Climate change is out of control. It is already too late to avoid soaring temperatures, scarce water, and extreme weather. But the financial structure of capitalism is tied to fossil fuels. Market-based solutions are ineffectual. John Bellamy Foster, a professor of sociology at the University of Oregon and the editor of Monthly Review, speaks about the kind of program necessary to stop this catastrophe. From Left Voice.
LV: There is overwhelming evidence that demonstrates how anthropogenic climate change is out of control and will lead to global environmental catastrophe—without a major overhaul of energy production. In the February 2017 issue of the Monthly Review, you point out that although we have been presented with precise and indisputable estimations, science and social science institutions have failed to failed to come up with effective solutions. Why do you think this is the case?
JBF: We are in an emergency situation in the Anthropocene epoch in which the disruption of the Earth system, particularly the climate, is threatening the planet as a place of human habitation. However, our political-economic system, capitalism, is geared primarily to the accumulation of capital, which prevents us from addressing this enormous challenge and accelerates the destruction. Natural scientists have done an excellent and courageous job of sounding the alarm on the enormous dangers of the continuation of business as usual with respect to carbon emissions and other planetary boundaries. But mainstream social science as it exists today has almost completely internalized capitalist ideology; so much so that conventional social scientists are completely unable to address the problem on the scale and in the historical terms that are necessary. They are accustomed to the view that society long ago “conquered” nature and that social science concerns only people-people relations, never people-nature relations. This feeds a denialism where Earth system-scale problems are concerned. Those mainstream social scientists who do address environmental issues more often than not do so as if we are dealing with fairly normal conditions, and not a planetary emergency, not a no-analogue situation.
There can be no gradualist, ecomodernist answer to the dire ecological problems we face, because when looking at the human effect on the planet there is nothing gradual about it; it is a Great Acceleration and a rift in the Earth system. The problem is rising exponentially, while worsening even faster than that would suggest, because we are in the process of crossing all sorts critical thresholds and facing a bewildering number of tipping points.
LV: If conversion to renewable energy could halt or reverse the march of environmental crisis, why aren’t we moving in that direction at the right pace?
JBF: The short answer is “profits.” The long answer goes something like this: There are two major barriers: (1) vested interests that are tied into the fossil-fuel financial complex, and (2) the higher rate of profitability in the economy to be obtained from the fossil-fuel economy. It is not just a question of energy return on energy investment. The fossil-fuel infrastructure already exists, giving fossil fuels a decisive advantage in terms of profitability and capital accumulation over alternative energy. Any alternative energy system requires that a whole new energy infrastructure be built up practically from scratch before it can really compete. There are also far greater subsidies for fossil fuels. And fossil fuels represent, in capitalist accounting, a kind of “free gift” of nature to capital, more so than even solar power. The financial structure, including the largest banks and Wall Street are very tightly connected to the fossil fuel economy. The below ground fossil fuel reserves represent trillions of dollars in assets that already have a real effect in today’s economy in the sense that they appear on the financial books of corporations—even if burning all of these reserves, which would break the climate budget 5 or 6 times over, would send us to climate hell. But these trillions of dollars in assets associated with fossil fuel reserves would simply vanish if fossil fuel burning were to cease. There is no equivalent with respect to solar or wind in terms of assets. My colleague, Richard York, one of the world’s leading environmental sociologists, has demonstrated empirically in an article Nature Climate Change that right now alternative energy is still treated as a supplement rather than a substitute for fossil fuels within the energy industry as presently constituted. The rapid growth of alternative energy should not therefore be seen as a radical break with the domination of fossil fuels. That still needs to occur.
LV: You have argued that the expansion of financial capital, patterns of economic stagnation, along with the decline of U.S. hegemony are underlying causes of greater impact on the environment. Can you elaborate on this?
JBF: From the standpoint of the so-called “masters of the universe”—today six men (a few months ago it was eight) have as much wealth as half the world’s population—who increasingly run the world economy, the chief problem at present is not climate change but the stagnation of the world economy. This stagnation is deepest in the advanced capitalist economies. The U.S. economy grew at a 1.6 percent rate last year and has experienced more than a decade of below 3 percent growth for the first time in recorded history. The growth rate of Europe over the last decade was about 1.7 percent. Compare that to the 1.3 percent growth rate in the United States in the depression decade from 1929-1939. Monopoly-finance capital, as we have been arguing in Monthly Review for decades, has a strong tendency toward overaccumulation and stagnation. What mainly lifted the economy in the 1980s and ’90s was financialization (the growth of finance relative to production and financial bubbles). With financialization no longer able to stimulate the economy to the same extent in the period since the Great Financial Crisis stagnation has set in indefinitely. This was in fact the thesis of two books that I wrote with others—The Great Financial Crisis (with Fred Magdoff) in 2009 and The Endless Crisis (with Robert W. McChesney) in 2012.
