Chris Harman

In Perspective

Slump, boom and climate change

(March 2009)

From Socialist Review, March 2009.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

From the European Union to Barack Obama, promises have been made to give priority to a “green agenda”. In reality, they are using the recession to go into reverse

A recent, bad TV programme made one interesting point – that devastating transformations in the climate, as a result of the apparently slow build up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, will hit people at some point with the same suddenness as the economic crisis that is now sweeping the world.

Its weak argument was that it was only in recent years with the development of chaos and complexity theories that it had become possible to understand why market economies suddenly go into crisis. Yet Karl Marx, whose mathematics did not go much beyond a basic understanding of calculus, grasped the reasons back in the late 1840s.

Marx explained in his economic writings how the mad drive of capitalists to accumulate capital in competition with each other – what he calls “the self-expansion of capitals” – results in crises. But Marx did not limit his denunciation of capitalism to the fact that it causes slumps. In Capital he also pointed out how it is threatening the very thing on which human life depends – our metabolic interchange with the rest of nature.

Marx gained this insight from an analysis of the destructive effect of capitalist agriculture on soil fertility. It was an insight that was often forgotten in the century after his death when fully developed capitalism only existed on a small part of the globe, and the ecological destructiveness was not nearly as visible as capitalism’s slumps and wars.

Today capitalism dominates the whole earth, and local forms of ecological damage are now global ones. Climate change is by far the most serious.

All major governments now recognise the danger it poses. Most are promoting their bailout packages for capitalists stricken by the crisis as a way of increasing energy efficiency and saving the climate. One sort of capitalist crisis, the slump, is apparently going to be the answer to another sort of capitalist crisis – ecological destruction.

But the talk is still just talk. The “green agenda” featured very heavily in Barack Obama’s pre-inauguration promises. But it features very lightly in the stimulus package he has agreed with congress, with water and energy getting a mere 7 percent of total spending.

The European Union committed itself in 2007 to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent, but special pleading from businesses led to the realisable target falling as low as 4 percent.

There are handouts everywhere to the auto multinationals. The aim? To keep them capable of making as many cars as before in the hope of the market picking up, even though if it does there will be hardly any reduction in greenhouse gases – especially since biofuels, the most popular alternative to petrol and diesel, are at least as harmful to the climate.

The threat of climate change cannot be dealt with by just piecemeal amendment to existing patterns of production and consumption. It requires a radical transformation of them.

What is needed is not the revival of industries that by their very nature add to greenhouse gases, but the use of the skills in these industries to produce transportation systems that get people to and from their places of work and leisure with minimal production of such gases.

Similarly, the vast amount of energy used to heat homes, offices and factories could be reduced with a free emergency insulation programme for every house. This would give work to unemployed construction workers and train up hundreds of thousands more.

Such transformations do not, as many in the green movement imagine, require a cut in people’s real standards of living. But they do require investment. Such investment is the one thing that major sections of capitalism are not interested in as the global economy slumps.

They look over their shoulder at the global competition they face and opt to try to extract as much as they can from old plants and technology, regardless of the environmental consequences. Even the New Labour adviser on climate change, Lord Stern, admits recession makes those who invest “sensitive to cost increases”.

So called “green power firms” such as Siemens, Clipper Windpower and BP are cutting down on their alternative energy projects.

Marx described how blind the drive of capitalists to keep ahead of each other is. “In every stock jobbing swindle everyone knows that some time or other the crash must come, but everyone hopes that it may fall on the head of his neighbour. Après moi le deluge! [After me, the flood!] is the watchword of every capitalist and of every capitalist nation.”

What applies to the economy applies to the environment. Governments and individual capitalists may be able to see where the pumping out of greenhouse gases is leading, but not one of them is going to sacrifice their own competitiveness to take the necessary countermeasures – even though what comes afterwards will literally be floods in Bangladesh, the Nile Delta, and eventually, London.

To say green investment makes sense in a recession is right, but it is not capitalist sense. People can see better public transport as an alternative to cars. They can see massive insulation programmes as logical at a time of soaring heating bills. And jobs in insulation schemes and alternative energy programmes offer more to construction workers threatened with redundancy than blaming foreign workers who face the same plight. But it is not capitalism that is going to make those alternatives real – it is the struggle against capitalism.

Last updated on 27 December 2009