Will Global Warming Reinvigorate Marxism?

April 26, 2007

How is it possible that we have done so little to curb our greenhouse gas emissions despite our decades old knowledge of the severity of the global warming crisis?

This is the question that Bill McKibben asks himself in a recent LA Times editorial after a leaked White House report confirmed that “the United States would be producing almost 20% more greenhouse gases in 2020 than it had in 2000 and that our contribution to global warming would be going steadily up.” In his words:

That’s a pretty stunning piece of information — a hundred times more important than, say, the jittery Dow Jones industrial average that garnered a hundred times the attention. How is it even possible? How, faced with the largest crisis humans have yet created for themselves, have we simply continued with business as usual?

Now, I’m not calling Bill McKibben a Marxist (although I personally don’t find it to be a pejorative label), but his answer to this question relies upon some fundamental Marxists insights about the debilitating social costs of our reliance on global capitalism.

The answer is, in a sense, all in our minds. For the last century, our society’s basic drive has been toward more — toward a bigger national economy, toward more stuff for each of us. And it’s worked. Our economy is enormous; our houses are enormous. We are (many of us quite literally) living large. All that more is created using cheap energy and hence built on carbon dioxide — which makes up 72% of all greenhouse gases.

Some pollutants, such as smog, decrease as we get richer and can afford things like catalytic converters for our cars. But carbon dioxide consistently tracks economic growth. As Harvard economist Benjamin Friedman concluded last year, CO2 is “the one major environmental contaminant for which no study has ever found any indication of improvement as living standards rise.” Which means that if we’re going to cope with global warming, we may also have to cope with the end of infinite, unrestrained economic expansion.

In his view, the crisis of global warming provides further evidence that, contrary to our capitalist upbringing, “more” does not mean “better.” Solving this problem will entail fundamental economic restructuring.

If we’re going to do anything about that endless flow of carbon that’s breaking our planet, we’re also going to have to do something about our broken communities. … Rebuilding those communities will be hard work — and it will start by rebuilding local economies, so that we actually need our neighbors again. Consider, for instance, food. Farmers markets are the fastest-growing part of our food economy as people discover the joys of being a “localvore.” Some of those joys are culinary — fresh food tastes better, you eat with the flow of the seasons and so on. But some of those joys are emotional, too. Academics who followed shoppers found that those in farmers markets had 10 times as many conversations as those in supermarkets. And here’s what’s interesting. Local food also uses about 10 times less energy than food shipped around the globe.

Personally, I’m hard-pressed to find fault with his logic, especially when I think about my own mindless, and environmentally destructive, consumer comforts (e.g., does my family really need to own a car in Hong Kong?). Intellectually, it is interesting to contemplate how environmental degredation, rather then class conflict, might be the impetus behind a global turn to more a socialist economic model.

Could the crisis of global warming reinvigorate Marxist thought?


Then again …While the problem of climate change might accentuate the costs of global economic integration, it is worth remembering, as Dani Rodrik reminds us in his new blog, that “countries that trade more have larger social programs and more generous safety nets.” Prof. Rodrik’s paper substantiating this claim can be found here. If “free trade” helps fund environmental protection, are socialist “protectionist” schemes the answer? Economists say no.


6 Responses to “Will Global Warming Reinvigorate Marxism?”

  1. Jessica Bellas Says:

    I agree with the author that solving the climate change crisis will “entail fundamental economic restructuring.” I think that the first problem that needs to be addressed is that people are largely unwilling to to live with less. We live in a consumer crazed world. Shop till you drop. Consume. Consume. Consume. This is just not a sustainable model in the long term. Still, most people in the developed world believe “more” DOES mean “better” and we urgently need a cultural shift and acknowledgement that we can all live more full lives AND have less material possessions AND consume less energy. Are people going to realize this on their own? No way. I am not that naive. Is this necessary to stop climate change? Yes. Thus, the only way that I can see real change in consumer patterns is by moving towards more of a socialist economic model. In an article entitled “Climate Change: A Marxist Analysis” (http://www.dsp.org.au/site/?q=node/166), Terry Townsend wrote:

    “Genuine democratic socialist planning will allow priorities to be set on the production of certain items and limit or eliminate others. Just imagine the vast amounts of wasteful production of pointless commodities produced solely for sale that could be eliminated. Without the cynical manipulation of people’s insecurities and vanities by the billion-dollar advertising and marketing industries, not to mention its outright dishonesty, needless and wasteful consumption would plummet.”

    “The marketing-driven over-packaging of products could end, saving entire forests, and banishing billions of tonnes of ‘disposable’ but environmentally indigestible plastic fast-food containers and beverage bottles from the rubbish dumps. The triumphant return of the humble but eminently sensible — and recyclable — glass bottle would be at hand!”

    “Inbuilt obsolescence would end, and the corporate creation of fads and fashions would become a thing of the past. No more ‘this year’s new model.’ Products would be built to last for a very long time, and when they were due for replacement they would be as totally recyclable as possible. Such basic reforms would save massive amounts of materials and energy, all along the production chain.”

    Mr. Townsend concludes by saying:

    “Only a socialist system, in which public ownership, popular democracy and planning, and a new definition of wealth based not on individual personal enrichment and consumption can possibly meet the challenge. It would not be too extreme to declare that world humanity in the next 50 or so years faces a stark choice between capitalism or human survival.”

    So, to answer the author’s original question, yes, I do think that the crisis of global warming reinvigorate Marxist thought. The only question is my mind is WHEN this will inevitably happen. The longer we wait, the more painful it will be to change.