Everything today is geared to getting the economy going again. It is true that stagnation in some ways helps the ecology, since economic growth places more pressure on the environment, increases carbon dioxide emissions, etc. But as York empirically demonstrated in another article in Nature Climate Change the system does not reduce climate emissions at the same rate when the economy goes down as it raises them when the economy goes up. Moreover, the focus of all the advanced capitalist economies on economic growth above all else has left the whole question of the planet to one side where it is marginalized. Hence, there is a new drive to remove environmental regulations in order to propel the economy forward. We are on a runaway train headed over the climate cliff as we stoke the engine with more coal to increase its speed.
LV: The Paris Climate Agreement was hailed as Obama’s environmental legacy. How effective is it as a tool to prevent and reverse the advance of environmental catastrophe?
JBF: It is perfectly ineffectual. It requires voluntary agreements. At best, it represents simply the good intentions of world governments. The voluntary plans by individual countries would take us almost all the way to the 4° C which is thought to mark the end of civilization, in the assessment of many scientists. The U.S. proposal was based on Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which was too little too late and relied on market mechanisms which would not do the job. It is now being dismantled by Trump’s climate-denial administration. With Washington abandoning the Paris Agreement either de facto or de jure, there is the danger it will all crumble. The one element most appealing in the Paris Agreement from a climate movement standpoint was the formal recognition of staying below a 1.5° C increase in global temperature as a goal. But almost everything else in the agreement belied that.
And we have already seen a 1.2° C increase with more in the offing. Of course, now that Trump is setting aside Obama’s Clean Power Plan we are learning what a difference there is between measures that are simply insufficient but do not cut off the possibility of still ramping up our actions to contain climate change, and policies that will actually take us backward and threaten to eliminate altogether what James Hansen has called “the last chance for humanity.”
LV: How much can we affect climate change through choices in our consumption and daily life (i.e., composting, recycling, saving water)?
JBF: Unfortunately, we can’t have very much effect in that way—apart from a massive national movement to conserve, which would require the mobilization of the entire population and would have to be part of an attempt to alter production as well. That is, a normal consumption-based strategy that is simply rooted in individual action is incapable of solving the problem or moving fast enough. To get an idea of the dimensions of the problem, if one were to eliminate all municipal waste coming out of all households in the United States that would only cut the total material waste (refuse) in the society by about 3 percent. The rest is in the hands of corporations.
This is not to say we should not be doing all the things you mention. Unless we change ourselves as individuals and our culture—the way we relate to the earth—we can’t expect to make the overall changes in society that our necessary. So removing waste and taking responsibility for the damage we inflict on nature in our everyday lives is essential. When you use of a plastic fork made on the other side of the world and then eat your take-away salad and throw it along with the packaging in the garbage (after maybe a minute’s use), so that an identical plastic fork has to be produced with petrochemicals and shipped across the world for your next takeaway meal, you are definitely feeding into a destructive and wasteful system—one that grows by means of destruction and waste. But it has been long understood that “consumer sovereignty” is a myth. To make fundamental changes in the commodity economy it is necessary to have power over production.
One thing we could do if we were truly serious is to go after the more than $1 trillion a year that is spent in the United States alone on marketing, i.e., targeting, motivation research, product development, packaging, sales promotion, advertising, direct marketing, etc., persuading the population to buy things that they don’t truly want or need. But to address marketing would also require a political response. Marx once said that workers (and this would perhaps go for consumers even more) are in their purely economic action in a capitalist society always the weaker side, and therefore they need to organize politically.
LV: David Harvey, Naomi Klein, yourself and many others share the idea that it’s either capitalism or the planet. Explain more.
JBF: Yes, there is increasing recognition on the left generally of the fact that humanity is now dirtying its own nest on a planetary level. Socialists have all too often failed to take ecological issues seriously enough. However, this is not a fault of socialists alone, as the fault applies even more to the liberal tradition taken as a whole. But whatever we choose to say about socialism in the twentieth century, it has to be emphasized that no one can be truly socialist and indeed Marxist in the twenty-first century and fail to acknowledge the full severity of the planetary ecological crisis. We are either at the forefront of the struggle to protect the earth as a place of human habitation (and as a home for innumerable species) or we are on the side of the system’s creative exterminism of the Earth system as we know it.
