternative economics, but the idea of Net Zero itself. Even the most moderate and liberal ideas, such as a ‘wellbeing economy’ are now viewed as a dire threat. The penny has dropped. The battleground is no longer about climate denialism but capital denialism. Given the choice between changing from a system that accrues them enormous wealth and power, or changing course to ensure ecological viability, the powerful have chosen to protect their interests.
In the emerging socio-ecological crisis of 2023 we face escalation and backlash. The IPCC’s sixth report [AR6 Synthesis Report: Summary for Policymakers Headline Statements (ipcc.ch)] sets out the devastation that has already been inflicted on swathes of the world. March’s final instalment, called the synthesis report, is almost certain to be the last such assessment while the world still has a chance of limiting global temperature rises to 1.5C, the threshold beyond which our damage to the climate is thought to become irreversible.
What has the response been to what has been called a “final warning” on the climate crisis?
Last month the UK govt announced its new ‘Net Zero Plan’, which, astonishingly includes plans for to unleash a new wave of UK oil and gas exploration (including Rosebank). To rationalise this the government is talking up carbon capture and storage (CCS), which seeks to apprehend CO2 before it gets into the atmosphere and store it under the seabed. Nowhere has CCS been tested at the sort of scale that would be required to cancel out the emissions arising from the proposed plan for more gas and oil. This is make-believe stuff.
As Julia K. Steinberger, Professor of Ecological Economics and IPCC author has said: “We continue to witness the rise and triumph of the fossil fuel industry over our societies.”
Now even the simplest of ideas – such as renewables and public transport alternatives are abandoned. Onshore wind remains well and truly blocked. Grant Shapps has refused to make solar panels mandatory on all suitable new homes (The government’s climate plans are a recipe for disaster – New Statesman). While some countries, like France and Germany have offered highly subsidised rail travel and a sharp move away from short-haul flights (the ‘Deutschlandticket,’ entitles users to use local transport and regional trains all across Germany for under 50€ a month) Britain’s Department of transport has just announced tax cuts on flights within the UK, a move that will “help boost UK-wide connectivity”.
The New Scientist quotes from a highly critical report by the Climate Change Committee (CCC), the organisation that advises the UK government on cutting emissions and adaptation saying: “The UK has almost no credible plans to adapt to climate change”.
What is going on? In the face of the most dire warnings the UK government, the most extreme regime in decades, has dropped any pretence of action. Even the facade of environmentalism, the window-dressing has been abandoned.
The political backlash is hysterical. Janet Daly, in The Spectator writes: “The Left now has a demonic new aim: to make ordinary people poorer. The Net Zero ‘debate’ has revealed a stunning shift in the basic assumptions that underpin Left-wing political thinking.” Allister Heath, the Editor of the Sunday Telegraph penned an article in which he argued “Net Zero is a Trojan horse for the total destruction of Western society” and warned we should prepare for “a people’s revolution against policies that will abolish choice and impoverish millions”.
In a Scottish context there has been a wave of articles specifically defending the Holy Grail of growth. Iain Macwhirter, the columnist sacked by the Herald after allegations of racism [Iain Macwhirter to leave The Herald after offensive tweet – BBC News] wrote: “The Greens are opposed to economic growth in principle and want to “accelerate” the close down the oil and gas industry in the North Sea by the end of the decade. Theirs is not a world view shared by most members of the Scottish National Party. The whole point of independence is supposed to be to liberate the Scottish economy from the “dead hand” of Westminster rule and increase economic growth. The party has also had great historic affection for the hydrocarbon industry, revenues from which were always regarded as essential to justify the economic case for Scottish independence.”
This is a world in which the past fifty years has passed us by. For Macwhirter, and many others like him, growth is a totemic concept, here lashed to national liberation.
As climate reality dawns the collision between our economy and our society becomes more intense. Faced with the fact that perpetual growth on a finite planet is an ecological catastrophe, elites and their scribes are now doubling-down and protecting their economic belief-system against invasive reality.
Defenders of the climate-wrecking economic system we live under herald it as the mechanism for equality and prosperity, but this is increasingly impossible to defend. Clung to and heralded by its champions, a growth economy is characterised by disfiguring poverty and obscene inequality, spiralling mental health problems and an inability to meet the most basic human needs in terms of access to housing and healthy food. Indeed our current system is defined by stress and breakdown at every level.
While this precarity is hard-wired into our economic model – it’s important to note how this operates on a global scale and how much growth in the north depends on materials and labour from the south. Exploitation – both within and beyond the ‘developed’ north is at the heart of this system. As a group paper published in Science Direct outlines [Imperialist appropriation in the world economy: Drain from the global South through unequal exchange, 1990–2015 – ScienceDirect] such relations reveal that rich countries rely on a large net appropriation of resources from the global South.
- That the drain from the South is worth over $10 trillion per year, in Northern prices.
- The South’s losses outstrip their aid receipts by a factor of 30.
- Unequal exchange is a major driver of underdevelopment and global inequality.
- The impact of excess resource consumption in the North is offshored to the South.
In Scotland and in Britain we are experiencing a political breakdown, a reality-induced trauma as climate crisis meets social crisis, as the ‘cost of living’ intensifies social divide and the only answer presented is ‘more of the same’ and ‘business as usual’. If you want a litmus test of where we are in battling the climate crisis, and the scale of the corporate defence of vested power, the president of the next UN climate summit to be hosted in the United Arab Emirates later this year, is Sultan Al Jaber. Al Jaber, as well as being the United Arab Emirates minister for industry and advanced technology, is better known as the chief executive of the UAE national oil company, Adnoc, one of the world’s biggest oil and gas producers.
Growth as cognitive frame has only recently been contested. For many, probably most people, it remains synonymous with improvement, development, even civilization itself. As that assumption crumbles the implications for capital is suddenly being realised.
Faced with overwhelming evidence of ecological breakdown the political and media elites’ response is more fossil fuels and strapping themselves to the failed model of capitalism that has led us to this desperate predicament.