On the 28th June The Observer, carried a report from Brussels by its Political Editor, Toby Helm under the bold headline The migrant crisis, Islamist terrorism, Grexit and Brexit: a perfect storm of crises blows apart European unity. This list simply embraced the events of the preceding few days that had claimed attention in Europe – the “Four Crises Facing the EU”. Such is the volatility of the times we are living through that when this article reaches its readers in about twelve days from now any comments on the European crises may be quite out of date, though each of them is very important and deserves detailed consideration. Toby Helm might have included the one global crisis beside which the others, for all their enormity and urgency, may seem less important: global warming and climate change. In reality all the crises are related, though perhaps not obviously causally connected. Why is it, though, that there is still such a deep reluctance to recognize that global warming resulting from human activity poses an existential threat to life on the planet? It is not as though the facts are not known, that scientific research has reached no conclusions or that the arguments between climate scientists and climate change deniers is evenly balanced. The evidence is overwhelming and the deniers’ counter-claims are as insidious as those of Holocaust deniers and as ludicrous as belief that the earth is flat.
Put bluntly the world faces the very real threat of an ecological catastrophe in the form of uncontrollable and irreversible global warming. The threat is not for some far distant future beyond our imagining, but by as early as the middle of the present century. In 2006 Lord Stern, Chair of the Centre for Climate Change Economics, forecast that by mid century there was a 75% likelihood that global temperatures were set to rise by 2 – 3 degrees centigrade above the long-term average. By 2013 he had revised his forecast to the likelihood of a global temperature rise of 4c – 5c. Anything above 2c would be extremely dangerous; 4c – 5c would be catastrophic. In the approach to the Paris climate conference in December the same optimistic voices are raised as preceded all previous negotiations about the need for international co-operation to deal with global warming. But the indications are that despite all the solemn commitments to take the problem seriously, nothing more substantial than good intentions will come out of it. World Bank president Jim Yong Kim’s approach is hardly re-assuring: “We have to find climate friendly ways of encouraging economic growth”, he said, adding “The good news is that we think they exist.” We shall see whether they do. What will be the likely consequences of failure to keep below the tipping-point level of a 2c rise? A 4c rise by 2050 would result in the following:
* Catastrophic floods affecting millions. Up to 200 million permanently displaced
* Rising sea levels, heavier floods and droughts
* A rise of 4c would have a serious impact on global food production
* A rise of 2c could result in 15% - 40% of species facing extinction
In a recent article Guardian columnist George Monbiot exposed a glaring contradiction in the stance of the British government‘s supposed commitment to tackle climate change and global warming. The government has an obligation under the 2008 Climate Change Act to minimise Britain’s greenhouse gas emissions. But the Infrastructure Act, 2015, will commit successive governments to “maximising the economic recovery of UK petroleum” which inevitably entails helping to maximise greenhouse gas emissions. This is an eye-opener about how seriously we should take Cameron’s earlier self-proclaimed green credentials. But it is more alarming than that. It exposes the disconnect between lip-service paid by governments and the corporate giants of the fossil fuel extractive industries to combat global warming, and their unrestrained drive to continue exploiting the world’s carbon deposits in the interests of promoting economic growth and maximising their own profits. George Marshall, author of Don’t Even Think About It, reveals that during all the international negotiations on climate change there has never been a single debate, nor even a position-paper presented, on limiting fossil fuel production. And yet, if targets to which governments are committed are to stand any chance of being met, 80% of the world’s current fossil fuel reserves need to stay in the ground. According to Christopher Hayes, writing in The Nation, (April 23. 2014), what stands in the way of this happening is not climate change denial, but money. Those reserves are valued at $20 trillion. There is huge investment in the fossil fuel industries based on the assumption that extraction of the resources will proceed unhindered. Thus, opposed to the necessary effective action required to keep the fossil fuels in the ground stand the combined power and wealth of the huge trans-national extractive industries. In order to act decisively in the interest of future generations and the planet’s survival as a fit place for human beings, the political and economic elites who rule much of world, would need to take on those industries whose operations have polluted the atmosphere and continue to pollute at an accelerated rate the wider and more extensively their operations take them.
This Changes Everything: Capitalism versus the Environment
The publication of Naomi Klein’s widely acclaimed book This Changes Everything, has led to much controversy. More unequivocally than in her earlier books, No Logo (2000) and The Shock Doctrine (2007) she makes clear that capitalism itself rather than any particular variant of the system is the core of the problem. This is evident in the sub-title she has chosen: Capitalism versus the Environment. In taking this bold stand she has thrown down the gauntlet to all those, who, for whatever reasons , claim that it is possible to stop the drive towards the ecological precipice without fundamentally changing the mode of production that led to industry-driven global warming in the first place and has driven it to its present critical stage. It is as well to stress this point because among the many who dissent from her conclusions are liberals who will go along with much of what she says. Among them are those who choose to believe (and may be sincere in their belief) that while capitalism in its neo-liberal form, “red in tooth and claw”, that cares for nothing but the market, growth and endless accumulation, stands condemned, an alternative “good” capitalism is still waiting in the wings to replace it. The tiger of “neo-liberalism” can still be tamed into the reliable work-horse of well-managed, well-regulated economic efficiency – capitalism “with a human face.”
