Markets cannot solve the climate crisis

How did we get to where we are now? “Free range” capitalism could be the explanation for climate change, and needs taming, says one writer.

LONDON, 28 December, 2015 – It may not be polite to mention Karl Marx in America, but leading thinkers on the left think that capitalism may be the cause of climate change, and that to save the planet the system needs fundamental reform.

According to a new book the profit motive, which drives capitalism above all other considerations, forces it to extract everything from the planet that will generate a surplus, at the expense of real benefits to humans and ecosystems.

Fossil Capital: the Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming, by Andreas Malm, out in hardback from Verso in January 2016, analyses capitalism’s role in global warming by delving into its past.

The book builds on the work of Naomi Klein’s 2014 This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate. Both ask whether catastrophic climate change can be averted without at least a major makeover – or the outright elimination – of capitalism.

Malm, a professor of human ecology at Sweden’s Lund University, starts with James Watt’s patenting of the rotating steam engine in 1784. This was also the first year that rising carbon dioxide and methane levels were observed in polar ice.

First Malm attacks the accepted theories of David Ricardo and Thomas Malthus. who developed and reinforced the capitalist notion that markets are the cure for all social ills. He shows that mills adopted coal power instead of water only because it enabled mill owners to move to populated areas to find docile and skilled workers, who were in short supply in the countryside.

More biddable

Coal enabled this move because, once out of the ground, it is highly portable. The machines, of course, eliminated many jobs and made others both simpler and more difficult. Owners started hiring women and children because they were easier to control than adult men.

The demands of the machines set the pace of work, and it was only after massive strikes and riots in the 1840s that a ten-hour workday was established; but this, Malm shows, only caused the mill owners to speed up the machinery and make workers adapt further, producing more in less time.

This in turn increased the demand for coal. The energy transition fostered a “bourgeois fantasy” that self-sustaining machines, godlike in their power but also biddable, would create a golden age.

Malm frames non-fossil energy – air, water and light – as “the flow”, a constant movement of forces not generated by humans that can sometimes be harnessed for human ends. Coal – and by extension all further fossil fuels – is “the stock”, something manufacturers can buy, accumulate, and use at need.

Humans were extremely vexing to the industrialists, because they behaved more like the flow than the stock. Coal-powered engines drastically reduced manufacturers’ dependence on human workers.

Dispensing with people

“The engine is much more tractable and civil than the hod-man,” wrote Edward Tufnell, a member of the Factories Enquiry of 1833, “easier managed, keeps good hours, drinks no whiskey, and is never tired.”

Thus, Malm asserts, capital’s switch from water to coal, and even later to oil, resulted fundamentally from an attempt to dispense with the services of human workers to the greatest possible extent. “Some humans introduced steam power against the explicit resistance of other humans,” he writes.

Workers were aware of this from the beginning. The millions who flocked to northern British cities, dispossessed by enclosures of formerly public lands, nonetheless hated the factories.

Scotsmen, Malm notes, viewed factories as prisons – and for good reason: the average temperature inside a steam-powered textile factory was 84-94°F (29-34°C).

Levels of carbon dioxide in the air could reach 2,800 parts per million – ten times the atmospheric levels at the time. The faster the mill owners pushed their machines, the more boiler explosions occurred, killing nearly one person a day in the 1850s.

But labour was eventually crushed with the aid of government soldiers. Coal was king, and the rest is history. This should be a cautionary tale for the present – if government allies with capital rather than the citizenry, Malm asserts, there will be no stopping climate change.

“People must try at least to modify free-range capitalism, echoing the cries of workers who challenged capital in the world’s first general strike in 1842: Go and stop the smoke!

The grandiose schemes for geo-engineering and other technical fixes bankrolled by the likes of Bill Gates, the major oil companies and the American Enterprise Institute,says Malm, would keep mitigation in the wrong hands – and in any case are too dangerous to try.

Insisting that the real authors of the climate crisis comprise a tiny, all-male, all-white fraction of the planet’s population, Malm objects to calling this the Anthropocene epoch; he would rather call it the “Capitalocene.” And capital, he insists, is not capable of solving the crisis it created.

