Friday, March 22, 2019

A socialist approach to climate crisis


I ended my previous post with the call for “a different kind of government with the political will to lead, coordinate and consolidate the transition, a government based on the support and protagonism of the victims of climate change, not its perpetrators.”

In that post I canvassed some of the major tasks that must be undertaken starting now and continuing throughout the transition to a non-capitalist, ecosocialist future. These tasks, already identified and pursued by the movement seeking “system change, not climate change,” are best understood and combined through a strategy that aims to put state power in the hands of the popular classes, through a government of the workers and farmers — those who, through their labour, transform Earth’s natural resources into our means of subsistence and fulfilment.

The Communist Manifesto succinctly described this transition as a revolution that would “raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class” and “use its political supremacy to wrest, by degree, all capital from the bourgeoisie” through “despotic inroads on the rights of property, and on the conditions of bourgeois production.”

What would a revolutionary government look like, and how would it differ from the ostensibly “socialist” governments of the 20th century such as the Soviet Union and its closest allies? These questions — long debated in the left — are addressed with considerable adroitness and foresight in a pamphlet published a full 20 years ago by what was then the Democratic Socialist Party of Australia. The Green Tax Fraud, by Dick Nichols, expressed the position of the DSP (now the Socialist Alliance) on some responses to the environmental crisis by “mainstream environmentalism.” It focussed on exposing the ineffectiveness of carbon taxes and similar policies that inherently fail to address and overcome the dynamics of capitalist profit and infinite growth that are leading us to climate catastrophe.

I excerpt below a chapter of this pamphlet that not only critiques the environmental record of the “state socialism” of the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and China, but also provides some valuable insights into alternative approaches taken by revolutionary Cuba in the 1990s and by Sandinista Nicaragua in the 1980s in very difficult circumstances: in Cuba’s case, a deep economic crisis resulting from the fall of its Soviet trade partner; in Nicaragua’s case, a debilitating counter-revolutionary war that was undermining its efforts to overcome capitalist underdevelopment and inequality.

The author, Dick Nichols, in recent years has been the Barcelona-based correspondent of Green Left Weekly, covering major developments in the European left and, most recently, the Catalan independence struggle. In the excerpt below, I have omitted a few paragraphs (mainly outdated material) and renumbered the footnotes. A box on Nicaragua is included here as an appendix to the main text.

Richard Fidler

* * *

Socialist Solutions

By Dick Nichols

Our argument so far confirms that capitalism will continue to have a very difficult time proving that it has the answers to our environment crisis. But is the socialist case any more credible? Why isn’t the deadly environmental record of the departed and departing “state socialism” of the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and China proof that socialism’s environmental crisis is just as systemic and inevitable as capitalism’s? Why should we give any credence to the socialist claim that only economic planning resting on socialist democracy can hope to resolve the crisis?

The most environmentally damning feature of bureaucratically planned economies was their general inefficiency compared to the advanced capitalist West. As a result their products carried an “ecological rucksack” many times heavier that of their Western equivalents. The fact, too, that these economies were “resource-constrained”—that is, produced to capacity and piled up huge stocks of inputs and final products “just in case”—has led many economists to theorise that planned economy must sooner or later become an obstacle to further productivity growth. Therefore, planned economy must necessarily block any possibility of sustainable development.

This theorem overlooks the fact that the wellsprings of productivity growth are a combination of three elements: the stage of development of science and technology, the extent to which these are applied to production and the degree to which the mass of working people are engaged and interested in making this evolving economic apparatus work to its potential.

In addition, Marxists like Harry Braverman and environmentalists like Barry Commoner long ago pointed out that the nature and pace of technology development is no class-neutral datum—something automatically brought into being by the state of scientific knowledge. It is constrained by the basic imperatives of the prevailing economic system, under capitalism being typically moulded by the need to control the labour process and produce the class of output that will yield highest unit profit.

Technological development is also determined by how much is spent on it. For example, capitalist technology development is greatly shaped by the fact that state research and development budgets for environmentally benign technology are either stagnant or falling while two-thirds of the world’s scientists are doing work for the military. The internal research of the corporations is driven by the need to find products that will produce monopoly superprofits (like grains that last one season or crops that depend on being drenched in one particular company’s pesticide).

Nor does “planning” exist in a social vacuum. Only through the participation and full empowerment of an environmentally aware people can a planned economy realise its potential as a healer of past environmental wounds and provide a framework for sustainability. Remove the vital ingredient of democracy and decisions on all the vital issues of technology and development become the domain of an unaccountable bureaucracy and mass alienation rapidly takes root. Such was the socio-economic lesson of the Soviet “stagnation period” (1969-89). By contrast—and this has been the formative experience for many environmentalists over the past decade—the methods of capitalist ecoreformism can bring better results.

The failure of the planned economies of Eastern Europe to go over from the “extensive” development model of the early Five Year Plans to an efficient “intensive” economy—the precondition for attacking the burgeoning environmental crisis—was due to the alienation of the workers, the conservatism of economic managers, the excessively low wage (which encouraged the flogging of old polluting machinery instead of investment in new) and the non-application of developments in science and technology, in turn mostly due to bureaucratic fear of failure.

