Wasteful lifestyles are to blame

The average western lifestyle – supposedly one of reckless consumerism and waste – is said to be the main cause of the environmental crisis. If this were true, it would follow that the best thing we can do to save the planet is change our own lifestyle choices. Lund University in Sweden published a report in 2017, which said that the most effective ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions include switching to a plant-based diet, living car-free and avoiding air travel.

There’s certainly plenty of waste in the world’s richest countries. But humanity’s interaction with the environment isn’t a matter of individual choices. Under capitalism, a small minority of people control most of the wealth and exercise most of the power. This minority doesn’t sit back and wait for consumers to decide what will be produced. Capitalists create a demand for whatever products will be most profitable.

Take the issue of cars. In the 1920s, most US city dwellers used public transport daily. But to make way for the auto industry, transit agencies cut costs and let tram services deteriorate in major cities. In some cases, the infrastructure has been totally destroyed. That allows certain companies to make giant profits selling cars, because taking public transport to work each day is simply not an option for millions of workers. No individual can adjust their lifestyle to change that reality. We have to fight together to change how society is organised.

Dietary issues aren’t much different. Industrial-scale meat and dairy operations have a devastating impact through carbon emissions and deforestation. But individuals have no control over these industries, nor any say about which foods are cheap and widely distributed. Blaming individuals, especially those racked by stress or poverty, for choosing cheap and easy options only diverts blame from those coordinating and profiting from destruction, without changing anything. We need to reorganise food production and distribution the world over to have an impact, and that will take a fight with big business – which would prefer that we blame each other, pay them for diet advice and try to adjust our lifestyles.

The common focus on our individual “carbon footprints” distorts the source of most greenhouse gas emissions. The 2017 Carbon Majors Report, published by CDP (formerly the Carbon Disclosure Project), found that 100 companies have produced about 71 percent of all industrial greenhouse gas emissions since 1988. Those companies are run by bosses, not workers. Further, most people want action on climate change. A 2019 Lowy Institute poll indicated that, for the first time, Australians ranked climate change as the top “threat” to their interests, with 64 percent describing it as “a critical threat”. Among people aged 18-44, 76 percent agreed that “global warming is a serious and pressing problem [and] we should begin taking steps now even if this involves significant costs”.

The thing stopping these sentiments being turned into action is that, as individuals, we have little power. Capitalism is organised precisely to make sure that our individual consumption choices don’t challenge the decision-making power of the bosses. Attacking individuals’ choices is like throwing a glass of water at a house fire.

Greta Thunberg, a Swedish environmental campaigner, is right about where to place the blame: “Some people say that the climate crisis is something that we [all] have created. But that is not true, because if everyone is guilty, then no one is to blame. And someone is to blame. Some people, some companies, some decision makers in particular, have known exactly what priceless values they have been sacrificing to continue making unimaginable amounts of money”.

Overpopulation is the problem

The argument that overpopulation is the cause of the environmental crisis assumes that the bulk of carbon emissions come from everyday consumption. David Attenborough, an English broadcaster and natural historian, has argued that an unsustainable population is a key factor driving environmental destruction: “All our environmental problems become easier to solve with fewer people, and harder ... to solve with ever more people”.

Some basic statistics reveal a different story. Even using the faulty logic of measuring the emissions of individuals instead of institutions, Oxfam, a global NGO, calculated that the average person in the richest 1 percent of the global population emits 175 times more carbon than the average person in the poorest 10 percent. The richest 10 percent are responsible for about half of global emissions, while the 3.8 billion people in the bottom half account for just 10 percent.

Not only does the overpopulation myth misplace blame, but it leads to deeply authoritarian and anti-human conclusions. As a devastating famine enveloped multiple African countries in 2013, Attenborough warned against sending food aid, describing such an act as “barmy.” He explained, “What are all these famines in Ethiopia? ... They’re about too many people for too little land”. What about the historic pillaging of the continent, or the systems of power that continue to starve African populations? What about the fact that we produce enough food to feed 1.5 times the current global population?

The “overpopulation” worldview leads Attenborough to imagine social atrocities as a force of nature. Don’t change the system, just intensify oppression by advocating for even more starvation. But who should be starved to save the planet? There is nowhere to go but to descend into racist fear-mongering, as Attenborough accepts: “When you talk about world population, the areas we’re talking about are Africa and Asia, you know”.

This sort of rubbish isn’t new. In 1798, the economist Thomas Robert Malthus argued that population had reached its limits, and that wars or natural disasters that exterminate large numbers of people should be welcomed. At the time, the world’s population was about 1 billion. Before him, the second-century thinker Tertullian said: “Our numbers are burdensome to the world ... pestilence, and famine, and wars, and earthquakes have to be regarded as a remedy for nations, as the means of pruning the luxuriance of the human race.” At the time, the world’s population was perhaps 200 million.

