By George Buskell
The Creative Destruction of Capitalism
Capitalism has failed the environment. The accumulation of capital, a fundamental element of the capitalist system, requires exploitation not just of the working class, but of the environment itself. For the past 200 or so years of living in an industrial capitalist landscape, we have been operating in what Andreas Malm termed a ‘fossil economy’, an economy of self-sustaining growth predicated on the growing consumption of fossil fuels. This of course began with the industrial revolution, when the aim was to establish a non-episodic process of growth. This meant the creation of a persistently growing economy, the constant accumulation of capital which we keep pursuing to this day. And now, we have the potential to cause catastrophic damage to the planet through fossil fuel consumption over the next few decades. This of course excludes the damage done to the environment through deforestation and pastoral agriculture, but the common thread remains the same throughout all of these ecological crises – capitalism. Profit is being created at the expense of both people and the planet, and our current challenge is not a conflict between humanity and the environment, or technology and nature (contrary to the beliefs of modern luddites and misanthropes alike). No, our current challenge is a conflict between capitalism and the Earth. Climate change is not a population issue, it is not a technological issue – it’s a social one, that requires a social revolution. It is my view that, if we do not collectively organise and engage in radical activism to create a new, socialist society, we may never be able to create the conditions for a sustainable economy. Worse than this, the more we wait, the more people suffer. Indeed, the environmental crisis does not just have environmental consequences, the social repercussions are also terrifying – more poverty, more hunger, the destruction of homes, unprecedented influx of refugees, social unrest and war. Recently, in I’ve noticed two increasingly mainstream responses to climate issues, one which holds technology as our saviour, and the other, consumption.
The Failure of ‘Technological Solutionism’ and the Hopelessness of ‘Consumptionism’
First of all, I wish to issue a disclaimer – I do believe that green technology is a step in the right direction, and indeed useful. There is a definite necessity for the creation of energy efficient and creative technologies that can make our daily lives more sustainable. It is not green technology that I have an inherent issue with, it is instead the social attitudes surrounding new technologies – what philosopher Evgeny Morozov calls ‘technological solutionism’. Technological solutionism is simply the tendency for people to seek to correct real-world problems with technological solutions without questioning the inevitability of the problem itself. The most stark example of technological solutionism in recent news is the measure taken to curb violence against the homeless, which consists of giving homeless people in South Wales non-flammable, stab-proof coats that can be turned into sleeping bags. The clear problem here is that whilst this is clearly an innovative piece of technology, its creation rests on the presumption that homelessness is an inevitability and seeks to make the lives of the homeless safer – instead of trying to end homelessness itself. The problem with technological solutionism then, is that it attempts to address social problems without a social response, and without a critical evaluation of the status quo. This attitude is rife in our industrial capitalist societies, and you can see it reflected in how we approach so many problems: from crime to health, and of course the environment. This attitude fails on two accounts: it presumes the inevitability of the problem it seeks to remedy, and it assumes that all problems can be fixed when the reality is that some problems can only be responded to. Socialism is not a quick fix to climate catastrophe, and it won’t automatically create the sustainable utopia of our dreams – but it’s the most appropriate response to climate crisis, which is ultimately a crisis of capitalism.
Let us now turn to consumptionism, which is a completely made up term I use for a growing trend in consumption-led activism, such as mainstream veganism, sustainable shopping, etc. While these things are all good to engage in as an individual and should be done, they are no substitute for socio-political change. As people like George Monbiot and Naomi Klein frequently point out to us, what we really need to focus on is big political, social and economic change, not feeding the consumerist economic system that has brought us into this crisis in the first place. Neoliberal ideology has essentially tricked us into fighting climate change – a problem rooted in the social realm of class, power and exploitation – as individuals that consume our way into sustainability. Green capitalism is impossible and lifestyle changes are ultimately futile if not coupled with a political project. I have no personal objections to purchasing sustainable products or veganism, as I myself am vegan and like to shop sustainably when I can, but to do so without a solid understanding and socially oriented critique of our current situation is in my view counterproductive. I fear that these consumption-oriented initiatives may ultimately discourage people from the collective action and social solidarity that we so desperately need. Not everyone can or needs to be out on the streets fighting banks and oil companies every day, but I’ve noticed that many people have such an aversion to disrupting the status quo that they trick themselves into believing that the green revolution begins with a reusable shopping bag. It doesn’t. It begins with direct action, divestment and active campaigning. Just 100 companies are responsible for over 70% of global carbon emissions. The Earth is not ‘dying’, it is being killed by a tiny group of plutocrats and oligarchs who have been produced and conditioned by a social system that values profit above all. Banks like Barclays and universities such as our own are notorious for pouring investment into fossil fuel companies, and governments across the world are bought and owned by fossil capitalists. We need to stand up for own future and take on the powerful that wish to take it away from us for their own gain. We need to collectively organise for a future that we can all benefit from. We need activism and direct action against capital, and we need to keep ourselves focused on reclaiming the commons and creating a sustainable socialist society.
Ecosocialist Praxis and why we need it
What distinguishes green anticapitalist currents such as ecosocialism from more mainstream environmental thinking is twofold: they recognise that the ecological problem has its roots in capitalism (and therefore is a social and economic problem), and they have a clear vision of what a green society looks like. Ecosocialist activism has a target, capital, and it has a goal, a society based on the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange. This means that ecosocialist activism should aim to inform the public, disrupt and inconvenience capital, and embody socialist principles of democracy, social solidarity and individual emancipation. It also entails that ‘environmentalisms’ that negatively impact the working class, the Global South or any oppressed groups within society should be discarded in favour of strategies that impact capital. Deep green thinking and Malthusian notions of population control should be resolutely opposed. Any suggestion that the Global South should have their development restricted or prevented cannot be entertained. Fuel and meat taxes should be off the table. Instead, we should focus on bringing banks and oil companies into public ownership, getting universities to divest from fossil fuels and ensuring that the economy is under democratic control. It is also necessary for environmental activists to have some sort of analysis of the state, power and the police – which some increasingly popular groups leading climate activism such as Extinction Rebellion seem to be lacking. I think perhaps the most harmful notion in our current discourse is that climate change is an isolated issue, that it can somehow be separated from issues of power, law, economics, society, race or class. And this idea is just as prevalent in environmentalist circles as it is the media commentariat. The environment cannot simply be relegated to a single issue campaign, and if it does then the movement is doomed to fail. Instead, environmentalism should embrace a multifaceted approach to climate change rooted in the social world. Such an approach may not be perfect, and it would utopian to think that the establishment of socialism would fix the environment overnight – but it would create a new beginning where workers and communities are empowered and given the agency to change the world themselves.
George Buskell is a second year International Politics student at the University of Surrey.