Chris Harman

Zombie Capitalism

Part Four: The Runaway System

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The New Limits of Capital

A system that undermines itself

Capitalism became a global system in the 20th century in a way it had not been before. Not only were there global markets and global finance but capitalist industry and capitalist structures of consumption arose in every region of the globe, although unevenly. As that happened a tendency noted in its embryonic form by only the most far sighted thinkers of the 19th century, including Marx and Engels, developed until by the end of the century it was visible to everyone who cared to look. This was the tendency for the system to undermine the very process of interaction with nature on which it, like every other form of human society, depended.

The most dramatic expression of this has been the way the accumulation of certain gases in the atmosphere are raising the global temperature and producing climate change.

Capitalist industry and its products always had devastating environmental effects. Observers of all sorts bemoaned the pollution of the water and atmosphere in the industrial areas of Britain in the mid-19th century. Charles Dickens wrote in 1854 of his fictional (but all too real) Coketown, “where Nature was as strongly bricked out as killing airs and gases were bricked in” [1]; Engels told of how, “Bradford lies upon the banks of a small, coal black, foulsmelling stream. On weekdays the town is enveloped in a grey cloud of coal smoke.” [2] Epidemics of cholera and typhoid would sweep through cities; tuberculosis was a curse that most working class families were acquainted with.

But the disastrous environmental effects of capitals’ blind self-expansion were local effects. It was possible to escape from the smog filled cites, the rivers so polluted that fish could not survive in them, the slag heaps and the open sewers. The bigger scale of capitalist production and accumulation in the 20th century meant bigger environmental destruction – the transformation of agricultural land into a dust bowl in parts of the US in the 1930s, the horrendous escape of gases that killed thousands in Bhopal in India in 1984, the nuclear accidents at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania and Chernobyl in Ukraine, the devastation of the lives of the people who lived around the Aral Sea as they lost two thirds of their water to cotton production and salination set in, the collapse of cities built on earthquake fault lines. These were, however, still local disasters, despite the scale of the human toll. Supporters of capitalism – and of the state capitalism usually called “socialism” – could dismiss their relevance as passing accidents. Critics of capitalism would denounce their horrors, but not see them as having a systemic impact.

It was not until the end of the 1950s that scientists found the first evidence that man-made gases were beginning to create a global catastrophe by causing average temperatures to rise – and not until the late 1980s that definite proof emerged of how serious the situation was becoming. [3]

The scientific conclusions are well enough known for a mere summary here to suffice. The most important of these gases, as most people now know, is carbon dioxide, produced by burning carbon based substances such as oil and coal to obtain energy – although gases such as methane and nitrous oxide also have to be taken into consideration. The concentration of these gases in the atmosphere is measured in terms of parts of carbon dioxide equivalent per million, or ppm. In pre-industrial times it was 280 ppm; it now stands at 385 ppm and is rising by about 2.1 ppm a year. So far the change has been sufficient to raise the average temperature of the Earth by about 0.8 degrees Celsius, and if emissions continue at their present rate, there will be further temperature rises of about 0.2 degrees a decade. This is if other things remain as at present. But there are various feedback mechanisms produced by rising temperatures that would lead to accelerated change – the melting of ice caps, the release of carbon dioxide in the sea or of methane from arctic tundra, the desertification of forests. There is no final scientific consensus as to the temperatures (the “tipping points”) that would cause these feedback mechanisms to take effect, but it was widely accepted in 2007 that some would be likely to set in if the temperature rose 2 degrees above the pre-industrial level – about 1.2 degrees above that at present (that does not preclude some of these mechanisms setting in earlier, as, for instance NASA’s James Hanson argued in April 2008). [4] To avoid that point being reached, carbon concentrations have to be kept down – the IPCC argues to between 445 and 490 ppm but even 400 ppm might push the temperature up to the 2 degrees threshold. [5]

Over the last two decades governments have come to accept that global warming is a threat to much of humanity. The Stern report for the British government, for instance, concluded in 2006:

All countries will be affected by climate change, but the poorest countries will suffer earliest and most. Average temperatures could rise by 5°C from pre-industrial levels if climate change goes unchecked. Warming of 3 or 4°C will result in many millions more people being flooded. By the middle of the century 200 million may be permanently displaced due to rising sea levels, heavier floods and drought. Warming of 4°C or more is likely to seriously affect global food production. Warming of 2°C could leave 15 to 40 percent of species facing extinction. [6]

There was agreement as early as 1992 at the Rio Earth Summit on the need to start negotiations on measures to reduce emissions, and the Kyoto conference five years later produced a general framework for action. By 2007 even US president George W. Bush backtracked and accepted the principle of global warming.

