Capitalism and Global Warming

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John Bellamy Foster talks to Jacob Middleton about how the movement needs to respond to climate change.

A lot of people say that there's nothing we can really do about climate change. What would you say to these people, and do you think it is possible to reverse what is taking place at the moment?

From all corners of the world there is an increased emphasis on doing something about climate change. There are some islands like Tuvalu which are going to disappear. There is an increase in the intensity of hurricanes. We are beginning to see the facts of global warming, and we are going to see a lot more. I think that people are in a bit of shock right now, but eventually we are going to have to do something about it.

We can still reverse our social processes, but we can't avoid all the effects of what we have done so far and are currently doing. There is a certain amount of future global warming that is already set in. The increase in greenhouse gases accumulated in the atmosphere means that even if we were to cut back on emissions right now we would still experience some increase in global warming, and it's probably too late to stop the global average increase of 2 degrees Celsius.

Would this have serious consequences?

Yes. Originally that was what we were going to try to avoid, because scientists said that at that level we were going to experience serious repercussions. We can't stop that happening, but by cutting emissions we can move away from 'business as usual' and head off the worst calamities that would occur if we don't take action. Scientists said that we needed to get to 60-80 percent below our 1990 emission levels in order to address the problem sufficiently to stop global warming. Instead we've been increasing it - we are way above the 1990 emission levels. The Kyoto protocols - which the US didn't sign - was only a very small step in bringing down the emission levels. So we are really in serious trouble. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says that we could, in the worst case scenario, increase average global temperature by over 5 degrees Celsius by the end of the century.

There are now increasing warnings showing that global warming is occurring more rapidly than we thought. It could be as much as twice the IPCC worst case scenario. There was a report coming out of Oxford University stating that the increase could be as much as 10 degrees Celsius. Things are looking more serious. There are more worries about the acceleration of climate change through positive feedbacks, more worries about abrupt climate change. At the same time we are beginning to see more and more of the effects of global warming which were difficult to imagine before. Time magazine - which is not one of my major sources of news, but which is interesting because of its establishment media clout - had a cover story saying that global warming causes hurricanes to be so severe. The scientific studies that have recently come out suggest that this is the case. Of course you can't say that in respect to one particular hurricane. But we know that since the surface waters have heated up and oceans have risen, this is giving more power to the hurricanes.

Also, the International Rice Institute and other scientific institutes looking at the effects of global warming on world food production have estimated that a 1 degree Celsius increase in global temperature threatens a 10 percent drop in rice, wheat and other major grain yields. This is very serious.

Has US public opinion changed toward climate change in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina?

People are confused. I talked to my students in environment sociology a few weeks ago about the role of global warming in intensifying hurricanes, and most of them hadn't heard about that yet. In terms of public knowledge it's only beginning to come out now that those things are related. But I think the connections are being made, and as they are, people are going to be much more alarmed about global warming. The general perception is that global warming is some sort of gradual process and that it is relatively easy to adapt to, but the reality is that it won't be experienced as a gradual process. It will be experienced as a serious series of crises, which will become more magnified. It is a process that develops exponentially, and because we pass through various critical thresholds it will magnify the problems. People will become aware quite rapidly.

So what do you think the best strategy for activists is in these circumstances?

Recycling more and using your car less are good things to do. But unfortunately you can't accomplish enough on an individual consumption basis to halt global warming. There are all sorts of reasons why, on an individual basis, people are so atomised and divided that it is not easy for them to act consistently. People tend to be pushed towards being wasteful on an individual self-interested basis. What you really need is some kind of political organisation. For example the structure of society makes it very difficult in the US for people not to rely heavily on automobiles. The way things are designed in the US makes it the most car-dependent country on earth. There is no public transportation to speak of. The way that the whole urban, suburban and exurban structures are set up makes people dependent on cars for the slightest thing. I've read that the average American uses their car 11 times a day. You drive to the grocery store, you drive to work, and often these are quite long commutes. The whole thing is set up irrationally, in terms of urban design - preserving energy, and so on. So we need a whole different structure, and you can't do that without political organisation. How do you create public transport in a country where it was basically taken over by the private corporations and then eliminated?

