Why Financial Markets Won't Solve the Climate Crisis
It may not be polite to mention Karl Marx in America, but leading thinkers on the left think that capitalism may be the cause of climate change and that to save the planet the system needs fundamental reform.
According to a new book, the profit motive drives capitalism above all other considerations. It forces us to extract everything from the planet that will generate a surplus at the expense of real benefits to humans and ecosystems.
Fossil Capital: the Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming by Andreas Malm, out in hardback from Verso in January 2016, analyzes capitalism’s role in global warming by delving into its past.
Photo credit: Shutterstock
The book builds on the work of Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate. Both asked whether catastrophic climate change can be averted without at least a major makeover—or the outright elimination—of capitalism.
Malm, a professor of human ecology at Sweden’s Lund University, started with James Watt’s patenting of the rotating steam engine in 1784. This was also the first year that rising carbon dioxide and methane levels were observed in polar ice.
First Malm attacked the accepted theories of David Ricardo and Thomas Malthus, who developed and reinforced the capitalist notion that markets are the cure for all social ills. He showed that mills adopted coal power instead of water only because it enabled mill owners to move to populated areas to find docile and skilled workers, who were in short supply in the countryside.
Coal enabled this move because, once out of the ground, it is highly portable. The machines, of course, eliminated many jobs and made others both simpler and more difficult. Owners started hiring women and children because they were easier to control than adult men.
My latest review: Andreas Malm's superb account of why capitalism is fossil fuel mad: "Fossil Capital" https://t.co/S3aadjcIkQ @VersoBooks— Resolute Reader (@Resolute Reader)1450295601.0
The demands of the machines set the pace of work and it was only after massive strikes and riots in the 1840s that a 10-hour workday was established. But this, Malm showed, only caused the mill owners to speed up the machinery and make workers adapt further, producing more in less time.
This, in turn, increased the demand for coal. The energy transition fostered a “bourgeois fantasy” that self-sustaining machines, godlike in their power but also biddable, would create a golden age.
Malm framed non-fossil energy—air, water and light—as “the flow”: a constant movement of forces not generated by humans that can sometimes be harnessed for human ends. Coal, and by extension, all further fossil fuels, is “the stock,” something manufacturers can buy, accumulate and use at need.
Humans were extremely vexing to the industrialists because they behaved more like the flow than the stock. Coal-powered engines drastically reduced manufacturers’ dependence on human workers.
Dispensing With People
“The engine is much more tractable and civil than the hod-man,” Edward Tufnell, a member of the Factories Enquiry of 1833, wrote. “Easier managed, keeps good hours, drinks no whiskey and is never tired.”
Thus, Malm asserted, capital’s switch from water to coal and even later to oil resulted fundamentally from an attempt to dispense with the services of human workers to the greatest possible extent. “Some humans introduced steam power against the explicit resistance of other humans,” he wrote.
On @NaomiAKlein, Andreas Malm's Fossil Capital and #COP21 at @ppesydney https://t.co/Nz0VesOMHW https://t.co/RTPFx8QNVQ— Verso Books (@Verso Books)1449159814.0
Workers were aware of this from the beginning. The millions who flocked to northern British cities, dispossessed by enclosures of formerly public lands, nonetheless hated the factories.
Scotsmen, Malm noted, viewed factories as prisons—and for good reason: the average temperature inside a steam-powered textile factory was 84 to 94 degrees Fahrenheit (about 29 to 34 degrees Celsius).
Levels of carbon dioxide in the air could reach 2,800 parts per million—ten times the atmospheric levels at the time. The faster the mill owners pushed their machines, the more boiler explosions occurred, killing nearly one person per day in the 1850s.
But labor was eventually crushed with the aid of government soldiers. Coal was king and the rest is history. This should be a cautionary tale for the present—if government allies with capital rather than the citizenry, Malm asserted, there will be no stopping climate change.
The grandiose schemes for geo-engineering and other technical fixes bankrolled by the likes of Bill Gates, the major oil companies and the American Enterprise Institute, said Malm, would keep mitigation in the wrong hands—and in any case are too dangerous to try.
Insisting that the real authors of the climate crisis comprise a tiny, all-male, all-white fraction of the planet’s population, Malm objected to calling this the Anthropocene epoch. He would rather call it the “Capitalocene.” And capital, he insisted, is not capable of solving the crisis it created.
What we need instead, he wrote, is a return to "the flow": distributed solar, wind and water power. Moreover, in order to avoid severe damage to civilization, we need to abandon carbon immediately. This can be accomplished only by intentional and decisive governmental action.
The governments that are doing best at this, Malm observed, are state and city governments, which have no obligation to generate profits and are not owned by big capital.
Malm recognized that “socialism is an excruciatingly difficult condition to achieve.” He’s not envisioning a new Stalinist nightmare to replace runaway capital. For one thing, Malm observed, capitalist ideology is so deeply ingrained in society that, quoting Marxist theorist Fredric Jameson, “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.”
