The looming environmental catastrophe has provoked an urgent search for solutions to stop global warming and save the planet for future generations.
There is a growing concern even among the political and corporate elite that something is very wrong. Economist Sir Nicholas Stern, author of the recent British government report outlining the stark potential economic impact of climate change, frankly admitted that global warming “represents the biggest market failure the world has ever seen.”
Capitalismï¿½s relentless pursuit of profit has placed the future of the earth in peril. Leading climate scientists now warn that unless drastic reductions in carbon emissions occur within the next decade, there will be a dangerous global rise in temperatures of 3 to 5 degrees Fahrenheit. Such an increase would mean a significant rise in sea levels, forcing hundreds of millions of people from their homes, as well as the loss of up to one-third of all species.
The latest reports show that the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere ï¿½ the principal cause of global warming ï¿½ is at its highest level in at least 650,000 years. Further, its rate of increase has accelerated dramatically over the last 10 years.
The melting of the arctic sea ice is also accelerating, with ice levels at their lowest on record. The severity of storms has dramatically increased, leading to disasters like Hurricane Katrina as well as devastating floods in many areas this summer.
Despite the dire predictions being made by scientists, governments have failed to take serious action to stem the tide of climate change. Government investment in energy research and development has actually declined over the last few decades in every major economic power except Japan.
In the U.S., this investment is now less than half of its 1979 level, and only 1/20th of what is spent on military research (NY Times, 10/30/06). To make matters worse, only 7.6% of this spending goes to research into renewable energy technologies (IEA, 2/14/06).
Even the limited progress that some leaders point to, such as the Kyoto Accords, has been a failure. Over 150 countries (though not some of the biggest polluters like the U.S., China, and India) signed on to the target of a 5% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2012, but it is now clear that most countries will not meet this target.
Why, with the rapidly growing body of scientific evidence showing the consequences of global warming, have governments failed to act?
The answer to this contradiction lies in governmentsï¿½ commitments to defending the profits of the corporations whose interests they represent. This reflects capitalismï¿½s short-term, irresponsible outlook toward the environment.
Further, the degree of international cooperation needed to tackle global climate change is impossible under capitalism. The fierce competition between corporations is mirrored in the relationship between countries. The major capitalist powers are engaged in a relentless struggle over markets, resources, and spheres of influence.
Big business sees the environment as just another resource to be used in the interests of making profits. The need for firms to compete in global markets compels them to attack environmental regulations that threaten their profits, or to move their firms to countries with the least environmental regulations.
Just look at the enormous investment by big western corporations in China, where they can make super profits based on cheap labor and the lack of environmental regulations.
Consumers to Blame?
While some blame ordinary consumers for environmental problems, the reality is consumers do not control the resources or hold power in this system. A few hundred multinational corporations control the bulk of the worldï¿½s resources and make the most important decisions about what products will be produced and how. It is these huge corporations and their economic and political power, which is the main source of environmental damage.
Take the auto industry, one of the largest sources of man-made carbon dioxide. Some argue Americansï¿½ purchases of gas-guzzling SUVs are the problem. Yet it is the auto, oil, and other related corporations who have created a society in which it is impossible for many Americans to get anywhere without a car.
As Eric Schlosser writes in Fast Food Nation, in the mid-20th century, companies like GM used their economic muscle to buy up trolley lines in many cities around the U.S. and run them into the ground in order to encourage reliance on automobiles.
Additionally, they used their political and economic muscle to influence development policies such as the highway system and suburban sprawl which further increased the reliance on cars. They have also aggressively fought against attempts to impose higher fuel efficiency regulations.
The massive pollution brought about by the reliance on cars would be enormously cut if a mass, public transportation network was developed throughout the country as an alternative.
While building and maintaining a high quality public transit system is expensive, it would be cheaper as a percentage of the countryï¿½s total economic output than our current system. The total cost of building and maintaining hundreds of millions of cars, the huge amount of gas used for them, and building and maintaining roads all quickly adds up to more than the cost of mass transit.
On top of this you have the hidden costs in terms of environmental damage and death and injuries from car accidents. The World Health Organization estimated in 2004 that car accidents kill over 40,000 people each year in the U.S. and over 1.2 million worldwide, numbers which could be enormously reduced if there was a transition to public transportation.
However, to seriously stop global warning by massively reducing car use and increasing usage of public transit, it is essential that mass transit be a more attractive and practical option for ordinary people compared to using a car as their primary mode of transportation. For this to happen a public transit system needs to be highly accessible, fast, and run 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It should also be free at the point of use.
