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!”
YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE
- Climate Change Will Be Sudden and Cataclysmic Unless We Act Now ›
- There's a Heatwave at the Arctic 'Doomsday Vault' - EcoWatch ›
- Marine Heatwaves Destroy Ocean Ecosystems Like Wildfires ... ›
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Aaron W Hunter
A chance discovery of a beautifully preserved fossil in the desert landscape of Morocco has solved one of the great mysteries of biology and paleontology: how starfish evolved their arms.
The Pompeii of palaeontology. Aaron Hunter, Author provided<h2></h2><p>Although starfish might appear very robust animals, they are typically made up of lots of hard parts attached by ligaments and soft tissue which, upon death, quickly degrade. This means we rely on places like the Fezouata formations to provide snapshots of their evolution.</p><p>The starfish fossil record is patchy, especially at the critical time when many of these animal groups first appeared. Sorting out how each of the various types of ancient starfish relate to each other is like putting a puzzle together when many of the parts are missing.</p><h2>The Oldest Starfish</h2><p><em><a href="https://www.biorxiv.org/content/10.1101/216101v1.full.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Cantabrigiaster</a></em> is the most primitive starfish-like animal to be discovered in the fossil record. It was discovered in 2003, but it has taken over 17 years to work out its true significance.</p><p>What makes <em>Cantabrigiaster</em> unique is that it lacks almost all the characteristics we find in brittle stars and starfish.</p><p>Starfish and brittle stars belong to the family Asterozoa. Their ancestors, the Somasteroids were especially fragile - before <em>Cantabrigiaster</em> we only had a handful of specimens. The celebrated Moroccan paleontologist Mohamed <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.palaeo.2016.06.041" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Ben Moula</a> and his local team was instrumental in discovering <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0031018216302334?via%3Dihub" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">these amazing fossils</a> near the town of Zagora, in Morocco.</p><h2>The Breakthrough</h2><p>Our breakthrough moment came when I compared the arms of <em>Cantabrigiaster</em> with those of modern sea lilles, filter feeders with long feathery arms that tend to be attached to the sea floor by a stem or stalk.</p><p>The striking similarity between these modern filter feeders and the ancient starfish led our team from the University of Cambridge and Harvard University to create a new analysis. We applied a biological model to the features of all the current early Asterozoa fossils in existence, along with a sample of their closest relatives.</p>
Cantabrigiaster is the most primitive starfish-like animal to be discovered in the fossil record. Aaron Hunter, Author provided<p>Our results demonstrate <em>Cantabrigiaster</em> is the most primitive of all the Asterozoa, and most likely evolved from ancient animals called crinoids that lived 250 million years before dinosaurs. The five arms of starfish are a relic left over from these ancestors. In the case of <em>Cantabrigiaster</em>, and its starfish descendants, it evolved by flipping upside-down so its arms are face down on the sediment to feed.</p><p>Although we sampled a relatively small numbers of those ancestors, one of the unexpected outcomes was it provided an idea of how they could be related to each other. Paleontologists studying echinoderms are often lost in detail as all the different groups are so radically different from each other, so it is hard to tell which evolved first.</p>
- Biden Reaffirms Commitment to Rejoining Paris Agreement ... ›
- Biden Likely Plans to Cancel Keystone XL Pipeline on Day One ... ›
- Joe Biden Appoints Climate Crisis Team - EcoWatch ›
Listen:<iframe style="border: none" src="//html5-player.libsyn.com/embed/episode/id/17278520/height/45/theme/standard/thumbnail/yes/direction/backward/" height="45" width="100%" scrolling="no" allowfullscreen webkitallowfullscreen mozallowfullscreen oallowfullscreen msallowfullscreen></iframe><p><em>Reposted with permission from </em><em><a href="https://yaleclimateconnections.org/2021/01/college-course-teaches-students-how-to-be-climate-leaders/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Yale Climate Connections</a>.</em></p>
By Daniel Raichel
Industry would have us believe that pesticides help sustain food production — a necessary chemical trade-off for keeping harmful bugs at bay and ensuring we have enough to eat. But the data often tell a different story—particularly in the case of neonicotinoid pesticides, also known as neonics.
- Bees Face 'a Perfect Storm' — Parasites, Air Pollution and Other ... ›
- European Top Court Upholds French Ban on Bee-Harming Pesticides ›
- UK Allows Emergency Use of Bee-Killing Pesticide - EcoWatch ›