Still, he says, people must try at least to modify free-range capitalism, echoing the cries of workers who challenged capital in the world’s first general strike in 1842: “Go and stop the smoke!”
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By Dr. Kate Raynes-Goldie
Of all the plastic we've ever produced, only 9% has been recycled. So what happened to all that plastic you've put in the recycling bin over the years?
Triangle of Mistruths<p>The myth created around plastic recycling has been one of simplicity. We look for the familiar triangle arrows, then pop the waste in the recycling bin so it can be reused.</p><p>But the true purpose of those triangles has been misunderstood by the general public ever since their invention in the 1980s.</p><p>These triangles were actually created by the plastics industry and, according to a report provided to them in July 1993, <a href="https://www.npr.org/transcripts/912150085" target="_blank">were creating "unrealistic expectations"</a> about what could be recycled. But they decided to keep using the codes.</p><p>Which is why many people still believe that these triangular symbols (also known as a <a href="https://sustainablepackaging.org/101-resin-identification-codes/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">resin identifier code</a> or RIC) means something is recyclable.</p><p>But according to the American Society for Testing and Materials International (ASTM) – which controls the RIC system – the numbered triangles "<a href="https://www.astm.org/Standards/D7611.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">are not recycle codes</a>." In fact, they weren't created for the general public at all. They were made for the post-consumer plastic industry.</p><p>In other words, the symbols make it easier to sort the different types of plastics, some of which cannot be recycled – <a href="https://www.ecobin.com.au/understand-recycling-codes/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">depending on the recycling facility</a>.</p><p>"Unfortunately, just placing your plastic into the recycling bin doesn't mean it will get recycled," says Lara Camilla Pinho. She is an architect and lecturer at the UWA School of Design who is researching novel uses of plastic waste.</p><p>"The recycling system is complicated and often dictated by market demand. Not all plastic is recyclable. We cannot recycle plastic bags or straws for example."</p>
Behind the Scenes<p>So, what makes recycling plastics so difficult?</p><p>"Essentially, there are two types of plastics – thermoplastics and thermosets. While thermoplastics can be re-melted and re-molded, thermosets contain cross-linked polymers that cannot be separated meaning they cannot be recycled," says Lara.</p><p>"Even thermoplastics have a limit to the amount of times we can recycle them, as each time they are recycled they downgrade in quality."</p><p>Even when plastics are recyclable, it is <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/oct/13/war-on-plastic-waste-faces-setback-as-cost-of-recycled-material-soars" target="_blank">often more costly</a> than simply making new plastics.</p>
Sugar, Seaweed and Mushrooms<p>If the conventional recycling system isn't working, what else can we do with all the plastic we've created?</p><p>Lara is looking for ways to add value to recycled plastics such as using it in the design and development of architectural products. She hopes to use these architectural products to help underserved communities that are disproportionately affected by plastic waste.</p><p>In addition to recycling, we also need to find ways to reduce our use of virgin petroleum-based plastics.</p><p>Bioplastic is one such product that has been getting a lot of hype over the last few years. And although they're better than petroleum-based plastics, bioplastics also come with their own <a href="https://phys.org/news/2017-12-truth-bioplastics.html" target="_blank">set of challenges</a>.</p><p>"There are already a lot of bio-based alternatives to plastic, such as bagasse – a byproduct of sugar cane processing," says Lara.</p><p><a href="https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/the-mycelium-revolution-is-upon-us/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Mycelium</a>, a type of fungi we most often associate with mushrooms, are also providing an interesting plastic alternative.</p><p>"In the field of architecture, mycelium is starting to be used as an alternative to plastic insulation, but also as compostable packaging and bricks," says Lara.</p><p>"The bricks take around five days to make and are strong, durable, water resistant and compostable at the end of their use."</p><p><a href="https://www.arup.com/news-and-events/hyfi-reinvents-the-brick" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Hy-Fi Tower</a>, created by <a href="http://www.thelivingnewyork.com/living_about.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">The Living</a>, is an example of a building made from these bricks.</p><p>And finally, there's seaweed.</p><p>"[Seaweed is] cheap and can reproduce itself quickly without fertilizers. In architecture, there is use for seaweed as an alternative to plastic insulation but also as cladding," says Lara.</p>
More Money, More Problems<p>While all these alternatives are great, the main cause of our plastic dilemma is not scientific or technological, but economic.</p><p>As long as it remains <a href="https://engineering.mit.edu/engage/ask-an-engineer/why-is-it-cheaper-to-make-new-plastic-bottles-than-to-recycle-old-ones/" target="_blank">cheaper to create new plastics</a> from fossil fuels rather than from bioplastics or from recycling, we're going to be stuck with plastic garbage islands floating in our oceans.</p><p>The true cost to our health and our environment has yet to be included in the equation. But once it is, maybe that is when the real shift will happen.</p>
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As concern mounts over the impacts of climate change, many experts are calling for greater use of electricity as a substitute for fossil fuels. Powered by advancements in battery technology, the number of plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles on U.S. roads is increasing. And utilities are generating a growing share of their power from renewable fuels, supported by large-scale battery storage systems.