As the World Burns

by Michael G. Livingston


As the world burns, the ruling class fiddles. Not everyone in the ruling class, however, is playing the same tune. The burning I am talking about is global warming.

Look in any direction and you will see more and more evidence of global warming. Look to the Arctic where ice shrinks and the Inuit of Nunavut worry about the availability of their traditional food supply of caribou, seal, and char. The winters have been so mild and the summers so hot up north that wildlife is in danger. For instance, it was over 85 degrees nine days in a row in June in Whitehorse (that’s in Yukon Territory, for all you southerners), as reported by the New York Times (9/6/04, p. A4).

Look to the Antarctic where global warming is causing glaciers to move more quickly to the ocean where they break into icebergs and raise sea levels. The Antarctic has enough ice to raise sea levels 20 feet worldwide. The current accelerated movement is expected to raise sea levels by about 2 feet, a “slow motion catastrophe for places like Bangladesh, New Orleans, and low island nations” (New York Times, 9/24/04, p. A23).

And look to the Caribbean Basin, where this summer Hurricanes Charley, Frances, Ivan, and Jeanne have devastated Caribbean island nations and the state of Florida. Global warming is expected to increase both the frequency of hurricanes and their intensities, as yet another study has confirmed (New York Times, 9/30/04, p. A20).

So while the world burns, what do leaders of the capitalist world order do?

In Moscow, Russia’s cabinet endorsed the Kyoto Protocol on Thursday, September 30 and sent the treaty to the Duma for final approval. The treaty will take effect 90 days after the Duma approves it, as is expected. Already 120 countries have approved the treaty. The Kyoto Protocol was written so that it would take effect once countries approved it that generated 55% of industrialized countries’ greenhouse gas emissions, at 1990 levels. The refusal of the U.S. to ratify the treaty, as the world’s leading producer of greenhouse gases, had effectively blocked the treaty from going into effect. Now that it has been approved by Russia, the last major industrial country other than the U.S., the treaty has reached the 55% threshold that triggers its enforcement (New York Times, 10/1/04, pp. A1 & A8).

The Kyoto Protocol calls for the reduction of six greenhouse gases to 7% below the 1990 level of emissions. The goal is to be achieved by a target date of 2012. The reductions from the Kyoto Protocol are only a fraction (by one estimate, 1/40th) of what is needed to halt global warming. Still, the treaty is praised by corporate media as a first step that provides a framework for making additional reductions in the future.

In London, British Prime Minister Tony Blair pledged on Tuesday September 14 to use his presidency of the Group of Eight to urge the U.S. to rejoin international efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions. Blair said that climate change (the euphemism used instead of global warming) was so “irreversible in its destructive impact, that it alters radically human existence.” Blair’s stirring oratory stands out starkly against his own mediocre attempts to deal with greenhouse gas emissions in Britain, where he favors road construction, airport expansion, and oil consumption over mass transit and renewable energy.

In Washington, President George Bush, the worst environmental President in U.S. history, signed a bill restoring significant tax breaks for wind-generated electricity (Minneapolis Star Tribune, 10/5/04, pp. D1 & D4). The power industry (including the oil industry, coal- and nuclear-generated electricity, and natural gas production) is heavily subsidized through government taxation policies. The restoring of tax breaks for wind-generated electricity (which lapsed at the end of 2003) levels the playing field, so to speak, and makes wind-generated electricity competitive with coal and nuclear power generated electricity. Use of wind-generated electricity instead of coal-generated electricity would substantially reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The other way to substantially reduce emissions of greenhouse gases is to greatly improve the fuel efficiency of cars while also reducing the number of cars in use though increased use of mass transit.

And in Detroit, William Clay Ford, Jr. and other top Ford executives privately endorsed a plan to reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases from their vehicles by over 45% by 2030. Ford has been using advanced computer models similar to those used by climate scientists to predict the effects of global warming on the environment and the economy. They are then using the predictions to guide long-range product development strategies. Their models assume that there will be significant increases over the present day in greenhouse gas concentration by 2030 but that some efforts would be made to slow the growth over the next 30 years (both very reasonable assumptions for them to make). A spokesperson for the Sierra Club called the plan “a stunning change of direction for Ford, whose emissions are greater than all of Mexico” (New York Times, 10/2/04, pp. B1 & B12).

So while we face one of the gravest crises in human history, members of the ruling class fiddle around with different approaches. Don’t get me wrong. I think that every concrete step toward a sustainable world is good. But they are taking baby steps when what we need is a lot of jogging at a brisk pace.

For me the most interesting approach is perhaps that of Ford Motor Corporation (an approach also shared by Toyota and BP). Ford views this as a business opportunity, a changing business and physical environment that will produce corporate winners and losers, and they plan on being winners.

William Clay Ford Jr. is an environmentalist and one of the more farsighted members of the ruling class. He represents a group of capitalists that know how serious the environmental crisis is and that plan on helping capitalism survive the crisis. (The directors of Swiss Reinsurance, one of the largest insurance companies in the world, are also representative of this group.) The most thoughtful academic proponents of this view are Paul Hawkins, Amory Lovins, and L. Hunter Lovins, in their book Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution (published by Little Brown and Company in 1999).

I would argue that there are two problems with this approach. First, while capitalism may survive, a lot of people and entire species will not. Second, this assumes that environmental destruction is an accidental byproduct of capitalism rather than intrinsic to the drive for profits and the periodic crises of overproduction. 

While the computer models are not perfectly accurate and many things are still unknown (for instance, will the rate of increase in CO2 stay constant or start to accelerate geometrically? Will the increase in global warming trigger a feedback mechanism that brings about a new ice age?), they clearly indicate that the so-called third world is going to get hit hard. The capitalists may be willing to live with 2 to 3 billion deaths from flooding, droughts, hurricanes, heat waves, and crop failures, but I am not. Many of these deaths will be in the third world; almost all of them will be poor or working class.

Is environmental destruction an accidental byproduct of capitalism? Many mainstream environmentalists would have you think so. Environmental destruction is often depicted as caused by inappropriate technology and moral failings. If only we had better technology, and if only we made moral choices as consumers, we would have a sustainable society. Marxists reject this position and with good reason. The entire history of capitalism shows that the intensification of exploitation, both of labor and the natural world, is intrinsic to the system. Capital is driven by profit, not by human needs.  Capitalism must constantly expand; creating artificial needs to overcome its periodic accumulation crises. As an economic system it is insatiable, like a starving vampire continually sucking blood from workers and the natural world.

The kind of environmental destruction we are witnessing on a world scale is caused by capitalism. This environmental destruction will not end until we replace the world capitalist system with a democratic, sustainable socialism.

The author can be reached at livingstonmiguel@hotmail.com