It was also due to the triumph under Stalinism of the following view of socialist construction, which trampled Soviet ecological thinking (the most advanced in the world during the 1920s) under foot:

Let the fragile green breast of Siberia be dressed in the cement armour of cities, armed with the stone muzzles of factory chimneys, and girded with iron belts of railroads. Let the taiga be burned and felled, let the steppes be trampled…. Only in cement and iron can the fraternal union of all peoples, the iron brotherhood of all mankind, be forged.”[1]

That is to say, the environmental crisis in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe was not due to the intrinsic features of a society in transition to socialism—social ownership of the major means of production and economic planning.

Indeed, the Stalinist counterrevolution that began in the late 1920s meant that planned, socialised economy was blocked from working to anything like its full potential. The socialist revolution equips society with the key weapons for the war against resource depletion and pollution by removing the vested interests of the private capitalists. How does this work?

Firstly, social ownership of major industry and the finance sector enables the implementation of emergency plans of large-scale environmental repair. By eliminating all the contradictory interests of competing capitalists—which make environmentally effective green taxation such a rarity—it enables policy to be directed straight at the sources of resource depletion and pollution.

Secondly, resources presently squandered in the luxury consumption of the rich can be redirected, helping fund the vast increase needed in spending on environmental repair and conversion.

Thirdly, the elimination of such a critical underpinning of capitalism as the business secret and patent rights allows the most environmentally benign technology to be applied across the board, instead of being jealously guarded as one or two companies’ fount of super profits.

Fourthly, it empowers the environmental movement, presently dispersed and fragmented, to concentrate its energies in a permanent and organised crusade against environmental degradation.

Lastly, in the underdeveloped countries, it opens the way to large-scale land reform, which is the precondition for relieving the environmental pressure superficially due to “rural overpopulation.”

In the short run the most important element is the explosion of popular energy that a revolution brings. Indeed, even working life in the advanced capitalist economies provides glimpses of the potential for harnessing people’s latent commitment to the environment. […]

Probably the most advanced attempt to harness workers’creativity to the cause of environmentally and socially useful production was the Lucas Aerospace Combine Shop Stewards Committee plan. Instead of the “defence” hardware which was the firm’s staple, the Lucas shop stewards developed such projects as solar power and wind generators, heat exchangers, a road-rail vehicle, a hybrid petrol-electric car and an airship using jump jets to avoid helium waste. The production processes developed did not waste raw materials, were labour-intensive, were non-hierarchical and non-alienating, required discussions with the final consumers, and were designed to break down the divisions between skilled and unskilled jobs.[2] From a global perspective the potential gains in energy efficiency and resource usage in an economy where the collective intelligence and interest of the real producers is engaged and harnessed is immense. For example, Amory Lovins, in a classic 1981 study, calculated that a world populated by eight billion people could, with “best practice” energy use, be industrialised to the West German level while cutting total energy use to a third.

[…] there is an enormous unused human potential waiting to be drawn into the job of saving the ecosphere. The question is: how best to summon it into life?

The 1979 Nicaraguan Revolution, led by the Sandinistas but crushed through the US-backed war of the contras 10 years later, is the best recent illustration of how this is to be done. The appended text below, based on a recent article of Daniel Faber, [3] provides a short summary of its achievements in the environmental field, which were partially based on a critical analysis of Soviet shortcomings. In Faber’s words:

One of the lessons provided by the legacy of the former Soviet Union and other Eastern European countries is that any socialist society which institutes social ownership of the means of production without establishing systems of genuine democratic social control by the people is doomed to be a political and ecological failure. Characterised by top-down systems of party/bureaucratic rules which sever links with both people and nature, really existing state socialist societies resorted to what was in effect a rightist politics of commandism.... [T]he Nicaraguan revolution would have to promote new forms of democratic state planning and administration which increased the power of the people themselves to exercise control over the major political, social and economic institutions in society.[4]

In the longer run, social control of technological development allows planned conversion to the foundations of sustainability. It would permit, to take one very insidious example, the elimination of chlorine-based production, which does not occur in nature, is poisoning our ecosphere and which grew “not so much by creating new industries as by taking over existing forms of production…. It grew through a virulent form of industrial imperialism.”[5]

If Cuba, even under the pressure of the criminal US economic blockade, can become a world leader in bio-technology and “green medicine,” then the application of even half the research and development effort that is producing the latest in lethal weaponry would rapidly open up “soft technology paths” in all industrial and agricultural sectors.

In the Cuban case the collapse of the old “socialist bloc” threw into crisis the “classical model” of conventional modern agriculture—based on extensive monocultures and a high degree of mechanisation and fertiliser and pesticide use—because all these inputs were obtained at subsidised prices from former Comintern economies. However, because Cuba had built up a stock of scientific knowledge and a well-developed agricultural research infrastructure, it was able, in desperate circumstances, to undertake what is essentially the largest conversion from conventional agriculture to organic or semi-organic farming that the world has ever seen.