This would be economically attractive to the majority of workers, given the cost of purchasing a car, gas, insurance, and repairs. It is estimated that transportation currently accounts for 20% of working families incomes, which is second only to housing (Bureau of Labor Statistics). So a high quality public transit system would not only be green, but it would also mean an increase in workersï¿½ living standards.
Given the huge advantages of mass transit, why doesnï¿½t the government invest in it? Clearly, the barrier is the car and oil companies, which are the largest and most powerful companies in the world. They have ferociously resisted any such move for the simple reason that it would threaten their profits.
Further, to develop a mass public transportation network on the level needed to be an attractive alternative to cars requires major public spending, which would mean taxing Corporate America. Yet the corporations fight tooth and nail to oppose any increase in their taxes (which means a cut in their profits), threatening to stop investing and to move their companies overseas if such measures were enacted.
For the sake of the narrow interests of a small elite the needs of our entire society, the future of humanity, and our planet are being sacrificed. In other words, capitalism, far from being democratic is actually a dictatorship of big business, where key economic and political decisions are decided by the giant corporations. Their economic and political power gives them a veto over societyï¿½s ability to conduct a rational, democratic discussion about a transportation and energy policy.
In addition to a mass public transportation system, the development of renewable energy also urgently needs to happen if global warming is to be stopped. The technology exists to harness wind, solar, and hydropower. Through massive investment in research and development this technology could be rapidly improved and implemented throughout society.
But as with mass transit, the conversion of society to renewable, non-polluting energy sources would also be vigorously opposed by Big Oil and other energy industries. ï¿½With incredibly high oil prices, record profits, and a trillion dollars of capital invested in drilling, refining and selling petroleum products, oil companies are not about to let the government start funding renewable energy projects on a scale that threatens their ability to squeeze every last dollar of profit out of this investmentï¿½ (Public Citizen, 9/6/06).
Exxon-Mobil alone made a record $39.5 billion in profit in 2006, more than 10 times what the U.S. government spent on all energy research.
BP, which now claims its name stands for ï¿½Beyond Petroleumï¿½ and professes to be the industry leader in renewables, spent only $800 million on solar, wind, hydrogen, and natural gas energy in 2005, less than 2% of what the company posted in stock buybacks and dividend payments (Public Citizen, 9/06).
The economic power of the big oil corporations allows them to exert a decisive control over the political system. Exxon-Mobil spent $81 million from 1998 to 2006 to deploy an army of lobbyists in Washington to influence energy policy in their favor (opensecrets.org).
The Case for Public Ownership
It is clear we have the technological and scientific capacity to stop global warming. The key barrier is the capitalist system, dominated by multinational corporations and competing nation-states.
This situation demands a fundamental, root and branch solution rather than superficial reforms or other band-aid solutions. The future of the planet and humanity demands we overthrow this system. This is only possible by taking the giant corporations that dominate the U.S. and world economy into public ownership under the democratic control of working people.
By taking the global economy out of the ownership and control of capitalist elites, the vital decisions of society would no longer be determined by the drive for profit. Decisions about how resources are distributed and which products are made and how could be made democratically rather than behind closed doors in corporate boardrooms.
The use of our resources could be planned rationally, in the interests of society as a whole, rather than being subject to the anarchy of the market. This is what is called socialism.
This would clear the way to urgently convert society from an oil based economy to renewable energy and carry out a huge research program to expand upon existing technology. The $1 trillion spent globally on the military each year (over half of which goes to the U.S. military) owing to the hostility between rival capitalist countries could be used to fund this conversion, as well as to lift billions out of poverty.
Instead of employing the majority of the best scientists to work on weapons research and other harmful ends, as is currently the case, their talents could be utilized to avoid an environmental catastrophe, as well as preventing disease and other useful things.
Smaller environmental footprint & higher living standards
Reducing greenhouse gas emissions would not require a return to a pre-industrial age. The problem is not with industry or technology in itself, but rather with who controls it and how it is run ï¿½ in the narrow interests of individual corporations, rather than society as a whole.
Nor would stopping global warming require a dramatic reduction in human population or in living standards, as some environmentalists believe. The advances in technology and productivity made over the course of the last two hundred years mean that it is now possible to provide all of humanity with quality food, clothing, and shelter, and to do it in a way that is sustainable for the environment.