The significant thing, however, is that such verbal agreement has not been translated into the sort of action likely to prevent the 2 percent limit – or even higher figures – being reached. It took another four years after Kyoto before a conference in The Hague agreed on its implementation. The final agreement was “weak, unenforceable and full of market loopholes”. [7] It was not only that the US and Australia had refused to sign up. The European powers, who were supposedly keen on the agreement, did not keep within their targets. There was no reduction in the speed at which climate change gases continued to build up in the atmosphere. The Global Carbon Project reported a record 7.9 billion tonnes of carbon passing into the atmosphere in 2005, compared with 6.8 billion tonnes in 2000; the growth rate of CO2 emissions from 2000 to 2005 was more than 2.5 percent a year – in the 1990s it was less than 1 percent a year. [8]

The G8 meeting in Rostock in the summer of 2007 was paraded as the occasion when more decisive action would be forthcoming. But declaring there was a major problem, the world’s leaders postponed even beginning to do anything about it for two years. And all they agreed to discuss at that date was an attempt to halve greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, whereas even an 80 percent cut in emissions would not be enough to guarantee keeping global warming below 2 degrees. [9]

Governments which have proclaimed averting climate change to be at the top of their agendas have proceeded to act as if the appearance of doing something was more important than the reality. Tony Blair spoke of climate change as the “most serious issue facing mankind”. [10] His government committed to aim at a global figure of 666 ppm carbon dioxide equivalent (a fitting figure). Yet the Stern report commissioned by it estimated that with 650 ppm there was a 60 to 95 percent chance of 3°C of warming, and an Environment Department report in 2003 had found that with “with an atmospheric CO2 stabilisation concentration of 550 ppm, temperatures are expected to rise by between 2°C and 5°C”. [11]

Watching such behaviour is a bit like watching a car crash in slow motion, with the driver aware of disaster ahead but ploughing on regardless.

Competition, accumulation and climate change

What explains this behaviour? The easy answer from part of the environmental movement has been “Greenwash”, that is, governments are simply pretending to care about the issue for reasons of popularity. That will be true of some politicians. But it does not explain the behaviour of all the major players in the system. Many of them, perhaps even most, have come to see that climate change will wreak havoc on the physical and biological environment that the system operates in and therefore on the system itself. They see the need to take action, yet are half paralysed when it comes to doing so.

Neither is the paralysis explained simply by the pressure on the politicians by lobbying, bribery and blackmail by particular big corporations which fear a loss of profits from any shift away from carbon-based production and transportation. These corporations are often powerfully placed and could, for instance, delay even recognition of climate change by the US government for several years. But they have faced some opposition from other capitalist interests which do have a direct financial interest in trying to avoid climate change – the insurance corporations, for instance. What has to be explained is the relative ineffectiveness of these counter-pressures.

The issues go to the heart of the system as it is currently structured. High levels of carbon-based energy are central to virtually every productive and reproductive process within the system – not just to manufacturing industry, but to food production and distribution, the heating and functioning of office blocks, getting labour power to and from workplaces, providing it with what it needs to replenish itself and reproduce. To break with the oil-coal economy means a massive transformation of these structures, a profound reshaping of the forces of production and the immediate relations of production that flow out of them.

Some people argue that such restructuring takes place all the time under capitalism, and that it is simply a question of governments encouraging it to go in one direction rather than another. This essentially was the case put by Clive Hamilton, defending the market approach of the Stern report in a polemic with George Monbiot:

Stern is confident that once a powerful signal is sent to the market, then the market will find a way to carry out the restructuring of the energy economy. There are reasons to believe that Stern is correct. In fifty years time the world will be dramatically different: if a strong signal can be sent now, there are grounds for optimism. While we currently have the technologies to reduce the world’s emissions sharply over the next decade or two, by 2050 the market – suitably guided – will present a set of possibilities we cannot foresee. [12]

What is ignored by such arguments is that even if governments do develop effective price mechanisms as signals to encourage investment and production in one direction rather than another, they are signals that have to compete with other signals – those that come from the pressure to maintain profitability from existing carbon- energy intensive investment.