  2. Philip Poon Says:

    After the class on last Tuesday when we talked about global warming and how the countries aren’t really doing anything about it, my feeling is kinda helpless and frustrating.
    These two days I’m pretty alert to the issue. When I see those young faces selling broadbands or credit cards in the streets, property agents rushing to any possible clients-would-be, I think of the Marxists theory of alienation and exploitation, and how the world is polluted as a result of these activities of the MNCs.
    I totally agree that the caitalist system is destroying our nature, and that mankind has a divine duty to look after the planet earth properly.
    However, when I read those quotes in this post by Bill McKibben and Terry Townsend, I don’t care if they are Marxists or whatever, again I think the problem is with the prescription, not the diagnosis.
    I really don’t see any chance that the world will go back to the kind of socialism advocated by them. There’s a lot of market for Fukuyama’s “The End of Hisory”.
    On the other hand, as an accountant, I think the accounting is totally wrong in computing the profit for those oil industries or environmental unfriendly enterprises, somehow there should be a big cost for pollution that should be borne by these industries.
    Perhaps, as my favorite scholar the late Susan Strange suggested, the future lies in the uprising of a global civil society, where NGOs in different nations cooperate to push the governments to really do something about the greenhouse gases. It’s sort of a “bottom up” reformation. With many places had just experienced a very “warm winter”, I see this a real possibility in the very near future.
    That’s why I remain hopeful in this helpless and frustrating situation. I hope I’m not too naive.
    I’m sorry that this is perhaps not a very academic and rational analysis of the global warming issue but an expression of my feelings.

  3. ralphchow Says:

    It is apparent that the capitalists are trying to stimulate excessive demand from the consumers to maintain the continuous growth of their corporations and economies. They are able to do so by offering extremely attractive and affordable prices through exploiting the cheap labour and land supply in low cost producing countries like China, Vietnam etc. Meanwhile the consumers are trying to satisfy their aspirations to improve quality of life by making excessive purchase, so we end up wasting a lot of resources and polluting the environment.

    What we need to do now is probably to adopt the constructivist perspective to redefine the norm of our behaviour by placing more emphasis on environmental protection, admiration of the nature and the long term goal of sustainable development. Or else everyone on the earth community is bound to suffer ultimately.

  4. Kenneth Li Says:

    An interesting discussion! This is a common problem which the whole world needs to pay attention to. However, some superpowers just turn a blind eye to the issue and leave the problem aside.

    In the capitalist world, MNCs are all profit driven and they aim to produce new commodities to push out to the market. Indeed, these are not basic stuffs but luxurious items which may generate pollution and aggreviate global warming. Lucy has correctly pointed out that ‘Do our family really need to own a car in Hong Kong?’ This is the right question to ask ourselves. We have a very good public transportation system in our small city and there is no genuine need to own a car!

    Theoratically, adopting a socialist perspective may attend to the problem but I personally feel that the problem should be positively addressed and looked into by all nation states. Bringing awareness to the world through global forums and NGOs are the means to help people to build up their awareness. International agreements and cooperation are required to tackle the issues. Individual governments should set out rules and legislation to regulate relevant issues.

    Afterall, we have to live with the problem. Let’s tackle it together!!!

  5. I agree that the causes of environmental deterioration are closely related to economic development, over-production and over-consumption. But I also agree that it is too early to say that environmental deterioration can urge the world to turn to a socialist economic model.

    As mentioned by previous writers, a person can cognitively take environmental protection as one of the most important issues to be concerned in her/his daily agenda but the norms related to environmental protection are not necessarily “fully” internalized. (During this weekend, I made a beloved Gundam model as an encouragement to myself after the IR presentation. Inside the model box set, there are already three plastic bags which for sure will pollute the environment. Not to mention the damage of the remaining plastic components brining to the environment. I felt sorry while making the model and thinking about the Tuesday global warming presentation. But I should be aware of this when I bought the model.)

    Furthermore, it is difficult to make people articulate (over-)consumption to global warming. To many people, the relationship is not that explicit. They may think of the importance of reducing the use of plastic bags. They may bring their own environmental handbags when shopping but keep buying, buying and buying. They (and we) are not the only ones to be blamed. The policy-makers and the media just don’t educate the people about – or they even don’t want to touch upon, the importance of the re-structuring of the society for the sake of all human beings. They are also the parties benefited from the capitalistic system. Do they really want to reform?

    Even worse, the Kyotol Protocol has already set up a framework for “emission trade” and “carbon credit.” Whether or not the systems could possibly help alleviate the emission of greenhouse gases, the logic is clear: methods of environmental protection cannot be separated to economic benefits. Capitalism is still the dominant ideology. So sad! [Frankie]

  6. O C Says:

    I guess we all share the concern over environmental degradadtion. However I doubt this is something that can be explained well by Marxisism at all.

    As mentioned in the previous comments, people tend to over-consume and that is the most important cause of over-production which is related to environmental degradation including global warming. By the word “people” I mean all people both in the capitalist and socialist world. In other words, the only difference is whether people can afford to consume but not which class they belong to! Tendency to consume is common to people in all walks of life.

    Let us try take a look at this issue from a constructivist’s perspective. Habit of over-consume can be a result of interaction among people, their expectation on life as well as the way they see life should be. To put it in a very simple way, consumarism can be seen as a result of socilalization under which norm and habit are formed by each member of a society.

    Whatever school of thought we would like to adopt, I guess we all have a duty in slowing down the process of environmental degradation.

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