Ecosocialism or barbarism?

Icebergs in Baffin Bay
The first in a three-part interview on capitalism and climate breakdown from the podcast Political Economy for the End Times.

If the window is still there we must do everything we can to urgently bring emissions down and stop the madness of an economic system driven by the imperative of capital accumulation.

Javier Moreno Zacares (JMZ) from Political Economy for the End of Times: I wanted to start this interview by exploring the broad question of the relationship between capitalism and the environment.

I think that a good entry point is the conceptual distinction that you draw between ‘capitalist time’ and ‘ecological time’. Can you explain what these two temporalities are and how they relate to one another? 

Gareth Dale (GD): Human beings relate to various systems through different temporalities. That is, the different rhythms of time and the different ways in which humans relate to time. In my essay for The Ecologist  that you are referring to, I look at three of those: geological time, ecological time, and capitalist time. All social systems are ways of organizing behaviour and time.

Under capitalism, the aim is to increase profit and save time. This accounts for some of its central dynamics: The systematic disciplining of labour and the segregation of labour from the rest of human experience, which enables labour-time to be marked out and measured. The continual acceleration of labour-processes through technical and social change. The fetishism of technology, which has a key role in displacing labour and decreasing the circulation time of capital. And also, of course, the systematic degradation of the natural environment. In a sense, capitalism eats time, and in the process erases nature.

Capitalist time is abstracted from ecological time in a way that is very different from previous societies. As capitalism took over the world from the seventeenth to twentieth centuries, it imposed its regime of abstract time. It weaponised it and used it as a justification for the occupation and domination of the peoples it encountered. Even the concept of ‘the savage’ was based on the belief that to be fully human required you to have your rituals and behaviours sharply separated from the rhythms of nature.

If the window is still there we must do everything we can to urgently bring emissions down and stop the madness of an economic system driven by the imperative of capital accumulation.

So, what about ecological time? The term was coined by the anthropologist Evans Pritchard and it refers to human beings’ interaction with natural processes. It’s been generally understood as something cyclical and continuous, something that endures. And although in the past humans have destabilised their environments (and therefore their ecological times as well), what we are seeing today is ecological time changing on a global scale, which means that we can no longer think of the planetary future as a stable predictable continuation of the present.

The capitalist system is producing profound twists in temporality. This is occurring above all through fossil fuel extraction and here you can see here the temporalities at work quite vividly. Fossil fuel companies dig down into the lithosphere, through the geological layers, the layers of time if you like – the Carboniferous layer, the Jurassic, the Cretaceous – and from there they exhume carbon deposits from the geological past. This brings profits to those companies in the present, through the energy which they sell. This energy is then pumped out as exhaust carbon into the atmosphere, which cues up multiple infernos for the future.

And then there’s the twist that comes with the inertia of climate processes, including oceanic thermal inertia, and because of the role of climate feedback mechanisms in accelerating climate change into the future, we are not yet experiencing anything like the full impact of the acts of fossil fuel companies in the present.

All this affects our sense of temporality. If you look at traditional socialist or liberal perspectives, the assumption was always one of an unchanging environment stretching away into the future. The future society that socialists, for example, imagined, would be constructed in an essentially static and bountiful natural environment.

But climate change and the trashing of the other biophysical limits that we are seeing at the moment has turned all this upside down. It raises the question – what is the timescale of human need?

In the traditional leftist dichotomy, the left presents itself as for ‘people,’ an economy based on human need, against the right, who favour an economy geared to profit. In temporal terms, ‘profit’ refers to the short-term financial interests of the rich and the annual shareholders’ dividend; that’s the dominant force that shapes the world today.

But what of the temporality of ‘people’? Is this a short-term category or long-term? If we are arguing for a society based on human need and not corporate and shareholder profit, do we mean the needs of people today, in fifty years time, or five thousand? 

Our hope must be that if people gather in social movements, engage collectively and gain strength, you tend to see the compass of human concern extending across space—from the individual and the family to the world as a whole; hopefully that’ll occur on the temporal plane too: the scope of care and solidarity will stretch towards the future.

JMZ: You talk about how preceding political theories have always assumed the linear continuity of the world and the environment. What does the possibility of a civilizational collapse mean for the left? How should the left tackle this idea?

GD: A fascinating paper came out a year or two ago called ‘Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene.’ The scientists that wrote it describe vividly the track that the earth system is on. The trajectory is of the planet barrelling towards a ‘hothouse earth,’ with escalating feedback mechanisms: the ice melting and no longer reflecting the sun’s energy back into space, forests burning, oceans releasing more and more carbon dioxide, methane emitted from tundra, and so on.