An oil company may begin to establish divisions aimed at developing carbon free or low carbon energy. But it will also seek to find profitable uses for its existing massive investment in carbon intensive methods (pipelines, refineries, crackers, drilling equipment). The same goes for manufacturing and transportation companies. They will stick with their existing heavy energy using equipment and buildings at last until they have more than covered the cost of their investment in them – and will invest in more of the same, unless the counter-signals from the governments are very powerful.

The behaviour of consumers cannot be changed by a mere wave of a price wand either. Price signals alone are not going to deal with the 10 percent of carbon dioxide produced by car journeys, or the 18 percent used in heating and lighting buildings [13] – except possibly until temperatures have risen much above the 2 degree level. People are stuck with their existing, poorly insulated homes and patterns of dwelling and work that make them dependent upon car travel unless governments do much more than provide “signals”.

There is an even more assertive version of the argument about the capacity of capitalism to successfully reshape itself than that put by Hamilton. It holds that the complete restructuring of industry to counter climate change would be beneficial to capitalism, since it would “create investment”. The economic problem for capitalism in the 21st century is not, however, that there is some shortage of possible ways of investment. It is that such investments are not profitable enough.

The system today, as we have seen in the previous chapters, is dominated by giant firms based in particular states but operating across several states and sometimes the system as a whole. Each firm is caught between the need to undertake big and expensive investments in order to remain competitive and uncertainties about the profitability of such investments. Investing in new forms of energy or more energy efficient equipment and products is not going to overcome that contradiction. Indeed, doing so would make it worse for many firms, probably most. They can be relied on to pressurise states – and to threaten to relocate if necessary – to minimise price signals that clash with profitability. Governments themselves, identifying with nationally based accumulation, will resist anything that interferes with national competitiveness and go a fair bit of the way with the demands made by firms. This is why the “signals” are so weak, and why those who rely on influencing governments, like Stern, end up watering down targets in order to make them seem “realistic”.

As George Monbiot says, “Sir Nicholas Stern spells out the dire consequences of two degrees of warming” but “then recommends a target for atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases of 550 parts per million” which would produce “at least a 77 percent chance – and perhaps up to a 99 percent chance, depending on the climate model used – of a global average temperature rise exceeding 2°C” and “a 24 percent chance that temperatures will exceed 4°C”. [14]

Stern was unwilling to advise cuts on the scale necessitated by his own calculations because “paths requiring very rapid emissions cuts” were “unlikely to be economically viable”, as was any target lower than 550 ppm. [15]

The Obama election campaign in 2008 made many promises about dealing with climate change. Mainstream economists argued the recession itself provided an opportunity for doing so through the stimulus packages. But when the packages were produced, the picture was rather different:

The packages of tax cuts, credits and extra spending have been trumpeted for their environmental credentials by the governments proposing them, but a closer look shows that green spending accounts for only a small part of the bigger initiatives. Much of the spending will go to projects that will, in fact, increase emissions, such as new roads or fossil fuel power stations, while too little money will be devoted to low-carbon projects to make a real difference, experts believe. For instance, Barack Obama, the US president, wants $27 billion (€21 billion, £19 billion) to be spent on new roads, which will raise traffic emissions. Although some funds will be spent on developing low-carbon vehicles such as electric or hydrogen cars, the benefits gained will be outweighed by the emissions generated by the extra petrol-driven cars. [16]

Todd Stern, the US president’s new chief climate negotiator, claimed that it was “not possible” for the US to aim for 25 to 40 percent cuts by 2020, despite the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) calculating that “developed nations should aim for 25 to 40 percent cuts by then to avoid dangerous climate change”. [17]

In Britain “Green companies” were “in retreat, with a wave of staff layoffs and production cuts” with “Siemens, Clipper Windpower and even BP among the big names ... reacting to a slowdown in the clean energy sector”. The “credit crunch” was “starving wind and solar developments of urgently needed cash” and the situation was “being exacerbated by prices crashing to record lows in the carbon trading market”. [18]

None of this means that government “signals” have no effect at all. They are encouraging new areas of investment in things like wind and photoelectric power (but also in energy-absorbing biodiesel). New capitals – or innovative old capitals – are emerging that will fight for more space and more resources for their wares. Emissions will probably rise less rapidly than otherwise, although it is unlikely they will decline in the short term. But the equivocation will persist with governments and industrialists proclaiming their commitment to resist climate change one day and their determination to extract the maximum amount of oil or coal from the earth the next.

