[Marxism] The Climate Crisis? It’s Capitalism, Stupid

Louis Proyect 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

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 
at fault.

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 
intelligent people.

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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