This was made possible by the investment of an estimated $12 billion in the 1980s in developing “human capital” and infrastructure in biotechnology, health sciences, computer hardware and software and robotics, an investment partially driven by a developing disillusionment with a model of agriculture that was generating growing pesticide resistance and soil erosion.[6]

Cuba gives a glimpse of the enormous potential of socialist methods.

In 1987 the Institutes of Botany and Zoology merged to form the Institute of Ecology and Systematics of the Cuban Academy of Sciences, and the first international symposium on these topics was held in Havana in 1988. Ecology was now a respected and legitimate branch of biology with public visibility.

Ecologists are able to promote their programme through several channels. In the laboratories and institutions charged with pest control they adopt their own research plans in assemblies of the collective. Ecologists also address themselves through the mass organisations (the union, women’s federation,[7] student organisations) and the Communist Youth and Communist Party.[8] They write for the popular press, work with amateur innovators’ groups, and are increasingly seeking a role in the training of agricultural technicians. As individuals, some ecologists have been elected to the Assemblies of People’s Power, the legislative bodies at the municipal, provincial and national levels.

There is thus a growing ecological movement in Cuba. But it is not an ecological movement in the sense of those in Europe or North America. It is not a distinct political movement such as the Greens, nor is it an opposition movement confronting a resistant government and corporations, nor is it yet an “official” movement of the sort set up by governments to say yes. Cuban ecology activists are political, committed revolutionaries who see their struggles for ecologically sound policies as part of the duty of communists in building a new society with its own relation to nature.[9] The working method of the Cuban ecologists is educational, at the levels of society as a whole, government, and the party. In their view, ignorance, developmentalism, and economic urgency are their main adversaries. But the problem is not the lack of channels for expression but the resistance of opposing ideas. In the absence of greed as a major interest to overcome, discussions are not confrontational.[10]

This is the social essence of alternative to the false dilemma of end-of-the-pipe regulation or green taxes that supposedly drive “entrepreneurial creativity.” Public ownership of the key means of production combined with class power in the hands of an environmentally aware working people, offers the possibility of drawing on the stifled creativity, not of a handful of entrepreneurs, but of the vast mass of population.

How then, more specifically, can the instruments of democratic socialist planning tackle the tasks of meeting sustainability?

First, in a democratic, post-revolutionary state the struggle to harmonise the still conflicting demands of growth and the environment is conducted on a social playing field—the institutions of working-class democracy with its parties, workers’ collectives, scientific institutions, media and governing organs. Through the politics of their debates and struggles (which of course will always rely on some element of economic valuation) a more accurate measure of the social value of the environment can be established and an overall development plan implemented that is compatible with environmental restoration and preservation.

The establishment of full social control over production decisions also sets the right context for decision-making on the issues that almost totally exhaust mainstream environmental discussion, namely the relative virtues of market-based and regulatory instruments. A post-revolutionary society that leaves a space for the market will, for example, be free to decide the extent to which it should use environmental taxes and charges.

It also allows the best use of techniques like full cost accounting, cost-benefit analysis, cradle-to-grave accounting and input-output analysis, often so open to abuse and so sensitive. to initial assumptions (or too revealing about the full range of costs involved with capitalist production). Under planned economy there is also greater latitude for choosing a discount rate that will induce the producing units to switch over to renewable energy more rapidly than might otherwise have been the case

(Given the present embattled position of post-capitalist societies—and the tenuous position of countries like Cuba and Vietnam which retain some degree of revolutionary democracy—the value of such resources as tropical rainforest as an ecosystem compared to its value as timber for export will continue to present difficult, inescapable choices with which many environmentalists will disagree. Cuba’s flirtation with nuclear power is a case in point.)

Secondly, one of the powerful anti-environmental pressures operating in “state socialism” was the need of the bureaucracy, which had no intention of setting an example of austere living itself, to provide the population with distracting “bread and circuses”—a “socialist” consumerism that sadly mimicked the West’s. However, the greater people’s real control of economic and environmental decision-making—the lower the degree of social alienation—the less will be the pressure for consumerism, especially in those economies which can already readily meet basic human needs.

Thirdly, a post-revolutionary society will also be able to apply the precautionary principle. Our knowledge of how ecosystems work is still limited, and the possibility of unwitting environmental damage and loss is great. At the same time, because any effective programme of environmental conversion will involve a radical change in the scale and nature of consumption as well as the closing down of environmentally unsustainable industry and agriculture, the transition phase to sustainability will require conscious restraint from an environmentally aware population.

Such restraint is impossible to achieve in capitalist society— where the rule of profit-making creates extremes of wealth and poverty on an expanding scale—without coercion by the capitalist state. Its ethic of individualism and consumerism clashes directly with any sense of environmental responsibility, as shown in the reaction to price rises introduced by Britain’s newly privatised water companies.