The needs of capital and the needs of capitals

The expansion of capitals in competition with each other – or as Marx put it, the self-expansion of capital – leads them to an orgy of carbon energy use just as they recognise it as self-destructive.

The phenomenon of capitalism damaging its own environmental basis is not completely new, even if it has never occurred on the scale it is today. In the early 19th century competitive accumulation in Britain led to a lack of concern about the physical health, even the physical survival, of capitalism’s workers. It was a neglect that would inevitably be damaging to youthful industrial capitalism as well as to the working class, since it threatened to exhaust the supply of fit and able labour power for exploitation.

Marx summed up what was happening:

The capitalistic mode of production (essentially the production of surplus value, the absorption of surplus-labour), produces thus, with the extension of the working-day, not only the deterioration of human labour power by robbing it of its normal, moral and physical, conditions of development and function. It produces also the premature exhaustion and death of this labour power itself. It extends the labourer’s time of production during a given period by shortening his actual lifetime.

But in doing so, capitalism shortens the “duration” of the “labour power” of the individual worker, so making it necessary to replace this more quickly than otherwise, so that:

the sum of the expenses for the reproduction of labour power will be greater; just as in a machine the part of its value to be reproduced every day is greater the more rapidly the machine is worn out. It would seem therefore that the interest [of] capital itself points in the direction of a normal working day. [19]

Did this mean that capitalists flocked to campaign for shorter working hours and more humane conditions in the factories and working class localities? A few, more farsighted about the long term needs of capital as a whole, did. Most, however, campaigned against any restrictions on hours, even for children who would one day become more productive, adult, labour power.

Again Marx summed up the capitalist logic at work:

In every stockjobbing 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, after he himself has caught the shower of gold and placed it in safety. Après moi le déluge! [After me, the flood] is the watchword of every capitalist and of every capitalist nation. Hence Capital is reckless of the health or length of life of the labourer, unless under compulsion from society. To the outcry as to the physical and mental degradation, the premature death, the torture of overwork, it answers: Ought these to trouble us since they increase our profits? [20]

It took concerted pressure on capital from the outside, by successive acts of legislation enacted by the state – in part in response to workers’ agitation – for the reproduction of labour power to be protected from the ravages of those who exploited it. It took some 80 years before anything like fully adequate protection of such reproduction was in place – and as we saw in Chapter Five it required the difficulties in military recruitment to bring home to the state the harm which capital had done to its cannon fodder by its lack of concern with supplies of labour power.

Exactly the same logic as that described by Marx is found in the attitude of capital to the pumping out of climate change gases today. Capitalist politicians make beautiful speeches about the need to do something, set up commissions and intergovernmental meetings, promise to reshape their own behaviour – and then bow down before interests which say that this or that measure to deal with climate change will be too costly for the economy to bear.

However, there is one big difference between the tendency to destroy the source of labour power in the 19th century and the devastation of the Earth’s climate today. The destruction of labour power was within the industrial areas of one country. It could be repaired by the importation of workers from the countryside and Ireland. And eventually the national state could act to police the behaviour of individual capitalists in the interests of capital as a whole.

There is no global state capable of enforcing its will on all the capitalist firms and national states that make up the system. Each is afraid that taking the drastic measures needed to massively reduce gas emissions will result in other firms and states seizing the opportunity to intrude on its markets. The issue of climate change becomes inextricably linked with the other struggles within the world system – the struggles between different nationally based capitalist interests, between national states and between classes.

There will be more attempts at international agreements, perhaps with a few more teeth than in the past. It could hardly be otherwise as growing numbers of the system’s capitals begin to experience the pain of climate change. But the agreements will always been riddled with weak spots because the different states will go into them with markedly different short and medium term interests.

