Climate change and capitalism: Gabriel Carlyle (anti-war and climate activist)

Blog by Sam McCann, Gabriel Carlyle

PN: In your view, can we halt runaway climate change without overthrowing capitalism?

GC: I hope so – because if we can’t then it looks like we’re well and truly stuffed.

PN: Why?

GC: I think the burden of proof is on those who say that we can’t – not least because if they’re right then this severely limits the range of strategies that it’s sensible to pursue.

Some activists simply assert that it’s impossible, as if it’s a self-evident truth.

Too often the train of thought appears to be: “Climate change is an immense systemic problem that’s very difficult to address, and which may even threaten the future of human civilisation as we know it, therefore we can’t deal with it without getting rid of capitalism”. That’s just a non sequitur.

By the same “logic”, fascism couldn’t have been defeated and the 1987 Montreal Convention [limiting the production and use of ozone-depleting chemicals] could never have been signed.

Because it was dealt with effectively, we tend to forget now how big a crisis ozone depletion was. Without the ozone layer, an unprotected, pale-skinned Australian would burn in the summer sun in about 15 seconds. For every 1% decline in ozone, you get a 1% increase in failure of seeds to germinate – and a similar thing happens at the surface of the ocean, with the tiny organisms that form the basis of the food chain there. It would have been a huge catastrophe for humanity.

But the international community did get together and take effective action – without having to end capitalism.

Now of course, fossil-fuels are much more central a part of the world economy than chlorofluorocarbons ever were, but the basic point remains: those who think it’s impossible to address our current climate crisis under capitalism need to justify their claim.

I’d agree with them that: (a) we need to radically change existing economic systems, and make them more just, sustainable and humane; and (b) that left to their own devices, market forces won’t provide a solution. But there’s no reason to leave these forces to their own devices: the public can and should intervene – and they can do this without having to believe that they cam “overthrow” capitalism in the next 10 years.

A few years ago George Monbiot published a book (Heat: How to Stop the Planet Burning) showing how the industrial democracies could make 90% reductions to CO2 emissions by 2030 while requiring only modest life-style changes from their populations. His targets may have been too modest (the science has gotten worse for humanity since then) but it does show that one can go a very long way in this direction.

More recently a report by the Public Interest Research Centre has shown that offshore renewables could meet six times the UK’s current electricity demand.

The key obstacle is political will.

PN: What is your one-sentence definition of capitalism?

GC: Like most people – and that includes most activists (including anti-capitalists!) – I don’t carry around a definition of capitalism in my head. However I’m happy to go along with the one given by Jim Stanford in his excellent book Economics for Everyone:

“An economic system in which privately-owned companies and businesses undertake most economic activity (with the goal of generating private profit), and most work is performed by employed workers who are paid wages or salaries.”

PN: What is the social marker that capitalism has been overthrown? In other words, in your vision of the future, how would we know that we’ve done away with capitalism? What is the most important thing that would have to change?

GC: If we’re talking about replacing capitalism with something significantly better then I guess we’d be talking about an end to wage-slavery, genuinely democratic control over economic decisions (for those who know the buzzwords, workers’ control rather than central planning), and the dismantling of undemocratic private concentrations of economic power such as corporations.

Obviously this would require a massive redistribution of wealth and power – not just here in the UK, but globally as well – and huge changes in how we the people (ie the six billion) make decisions about what we produce and consume.

PN: Do you believe this can be achieved within the time frame for avoiding runaway climate change?

GC: No.

PN: Why not?

GC: Capitalism has been with us now for several hundred years now and has proven itself to be an extremely resilient system. Replacing it with something radically different is a colossal task – far bigger, in my judgement, than switching the world to a low-carbon (or a no-carbon) economy.

Even quite modest social changes (eg ending legal segregation in the American deep South) often take decades of bitter struggle to achieve, and the time-scale for action on climate change is very short.

Depending on what assumptions you make – and how much risk you’re willing to countenance – the time-frame for this is measured in years or maybe even months.

For example, one well-known estimate is that as of November 2010, we have only 73 months to start turning things around, and for global emissions to start to fall.

At the 2010 Climate Camp I met an activist who told me that ‘Getting rid of capitalism was the shortcut to dealing with climate change’. This just seems like magical thinking to me.

Topics: Climate change