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So what’s changed?

by William Bowles • Wednesday, 30 May, 2007

It’s time for some plain speaking about the issue of climate change and capitalism and the progressive movement’s approach to the whole issue, at least in the so-called developed world. (Progressives in the developing world have more pressing needs right now which is why we have to get our act together.)

Okay, so a posse of ‘eminent’ scientists have finally given the official stamp of approval to climate change but it’s also obvious that the leading industrial nations are not prepared to bite the bullet and do what is necessary to halt the slide let alone reverse it.

Instead the advertising industry has gotten its ‘green’ act together, and with the able assistance of government, it’s mounting a massive propaganda campaign whose sole objective is to transfer the responsibility for climate change to the consumer.

The question socialists have to address is simple: What’s changed? Pre-climate-change capitalism is identical in every respect to today’s. All that has happened is that our past has finally caught up with us, which should come as no surprise to anyone who knows the slightest thing about the way capitalism works.

The fact that it might be too late to halt the changes taking place to our climate alters nothing when it comes to our approach except that is for the increased urgency of the situation.

Historically the left has viewed the ‘greens’ with suspicion and in some respects, for the right reasons. Lacking a class perspective, the environmental movement (or should it be movements?) has failed to identify the real causes of the crisis we face. Worse still, having now found an ‘ally’ in government and because it lacks a class perspective, it is now peddling the government line, especially in passing the buck to the ‘consumer’.

Indeed, it (the environmental movement) runs the risk of becoming totally complicit in the process of passing the responsibility from those who rule to working people. For the fact is that as with all crises that confront us, the issue of climate change is inextricably bound up with the way capitalism works, not merely because it is structurally incapable of making the changes necessary but also because the vested interests of the state and business are one, thus expecting them to make the necessary changes voluntarily is a pipe dream. Having coopted the environmental movement has given the state a thin, green veneer, but rub it just a little bit and the real iron core is there for all to see.

And perhaps even more important, at least in the current circumstances, it is the way the ruling elite is exploiting the havoc our political-economic system has wreaked on the planet and its peoples. Important because the state is exploiting the fears, both real and imaginary, that many people feel about the future (never mind the awful present), and, it’s a fear that the state has been quick to exploit, for example, using the euphemism of ‘energy security’.

For it is clear that regardless, the majority of people in the developed world know only too well that their relative wealth depends on the (increasing) poverty of the great majority of the planet’s people. Thus one aspect of the propaganda campaign is to link the fears of losing a position of (relative) privilege by for example, linking the ‘war on terror’ to ‘energy security’.

It should be apparent therefore, that selecting ‘fanatical Muslims’ as the focus was not a random choice given the fact that the bulk of the known oil deposits are under countries which are Muslim.

For regardless of what the propagandists say, oil is central to Western economies and has been for at least a century. Oil, not only to power its insatiable appetite for making products but also of course, to fuel the military power to take what it doesn’t own.[1]

Meanwhile, the BBC is churning out ‘green’ programmes by the fistful featuring mostly well-heeled, middle-class people living in large houses in country settings. The ‘less fortunate’ amongst us, get the ‘energy audit’ treatment or some useless wind turbine bolted onto their roofs.

Having spent decades inculcating a culture of consumption, the unfortunate populous is now being taken on a guilt trip for doing just that—consuming in gay abandon like there’s no tomorrow.

And of course, even the guilt trip is sated by consuming ‘green’ products and services. ‘Saving the environment’ has been commodified along with everything else.

For regardless, the very nature of capitalism is one of barely controlled chaos, forever hovering on the edge of crisis and very often tipping over into meltdown, driven by its imperatives to expand (that is to say, reproduce capital) without regard to the consequences, as the occupation of Iraq exemplifies.

For socialists, the issue of the destabilisation of the climate merely reinforces the view that capitalism is bad for us, thus the objective must be to link the arbitrary nature of capitalist production to its inability to produce a solution, a solution that entails a complete reorganisation of the economic basis of not just this society but the entire planet's.

The issue is simple: is capitalism capable of doing this? Judging not only by its response to the current situation but also its past record, the answer is a resounding no.

Ultimately, the issue of global warming is irrelevant to the crisis that confronts us for nothing has changed. For capitalism, it’s business as usual, it’s only how the products are sold to us that has changed. Thus the challenge of global warming is transformed into a marketing device whether it’s for ‘green’ autos or whatever other product that can have a ‘green’ label tagged onto it.

Unlike all the Armageddon movies that Hollywood churns out, in which humanity pulls together to defeat the extra-terrestrial threat, when confronted with a comparable scenario in the real world, doing the right thing by humanity escapes these champions of ‘democracy’ and ‘human rights’.

I know this sounds na´ve of me and it probably is but convening a global conference of nations at which the rich countries agree to put their vast resources at the disposal of the people of the planet, would seem, given the gravity of the situation, the obvious thing to do.

The fact that they don’t do this, or something like it, is proof enough that they are incapable of acting rationally let alone responsibly, which fact should send shudders down the spine of every right thinking person that we have these kind of people in power! Worse still, that we allow them to continue destroy our once beautiful planet.

Collectively, the planet has the resources to start changing the way we live, and by we I mean those of us in the rich, privileged 10% of the world and in the process assist those developing countries to implement sustainable economic development programmes. Damn, it’s not rocket science.

I can’t stress this point too much but it is imperative that people recognise that our political and economic elites are pathologically incapable of initiating the kinds of changes that need to be made, either now or at any time in the past. They gotta go and only we can get rid of them. And this goes for every existing political party, not merely the ‘governments’.

If nothing else, climate change has made most of us realise that we live on one, indivisible planet and that the changes taking place are planet-wide, thus only a collective, global response will suffice.

1. See my review of William Engdahl’s excellent ‘A Century of War – Anglo-American Oil Politics and the New World Order’, Pluto Books, 2004.


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