A substantial proportion of customers associate these price rises with privatisation, the enhanced profitability of the water companies, dividend payment to shareholders’ and directors’ salaries. The capital investments undertaken by the companies and improvements in some aspects of customer service are at best imperfectly perceived. Customer attitudes towards the water industry have undoubtedly changed; they are less willing to accept what they see as system failures, are less prepared to cooperate with the companies in reducing consumption during drought periods, and are increasingly resistant to the notion that the companies should be able to restrict their usage by imposing hosepipe bans. Such attitude changes were clearly seen over the dry, hot summer of 1995; many customers reacted with hostility to the idea that their increased demands were to blame for shortages and they saw it as the function of commercial companies to meet all legitimate supply requirements (including garden watering).[11]

Fourth, a society ruled by democratic socialist planning will be able to establish an “economic Plimsoll line” marking the sustainable scale of production. Once people, through their elected representatives, can compare the costs of different scales of production, the best scale possible can be decided and the disastrous “giantism” of typical Soviet production units avoided. It will also be possible to pay full attention to the demands of bioregionalism and local production. Decentralisation and the gradual overcoming of the difference between the city and countryside will likewise become increasingly feasible.

Richard Levins draws out the link between right-scale technology and social regime in the case of Cuban agriculture:

The gentler the technology, the more site specific it has to be. The adaptation of a technology suited to every microsite is beyond the capacity of even the most affluent extension service. Rather, the technology has to be developed on the farm through a collaboration of the farmers who have a detailed, intimate, local knowledge of their own circumstances and the off-farm scientists who can provide the general, theoretically based and abstract knowledge that requires some distancing from the particular. This interaction is only possible when the parties meet on terms of equality and mutual respect. In class-divided societies this is extremely difficult to achieve. In Cuba, the fact that many of the agricultural scientists come from peasant backgrounds makes it easier.[12]

In such a context of post-revolutionary democracy the “Ecology of the Poor,” symbolised by such figures as the Amazon’s Chico Mendes and Mexico’s Zapatistas, can attain its fullest influence, as a tradition imparting precious environmental knowledge and skills.

All this goes to underline one reality: that social ownership of the major means of production and democratic social ownership of decision-making is the only way of running society that is compatible with an environment which is itself ever increasingly social. It is the only road to a “steady state,” sustainable economy.

Levins sums up his experience:

[…] of a socialist economy in which there is no profit-oriented chemical industry pushing pesticides, and in which the conscious goal of planning is a better, more abundant and healthier life. Difficulties arise when intermediate goals toward these ends take on a life of their own, become the measure of an enterprise’s contribution to society, and seem to conflict with the long-term goals. Although socialism is all too obviously no guarantee that intermediate goals will not obstruct ecological wisdom, it does practically eliminate vested economic interest in perpetuating harmful practices. Therefore, a debate over technological directions is only an argument, a confrontation of opposing beliefs, but not a confrontation of opposing interests.

This gives a different feel to argument even against stubborn ignorance. It makes strong argument effective and makes convincing the other party more important than the simple exercise of power. It also affects the style of struggle, which starts from the premise of comrades struggling with each other for a shared goal and is more educational than oppositional…. The debate also takes place within a theoretical commitment to Marxism with its emphasis on the historical contingency of science and technology, the importance of looking at the whole, the recognition of complexity, process and contradiction. This provides the tools for challenging technocratic developmentalist assumptions.

At a time when ecological issues are becoming major political concerns throughout the world, the Cuban struggle should be watched closely and actively supported. The different texture of the struggle in Cuba from that in capitalist countries reveals the intensely political character of human ecology. Its victories under difficult circumstances show just a little of the potential of socialism and of Marxism in negotiating a new relation with nature. If allowed to continue its socialist development, Cuba may yet become a world ecological power as well as a medical one.[13]

In short, the only possible “sustainability transition” is that which can be carried out by an environmentally aware people in control of their own destiny.

Environmental achievements of the Nicaraguan revolution

Agrarian Reform: On the basis of its 1984 Agrarian Reform, which gave poor peasants more than 10 times the land they had owned before the revolution, IRENA (the Nicaraguan Institute for Natural Resources and the Environment) began a series of campaigns to address problems of deforestation, erosion and fertility loss in the country’s major watersheds. These included the building of 4220 torrent-regulating dykes and the restoration of 500,000 acres of tropical dry forest and farmland in the degraded Pacific highlands.

Under this programme the Western Erosion Control Project planted some 3000 trees daily over a two-year period, creating 745 miles of windbreaks in the region’s cotton-growing areas. At the same time the rate of deforestation was cut from 1009 square kilometres a year in the late 1970s (the highest in the Central American region) to 500 square kilometres by 1985 (among the region’s lowest): This was because the agrarian reform lifted the pressure on tropical rainforests from landless peasants in search of subsistence farming plots.

Wildlife Protection: Before 1979 Nicaragua was a Central American leader in the hunting and export of rare and endangered species. After the revolution, because the Sandinistas nationalised the country’s import/export banks, IRENA was able to implement an effective ban on the export of endangered species. Most exemplary was the Sea Turtle Conservation Campaign, in which local communities participated in the sustainable management of their own marine resources.

Energy and Appropriate Technology: One of the chief causes of habitat destruction and deforestation was the peasantry’s lack of access to alternative energy sources to wood, which accounted for over half the country’s energy output. In response CITA (the Centre for Appropriate Technology Research) launched a series of renewable energy projects, covering windmills, hand-pumps, biogas and more efficient wood stoves.