This was shown in a UN Human Development Report which estimated that ï¿½the additional cost of achieving and maintaining universal access to basic education for all, basic health care for all, reproductive health care for all women, adequate food and safe water for all [is less than the combined] wealth of the [world’s] 225 richest people.ï¿½
A socialist economy could leave a much smaller environmental footprint by operating in a fashion which is qualitatively more energy efficient than capitalism, while at the same time raising living standards for workers all over the world. Huge savings would come from producing goods that are durable and designed to last, abolishing the widespread capitalist practice of ï¿½built-in obsolescence,ï¿½ where corporations design their products to deteriorate after a relatively short period of time in order to force consumers to buy new ones.
For example, Philips has a patent on a light bulb that would last for many years without burning out ï¿½ but to sell it would undermine their sales and profits. So they have mothballed this technology which would save enormous amounts of resources without in any way lowering workers living standards. In fact, developing long-lasting, durable products would mean higher quality products for consumers and improved living standards by allowing a decrease in the workweek, increasing leisure time.
Further, the $1 trillion a year spent on advertising to convince people that they need such things as Coke rather than Pepsi is an enormous waste of vast amount of paper, plastic, packaging, and energy that could be freed up for socially useful purposes.
Advantages of democratic planning
Another example of how economic planning would allow energy efficiency is housing and construction of buildings. Under capitalism construction, like all other industries, is done in a short-term fashion to maximize profits, which means shoddy quality and energy inefficient buildings which leak heat.
Instead, a planned economy could focus on making long lasting, energy efficient buildings. This would actually be more economical in the long term, better for the environment, and provide higher quality housing for ordinary people.
A socialist society could also vastly increase living standards by providing the billions of people around the world who suffer from unemployment or under-employment with jobs producing socially useful goods. Billions of people have their talents wasted under capitalism owing to hunger, poverty, and unemployment. Ending poverty and hunger and providing free education would mean a huge increase in the worldï¿½s manual and scientific labor power which could be mobilized to help solve problems facing society.
Many workers in the nuclear, auto, or other polluting industries fear that their jobs would be sacrificed by efforts to save the environment. Yet these workers ï¿½ many of whom now see their jobs threatened by their profit-hungry bosses, as in the case of the auto industry – could be employed to help convert society to renewable energy sources and building mass transit systems, among other socially useful areas of work.
Under socialism, instead of the world being a market for exploitation by a handful of huge multinational corporations, it would be organized to unite the resources and skills of workers to improve the conditions of people around the world. We could finally attain the international cooperation necessary to deal with global problems like global warming, and begin to reverse the environmental catastrophe.
Humanity cannot afford to allow the narrow profit interests of a tiny super-rich elite to cost us the planet. As the great socialist Rosa Luxemburg said, the choice facing humanity is between socialism and barbarism. The very future of the earth depends upon overthrowing the rule of profit and replacing it with democratic socialism, which can utilize the worldï¿½s resources for the common good and institute a rational plan of production.
ï¿½We must ask the question, ‘Why are there forty million poor people in America?’ï¿½ When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy ï¿½ You begin to ask the question, ‘Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that is two-thirds water?ï¿½ … Now, when I say question the whole society, it means ultimately coming to see that the problems of racism, the problem of economic exploitation, and the problem of war are all tied together.ï¿½ ï¿½ Martin Luther King Jr.
ï¿½You can’t talk about solving the economic problem of the Negro without talking about billions of dollars. You can’t talk about ending the slums without first saying profit must be taken out of slums. You’re really tampering and getting on dangerous ground because ï¿½ you are messing with captains of industryï¿½ we are saying that something is wrongï¿½ with capitalismï¿½ maybe America must move toward a democratic socialism.ï¿½ ï¿½ Martin Luther King, Jr.
ï¿½We stand today … before the awful proposition: either the triumph of imperialism and the destruction of all culture, and, as in ancient Rome, depopulation, desolation, degeneration, a vast cemetery; or, the victory of socialism.ï¿½ ï¿½ Rosa Luxemburg, revolutionary socialist who played a leading role in the Polish and German workers movements before being assassinated in 1919
ï¿½This crippling of individuals I consider the worst evil of capitalism. Our whole educational system suffers from this evil. An exaggerated competitive attitude is inculcated into the student, who is trained to worship acquisitive success as a preparation for his future career. I am convinced there is only one way to eliminate these grave evils, namely through the establishment of a socialist economy.ï¿½ – Albert Einstein
“The only moral virtue of war is that it compels the capitalist system to look itself in the face and admit it is a fraud.” – Helen Keller, fighter for the rights of the disabled, women, and workers (1880-1968)