Less capitalism, more planet

In the context of austerity, it can seem almost frivolous to continue to talk about climate change. It is not, writes James O'Nions

November 30, 2010 · 4 min read

I’m writing this only a week after the student occupation of the Tories’ Millbank Tower HQ – a protest that opens up the possibility of a real fightback against the austerity that will affect the living standards of so many almost immediately. In this context, it can seem almost frivolous to continue to talk about climate change. It is not. Climate change will affect billions of people in the most disastrous ways. And it has its roots in the same system that lies behind the cuts.

Opinions on the potential outcomes of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change conference in Cancún this December are mixed. Officially, politicians remain hopeful, even those such as Venezuela’s delegation who were at the forefront of pushing for a meaningful and just outcome in Copenhagen last year. Others are less optimistic. George Monbiot has written that: ‘The best outcome anyone now expects from December’s climate summit in Mexico is that some delegates might stay awake during the meetings.’

In reality, even the politicians have limited their ambitions to ‘unprecedented’ (but also unspecified) results short of a binding treaty, as Mexican president Felipe Calderon put it. The reality is that the US and other northern countries will probably continue to push the ‘Obama accord’, which came out of Copenhagen at the last minute and without the democratic involvement of most countries represented there. Ecuador and Bolivia have already been turned down for US climate finance because they refused to sign the accord, and in all likelihood this kind of blackmail will continue.

There are a number of reasons why there has been no progress at the UN, including the gulf between a just outcome for the global south (which would include the recognition and payment of a huge climate debt by the global north) and what rich countries are prepared to offer. And unlike previous global environmental problems, such as sulphur dioxide emissions causing acid rain, or CFCs depleting the ozone layer, the climate crisis cannot be solved by a technological fix.

In May, the Bolivian government organised a civil society response to the failure of Copenhagen. The ‘Cochabamba agreement’, which Bolivia intends to present in Cancún, is full of radical proposals, which include rich countries reducing their carbon emissions by 50 per cent by 2017, opposition to carbon trading and the establishment of an International Court of Climate Justice. The demands, though rather far from the reality of negotiations at the UN, serve to highlight just how problematic the response of most of the world’s governments actually is.

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Important though it is to fight on every front, however, it is surely time to face up to the reality that the UN talks are dominated by corporate lobbyists and a global elite utterly wedded to an economic system inextricably bound to the overexploitation of the planet’s resources.

The green critique of economic growth, though hardly mainstream, is becoming much more widely known. It’s an important corrective to the ‘common-sense’ celebration of economic growth at all times and in all places. But the danger is that, at best, we end up with a limited anti-capitalism that has an inadequate understanding of class structure and power, and no strategy for reclaiming our planet. John Bellamy Foster opens up a debate on this.

At the same time, the necessity of radical social change implied by this analysis must find an anchor in real world examples – we must be able to ‘envision real utopias’, to borrow Erik Olin Wright’s phrase. He argues that ‘transcending capitalism in a way that robustly expands the possibilities for realising radical democratic egalitarian conceptions of social and political justice requires social empowerment over the economy’.

We might add environmental justice to that list. The German eco-village that Heather Rogers reports on gives us an example of ‘green living’ based on this kind of social empowerment, rather than on a ‘consumer choice’ that ultimately empowers corporations.

Many of those involved in grassroots climate activism over the past few years have understood the connections between the climate crisis and the cuts agenda, resulting among other things in the actions at Vodafone shops around the country. Should November’s cuts revolt flower into something more sustained, an alternative vision of a democratic and sustainable society could fall on fertile ground. Our response to both the climate crisis and austerity should be: it’s time to cut back on capitalism.


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