The threat is cascading tipping points, leading to escalating climate catastrophe - conceivably a rise of 7°C by the end of the century, which would be devastating for the planet. 

And then they chart an alternative: with radical action on a global scale very soon, you could perhaps see a stabilisation of the earth system. Think of it in terms of the trolley car meme. If you look down the tram track we are on, you will see most of the species of the planet are clamped onto the main track and they are all going to be run over, including possibly homo sapiens. But we’re at a junction and the tram could fork and avoid much of that damage. The problem is: the driver up front is capital, it works to keep most of us in our seats, and we have not yet found a way to rush up and apply the emergency brake.

In a sense, then, this is an incredibly exciting time to be alive because the future of the world is at stake in a very material way, the habitability of the biosphere for most mammals, we could materially influence if we act quickly, but it’s also a frustrating, a maddening moment because the driver of the tram is capital and because most of the earth is bound up in circuits of capitalist competition under the compulsion of revenue growth, and because it owns most of the world, including our jobs and our economic futures, much of the time we have to do what it tells us.

Then again, it’s also possible that we have already gone past that critical junction. A recent report in Nature journal entitled ‘Climate tipping points – too risky to bet against’ portrays the risk of climate change accelerating unstoppably, the feedback mechanisms unleashing extraordinary force, massive bombs of methane hydrates bubbling up from under the seas, and so on. Sometimes people warn that talking in such terms is ‘catastrophist’, but in truth it's sober realism. It’s a recognition that the worst-case scenarios are very extreme—and more likely than the IPCC has countenanced in its reports until recently.

So we might be standing at an all-or-nothing moment in human and planetary history. There might be a window of just a couple of decades in which with a radical reduction in emissions some kind of stabilization would be possible. But perhaps not, perhaps the window has already been smashed. Perhaps the tipping points will inevitably cascade, taking the carbon in the oceans and in the atmosphere soaring past levels where humans can do anything to pull it back. But would this mean we should give up fighting? No, the opposite.

If the window is still there we must do everything we can to urgently bring emissions down and stop the madness of an economic system driven by the imperative of capital accumulation. But even in the second case, if the window has been smashed, it makes the imperative of class struggle and socialism all the more urgent. In the second case, some kind of global civilizational collapse would likely occur at some point.

How? It could look like a multiple concurrent breakdowns in the production of several staple crops—a series of ‘multi-breadbasket failures’, with problems of drought and water provision. In the recent drought in South India, the state was able to contain it there by bringing in water by the trainload. But what if state capacities were breaking down and food prices soaring at the same time? What then?

Some environmentalists assume it would be a kind of Malthusian catastrophe: food production insufficient to feed the human population, leading to the mass starvation of poor people. (The rich world would of course buy the food it needs.) But that’s misleading, for several reasons.

First, there is far more food being produced than is needed. Half of it is wasted; a great deal is badly distributed (too much for some, too little for others). But beyond that, we have the ability to produce far more efficiently. So, for example, instead of huge swathes of the US Midwest covered in crops for biofuels, why not plant crops to feed humans instead?

Or look at meat production, which is an astonishingly inefficient way of converting soil, sunlight and rain into amino acids, carbohydrates and so on. In the space of a few years, you could switch from industrial agriculture (efficient only in terms of profit) to small farm-based agroecology (efficient in terms of resource use).

So, what does this mean? It means that if a multi-breadbasket failure were to occur, it would only be at the most a semi-Malthusian crisis (a crisis of ‘too little’). Largely it would remain a crisis of distribution—and that can be solved politically. You’d need to stop the agri-businesses and speculators from cornering the market to profit from spikes in food prices. You’d need perhaps to locate the granaries, break into them, fight off the security guards and the police, commandeer ships, sail the grains to where they are needed, and distribute them. All of this is possible and would be urgently necessary in that kind of scenario.

JMZ: So, it’s ecosocialism or barbarism. 

GD: Yes, very much. 

These Authors

Javier Moreno Zacares is a Leverhulme research fellow at the University of Warwick. Follow him on Twitter @HarveyMurenow. He runs Political Economy for the End Times with Jack Copley, a lecturer in political economy at the university of Bath. Follow Jack on Twitter @JackCopley6. 

Gareth Dale teaches politics at Brunel University. He is a co-editor of Green Growth (Zed, 2016). His articles are available here. Follow him on Twitter @Gareth_Dale.

Listen to the full interview with Political Economy for the End Times. The interview took place on 28 November 2019. You will be able to read part two here on Tuesday and part three here next week.

Image: © Greenpeace.

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