The national structures within which accumulation takes place depend to very different degrees upon carbon energy. The US was self-sufficient in oil until the early 1970s, its structures of accumulation and consumption became very highly dependent on oil and that means that today it has 20.2 tons of carbon emission per person; the main West European states lacked domestic oil resources, developed rather different structures of accumulation and consumption (with petrol, for instance, about three times the cost it is in the US), and have so far only 8.8 tons of emissions per person; China’s rapid industrialisation and urbanisation are based on massive amounts of coal and its total emissions are close to that of the US figure, even though its emissions per head in 2004 were only a little over a sixth of the US figure and 40 percent of the West European figure. [21]

These enormous differences mean that measures that seriously cut back on emissions would hit firms based in different countries very differently. It is this which explains why the European Union seemed more committed to action against climate change in the early 2000s than the US: its national states stood to gain from measures that would proportionately hit US-based industries more than their own. The US figure is immensely important. “International institutions” for controlling the global system can only be effective insofar as their programmes coincide with the interests of the US-based capital, with its immense military power and financial influence. Regional powers like Russia, China, India or Western Europe might sometimes be able to block regulation in US interests, but they cannot substitute for it with regulation of their own. This applies as much to carbon gas regulation as to financial regulation through the IMF or trade regulation through the WTO. Recognition by those who run the various parts of the world system about the dangers of climate change will translate in practice to fraught international negotiations in which each major state will subordinate fighting climate change to the competitive interests of the capitals based within it. Regulation will continue to be slow, ineffective and insufficient to stop the destabilising effect of carbon gases, not only on the climate, but on the system as well.

Some of the immediate short-term effects of climate change are already with us. The most immediately visible are those that result directly from rising temperatures: for instance, evidence that glaciers are getting smaller, or that many species of birds in Britain are laying their eggs about a week earlier than in the 1950s. [22] Some of the most important effects will be less direct than these. Climate models suggest global warming causes shifts in ocean currents, in the amount of water vapour in the atmosphere and atmospheric pressures, and that these in turn lead to unexpected changes in weather patterns with, for instance, more frequent and more powerful storms on the one hand and droughts on the other. One cannot deduce from this that every short-term variation in the weather is a result of climate change, but the evidence is accumulating that both hurricanes and droughts are growing in frequency. If the global warming feedback mechanisms kick in, such local catastrophes will become much more frequent. There will be more crop failures, the flooding of rivers deltas and low lying land areas, more river inundations, more desertification of previous fertile areas, as well as shifts in patterns of cultivation.

Peak oil

One other growing ecological limit to capitalism is, paradoxically, fear that the main source of carbon gases at the moment, petroleum, may be running out. The notion of “peak oil” has been taken increasingly seriously – that the point may be at hand at which oil production cannot rise any further to meet growing demand.

The issue first came into prominence back in 1998, after an article appeared in the Scientific American which predicted oil production would peak within ten years. Since then there have been rebuttals and counter-rebuttals, with various economists and geologists presenting very different scenarios for what is happening to oil reserves and potential output. [23] The arguments have to a considerable extent reflected the impact of different interests. The giant oil firms tend to exaggerate the extent of the long-term supplies, since their share prices depend on these. Their figures then come under question from those worried about the long-term future of the energy needs of nationally based capitalisms as well as from muck-raking critics of the system as a whole. And there are considerable difficulties in coming to any exact conclusion as to the real picture because the big oil producing states conceal the real extent of their reserves as they bargain with each other within OPEC and with the oil companies. As one critical report points out:

One of the big questions still waiting for an answer is the state of the oil production in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA). Most likely, this issue will decide the timing of world peak oil ... because of the secrecy surrounding the oil production in the KSA. [24]

But it is possible to draw two firm conclusions from the debate. First, peak oil is likely within the next quarter century, and may be reached within years rather than decades, forcing reliance on other energy supplies. The International Energy Agency, the OECD’s energy organisation, long resistant to the peak oil argument, now accepts that there will be “an imminent ‘oil crunch’ in a few years time”. [25] The Energy Information Administration (EIA) of the US Department of Energy concluded in July 2000 that “world conventional oil production may increase two decades or more before it begins to decline”. But John Bellamy Foster points out, “The analysis itself, however ... suggested that a world oil peak could be reached as early as 2021.” [26]

Effectively, whichever set of figures one accepts, the blind expansion of capital is close to exhausting the supply of its most important raw material, one on which almost all its production and consumption depend. Peak oil does not signify its immediate disappearance: it will continue to be available for many decades, but the cost of getting it will rise and the conflicts over who has it and who does not will get more intense.

