April 2014        

“Industrial civilisation headed for collapse”

Did anyone read about the study partly funded by NASA that says “industrial civilisation is headed for irreversible collapse”? It was reported in the Guardian (London) in March.*
      Reading through the article, I couldn’t but wonder how I had heard all this before. Was it on RTE; maybe the BBC or Sky?—No, I don’t think so. The Sun, the Times, or the Independent?—No, not quite. Maybe it was a woman in front of a television camera telling me about the imminent collapse of western civilisation, appealing for help?—No, definitely not.
      Then it dawned on me—of course, how did I not see this before! It has been a guiding principle of the communist movement since the time of Marx and Engels. I couldn’t believe it: there it was in black and white.
      For me the title could just have easily read “Socialism or barbarism.” For this was the basic conclusion of the interdisciplinary research project carried out by a team of applied mathematicians and natural and social scientists. Given that this was a study set up by the US government (though NASA has explained that the conclusions in the paper are those of the authors alone and not of NASA), some people might be very sceptical of its findings. Well, the best thing to do will be to lay out some of the main findings and for people to make their own judgement.
      [1] “The project identifies the most salient interrelated factors which explain civilisational decline, and which may help determine the risk of collapse today: namely, Population, Climate, Water, Agriculture, and Energy.”
      [2] “These factors can lead to collapse when they converge to generate two crucial social features: ‘the stretching of resources due to the strain placed on the ecological carrying capacity’; and ‘the economic stratification of society into Elites and Masses (or ‘Commoners’).”
      [3] “. . . accumulated surplus is not evenly distributed throughout society, but rather has been controlled by an elite. The mass of the population, while producing the wealth, is only allocated a small portion of it by elites, usually at or just above subsistence levels.”
      [4] “While some members of society might raise the alarm that the system is moving towards an impending collapse and therefore advocate structural changes to society in order to avoid it, Elites and their supporters, who opposed making these changes, could point to the long sustainable trajectory so far in support of doing nothing.”
      [5] “Collapse can be avoided and population can reach equilibrium if the per capita rate of depletion of nature is reduced to a sustainable level, and if resources are distributed in a reasonably equitable fashion.”
      If we were to substitute such terms as bourgeoisie, proletariat, working class, class struggle for “accumulation, exploitation, socialisation of the main means of production,” then all of a sudden this turns into a loaded document that strikes at the core of the capitalist system.
      In a way it does so by the very fact that it clearly states the two main reasons for the impending crisis of industrial civilisation: “the stretching of resources due to the strain placed on the ecological carrying capacity and the economic stratification of society into Elites and Masses,” or, as we would describe it, the stratification of society into two main classes, those who own the means of production (the bourgeoisie) and those who must sell their labour power (the proletariat or working class).
      The language used is very academic—not surprisingly—but the Marxist sentiment, whether by accident or design, is certainly present. Being an academic paper, it doesn’t pretend to give any guidance on the changes needed to avoid a collapse, just that it can be avoided if the “rate of depletion of nature is reduced to a sustainable level, and if resources are distributed in a reasonably equitable fashion.”
      Marxist publications such as Monthly Review, Marxism-Leninism Today and the CPI’s Socialist Voice have long insisted that the crisis of the environment, the depletion of resources and the uneven distribution of wealth are due to the very nature of the capitalist system. For the system to survive it needs continuous growth: it needs to expand into old and new markets. Once it has usurped and extracted resources, both raw materials and labour, it must find new sources and new armies of workers to exploit.
      The raison d’être of the capitalist system is the creation of profit. The trajectory of capitalist industries over the past century and a half has been the monopolisation of competitive industries, negating any theoretically utopian capitalist idea of markets being fully competitive and thus being the most efficient system of allocating resources. The benefits of free trade and competition were to be a reward for consumers and society, with prices dropping to an equilibrium point, which meant that companies wouldn’t earn long-term profits but would cover their cost for production, reproduction, and wages.
      However, a system designed to maximise profit means that competition will always drive towards monopoly, cartels and collusion as profits and super-profits are extracted most in monopoly firms. This in turn makes those companies price-makers (with the price set by the firm) rather than price-takers (with the price set by the market), thus allowing for a greater proportion of the wealth created by society to be distributed to the owners and shareholders of firms, rather than to the workers or the general population.
      Without having a say in what firms should and should not produce, without accountability or sanctions on companies that do exploit and do pollute the environment, without democratic structures in the work-place as well as in local and central government, without public ownership of the main means of production, and without a system of cross-subsidisation to finance non-profitable industries and services, R&D, and renewable energy systems—in short, without a planned economy—industrial civilisation is headed for an irreversible collapse.
      This may seem very Doomsdayish; however, this scientific research should not be passed off as irrelevant, or given a typical Irish response: Ah, sure it’ll be grand. It is we, the ordinary people and the billions of us sharing the planet, who will be hit first, beginning in the poorest parts of the world.
      The study suggests that the elite, because of their wealth, will be the last to feel the effect of this collapse, as they will be best insulated from the economic and environmental catastrophes and so will be the most reluctant to change the system. So, in the end, we are really only left with the choice of barbarism or socialism.
      Social democracy and other ideas of bourgeois democracy will only lead us up a blind alley. This is not a time for anarchy but for the tightest organisation of workers into disciplined sections of the working class to challenge and overthrow the power of an elite who are willing to sacrifice modern civilisation to keep their lion’s share of the wealth created by society.
      I believe it is only within the revolutionary communist and workers’ movements that a collapse can be avoided—if the rate of depletion of nature per capita is reduced to a sustainable level, and if resources are distributed in a reasonably equitable fashion; because only a planned economy, with the socialisation and public ownership and control of the main means of production, which is at the core of the ideas of the communist movement, has the capacity to deal with the monumental task ahead in a systematic fashion.


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