On a larger scale, as part of a project to reduce the country’s dependence on oil imports INE (the Nicaraguan Energy Institute) initiated geothermal projects (based on the country’s volcanoes) as well as a series of hydroelectrical and biomass projects based on sugar cane waste.

Pest management: Nicaragua before the revolution was drenched in DDT, with hundreds of workers dying each year from pesticide poisoning and mother’s milk showing up to 45 times the World Health Organisation’s “safe” limit. Between 1979 and 1982 the Sandinistas banned the use of eight of the world’s 12 most dangerous pesticides and generalised a UN programme in non-chemical Integrated Pest Management. As a result by 1982 pesticide imports by volume had fallen by 45 per cent and by 1985 the IPM programme had expanded to cover 45 per cent of the cotton crop, the largest such programme in Central, and possibly Latin, America. Daniel Faber comments:

Nicaragua’s IPM programme became exemplary of the integral role performed by revolutionary ecology in the process of social transformation. First, IPM promoted greater national independence. Since the science was “home grown”, the IPM programme dramatically lessened the country’s dependence on millions of dollars in expensive chemical imports from multinational corporations, thereby freeing up scarce foreign exchange for the building of schools, health clinics, environmental restoration, and other programmes designed to improve the lives of the popular classes. Secondly, IPM promoted social and environmental justice by improving environmental quality and worker/public health. Thirdly, IPM contributed to a new sustainable development model. By overcoming the dynamics of the pesticide treadmill the IPM programme better enabled Nicaragua to overcome many of the major ecological and economic contradictions which . periodically plague export agriculture in the Third World. Finally, IPM technology promoted greater ecological democracy in that the successful application of the science required democratic state planning, including the close cooperation of coalitions within the Labour Ministry, workers’ associations and unions, the Health Ministry, environmentalists, national and international scientists and doctors, the Agricultural Ministry and growers’ associations, and other non-governmental organisations. As such, these efforts to safeguard environmental and human health while increasing economic productivity made the Sandinista government’s pesticide policy a model for “productive conservation” for the entire Third World. (Op. cit., p. 68)

[1] Address of V. Zazunbrin to the First Congress of Soviet Writers in 1926, cited in Martin Cock and Bill Hopwood, Global Warming: Socialism and the Environment, Militant Publications, Guildford, 1996, p. 150.

[2] “The Lucas plan was rejected by all elements of the British establishment, including management, conservative trade unionists (one complaining that it would change British society!), academic ‘leaders’ and most of the Labour Government, whose initial encouragement was sustained by only a few, like Tony Benn. This is unsurprising since it was revolutionary, proposing industrial restructuring in the interests of labour; redefining wealth by rediscovering William Morris’ definition (‘working cheerfully at producing the things we all genuinely want’); redefining, therefore, economic rationality; challenging labour vanguardist views that average workers can do little more than to describe their grievances; reasserting working people’s right to associate (across unions); exposing the hidden values behind seemingly neutral, technical, ‘rational’ management and challenging its right to manage, at least without accountability to workers: as Lucas workers at Shipley are reported to have said: ‘In our experience management is not a skill or craft. It is a command relationship, a habit picked up at public school, in the church or from the army. And we can well do without it.’”—David Pepper, Eco-socialism, Routledge, London and New York, 1993, page 239.

[3] Daniel Faber, “La Liberacion del Medio Ambiente: The Rise and Fall of Revolutionary Ecology in Nicaragua, 1979-1999,” in Capitalism, Nature, Socialism, Issue 37, (Volume 10, Number 1), pp. 45-80.

[4] Daniel Faber, op. cit., p. 58.

[5] Barry Commoner, quoted in Peter Montague, Rachel’s Hazardous Waste News, Number 390, 1994.

[6] For a detailed account see Peter Rosset and Medea Benjamin, The Greening of the Revolution, Ocean Press, Australia, 1994.

[7] Women are prominent in the leadership of Cuban science and have played an active role in the development of agroecology. The president of the Academy of Sciences, the director of the Institute of Ecology and Systematics, half the department heads in the institute, the director of the citrus experiment station and several of its leaders are women (author’s note).

[8] I once attended a meeting of biologists called by a local party group to discuss what to present at a national meeting on ecology and development. They were concerned about prejudices among economists who tend to dismiss ecological arguments as “idealistic,” and were developing the counter-argument that it is the height of idealism to imagine that we can make a plan and nature will have to obey (author’s note).

[9] Some struggles will be more difficult than others. For example, the desire of government to promote tourism for foreign exchange is encouraging development plans along the coast which could ruin the offshore cays. The dependence on imported oil makes arguments about nuclear energy more difficult. The economic role of sugar and its institutionalisation in a separate ministry will make the shift to multipurpose farming more traumatic (author’s note).

[10] Richard Levins, “The Struggle for Ecological Agriculture in Cuba,” Capitalism, Nature, Socialism Number Five (October 1990), pages 125-126.

[11] Judith Rees, “Toward Implementation Realities,” in Timothy O’Riordan (ed.), Ecotaxation, Earthscan, London, 1997, p. 289.

[12] Richard Levins, op. cit., p. 138.

