Global Warming - Socialism or Ruin


During the last decade environmental degradation and in particular global warming have been propelled to the centre of capitalist politics. The rise of the green parties and their participation in governments, in countries such as Germany, is a reflection of this. Major bourgeois political figures, such as Al Gore, the ex vice president of the US, have become environmental campaigners. His new film, An Inconvenient Truth, describing the damage being done to the planets ecological system has just been released in the UK. Ex-President Clinton has recently launched a global initiative to raise money to combat global warming and signed up Richard Branson, the Virgin Airlines tycoon, who has pledged £1.4bn to the fund. The fact that the political representatives of capitalism have taken control of this movement and can sign up the boss of one of the biggest single polluters on the planet underlines the environmental movement’s status as a movement of reform within capitalism.

The critics on the left of bourgeois politics argue that the mainstream politicians are not radical enough and should introduce tougher measures. Whereas the Labour government, for example, promised to reduce the UK’s carbon emissions to 80% of 1990 levels by 2010, Monbiot writing in the Guardian demands an 87% cut by 2030. (1) The left also presents the issues as personal ones which can be addressed through life styles and “morally superior consumption.” “If only,” we are told, “you could stop travelling in aeroplanes, using cars and eating food transported long distances we could get our carbon footprints (2) down to sustainable levels and the planet could be saved etc.” Underlying both the arguments of the mainstream capitalist politicians and their critics from the left is the assumption that capitalism can be reformed to make life on earth sustainable in the long term. This assumption is simply wrong.

The forces which are driving environmental degradation spring from the bowels of the capitalist system itself. They spring from the fact that it is a system which produces for profit and not for human needs. There is a relentless drive to increase profit rates which in turn produces a drive to cheapen the raw materials that go into the production of commodities leading to merciless exploitation of the earth’s resources. At the same time there is a continual need for growth without which the capitalist system would collapse. This entails using up more and more of the planet’s resources. The capitalist class will, of course, tackle environmental issues when they become convinced that these problems are actually reducing profitability for capitalism as a whole. The control of acid rain in the 80s was an example of this. However, the forces at work within the system itself always create fresh and more severe problems, for example the hole in the ozone layer followed acid rain, and this has now been eclipsed by the greenhouse effect. The capitalist class now understands this as a threat to profitability and indeed capitalism itself which is why it is attempting to deal with it. While the capitalist class may address and even solve some of these problems capitalism is organisationally ill equipped to solve them. It is obvious from the most superficial examination of environmental issues that they can only be solved on a global scale. However, the capitalist world is organised as a system of nation states or blocs of states which are in continual competition with each other. It is inherently difficult to get powerful states to accept measures which are likely to reduce their profits and put them at a disadvantage in respect to their rivals. National bourgeois interests take precedence over those of humanity as a whole. The fate of the Kyoto treaty, which we consider below, is simply the latest illustration of this. However, even if the capitalist class could agree to international treaties limiting the environmental damage capitalism causes this would not solve the problem. This is because as long as capitalism remains the global system of production it will need to continually cheapen raw materials and expand the world economy. The tendency to environmental degradation will inevitably continue creating more serious problems, problems which will become so severe that they simply cannot be solved within capitalism. At this point society will be faced with a choice of social collapse or moving to a higher organisation of society where these problems can be solved. This choice is not far off.

The fact that environmental issues have now become the stuff of mainstream politics shows how serious these problems have become. Before looking in greater depth at how these issues are related to capitalism itself we will briefly review the environmental disaster we now face and the attempts of the capitalist class to avoid it.

Heading for Catastrophe

During the last century there was a rise in average global temperature of 0.6oC. This increase in temperature was the result of greenhouse gases (3) produced by capitalist industry. These gases trap the heat which we receive from the sun in the earth’s atmosphere in the same way as a greenhouse does. Since 1860 the concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere has risen by almost 40% and the predicted rise in temperature during the 21st century is between 1.4 and 5.8 oC. These figures show the rate of change is accelerating. It was previously thought that this acceleration was directly related to mankind’s increased emission of greenhouse gases; however, in the last decade various studies have indicated the situation is far more critical. This is because the warming which has occurred is itself accelerating the effect. Greenhouse gases which are at present trapped in the earth’s surface, for example methane trapped many thousands of years ago in the Siberian permafrost region is being released by the thawing of this region. The melting of polar ice is itself causing the earth to absorb more heat from the sun. This is because the ice, which is white, tends to reflect ultra violet rays out of the earth’s atmosphere. When these areas change to sea they become blue and absorb this radiation which is transformed into heat. In addition the ability of the earth to absorb carbon from the atmosphere is being reduced by human destruction of forests and the effects of warming itself.(4) These factors are producing what is called a “positive feedback” effect to global warming. The more the temperature rises the more the process fuels itself and the faster it goes. Scientists calculate that there is a “tipping point” after which the process is self sustaining and human attempts to limit carbon emissions will have no further effect. They estimate that a global temperature rise of 2 oC above pre-industrial levels will bring the planet to this tipping point. (5) This tipping point can also be related to concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. These have risen from 280 parts per million (ppm) in 1860 to 345 in 1990 to 380 today. It is estimated that a rise to 440 ppm will produce this tipping point. (6) The question of how far we are from such a tipping point is, of course, hotly debated. The optimists think it will be reached in about 10 years with the present levels of environmental degradation, the pessimists think we have already reached this point.