Do you see the environmental movement and its concerns as closely related to the traditional concerns of the left, like social justice, public transport and public ownership?

Certainly, if you have a society that's geared towards a lack of social responsibility, a lack of political and social choices which are really public oriented, communally oriented, it makes it all much worse. In the US the problem of automobiles is tied to the crisis of the cities. They are so interrelated. If you look at New Orleans you get a very visible indication of the problem. There were masses of poor people - not untypical of large US cities - who were unable to get out of the city because they didn't have cars and they didn't have credit cards. There was no public transport designed to help them get out.

These populations are neglected all around. If you had a decent intercity public transportation system it wouldn't have been so severe.

In your work you are keen to bring out the importance of the environment in Marx's writings. But there is an image of him not really caring about the environment among more green-inclined people. Why do you think that has come about?

I think there are a couple of reasons. Marx is, for a lot of people, seen just as being a single-minded proponent of industrialism, and the extent to which he was a critic of industrialism - or of capitalist industrialism - is sometimes overlooked. And certainly there were a lot of Marxists who were anti-ecological, just as there have been anti-ecological thinkers in all of the major political traditions. The text that people most often read is The Communist Manifesto, and they remember his panegyric to the bourgeoisie - the first part of the manifesto where Marx glories in capitalist industrialisation, the constant revolutionisation of the means of production, the development of modern industry and its expansion across the globe. What they fail to recognise is that at the same time Marx was seeing this as a major development - in many ways a progressive development - he was also critical of it in many ways, seeing the other side of industrialism not only with respect to class but also with respect to the environment. Marx's more ecological writings are usually skipped over or ignored. In his work Capital he wrote about the effects of the industrialisation of agriculture and the destruction of the soil.

There is a lot of propaganda, misinformation and some facts of history about Marx's ecology that give people these perceptions. The irony is even though Marx is portrayed as anti-environmental, we are increasingly relying on his ideas in order to understand the relationship between environment and society.

He actually came up with an understanding of sustainable development. He specifically argued that we have to protect the earth - he talked about what would happen if we destroyed the soil, creating the metabolic rift between human beings and nature. The Marxist notion of metabolic rift is now being used by various thinkers to analyse the problems of the oceans, global warming and so on. There are no other thinkers of that period, the 19th century, who really had such a penetrative insight into the relationship between ecological crises and the construction of our society.

What would you suggest as the immediate demands for people in the campaign against climate change to be placing on governments?

There are obvious demands. There's no real lack of solutions - technological, political and other means. First of all we need a shift towards solar power and alternative energy sources. We have these technologies, but there are all sorts of political obstacles to it. For example, in California there were attempts to institute solar-powered water heaters into buildings codes, but the energy companies blocked them. Because of course it would eliminate profit making in that sector - there wouldn't be the mediation of the market and the profits would go down - so they were able to block those attempts. There is all sorts of room for development for alternative energies.

The individual can't say, 'OK I'm going to convert my house into a solar house,' because at that point it is too expensive for most individuals. He or she cannot say, 'I'm going to take the train instead of the car' if the option doesn't exist. We have to politically organise to create a rational alternative that people can use.

The system is built in a very irrational, wasteful way, and that's very profitable. The automobile is the most inefficient form of transport you can possibly imagine. Certainly we are not going to get away from it entirely, but all sorts of alternatives could be developed - we have to politically create those alternatives. But what we run into all the time is the market, the profit-making goals of the corporations. It would make the most sense to move away from an economy that's built primarily around fossil fuel consumption. One of the reasons we are so addicted to fossil fuel is because it is so profitable for the petroleum and automobile complex. There are all sorts of vested interests that we have to struggle against if we are to create a more rational relationship to the environment.


John Bellamy Foster is professor of sociology at the University of Oregon. He is the author of Marx's Ecology and Ecology Against Capitalism, and co-editor of Monthly Review.