[13] Richard Levins, op. cit., page 140 (italics added).

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Rethinking some dominant approaches to climate change

The following is a slightly edited text of a presentation I made to open a discussion on this topic at the Free Transit Ottawa membership meeting March 6, 2019. It is now posted on FTO’s Facebook page. – Richard Fidler

Climate change is the most visible, most threatening expression of a larger, planetary ecological crisis, the result of an economic system (capitalism) with an inherent growth and profit dynamic which ensures that the exploitation of natural resources (both renewable and non-renewable) exceeds the carrying capacity of nature. You have read the almost-daily scientific reports, each more alarming than the ones before, on the scope of the crisis. I won’t belabour the point.

Our approach must be informed by, and congruent with, the challenge that crisis poses to the way society must be organized if we are to halt and reverse the ecological catastrophe toward which we are now hurtling.

The Trudeau government’s approach

At Paris in 2015, the prime minister pledged to limit Canada’s share of increased climate warming to no more than 1.5 degrees. That translates into a 30% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) below 2005 levels. The First Ministers agreed to this in 2016.

The federal policy is set out in what they call the Pan-Canadian Framework on Green Growth and Climate Change. It has “four main pillars: pricing carbon pollution; complementary measures to further reduce emissions across the economy; measures to adapt to the impacts of climate change and build resilience; and actions to accelerate innovation, support clean technology, and create jobs.”

Carbon pricing is the key “pillar” and it takes two forms:

1. A carbon tax, gradually increased over time to encourage households and industries to reduce carbon consumption. All revenues revert to the provinces, 90% going to households. A levy on large industrial polluters took effect January 1, and one on fossil fuels will begin in April, initially at $20 a tonne, to increase to $50 a tonne in 2022. Major exemptions are provided for strategic industries, including oil and gas, to protect “competitiveness.”

In fact, carbon taxes will always be limited to ensure that Canadian businesses are not disadvantaged by competitors’ prices and to avoid economic disruption that would motivate greater market intervention. But they are largely ineffective in reducing GHG emissions.

Both the UN Environment Program and the OECD have noted the inadequacy of Canada’s emissions reduction targets.

2. Carbon offset schemes. Businesses invest in environmental projects around the world to balance their own carbon footprints. These projects are usually based in underdeveloped countries, and are designed to reduce future emissions through introducing clean energy technologies or, for example, to offset pollution in the North through promoting reforestation in the South.

An example is “cap-and-trade.” The government sets a cap (limit) on the amount of GHG emissions various industries can emit into the atmosphere. The limit is gradually reduced over time to decrease total pollution levels.

That’s the theory. What it amounts to is issuing permits to pollute, which can be traded on carbon markets like stocks on the stock market. The market sets the price. These schemes essentially give companies (with enough money) a right to pollute, rather than forcing them to reduce pollution.

The system makes pollution a commodity through credits and offsets that allow for financial corporations to profit from polluting industries. Some provinces have adopted similar plans. Others are challenging carbon taxes in the courts. The Ford government cancelled Ontario’s cap-and-trade program along with hundreds of renewable energy projects (wind, solar, thermal) already under way.

The fundamental flaw

As James Wilt noted in the Briarpatch article posted to our list,[1] carbon pricing doesn’t regulate emissions, it just puts a price on them based on an arbitrary calculation, the “social cost of carbon,” that tends to ignore the “externalities” — the cumulative emissions, feedback loops, and disproportionate impacts of climate change on countries in the Global South. These are not encompassed in corporate cost-benefit analysis. For business, they are just a cost of doing business.

Wilt describes the carbon tax as “a deeply neoliberal and individualistic” approach that “often excludes or minimizes impacts on fossil fuel corporations while downloading moral and financial responsibility on households that burn fossil fuels for transportation or heating. Perhaps most concerning of all is the way it serves to create resentment for – and siphon energy from – far more ambitious climate policy that would rapidly cut emissions, guarantee jobs, and improve public services for all.”

However, Canadian authorities, far from passively relying on market mechanisms, are quite capable of aggressive action to implement their goals where these are integral to their strategic profit and growth concerns. Missing from the Pan-Canadian Framework is the other, more important component of the Trudeau government’s climate approach: promoting further oil and gas exploitation and export, especially through building pipeline and rail capacity. This endeavour totally conflicts with its carbon-reduction promises.

In 2018 alone, the federal government announced $19 billion in new investments in dirty oil.[2] $4.5 billion went to the purchase of the Trans Mountain pipeline. (The Parliamentary budget director says the government paid one billion too much.) The new pipeline will triple the quantity of oil transported, at a cost to taxpayers of $9.7 billion. Once operational, it will increase the number of supertankers in the Vancouver harbour from 40 to 600 per year. As the owner of this major pipeline, but also its regulatory authority, the government has placed itself in a huge conflict-of-interest situation.[3]

Bill C-69, now in the Senate, will abolish the National Energy Board (NEB), substitute the Canadian Energy Regulator and establish a separate Impact Assessment Agency with a priority to “foster sustainability.” But as the pipeline owner, Ottawa has a fiduciary obligation to maximize future oil shipments and revenues, accelerate approvals and construction, curtail protests from the public and First Nations, and even counter judicial opposition from the B.C. government.