The catastrophic effects of large rises in global temperature are not generally disputed. The following changes are most likely:

  • Glaciers and polar ice will melt submerging vast areas of arable land.
  • Rise in sea levels will rise by approximately 7 metres making most of the world’s coastal cities, including London, uninhabitable
  • Weather patterns and ocean currents will change
  • Tropical regions will become arid reducing areas of rain forest
  • Deserts will increase in area.

These effects would radically change the habitable areas of the planet and our ability to grow food. The outcome is likely to be a shrinking of human population to match the reduced global resources and a collapse of capitalist society into a less developed and more barbaric formation.

The Fiasco of the Kyoto Treaty

The attempts by the capitalist rulers of the world to address this problem have been pathetic to say the least. The only significant international attempt to limit greenhouse emissions has been the Kyoto Treaty. This Treaty, which was agreed in 1992, only came into effect in 2005 some 13 years later. The treaty seeks to reduce greenhouse emissions by 5% in the period between 1990 and 2010. Table 1 opposite shows how the Treaty has completely failed to make any progress towards this goal.

By 2002 the actual global emissions were 15% above 1990 levels. The only country to significantly reduce carbon emissions has been Russia and this has been because of the collapse of the Russian economy following the collapse of the Russian bloc in 1991. This is a temporary reduction which is at present being rapidly reversed. The world’s biggest polluter, the US, which is responsible for almost a quarter of the world’s carbon emissions, has refused to ratify the treaty. Instead of reducing emissions by 7%, as required by the Kyoto protocol, by 2002 it has increased them by 16%. The peripheral countries which were not obliged to cut emissions under the treaty have also increased them. Chinese emissions, for example, are now 37% above the levels of 1990.

The failure of the Kyoto Treaty illustrates capitalism’s incapacity to deal with these problems. Carbon emissions are an indirect measure of economic activity and all the major states are competing with each other in a desperate attempt to achieve economic growth, i.e. increase carbon emissions. While this remains the case attempts to limit global emissions are doomed to failure.

In a response to the failure of international efforts to control emissions, today’s eco-warriors exhort us, as individuals and as consumers, to cut our emissions through green consumption. This, so the argument goes, will cause the major capitalist polluters to reform when they realise that we are not consuming products with a high carbon content. Table 2 shows the major areas of emission in the UK in 1990 and 2004.

The main areas where individual carbon emissions could be cut are “Road transport”, “Residential” and “Aviation”, which together made up about 40% of emissions in 2004. Personal reductions could possibly effect a quarter of these emissions; hence the best that personal frugality could achieve would be a reduction of well under 10% of UK emissions. While it is a laudable ambition to reduce our personal consumption, and we do not dispute this, it is not going to make a real difference in the global balance even if it could be achieved. However, patterns of consumption in capitalism are not determined by moral imperatives or altruism. Emissions in these 3 sectors have actually increased by 19% in the period from 1990 to 2004. Consumers under capitalism consume on the basis of price and value nor morality.

It is clear that at present neither the international efforts of the capitalist class to limit emissions nor the exhortations of the capitalist left wing to limit personal consumption are having a significant effect on this problem. This is because the roots of the problem lie in the capitalist system itself.


Capitalism and Environmental Degradation

Not all previous societies have been so destructive of the environment. Primitive communism, with its hunting and gathering mode of production, lived in harmony with nature. Slave society and feudal society did degrade the environment (mainly through overcropping and destruction of forestry) but this was nothing like on the scale of capitalism. Capitalist society is predominantly industrial and has relied on using the energy which has reached the world in previous geological periods and has been stored in fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas. The increase in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere dates from around 1800, which is approximately the date of the triumph of capitalism over feudalism. Capitalism does not exist in a state of equilibrium with nature. It treats nature as a resource to be exploited and the natural control which existed between nature and previous social systems such as feudalism does not exist. Instead capitalism is a system which demands continual growth. It is unable to exist in a state of equilibrium with nature. This has been recognised by capitalist economists from the earliest days of capitalist ascendancy. The classical economist Ricardo, writing in 1817, realised capitalism could not exist in a steady state as feudalism had done in previous centuries. It was necessary for capitalism to grow to survive.