Society’s productive forces – its technological capacity – profoundly shape population limits. Tertullian could not imagine a more populated world because he had not witnessed industrial capitalism. Today we can witness an absurd surplus in global food supply, the untapped potential of renewable energy and a general abundance of wealth. Starving the poor has always been easier than changing the system, but averting climate change must be about justice, not oppression. Our energies should go toward unleashing our potential for a sustainable and scientific interaction with the planet, not toward allowing our rulers to dictate who can live and who’s expendable.

Innovative businesses will reduce emissions

Can we expect the forces of the capitalist market to save the planet? The Guardian’s economics editor, Larry Elliott, thinks so. “Innovation is what capitalism is all about, and there has been staggeringly rapid progress in developing clean alternatives to coal, oil and gas”, he wrote last year. “The cost of producing solar- and wind-powered electricity has collapsed. Great advances are also being made in battery technology, which is vital for the new generation of electricity-powered vehicles.”

Pockets of more or less “green capitalism” can exist. After all, investment in renewables has grown in recent years. In Australia, a record-breaking $20 billion was invested in renewable energy projects last year. But these figures are only small patches of green in oceans of oil and mountains of coal. Growth in “green investments” coexists with the ongoing growth of fossil fuel industry. That’s why carbon emissions keep climbing, even while green capitalists make more and more money from renewable energy.

Even Elliott admits that “progress towards decarbonisation is still not fast enough”. His proposed solution is to mimic “the Chinese model of managed and directed capitalism”. But the problem isn’t “unregulated”, or “Anglo-Saxon”, or “neoliberal” capitalism. The problem is capitalism, full stop.

 The largest and most powerful companies on the planet have made mammoth investments in fossil fuel infrastructure. They aren’t willing to decommission such an immense source of wealth. To do so would result in costs measured not in billions but in trillions of dollars. Any individual country making such a sacrifice would be at a significant disadvantage in the global struggle for profit and power.

So the climate criminals will need to be fought. To stop climate change, we’ll need a direct political challenge to the fossil fuel capitalists. Notably, green capitalists aren’t advocating for that, even though they could make short-term profits from it. Every capitalist has an interest in defeating a real attack on their comrades in the coal, oil and gas sector. None of them wants to set a precedent that puts human need over the survival of big corporations.

In Australia, the centrality of fossil fuels to the economic system is glaringly obvious. Coal, our largest export, brought in $66.2 billion in 2018. Australian coal exports make up 36 percent of the global trade. We’ll need to restructure our whole society to fight carbon pollution.

We can just reform the energy sector

One of the most common misconceptions is that tackling the climate crisis will simply involve building more wind and solar farms while ceasing coal and oil extraction. The scale of the problem is much larger: most industries today contribute to global warming or depend on industries that do. A vast restructuring of some industries, and the ruthless abolition of others, is necessary.

Take the steel industry and the military-industrial complex. According to the World Steel Association, “the steel industry generates between 7 percent and 9 percent of direct emissions from the global use of fossil fuels”. This is due to the predominance of old blast furnace technology. The World Coal Association says that over 71 percent of steel production still relies on coal.

There are carbon neutral alternatives. German professor Marc Hölling, in a 2018 article published at the e-Journal on Hydrogen and Fuel Cells, explained that “renewably sourced hydrogen could help the steel industry create new and eco-friendlier products”. But he noted the absence of any will to replace coal-fired furnaces: “It has been determined that although the [renewable] production is technically feasible, it needs to become much less expensive to be truly competitive and attract investors”. In other words, no businesses are willing to bear the cost of a wholesale transformation of steelmaking.

The single biggest polluter in the world today is the US military. The bulk of its machinery relies on fossil fuels, and in many cases no carbon neutral technologies exist as alternatives. These armed forces will not politely lay down their arsenals. Realistically, only an international revolution could break their power. Existing elites are preparing to craft a more, not less, extensive repressive apparatus. Author and filmmaker Douglas Rushkoff, in an article published at medium.com last year, described being invited to an elite resort for a discussion with five ultra-rich men about security systems in a hypothetical environmental collapse:

“They knew armed guards would be required to protect their compounds from the angry mobs. But how would they pay the guards once money was worthless? What would stop the guards from choosing their own leader? The billionaires considered using special combination locks on the food supply that only they knew. Or making guards wear disciplinary collars of some kind in return for their survival. Or maybe building robots to serve as guards and workers – if that technology could be developed in time.”

An ecological crisis requiring this scale of change cannot be solved by capitalism, which can respond with only more authoritarianism while it continues to plunder the planet. A socialist system, which would eliminate the competitive drive for profits and rationally plan the use of resources, is the only alternative to a social and environmental catastrophe that is closer every day.