The evidence of the last thirty years, and particularly since the adoption of the Kyoto Protocol (U.N. Convention of Climate Change – UNCC ) in 1997 requiring signatories to reduce CO 2 emissions into the atmosphere to a level “that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system”, gives scant grounds for confidence. Canada withdrew from the Protocol in 2012, the US hasn’t ratified it; Japan, New Zealand and Russia participated in the first round but have not accepted the second round targets. Other participants have either withdrawn from the Protocol or threatened to do so. Faced with more than thirty years of political failure to take the climate crisis seriously, it is time to face the facts and warnings that climate science no longer allows us to avoid. It is also necessary to confront the inescapable truth of Naomi Klein’s message: the future of life on earth is no longer compatible with the long-term survival of capitalism.
The Liberal Illusion
The main charge levelled against Naomi Klein by her liberal critics is that she has succumbed to “utopianism.” Capitalism, they tell us, is “the only game in town.” To imagine that a fundamentally different economic system, namely, some form of socialism, can replace it is to live in cloud cuckoo land. Since the collapse between 1989 and 1992 of the Soviet Union and the eastern European states associated with it, in one way or another the sweeping claim made by Francis Fukuyama that what he regarded as the triumph of liberal democracy marked “the end of history”, has been embraced by many western liberal intellectuals. In their view whatever criticisms may be made of the modus operandi of the neo-liberal variant of capitalism, there is no possibility of any alternative to capitalism as such. Fukuyama claimed that the world had reached “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” Whatever qualifications he and his acolytes may now care to put on the confident certainties of his assertions in the light of the great financial crash of 2008 and the subsequent descent into chaos of much of the Middle East, Asia and Africa following the disastrous western military invasions undertaken in the name of “liberal interventionism”, the ruling classes of world capitalism hold fast to their unassailable belief that there can be no alternative to the prevailing system. Anyone who should seriously argue that an alternative is not only possible, but essential if we are to avoid a descent into barbarism and global disaster may expect to be accused of advocating Stalinism and the restoration of the Soviet command economy and the gulag. Determination to trash any movement or government that presents a serious challenge to the disastrous and failed austerity policies imposed throughout much of the EU, may be seen in the current attempt to undermine and sweep from power the Syriza government in Greece. Similar treatment is meted out to prominent left wing opponents of austerity in Britain. Jeremy Corbyn, the only seriously left wing candidate for the leadership of the Labour party is now being subjected to ridicule and personal attack. The assumption is always that anyone who poses a real challenge to corporate power is either an immature dreamer or a dangerous would-be dictator.
But we are confronted with the realities of armed conflict engulfing more and more countries and people, of ever-growing and unmanageable mass migrations of people, of the terrible destruction wreaked by the descent into barbarism of various kinds, and the reality of ecological despoliation and pollution from anthropogenic global warming and climate change. Faced with these realities it is difficult to imagine anything more utopian than the liberal belief that somehow the world can and will move from this situation to a benign form of capitalism that will abandoned what has always been the locomotive of the system, its raison d’etre - the inexorable drive to accumulate, vividly expressed by Marx in the phrase “Accumulate, accumulate! That is Moses and the prophets.” It seems to be in the nature of defenders of capitalism to be wilfully blind to any possibility that the system will eventually be superseded, that like earlier modes of production from the earliest human civilizations, it will eventually succumb to its own internal contradictions, irresolvable within the system. Until the clear evidence presented by the climate crisis, it was possible to believe that the capitalist economic system, through its remarkable ability to innovate, might continue into the distant future – perhaps for a century or more. It is now impossible to believe this. Naomi Klein’s book helps us understand why.
This Changes Everything is not an easy book to read and it is not comforting. It is thoroughly and meticulously researched. It does not offer the reader any easy answers to the crisis it deals with and because the author has reached the conclusion that only an ecological revolution can guarantee a future for humanity and for the whole ecosystem. This means that Naomi Klein compels us honestly to face the facts and to address the crucial challenge posed without equivocation or evasion: during the next few decades global temperature increases must be kept below the tipping point of 2 degrees centigrade and must not increase thereafter; but the inexorable drive of the fossil fuel extractive industries is set to take global temperatures over the tipping point. Therefore this drive to disaster must be stopped. 80% of existing fossil fuels must be kept in the ground.