If we should attain the stationary state, from which I trust we are yet far distant, then will the pernicious nature of these laws become manifest and alarming. (7)

The laws to which Ricardo was referring were the natural tendency of profits to fall and the “motive for accumulation to diminish”. (8) Marx dealt with this law in great detail in Capital, Volume 3 where he noted that:

The progressive tendency of the general rate of profit to fall is, therefore, just an expression peculiar to the capitalist mode of production of the progressive development of the social productivity of labour. (9)

We have written on this tendency in several recent texts (10) and wish only to draw out some of the consequences for the degradation of the environment here. As we have mentioned above, one of the ways which capitalists use to counter the tendency for profit rates to fall is to find ways of cheapening raw materials which are used in producing commodities. Raw materials for both the means of production, machinery, buildings, transport etc, and the means of consumption, food, clothing, heating etc. are included in this. The falling rate of profit generates competition which is continually driving capitalism to scour the world for cheaper raw materials, cheaper energy, cheaper food etc. Obviously the extraction of minerals and sources of energy, together with the growing of food is cheapest when the minimum is spent of safeguarding the environment. The 1984 disaster at the Union Carbide factory in Bhopal India, the cyanide spill into the Danube from a Romanian gold mine in 2000, and string of environmental disasters which are now coming to light in China are only the most famous examples of this tendency. There is a relentless pressure coming from the heart of the capitalist system which generates the tendency to degrade the environment.

As rates of profit tend to fall the mass of profit can only be maintained by increasing the volume of production and the size of the capitalist market. Thus all the economies of the world are measured on their growth rates, the bigger the better. Increased growth rates necessarily require more raw materials, more energy and therefore more carbon emissions. Only if the “stationary state”, so feared by Ricardo, is attained, will it be possible to stabilise carbon emissions. However, if capitalism ceases to grow it will collapse just as Ricardo feared.

The forces generated within the core of capitalism are behind the degradation of the environment and hence this degradation will persist as long as capitalism remains the world’s productive system. The forces driving the tendency to environmental degradation are material ones not ideological ones. This is why the environmental lobby’s attempts to combat this degradation by ideological campaigns are futile. The environmental movement is fighting the effects of capitalism’s relentless tendencies. They are not fighting the tendencies themselves. Today’s eco-warriors who accept that the forces driving the world towards ecological ruin spring from capitalism itself, need to explain how their proposed reforms could possibly save the environment while the forces destroying it remain alive and active. Capitalism cannot be made environmentally friendly by reforms while the forces within it continue to demand the destruction of the environment!

The Only Long Term Solution - Communism

To end environmental degradation the forces causing it need to be eliminated and this can only be done by replacing capitalism as the world’s system of production. A more developed system of production, namely communism is needed to replace capitalism. (11) Under communism production would be for need and not for profit, hence the continual drive to increase profits would be eliminated. Similarly the need for continual growth would be eliminated because profit would no longer be the goal of production. The “stationary” state so feared by capitalist economists could be achieved. Such a society would be global and producing globally for human needs. It would be able to balance the demands of the human race with the sustainability of the environment. Competition would be replaced by cooperation and the tremendous wastages of present society eliminated. Whole areas of the capitalist activity and production, for example armaments and military production, banking, insurance, stock broking etc., would simply be eliminated and the resources devoted to useful things. The centuries of environmental destruction, which will be one of the legacies of capitalism, could start to be reversed.

Such a change, of course, requires the overthrow of capitalist power and the assumption of power by the working class. It requires a transition period during which the capitalist world and its social relations will be transformed into communist ones during which all human beings can be integrated into useful work. Such a change will not be achieved easily; however, it remains the only way of avoiding ecological catastrophe. The choice facing the world on the ecological front, as on the social front, is a choice of the ruin of civilisation or the construction of a higher productive system. The choice is either a return to barbarism or an advance to communism.


(1) See Guardian 21/9/06

(2) The carbon footprint is the sum of the amount of carbon dioxide which we personally generate annually. This is made up of travel in cars and aeroplanes, gas, electricity, food etc. In the UK it is at present 2.6 tonnes each (measured as carbon). If the planet is to be saved this must be, we are told, reduced to 0.33 tonnes.

(3) The principal greenhouse gas is carbon dioxide (CO2) but there are 5 other gases contributing to this effect the most significant of these is methane (CH4 ).

(4) At present the earth can absorb 4 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases (measured as Carbon) but this is predicted to reduce to 2.7 billion by 2030.

(5) Potsdam Institute for Climate impact research. Quoted in Guardian 21/09/06 by Monbiot. See .

(6) Ibid.

(7) David Ricardo Principles of Political Economy Everyman Pg 63.

(8) Ibid pg 73

(9) K Marx “Capital” Volume 3 Chapter 13

(10) See for example RP 37 “The economic role of war in capitalism’s decadent phase.”

(11) Communism must not be confused with the system of production which existed in the former Russian bloc. This system was a variation of state capitalism.

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