You are right though in singling out Naomi Klein in this respect since she has done more than anyone else in recent years outside of the scientific community to sound the alarm. She is, in my opinion, the leading intellectual-activist in the radical climate movement in the United States and Canada. As opposed to a figure like Bill McKibben, she doesn’t avoid the issue of where the dog is buried. The subtitle of her book The Changes Everything is explicit: it is question of Capitalism vs. the Climate. She is aligned with ecosocialism, which is the most important new development in socialist and ecological thought, and in the environmental movement. A good example is Ian Angus’s Facing the Anthropocene: Fossil Capitalism and the Crisis of the Earth System, which appeared last year.
As for my own contributions on this question, I have written a number of works on the subject, such as The Vulnerable Planet, Ecology Against Capitalism, and (with Brett Clark and Richard York) The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Planet. The issue is clear. Capitalism is a system geared to unlimited capital accumulation and hence exponential economic growth. It therefore constantly increases in scale. With a 3 percent rate of growth, the economy would expand by sixteen times in a century, 250 times in two centuries, and 4000 times in three centuries. While the planet’s capacity with respect to what we call the tap (the resource end) and the sink (the waste end) would essentially remain the same. The reality of ecological limits and the pressure that the economy places on them cannot therefore be denied. Of course, the problem is much more serious than the above suggests.
More important is the fact capitalism imposes its laws of motion on the environment, irrespective of the biogeochemical cycles of the planet and the earth’s metabolism, so that it creates rifts or ruptures in the biogeochemical cycles of the Earth system, disrupting ecosystem relations in ways that transcend the mere scale-effects of economic growth. It is this problem of the metabolic rift that is our deepest challenge. Sustainability is more and more compromised at ever higher levels—a continually accelerating threat to civilization and life itself.
Marx’s theory of metabolic rift, or the “irreparable rift in the interdependent process of social metabolism” was the first analysis to lay out a truly comprehensive social-science view of systemic ecological crisis, encompassing both society and nature and their dialectical interrelations, and connecting this to production. Indeed, so powerful were these insights that they are crucial to how we see the Earth system crisis today. This is evident in an article in the March 2017 issue of Scientific Reports which explicitly draws on Marx’s concept, citing Marx’s Capital.
When we talk today about the Anthropocene from a scientific perspective we are explicitly recognizing that the Great Acceleration in the human impact on the planet since 1945 has created an anthropogenic rift in the Earth system, forever dividing off the present ecologically from previous stages in history (both geological and human). This rift in the human relation to the plane is already catastrophic and could soon reach the point of no return (if we increase global average temperatures by 2° C), leading to bigger catastrophes and threatening humanity itself.
LV: If you had to guess, do you think humanity will be able to stop this polluting madness before it’s too late? Or do you find it easier to foresee a dystopian future with scarce water, toxic fumes and roasting temperatures?
JBF: We are already facing growing catastrophes due to climate change. It is too late to avoid soaring temperatures, scarce water, and extreme weather. That ship has in many ways already sailed. The earth is going to be much less hospitable to human beings in the future. What we are trying to avoid at this point is something else: as James Hansen says, and as I quote in my article on “Trump and Climate Catastrophe”: “a dynamic situation that is out of [human] control” propelling us to a global temperature increase of 4° C or even higher, which would threaten the very existence of human civilization, and countless human beings. Even worse it would point to the possible extinction of our species. In this sense, dystopian views don’t quite get at the severity of the threat, which is greater than even the most dystopian novel could project—after all a dystopian novel has to have at least one human remaining at least temporarily. We have to imagine a and a great die down on earth (scientists are now saying we could lose half of all living species this century alone in the Sixth Extinction) and a world, if we project far enough into the future that is possibly stripped of human beings—perhaps even what Hansen calls the “Venus Syndrome.” But long before that we will see hundreds of millions, even billions, of people affected in disastrous ways. This is what science is telling us. All we have to do to destroy the planet as a place of human habitation is to continue as we are at present with capitalist business as usual.
