October 2013        

Capitalist growth and environmental crisis

The world cannot sustain much more capitalist growth. Consensus has now emerged both that climate change is happening and that it is human-made. The recent report by the International Panel for Climate Change confirms this—and this despite its known conservative stance and its under-estimation of real threats and dangers.
     It is now 95 per cent certain—an increase from 66 per cent in 2001—that human activities, in particular the burning of fossil fuels, are responsible for climate change.
     The report stated that average temperature was likely to rise by between 0.3 and 4.8 degrees Celsius by the late twenty-first century, with other sources suggesting that it will be far closer to the 4.8°C end of this range, with sea level likely to rise by between 26 and 82 cm by the end of the century (after a 19 cm rise in the nineteenth century).
     It’s clear that we are already seeing far more “extreme” weather—so much so that it’s hard not to see it as being more the norm. The IPCC report suggests that we are in for more heat waves, floods and droughts as well as rising sea levels from melting ice-sheets that could swamp coasts and low-lying islands.
     The graph, showing temperature fluctuation over the last thousand years, shows the effect that industrial capitalism, in particular since the rise of global monopolies, has had on the earth’s temperature.
     The World Wildlife Fund has reported that average air temperature in the Arctic has increased by about 5°C over the last hundred years, melting the polar ice-caps at an incredible rate, to a point where there will be almost no summer sea ice left in the Arctic by 2020. This has severe implications—not only the loss of habitat for polar bears and seals, and the effect of this on local people, but dramatic changes to the entire northern hemisphere. The lack of a permanent ice shield will also result in even faster warming (and acidification) of the seas, the loss of other sea species, and a general acceleration of global warming.
     And climate change, of course, is only one part of a global environmental crisis. Equally important, and linked with climate change, is the manner in which production is changing the land. Change in land cover has resulted in three-quarters of ice-free land showing signs of human alteration, resulting in many environmental problems. It is the principal cause of the extinction of species, with 13 per cent of birds, 25 per cent of mammals and 41 per cent of amphibians now threatened with extinction.
     Overfishing is now commonplace, so indeed is over-use of virtually all our limited supply of resources, and this is driving increasingly desperate and in fact suicidal efforts to release oil and gas, as witness the growth and defence of hydraulic fracturing (fracking).
     The retention of biodiversity is crucial for humankind, as natural ecosystems provide many life-sustaining resources, including the pollination of food crops, soil formation, nutrient cycling, water supply, residues treatment, medical resources, and even food itself. The destruction of rainforests, particularly in Brazil, is of particular concern, as deforestation is releasing huge amounts of carbon dioxide, again speeding up climate change.
     The list of environmental concerns is growing: climate change, acidification of the sea, destruction of species, shortages of freshwater, chemical pollution of the air, water, and soil, and the exposure of humans to “extreme weather.”
     The leading climatologist and NASA scientist James Hansen says: “Global warming increases the intensity of droughts and heat waves, and thus the area of forest fires. However, because a warmer atmosphere holds more water vapour, global warming must also increase the intensity of the other extreme of the hydrological cycle—meaning heavier rains, more extreme floods, and more intense storms driven by latent heat.”
     This crisis is now undeniable by honest evaluation, and those who further explore it are increasingly coming to the conclusion that it is the capitalist mode of production, and its anarchic drive to increase profits, that is the primary force driving the subordination of the planet and its resources to its use. Our planet does not possess unlimited resources, and the misuse or over-use of these resources is having catastrophic results.
     Capitalist growth, the re-creation of capital primarily through the commodity production process, requires ever-expanding markets and consumption and more and more resources. The global market, monopoly ownership and wealth and corporate structures pit company against company and share price against share price in the fastest possible race to the bottom to increase profits.
     This system increasingly serves only the needs of a tiny global elite and sacrifices not only workers and the unemployed but our environment. Capitalism is now in direct contradiction with the survival of the planet as we know it.
     Growing numbers of the science community are realising this, which is increasing the valuable radical critique of capitalism from this quarter. Where once Marxist political economy was the domain of the social sciences, attacked and weakened since Reagan and Thatcher, it is now seeing a revival in the environmental science departments.
     Ireland needs a radical ecological movement—one that links local and global struggles to the system, one that engages with communities and trade unions and seeks to build alliances, to educate and explore campaigns that reach out to potential allies rather than alienating them.
     The world cannot sustain much more capitalist growth; yet this is the panacea of all our ills accepted by virtually every party in Dáil Éireann and by the leadership of the trade union movement. Therefore the environmental struggle against capitalism must also provide real alternative employment opportunities to workers and engage in a way that does not alienate its biggest and most crucial ally: the working class.

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