Regardless of when the peak will be reached, states are worried in the here and now about future “energy security”. So there have been repeated reports in the US expressing such concerns, going right back to the infamous National Energy Policy report in May 2001 drawn by a task force headed by vice-president Cheney. Without mentioning peak oil, it stressed concern about guaranteeing US oil supplies and urged, “Make energy security a priority of our trade and foreign policy.” [27] A February 2007 US Government Accountability Office report “argued that almost all studies had shown that a world oil peak would occur sometime before 2040 and that US federal agencies had not yet begun to address the issue of the national preparedness necessary to face this impending emergency”. [28]

The term “energy security”, like that of “defence”, has a double meaning when used by governments. It can mean protecting the energy input of domestic and industrial use. But it can also mean operating policies that allow added pressure to be applied to other states. So, for instance, control over oil outflows from the Middle East, one of the goals of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, is more about control over oil supplies which potential regional challengers to US hegemony depend on than about the US’s own supplies. Only about one eighth of these come from the region (as against three eighths from Canada, Mexico and Venezuela). Significantly, the US ensures it has bases or reliable allies at key points on international oil pipelines and oil routes – hence, for instance, the bitterness of its response to the Russian assertion of influence in the Georgia-South Ossetia war of August 2008. A world approaching “peak oil” is necessarily a world of heightened clashes between states and within states, just as the world of climate change is.

There is an inevitable interplay between the two. To some it might seem that peak oil, and the rising oil prices it will bring about, will act as a counter to climate change. There may be a limited downward pressure on oil consumption – as, for instance, happened in the case of petrol consumption when oil prices shot up in middle of 2008. [29] But there is no automatic cancelling of one effect by the other. Peak oil is compatible with a level of consumption of oil as great as at present for many years, with a corresponding build up of carbon gases. Meanwhile energy security fears are leading to an intensified search for more oil, the expansion of the other carbon gas source, coal, and the use of maize or vegetable oils to produce ethanol and biodiesel for transport fuel processes which can even increase global carbon gas emissions. [30]

Food and capitalism

The years 2006–8 provided a hint that capitalism is creating another ecological barrier to itself – that of not being able to produce enough food for those who live within it. Soaring food prices raised questions as to whether it was beginning to exhaust its capacity to keep food production rising, as commentators pointed to rapidly declining rates of global food output growth. [31]

This was not the first time there have been such concerns. Malthus had argued in the early years of industrial capitalism that there was no point in raising the living standards of the mass of the population, since this would prompt them to have more children at a faster rate than food production would rise to feed them. Marx and Engels rejected this view that a natural barrier to human welfare existed as an apology for exploitation by a defender of the system. But they did hold, as we have seen in Chapter Three, that capitalism itself created obstacles to food provision once it had developed beyond a certain point. This was because capitalist agriculture removed the nutrients necessary for fertility from the soil more rapidly than it replaced them. [32]

Marx and Engels did not put the issue at the centre of their analysis of capitalism for the simple reason that they could see that by the 1860s and 1870s the system was capable of substituting for the depredations of agriculture in its old established lands by the production of foodstuffs in North America, with the opening up of the prairies to agriculture. The issue became of marginal concern to most Marxists after their death because the use of mineral fertilisers was able to compensate for the loss of natural nutrients. Worldwide food production kept ahead of population growth right through to the end of the 20th century. There were horrific famines and persistent long-term malnutrition for hundreds of millions of people, but these were a result not of under-production but of class-induced poverty. Signs of impending absolute food shortages in South and East Asia in the 1960s were overcome by the “Green Revolution” – the introduction of new grain types dependent on big inputs of fertiliser and increased irrigation. These were normally combined with the spread of various forms of capitalist agriculture in place of the subsistent peasant farmer.