What we need instead, he writes, is a return to “the flow”: distributed solar, wind and water power. Moreover, in order to avoid severe damage to civilisation, we need to abandon carbon immediately, and this can be accomplished only by intentional and decisive governmental action.

The governments that are doing best at this, Malm observes, are state and city governments, which have no obligation to generate profits and are not owned by Big Capital.

Malm recognises that “socialism is an excruciatingly difficult condition to achieve.” He’s not envisioning a new Stalinist nightmare to replace runaway capital. For one thing, Malm observes, capitalist ideology is so deeply ingrained in society that, quoting Marxist theorist Fredric Jameson, “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.”

Still, he says, people must try at least to modify free-range capitalism, echoing the cries of workers who challenged capital in the world’s first general strike in 1842: “Go and stop the smoke!” – Climate News Network

ISBN-13: 978-1-78478-129-3 paperback

Valerie Brown, based in Oregon, US, is a freelance science writer focusing on climate change and environmental health. She is a member of the National Association of Science Writers and Society of Environmental Journalists.;

Twitter: @sacagawea

2 thoughts on “Markets cannot solve the climate crisis”

  1. m.

    In matters above… Jason W. Moore, goes back in history further, his reasoning has the larger context, thus is the more prominent name to mention. We all come to evident conclusions, obvious statements through different empirical and experimental pathways, only Jason is the better secondary source of explanation.

  2. Lewis Cleverdon

    Valerie – I wish you’d apply your critical faculties to such analyses as this.
    The author clearly hasn’t actually researched the history of the Industrial Revolution, which was not started in the switch from water power to coal “because it was more biddable.”

    In 1720 the largest industrial building on the planet was an iron foundry at Backbarrow in Cumbria UK. Iron ore was brought by ship from Sweden and carted 2 miles inland to the foothills of the Lake District where the foundry was built into the slope of a hill. The reason it was there was the huge extent of Coppice forestry across the Lake District whose harvests were made into charcoal and transported to the foundry in panniers by teams of hill ponies .

    The limitation of growth of this sustainable production was both of further land for coppicing and of the transport costs of the extra distance – which meant that by 1750 the potentially unlimited supplies of coal in S Wales and other places were taking over from charcoal as the main fuel for iron production. This not only allowed the massive expansion of iron output and the wealth and motivation for early engines’ development to drive mine-pumps, but also established coal as the modern fuel available in limitless quantities.

    When, later on, steam engines were advanced enough to power factories, the same attraction of unlimited growth of power supply led to their displacing sustainable but essentially limited water-power.

    With regard to the Klein thesis of Capitalism being to blame for AGW, it seems to me simplistic and rather partisan. When the USSR ran its huge industrial capacity there was no more interest in conserving the ecosphere than in C19 UK.
    Nor have the West’s anti-capitalist groups been visible in the last 30 years campaigning on AGW until recently when, in close parallel with the vegans, they realized that membership might be greatly increased by getting involved.
    In fact their involvement is highly counterproductive in terms of turning around the supertanker of modern industrial societies – their interest is first in establishing their ideology in power, with control of AGW as a benefit once that is achieved – but that would of course be fought to the death by the establishment – Given the urgency of the control of AGW, efforts to establish socialism are thus plainly a timewasting distraction that will only be welcomed by the vested fossil fuel interests.

    Klein’s assumption that it is those vested interests that have been deflecting efforts for climate action are similarly flawed – as I think she would have noticed had she not been viewing the evidence though an anti-capitalist lens. There are multiple lines of evidence for the obstruction actually being the result of a covert bipartisan US policy to let AGW rip for as long as it takes to generate crop failures, food shortages, civil unrest and regime change in China, its rival for global economic dominance. It is not the fossil lobby but the whole of corporate America that sees its profits being dependent on the maintenance of American dominance, and, in stark contrast with the efforts against the USSR, America has no other visible credible policy for maintaining its dominance.

    I think the author would do well to look more carefully at just what Capitalism is – efforts to discredit the present corporate-state economy as being utterly destructive of our primary capital resource, the planet’s ecology, offer a far more fruitful prospect of redefining and re-orienting capitalism, rather than merely rehashing the ideological contests of the C20.

    Lewis Cleverdon

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