And that’s not all. Last fall, Finance Minister Morneau announced $2.7 billion in support for investments to encourage oil companies to invest and produce more. In January, Trudeau announced $1.7 billion more in credit lines to the oil industry. And Alberta, frustrated by the delays in the Trans Mountain project, will lease 4,400 railway cars which it says will move up to 120,00 barrels of oil per day by rail by 2020.

Trudeau has of course come out in support of the $40 billion LNG Canada project in northern British Columbia, the largest infrastructure project in Canadian history. LNG Canada is a carbon hog, its construction and operation being incompatible with the B.C. NDP government’s own carbon-reduction targets as well as Ottawa’s.

These subsidies, in total, rule out any possibility of achieving the government’s vaunted carbon reduction goals.

And then there are costs of restoring the tar sands lands, estimated by Alberta’s oil regulator at $260 billion.

Imagine if these amounts had instead been invested in sustainable development and renewable energies.

Since the last election, in 2015, tar sands production has increased by 24%. In November 2018 the NEB forecasted that domestic oil production will grow by 58% and natural gas production will grow by 29 percent between now and 2040. The forecast assumes the feds will implement the carbon tax as planned and that new pipelines will be built to accommodate rising production. Just days ago, the NEB gave its go-ahead to Trans Mountain for the second time, pursuant to the review dictated by the Federal Court of Appeal’s overturn of its initial approval last August.

The government itself acknowledges the failure of its approaches. In a report issued in December the federal department of Environment and Climate Change said the policies currently in place will deliver only three-quarters of the emission reductions required to meet Canada’s Paris target. But the minister Catherine McKenna maintains Canada is on track: she says she is counting on investment in public transit and the adoption of new technologies such as the electric car over the next 12 years to close the gap.

New technologies?

This is a common hope, frequently encountered on the left as well. But it’s an illusion. In an article previously circulated on our list, ecosocialist Ian Angus exploded the myth that geoengineering, nuclear power, carbon storage and other techno-fixes — all of them promoted by the US socialist magazine Jacobin — can be viewed as solutions to climate change.[4]

By way of comparison, a recent study by Robert Gross of the Imperial College of London concludes that the average period required for the adoption of the four most recent leading electrical production technologies — nuclear, gas turbines, photovoltaic (solar) cells, and wind turbines —was 43 years. Adoption was defined as being well established but not yet dominant.[5]

Which means that if we want to avert catastrophic climate change by 2050, we are essentially reduced to using existing technologies.

Putting aside Canadian governments’ commitment to expanding reliance on fossil fuel production and export, which is completely irrational in view of the scientific evidence on the source and pace of climate change, the parallel reliance on market mechanisms to compensate for emissions through carbon credits and technologies (not to mention nuclear) is equally deficient. The central error is the attempt to respond to the climate challenge without challenging the sacred cow of growth and competition for profit of a capitalist system that is 85% reliant on fossil fuels.

Yet the core plank of the UN Sustainable Development Goals is the belief that capitalist growth can be fundamentally “green.”

This illusion is now being challenged even in some unexpected places. Consider, for example, this article in the Fall 2018 edition of Foreign Policy magazine, a prestigious US publication that exists, as it proclaims, “to serve decision-makers in business, finance and government.”[6]

The author, Jason Hickel, argues that the absolute decoupling of GDP from resource use is impossible on global scale. There are physical limits to how efficiently we can use resources. Once those limits are reached, any economic growth drives resource use back up.

“Preventing that outcome will require a whole new paradigm. High taxes and technological innovation will help, but they’re not going to be enough. The only realistic shot humanity has at averting ecological collapse is to impose hard caps on resource use…. Such caps, enforced by national governments or by international treaties, could ensure that we do not extract more from the land and the seas than the Earth can safely regenerate. We could also ditch GDP as an indicator of economic success and adopt a more balanced measure like the genuine progress indicator (GPI), which accounts for pollution and natural asset depletion. Using GPI would help us maximize socially good outcomes while minimizing ecologically bad ones.

“But there’s no escaping the obvious conclusion. Ultimately, bringing our civilization back within planetary boundaries is going to require that we liberate ourselves from our dependence on economic growth—starting with rich nations.”

He continues:

“This might sound scarier than it really is. Ending growth doesn’t mean shutting down economic activity—it simply means that next year we can’t produce and consume more than we are doing this year. It might also mean shrinking certain sectors that are particularly damaging to our ecology and that are unnecessary for human flourishing, such as advertising, commuting, and single-use products.”

Alternative approaches

This brings us to alternative strategies and approaches to climate change. Here I think we need to bear in mind three principles in articulating alternatives:

1. The precautionary principle: There must be no deployment of possibly dangerous technologies (e.g. geoengineering).

2. The importance of differentiated responsibilities: The Global North bears primary responsibility for climate crisis, and must contribute disproportionately to efforts to remediate in the Global South, the primary victims. As well, we need to incorporate “grey emissions” (resulting from production in the South for things consumed in the North) in national scenarios. Neither of these principles are present in the Paris Accord of 2015, on which Trudeau claims to base his approach. And I would add a third principle:

3. Social justice. Workers should not have to pay the costs of transitioning from a problem they did not create, and of which they are victims. This means no loss of jobs, income, social protection or labour rights.