The increases in food yields were very real – it is stupid of some “organic” critics of modern agriculture to claim otherwise – with wheat yields growing between 3 and 4 percent a year between the mid-1960s and the mid-1980s, and rice yields between 2 and 3 percent. But over the last two decades the increases have fallen until they are barely ahead of (declining) population growth: “Output from the Green Revolution has reached a ‘plateau’.” [33] Ever greater quantities of fertiliser are required to increase output, water sufficiency becomes a growing problem, concentration on a very narrow range of crop types increases the dangers from plant diseases, and world acreage devoted to food is not growing. As a World Bank Development Report admits:

Many agriculture-based countries still display anaemic per capita agricultural growth and little structural transformation ... The same applies to vast areas within countries of all types. Rapid population growth, declining farm size, falling soil fertility, and missed opportunities for income diversification and migration create distress as the powers of agriculture for development remain low. [34]

The problem is not that somehow, after 200 years, Malthus has been vindicated. Means exist to raise food output to cope with world population, expected to grow another 50 percent and then slowly decline. The problem is the existing “structure of agricultural accumulation”. [35] Global agriculture since the mid-1970s has been increasingly structured by a handful of agribusiness corporations, mainly based in the US, that control agricultural innovation, supplying the inputs (seed varieties, fertilisers, pesticides, agricultural machinery) for the world’s farmers, big and small. Their interest is in keeping those inputs standardised (so keeping down their own costs of production), with as little regard for particular local growing conditions as possible. Their research has “focused on innovations that reduced costs rather than enhanced yields”. [36] The result has been little in the way of innovation to suit the needs of the world’s 400 million small farmers – except to preach GM crops as a magic solution, regardless of their potential side-effects on local ecologies and the inapplicability of those so far developed to conditions in very wide parts of the world. Meanwhile, individual developing countries have reduced agricultural investment to around 4 percent of GNP compared with 10 percent in 1980. [37] Yet, as Ronald Trostle of the US Department of Agriculture’s economic research unit says, “it was always publicly funded research that was more likely to concentrate on innovations that would increase yields and production, particularly in parts of the world where farmers are unable to pay royalties for new varieties of seeds”. [38]

The dangers to the world’s food supply were brought home sharply in 2007–8 when grain prices internationally surged, creating the risk of starvation for hundreds of millions of people. Rising food prices were hurting many of those small farmers who bought as well as sold food. “Food security” suddenly joined energy security as a concern for governments. In the short term the ability of farmers in Europe and North America to cultivate land which had been left idle under “set aside” schemes raised the possibility of filling some of the gaps in the global food supply and there were limited falls in some prices by the beginning of 2009 – although not to the level of two years earlier.

The crisis was more likely to be an omen for the future – the threat of immense hardship to hundreds of millions of people – than the immediate onset of global catastrophe. [39] The “real risk” remained of a “food crunch at some point in the future, which would fall particularly hard on import-dependent countries and on poor people everywhere”, reported one study. [40] Indications were that the food price rises of 2006–8 had not simply just been a result of speculation during the last phase of the mid-2000s boom. Early in 2009 a report could tell how “food prices are poised to rise again” as long-term “resource scarcity trends, notably climate change, energy security and falling water availability”, would put pressure on prices and production. [41]

The food shortage of 2008 showed the way in which the different elements of crisis endemic to capitalism in the 21st century can interact with each other. For the shortage was not just as a result of the exhaustion of the benefits of the Green Revolution. It was also a product of the probable effects of climate change, with crop failures in Australia due to drought and in Europe due to flooding; of the typically perverse capitalist way to offset climate change and energy security by devoting a third of the US maize crop and half the European oil seed crop to the production of biofuels [42]; of the rising oil price, which forced up the costs of fertilisers and fuels on which 21st century farming depends; and of the sharpness of the boom part of the capitalist cycle in the early and mid-2000s, which massively increased middle class meat consumption, especially in China.

It is the sort of interaction of the economic, the environmental and the political we should expect to see repeated again and again in the 21st century, producing recurrent, very deep social and political crises that frame the choice between global catastrophe and revolutionary change.

* * *


1. Charles Dickens, Hard Times (Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1969).

2. F. Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England, in Marx and Engels, Collected Works, Vol. 4, p. 343.

3. For brief histories of the science, see John W. Farley, The Scientific Case for Modern Anthropogenic Global Warming, Monthly Review, July–August 2008; Jonathan Neale, Stop Global Warming, Change the World (London, Bookmarks, 2008), p. 7; Spencer Weart, Timeline: The Discovery of Global Warming,

4. James Hansen and others, Target Atmospheric CO2, quoted in Minqi Li, Climate Change, Limits to Growth, and the Imperative for Socialism, Monthly Review, 60:3 (2008), p. 52.