Her book is not just an academic treatise; it is a call to action. Hers is a powerful, compelling voice, well informed from intensive research but more particularly from her involvement with numerous activist movements throughout the world fighting the fossil fuel extractive industries. She gives vivid accounts of the horrors of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and its devastating effect of marine life; she exposes the real cost to communities and the environment of hydraulic fracturing of the earth’s crust for the production of shale gas; the pollution of water systems through the toxic methods of extraction the frackers use but are keen to conceal in their mendacious claims that the resultant dirt and pollution caused are minimal and manageable. She has worked with indigenous peoples in Canada and elsewhere in support of their struggles to protect their ancestral lands from the despoilers and polluters and she has learned much from them. She devotes part of her book to a plea to respect the earth, to stop treating it solely as a source to be exploited for profit. And she leaves us in no doubt that nothing short of mass movements of engaged and determined humanity will be capable of turning the tide against the forces of fossil fuel extractive industries that use, and will continue to use, their wealth, power and influence to disarm any opposition to their operations.
Climate Change and the Left
The emergence of climate change as the one most important issue facing humanity seems to have posed something of a conundrum for some on the radical left. For many years the various branches of the Green movement that have campaigned on environmental issues tend to have been either ignored by the left or treated as well-meaning but basically bourgeois groups who are insufficiently engaged with or concerned about what are regarded as more important and burning political issues. And it is true that many Green campaigners have often been detached from such struggles. But as it has become ever more apparent that climate change can no longer be ignored, there has been a tendency for some of the more sectarian sections of the left to continue turning a blind eye to it. There is no doubt that in Britain at least many of the different, often sectarian groups on what might be loosely termed the Marxist left still adopt a holier-than-thou attitude to the various campaigns against global warming. In Britain many of those describing themselves as Marxists are still pre-occupied with the need to build a vanguard party. Each one of perhaps half a dozen such groups, mostly counting their membership in the low hundreds, calls itself a political party. There are at least four “Communist Parties” and two of those, in deep contention with each other, describe themselves as “Marxist-Leninist”. It is reasonable to assume that such sectarian groups are far more preoccupied with “building the vanguard party” than with global warming. Perhaps little more needs to be said about them, or, perhaps too much has been saidalready.
There is a serious discussion to be had about the relevance of Lenin and Leninism today. But if Lenin were alive he would probably be either dismayed or slightly amused at the way his legacy is being treated by the sectarians. Lenin’s theoretical work on the nature of the revolutionary party can only be properly understood in the context of his time – in the years leading to and immediately following the 1905 revolution in Russia. There is no “Leninist theory of the Party” cast in aspic for all times. He himself recognized this when he said of the mass uprisings of 1905, “the masses are today spontaneously social-democratic” – i.e. revolutionary. What united Lenin and the Bolsheviks with Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht was their understanding that revolution was inconceivable without the participation of the masses. Many Marxist-Leninists internationally were in denial about the socialist character of the Cuban revolution in 1959 and 1960 despite the mass participation of the people, because it did not follow the prescribed course laid out in the text books. The Cuban Communist Party (PSP) did not support the guerrilla struggle led by Fidel Castro and therefore most Cuban communists refused to accept that it could have been a socialist revolution as the PSP wasn’t leading it. The participation of the masses means more than large numbers of people passively following great leaders. It means thousands and hundreds of thousands of people, men and women from the poorest and most exploited classes acting with others less oppressed but joined with them in adversity, united together to change conditions that have become intolerable. If the struggle to prevent catastrophic global warming is to succeed such movements as this are essential. If they fail to develop or do not succeed, the prospects for the long term future are bleak.
But This Changes Everything ends on a positive, optimistic note. Naomi Klein believes, rationally, that there is still time. She makes no claim to being a revolutionary leader, not because she is not a revolutionary. On the evidence of her book, she is. But in a way that doesn’t matter. This is not a question of the purity of one’s Marxist credentials. In very different circumstances Fidel Castro was not a Marxist-Leninist when he led a successful revolutionary struggle against the Batista dictatorship in Cuba nearly sixty years ago that developed into a socialist revolution. What matters, and what makes Naomi Klein’s contribution so important, is that her book has the power to inspire us to action. And, like all good revolutionaries, she not only clarifies the issues and points to what must be done; she puts herself in the thick of the action and identifies with the struggles of the mass movements that are becoming active. Her book is not a handbook for revolutionaries. But, just as Lenin’s What is To Be Done? challenged those prepared for action or engaging in action to change society, to consider the question posed in the title, so her book This Changes Everything challenges us to think seriously about what the title means, and, once we have understood it, to act to secure a better future for humanity.