In my opinion it is misleading to think that converting all existing energy sources from non-renewable to renewable sources — summed up in the slogan “100% renewable energy by (say) 2050”— will procure the energy needed to maintain existing activities, let alone more extensive ones. Eliminating use of non-renewable energy sources necessitates a complex of immense efforts; fossil fuel accounts for 85% of energy production today. Furthermore, the transition itself is a source of supplementary emissions, that must be offset if the carbon budget is not to explode. (Think of the energy required in building electric-powered vehicles to replace the existing vehicle fleet, no matter how composed.)

How are we to offset these expanded energy needs? In a productivist system any gain in efficiency is used to increase production. So we need to reduce global energy consumption, that is, reduce productive and/or transport activities. This means challenging the capitalist growth imperative.

Does this mean de-growth? Some production or services should not degrow but be suppressed, ASAP: coal facilities and mines, oil extraction, weapons production, the advertising industry, glyphosate, pesticides, etc. But others should grow – such as renewable energies, organic agriculture, and essential services (education, health and culture).

Obvious measures: Here are just a few of the options (you can add many more):

    • Rapidly phase out oil, gas, and coal extraction and stop subsidizing fossil fuels
    • Develop a massive program of public investment in solar, wind, thermal energy
    • Initiate a massive green housing program focused on energy-efficient social housing for low-income residents, and retrofit existing buildings with electric heat pumps, efficient appliances, and added insulation
    • Fund public transportation, including urban, rural, and intercity options; construct a pan-Canadian network of electrified passenger and freight trains
    • Employ people to clean up abandoned wells, tailings lakes, and mining waste to prepare land for return to Indigenous peoples
    • Break with agribusiness, promote ecological agriculture and work with farmers to reduce agricultural emissions
    • End production of useless and dangerous things (start with weapons!)
    • Localize production to the maximum, fight planned obsolescence
    • Redistribute wealth, refinance the public education and care sectors
    • Develop new ecologically sound industries to employ workers displaced by suppression of non-renewable resource exploitation – while maintaining incomes and social benefits.

Financing – Major tax reforms, increased high marginal tax rates. And cut useless expenditures, beginning with all military not converted to a home defense militia.

Local action – Yes, but also global measures. And go beyond capitalism. Draw on indigenous buen vivir concepts. And build alliances, anticapitalist coalitions of workers, unemployed homemakers, farmers, indigenous communities, racialized minorities, students, youth, poor against the entrenched fossil oligarchy. Link decarbonization with opposition to capitalist austerity.

In particular industries, unions can develop plans for alternative climate-friendly approaches. A good example is the Canadian Union of Postal Workers campaign, “Delivering Community Power.” Establish postal banking, create a renewable energy postal fleet, make post offices solar-powered community hubs for ditigal access, provide charging stations for electric vehicles, etc. Integrate letter carrier services with support to enable the ageing and disabled to live independently.[7]

Green New Deal – The proposal by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC), a Democrat in the US Congress and member of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), sets out a series of objectives that are quite radical incorporating many of the above demands, albeit within a general framework of “green capitalism.” It has attracted support in Canada. Avi Lewis, an author of the Leap Manifesto, describes it as “the Leap Manifesto, with increased altitude and velocity.”

The DSA’s Ecosocialist Working Group released a statement recently supporting the Green New Deal “while recognizing that its resolutions are conversation starters – not complete and adequate blueprints.” The Group proposes improvements such as setting firm target dates (“Decarbonize the economy fully by 2030”), democratizing control over major energy systems and resources, etc.[8]

Also, we need to center the working class in a just transition: Decommodify survival by guaranteeing living wages, healthcare, childcare, housing, food, water, energy, public transit etc.

Demilitarize, decolonize and strive for a future of international solidarity and cooperation.

Ultimately, we need a different kind of government with the political will to lead, coordinate and consolidate the transition, a government based on the support and protagonism of the victims of climate change, not its perpetrators.


These comments borrow heavily from many authors more informed than I am on this topic. In particular, my thanks go to those listed in the footnotes, as well as Daniel Tanuro and Michael Löwy. Unless otherwise noted, the opinions expressed are mine and do not necessarily engage Free Transit Ottawa. – Richard Fidler

[1] James Wilt, “The leftist’s case against the carbon tax.”

[2] Gabriel Ste-Marie, “Toute la Chambre des communes carbure au pétrole.”

[3] Paul McKay, “SNC-Lavalin and Trans Mountain: Two sides of a counterfeit coin.”

[4] Ian Angus, “Memo to Jacobin: Ecomodernism is not ecosocialism.”

[5] Philippe Gauthier, “La (trop) lente diffusion des technologies énergétiques.”

[6] Jason Hickel, “Why Growth Can’t be Green.”

[7] Delivering Community Power: Postal Service and the Post Carbon Economy.

[8]Guiding principles for an Ecosocialist Green New Deal.”