5. George Monbiot, Environmental Feedback: A Reply to Clive Hamilton, New Left Review, 2:45 (1997); See also Jonathan Neale, Stop Global Warming, p. 24.

6. Summary of conclusions, in Guardian, 30 October 2006.

7. Jonathan Neale, Stop Global Warming, p. 179.

8. John Vidal, Guardian, 20 December 2006.

9. George Monbiot, Guardian, 2 December 2008.

10. Quoted by John Vidal, Guardian, 20 December 2006.

11. George Monbiot, Guardian, 8 May 2007.

12. Clive Hamilton, Building on Kyoto, New Left Review, 45 (May–June 2007).

13. Figures from Jonathan Neale, Stop Global Warming, p. 71.

14. George Monbiot, Environmental Feedback: A Reply to Clive Hamilton, New Left Review, 45 (May–June 2007).

15. Stern quoted by John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark and Richard York in Ecology: The Moment of Truth, Monthly Review, 60:3 (2008), p. 5.

16. Fiona Harvey, Eco-Groups Fear an Opportunity Lost, Financial Times, 14 March 2009.

17. Guardian, 11 March 2009.

18. Observer, 15 February 2009.

19. Marx, Capital, Volume One, Chapter 10, The Working Day, Part 5, The Struggle for the Working Day, available at

20. As above.

21. All figures from Jonathan Neale, Stop Global Warming, pp. 28–29 and 157.

22. David Adam, Climate Change Causing Birds to Lay Eggs Early, Guardian, 15 August 2008.

23. For a summary of the various calculations about peak oil, see Energy Watch Group, Crude Oil Supply Outlook, October 2007, EWG-Series No. 3/2007.

24. As above, p. 44.

25. As above, p. 18.

26. John Bellamy Foster, Peak Oil and Energy Imperialism, Monthly Review, 60:3 (2008).

27. Report of the National Energy Policy Group, May 2001, p. 181, available at

28. John Bellamy Foster, Peak Oil and Energy Imperialism.

29. The extent to which the price rise was a result of the approach of peak oil is open to debate – some ascribe the rise to this, others to speculation that big oil producing nations were keeping oil in the ground so as to raise its price. For an argument that it was due to war, political instability, currency rates and speculation, see Ismael Hossein-Zadeh, Is There an Oil Shortage?, available at

30. See, for example, Robert Bailey, Time to Put the Brakes on Biofuels, Guardian, 4 July 2008; Jonathan Neale, Stop Global Warming, pp. 101–103.

31. See, for instance, Javier Blas, The End of Abundance: Food Panic Brings Calls for a Second ‘Green Revolution’, Financial Times, 1 June 2008; for an apocalyptic view of what is happening, see Dale Allen Pfeiffer, Eating Fossil Fuels, From the Wilderness, 2004, available at

32. Their arguments on this point were reliant on the findings of the pioneering organic chemist Liebig, whose writings both Marx and Engels studied. See John Bellamy Foster, Marx’s Ecology (New York, Monthly Review Press, 2000), pp. 147–170.

33. Shelley Feldman, Dev Nathan, Rajeswari Raina and Hong Yang, International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development. East and South Asia and Pacific: Summary for Decision Makers, IAASTD (2008), available at

34. World Bank, World Development Report 2008: Agriculture for Development (2007), p. 7, available at

35. The term is that of the Harriet Friedman – see, for instance, The Political Economy of Food, New Left Review, 2:197 (1993), pp. 29–57.

36. Javier Blas, The End of Abundance: Food Panic Brings Calls for a Second ‘Green Revolution’.

37. World Bank, 2007, World Development Report 2008: Agriculture for Development, p. 7.

38. Javier Blas, The End of Abundance: Food Panic Brings Calls for a Second ‘Green Revolution’.

39. For a longer analysis of the crisis and its possible implications, see Carlo Morelli, Behind the World Food Crisis, International Socialism 119 (2008).

40. Javier Blas, Warning of ‘Food Crunch’ with Prices to Rise, Financial Times, 26 January 2009.

41. Report produced by Chatham House, quoted in Financial Times, 26 January 2009.

42. See, for instance, Aditya Chakrabortty, Secret Report: Biofuel Caused Food Crisis, Guardian, 4 June 2008.

Last updated on 05 April 2020