“Mankind thus inevitably sets itself only such tasks as it is able to solve,
since closer examination will always show that the task itself arises only when
the material conditions for its solution are already present, or at least in
the process of formation.” Karl Marx (From Preface
to the Critique of Political Economy, 1859).
This optimistic claim made by Marx more than 150 years ago comes to mind when considering what is, without doubt, the biggest, most pressing question facing humankind today: is it still possible in the next few decades to prevent the planet from irreversibly overheating to a degree that will render it incapable in the longer-term future of sustaining any meaningful form of human life or society? Looking at this apocalyptic prospect in the light of Marx’s claim, we might ask whether this is a task that mankind will be able to solve. It is worth noting that the materialist interpretation of history and critique of capitalism does not postulate any historically determined “inevitable” outcomes. The fact that mankind “inevitably” sets itself “only such tasks as it is able to solve” does not mean that such tasks will inevitably be solved. To prevent man-made global warming becoming catastrophic it will be necessary to cap the increase in temperatures to no more than 2C during this century. To ensure that mankind has a future, this is essential and it is a task that mankind may still be able to accomplish. But it is looking increasingly doubtful that it will happen. The survival of mankind and the ecosphere that sustains all life is threatened, not by the human species, but by powerful $ multi-billion global corporations, including the biggest fossil fuel companies, who bear the main responsibility for man-made global warming. Their interests pay little attention to the survival of humanity. Their overriding interest was also expressed succinctly by Marx nearly 150 years ago: “Accumulate, accumulate! That is Moses and the Prophets!” (Capital. Volume 1, Chapter 24. 1867).
The reality and urgency of the problem has been highlighted in a recently published report, Unburnable Carbon 2013, produced by the Carbon Tracker Initiative and the LSE’s Grantham Research Institute. The stark choice to which the report draws attention is this: The world’s governments are supposed to be committed to containing the rise in global warming at no more than 2C; either this target is met or climate change will become uncontrollable and the planet will burn. But the world’s top 200 fossil-fuel companies are sitting on reserves of coal, oil and gas representing total C02 emissions of 745 Gt (billion tons), with an inflated stock market value of $4 trillion. If policy-makers for the world’s governments are serious about tackling man-made global warming, only about 20% of these reserves will be burned; 80% will be unusable and rendered worthless. Just as happened with the unsustainable financial bubble that burst in 2008, the carbon bubble continues to inflate unabated. If the planet is not to be allowed to burn, the fossil-fuels must remain in the ground and the bubble will burst with global consequences far more devastating than the crash of 2008. One of the report’s authors, Lord Nicholas Stern of the London School of Economics, remarked that “The financial crisis has shown what happens when risks accumulate unnoticed.” Is there any real sign that investors and regulators have learned any lessons from the Great Financial Crisis? No. The top 200 companies and their investors are confidently assuming that nothing will be done to impede their drive for profit at the expense of a sustainable future. In 2012 they spent $674 billion in the search for, and exploitation of new resources. This amounted to 1% of global GDP, enough according to Stern, to meet the cost of transition to a clean, fossil-free economy. Unless decisive action is taken soon it is no longer simply alarmist to warn that predatory, finance monopoly-capitalism will destroy the world.
Fortunately, some articulate voices are now being heard warning of the threat to the planet. In the U.K., Will Hutton in The Observer and in the U.S. Naomi Klein in The Nation, have joined battle with the polluters and climate-change deniers. These prescient warnings from representatives of the Keynesian centre-left and the radical left are simply the latest in a series of excellent critical books and articles from two indefatigable campaigners for a better world. They are, understandably, not over-optimistic in their prognosis of what the future may hold. Hutton writes: “Contemporary capitalism faces both a crisis of legitimacy and effectiveness. We have been told for a generation that the self-organizing markets and business, with minimal public intervention and oversight, are the route to wealth generation, prosperity and jobs – justifying the self-serving extravagant rewards for those at the top. Bankers claimed that their actions as debt levels reached irrational levels were sound. We know differently. Now fossil fuel companies and business are saying the same about burning oil, coal and gas.”
Alarm bells are also ringing in less likely quarters. HSBC and Citbank have warned investors in fossil fuel companies that they cannot regard “business as usual” as a viable long term option, with HSBC warning investors that because of the carbon bubble up to 60% of the market capitalization of oil and gas companies was at risk. Standard and Poor rating agency warned that oil companies could have their credit ratings downgraded within a few years. But this all rests on the assumption that the rise in global temperature will be held at 2C. The $674 billion invested by the industry in the search for new resources shows that investors do not think it will.
It is hardly surprising that the politicians, bankers and CEOs of multi-billion corporations who encouraged the de-regulation and financial profligacy that led to the Great Financial Crisis, have no interest in doing anything about global warming. Most of them have ended even the pretense that they are concerned about it. Despite the near unanimous scientific evidence that global warming and climate change are the result of human activity, much of the media – especially the mass-circulation tabloids – peddle denial. This helps to encourage the widespread belief that even if global warming is occurring, it is probably not man-made and nothing can be done about it. Also, for many, the prospect of the planet irreversibly overheating is too disturbing to think about. This can result in an ostrich-like refusal to see, that is itself a kind of denial. Such an attitude is very widespread and may even be an essential defense mechanism when faced with a painful task of such magnitude that it requires an urgent collective action thought to be beyond anyone’s ability to solve. This reluctance (or refusal) to recognize the reality and likely consequences of global warming extends across the political spectrum. As this column opened with a quote from Marx, it may be worth concluding with a few observations about the way some Marxists today have responded to the challenge.
The most obvious point to be made is that generally the subject has been woefully neglected. This is a great pity because those whose political energies are supposedly devoted to working for the overthrow of capitalism and its replacement by a world fit for human habitation, can least of all afford to ignore a matter which should be absolutely central to this enterprise. But, to take just one example of this neglect, the annual “Festival of Marxism” held each summer in London, which attracts thousands of people to hundreds of lectures, barely dealt with the subject at all in 2012, when, in five days of lectures no more than two touched on it. The program for 2013 promises a few lectures on Marxism and ecological questions, but they are not prominent among the subjects highlighted.
Fortunately this is not the whole story. The U.S. independent socialist magazine Monthly Review, and the New York publishing company Monthly Review Press have, for well over a decade, been at the forefront of Marxian studies on the environment, climate change and global warming. This has been almost entirely due to the efforts of MR editor John Bellamy Foster and writers Fred Magdoff, Robert McChesney, and a few others who have produced numerous articles for the magazine and several important books such as What Every Environmentalist Needs to Know about Capitalism, Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature and The Ecological Revolution: Making Peace with the Planet. Bellamy Foster has, arguably, done more than anyone to draw attention to Marx’s and Engels’ own concerns (largely neglected by earlier Marxist writers) with the natural environment through books like Marx’s Ecology.
Monthly Review and the books published by MR Press need to be distributed and read as widely as possible to assist the development of a genuine socialist/ecological movement of the kind needed to secure the future against the drive to destruction by monopoly capitalism. The time is ripe.