It is still possible to avoid this—or the most catastrophic effects, like sea level rising not feet but yards, the death of the Amazon, the death of most ocean life, etc. But it would require revolutionary ecological change in the system of production, i.e. in the metabolism between human beings and the earth. We need to reduce carbon emissions, Hansen tells us, by about 5 percent a year across the entire planet, beginning in just a few years, which means that the rich countries have to reduce theirs by something like double digits. And on top of that we have to find a way to remove gargantuan amounts of carbon, maybe as much as 150 gigatons, from the atmosphere—the problem of negative emissions—if we still want to stabilize the climate at a 1.5° in global average temperature. (Just to avoid going over the 2° guardrail would require 3 percent annual reductions in carbon emissions annual.) It can all be done with the means we have available, including alternative energies, social-structural change, and conservation, but it would require a vast movement of humanity and we would have to oppose the logic of not only the fossil fuel economy, but of capitalism itself. As Kevin Anderson of Tyndall Institute for Climate Change in the UK tells us, we would have to go against “the political-economic hegemony.”
In such situations optimism or pessimism are not the point. What we need is courage and determination in facing up to seemingly insurmountable odds. What we have to do is not so difficult on the face of it, if we just look at the direct ecological measures that we need to take. What makes it seem like an insurmountable problem is the monstrosity of global capitalist society.
LV: Today, with climate change deniers in the White House and at the head of the EPA, do you think it’s enough to explain that need to fight capitalism to prevent climate change? What are the prospects for scaling up the struggle for the planet?
JBF: With Trump neofascism has entered the White House—its aim is a different way of managing the capitalist economy. It is both a break with neoliberalism and at the same time its successor on the right—a sign of the deep crisis of our times. Not only does the administration stand for climate denialism and has declared environmentalist enemies of the people, it is also threatening to undermine liberal democracy, and is attacking the racially oppressed, immigrants, women, LGBTQ people, environmentalists, and workers. The resistance movement to this thus needs to be a defense of humanity itself in all of its aspects. If we can combine in what Harvey calls a co-revolutionary movement geared to the needs of social reproduction and sustainable human development, with the fight to save the earth as a place of human habitation, then we can get somewhere. But this has to be a giant movement, it has to unite with workers all over the world, it has to oppose imperialism and war.
All of these things are connected. The climate movement is central in the sense of triage, but we can only get somewhere if we fight on all fronts, or make it one big front. The model is perhaps the environmental justice movement worldwide, and what Naomi Klein calls “Blockadia” standing for the barricades of our time. I argue that it depends on the emergence of an environmental proletariat (most visible today in the global South) where it is recognized that our material struggles over the environment in which we live and breathe and work are really the same. We have to recognize who the enemy is. The eight largest fossil fuel corporations in the world emit more carbon dioxide than does the United States, which accounts for 15 percent of the world total. We need to focus on capital and corporations.
LV: The fight against the Dakota pipeline received widespread support from all over the country, and even from indigenous peoples outside the US. Although the conflict is still open and the Trump administration is preparing to go on the offensive again, a great battle was won in December. What lessons can we learn from the struggle to defend Standing Rock?
JBF: The struggle at Standing Rock has left an indelible imprint on today’s environmental struggle. It was a great victory, even though with Trump’s election the conditions were set for the overriding of what had been won. Indigenous peoples once again demonstrated, as they have over and over in recent years, their leadership in the struggle to protect the environment. The water protectors stood fast while they were hosed in subfreezing weather, subjected to non-lethal bullets and tear gas, and dogs set on them. The whole world gasped. It was difficult not to recall the struggles of the civil rights era in the Jim Crow South. The battle was primarily to protect the water which was threatened by drilling the pipeline under the Missouri River. But everyone understood—and not just environmentalists that joined them, but especially the Indigenous peoples themselves—that this was a battle for the whole earth.
For me, though, the high point was near the end when thousands of U.S. veterans arrived en masse, approaching Standing Rock in long winding lines of vehicles strung out over miles, to provide a “human shield” for the water protectors. They declared that they were standing with the Indigenous peoples—and even taking it upon themselves to apologize on bended knees for the history of U.S. treatment of Native Americans. It is no accident that the government gave in a couple of days after that. The conflict that would have ensued would have drawn untold numbers of people to the environmental resistance and, in that sense, would have been a full-scale disaster for the powers that be. So they chose to pull back at that point. But what really made this so important was that it represented an act of solidarity cutting across the lines that have historically divided us. It is the emergence of human solidarity in the hour of need in this way that tells us that we can win.
Interviewed by Juan Cruz Ferre of Left Voice