[Marxism] The Climate Crisis? It’s Capitalism, Stupid
lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Nov 20 06:35:17 MST 2017
(We are in a new period when an op-ed piece like this can appear in the
NY Times Op-Ed, Nov. 20 2017
The Climate Crisis? It’s Capitalism, Stupid
By BENJAMIN Y. FONG
Even casual readers of the news know that the earth is probably going to
look very different in 2100, and not in a good way.
A recent Times opinion piece included this quotation from the
paleoclimatologist Lee Kump: “The rate at which we’re injecting CO2 into
the atmosphere today, according to our best estimates, is 10 times
faster than it was during the End-Permian.”
The End-Permian is a pre-dinosaurs era of mass extinction that killed 90
percent of the life in the ocean and 75 percent of it on land. It is
also called the Great Dying. Although those who write about
environmental change like to add notes of false personalization around
this point — “My children will be x years old when catastrophe y
happens” — there is really no good way of acclimating the mind to facts
of this magnitude.
However, the cause of the disaster that, by all indications, we are
already living through should be clearer. It is not the result of the
failure of individuals to adopt the moralizing strictures of “green”
consciousness, and it is a sign of just how far we have to go that some
still believe reusable shopping bags and composting (perfectly fine in
their own right) are ways out of this mess.
It is also not the deceit of specific immoral companies that is to
blame: We like to pick out Volkswagen’s diesel scandal, but it is only
one of many carmakers that “deliberately exploit lax emissions tests.”
Nor does the onus fall on the foundering of Social Democratic reforms
and international cooperation: Even before the United States backed out
of the Paris Accord, we were well on our way to a 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit
temperature rise by 2100, “a temperature that at times in the past has
meant no ice at either pole.”
The real culprit of the climate crisis is not any particular form of
consumption, production or regulation but rather the very way in which
we globally produce, which is for profit rather than for sustainability.
So long as this order is in place, the crisis will continue and, given
its progressive nature, worsen. This is a hard fact to confront. But
averting our eyes from a seemingly intractable problem does not make it
any less a problem. It should be stated plainly: It’s capitalism that is
As an increasing number of environmental groups are emphasizing, it’s
systemic change or bust. From a political standpoint, something
interesting has occurred here: Climate change has made anticapitalist
struggle, for the first time in history, a non-class-based issue.
There are many reasons we do not typically talk about climate change in
this way. The wealthy are holding fast to theirs. Bought politicians and
state violence are on their side. Eco-apartheid is not yet seen as
full-on apartheid. Everyday people have plenty to keep up with, and they
don’t want to devote their precious time off work to often tedious
political meetings. The inertia, it is sad to say, makes enough sense.
Perhaps the most common belief about this problem is that it is caused
by widespread ignorance — even outright “stupidity” — and that its
solution lies in its opposite, intelligence. This belief is neatly
expressed in progressive opposition to Donald Trump and his
administration. Trump voters are often criticized for being
unintelligent, for voting against their objective interests. Trump
himself is regularly portrayed as unintelligent.
The basic idea is that if voters were intelligent, they would vote for
an intelligent person who listened to intelligent people and all would
be well. It is a staple of the liberal imaginary. Reflected here is the
obtuse belief that the populist tide is simply mistaken, that it has
gotten something wrong, which has the effect of veiling the real and
justified dissatisfaction with the past 40 years of neoliberalism. Also
reflected is the common view, which is not confined to one end of the
political spectrum, that our biggest problems are essentially technical
ones, and that the solution to them lies in the empowerment of
intelligent people. The aura around Elon Musk is an extreme example of
this kind of thinking.
The problem with the general view that intelligence will save us is that
it involves pinning the failures of capitalist society on supposedly
dumb people (them), who, so the logic goes, need to be replaced with
supposedly smart ones (us). This is a spectacular delusion.
When a company makes a decision that is destructive to the environment,
for instance, it is not because there are bad or unintelligent people in
charge: Directors typically have a fiduciary responsibility that makes
the bottom line their only priority. They serve a function, and if they
don’t, others can take their place. If something goes wrong — which is
to say, if something endangers profit making — they can serve as
convenient scapegoats, but any stupid or dangerous decisions they make
result from being personifications of capital.
The claim here is not that unintelligent people do not do unintelligent
things, but rather that the overwhelming unintelligence involved in
keeping the engines of production roaring when they are making the
planet increasingly uninhabitable cannot be pinned on specific people.
It is the system as a whole that is at issue, and every time we pick out
bumbling morons to lament or fresh-faced geniuses to praise is a missed
opportunity to see plainly the necessity of structural change.
Put differently, the hope that we can empower intelligent people to
positions where they can design the perfect set of regulations, or that
we can rely on scientists to take the carbon out of the atmosphere and
engineer sources of renewable energy, serves to cover over the simple
fact that the work of saving the planet is political, not technical. We
have a much better chance of making it past the 22nd century if
environmental regulations are designed by a team of people with no
formal education in a democratic socialist society than we do if they
are made by a team of the most esteemed scientific luminaries in a
capitalist society. The intelligence of the brightest people around is
no match for the rampant stupidity of capitalism.
On the defensive for centuries, socialists have become quite adept at
responding to objections from people for whom the basic functions of
life seem difficult to reproduce without the motive power of capital.
There are real issues here, issues that point to the opacity of
sociability, as Bini Adamczak’s recent book, “Communism for Kids,”
playfully explores. But the burden of justification should not fall on
the shoulders of those putting forward an alternative. For anyone who
has really thought about the climate crisis, it is capitalism, and not
its transcendence, that is in need of justification. And don’t be
surprised, or fooled, when its defenders point to the tireless work of
Benjamin Y. Fong is a faculty fellow at Barrett, the Honors College at
Arizona State University, the author of “Death and Mastery:
Psychoanalytic Drive Theory and the Subject of Late Capitalism,” and an
editor at Damage Magazine.
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