Inconvenient Truths About Environmentalism

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Al Gore once embarrassed himself by claiming to be the father of the Internet, but he has been much more successful in anointing himself the king of environmentalism. Global warming has become Gore's signature issue, earning him an Oscar for his self-aggrandizing documentary, "An Inconvenient Truth," and a Nobel Peace prize nomination, and transforming him into a possible presidential nominee in 2008. Indeed, some bourgeois pundits are touting a Gore-Obama slate as an unbeatable "dream" ticket that would enable the bourgeoisie to put the Democrats back in the White House and allow them to begin to repair the damage wrought by eight years of catastrophic squandering of American political capital and authority by the inept Bush administration. While Gore has become environmentalism's iconic figurehead, he is not alone. Wrapping oneself in green is suddenly quite fashionable. For the ruling class in general, green is in. Corporations are tripping over themselves in their rush to portray themselves as environmentally conscious.

The current campaigns about global warming, for the bourgeoisie, are fundamentally manifestations of demagoguery and opportunism which aim to gain popular acceptance for austerity and repair American imperialism's moral authority and image on an international level.

The Reality of Global Warming

There is absolutely no doubt that there has been a horrific degradation of the environment at the hands of a world capitalist system driven by the relentless quest for profits and economic expansion at all costs. Despite the chorus of doubt spewed by propagandists in the service of right-wing think tanks and energy industry lobbyists, the accumulation of Green House Gases (GHG) in the atmosphere triggered by the profligate burning of fossil fuels that powers industrial production, transport, and heating under capitalism and the consequent aggravation of the trend towards global warming is a sobering reality.

The right-wing of the ruling class has consistently tried to sow confusion by pointing to the phenomenon of naturally occurring global warming. And it is true that in the course of the earth's geological history, over millions of years, there have been alternating periods of atmospheric warming and cooling. These climate changes usually occurred over periods of thousands, perhaps even millions of years, with a relatively gradual impact. The causes are believed to include the occurrence of sun spots and other solar activities, changes in the ocean currents -- some of these caused by the impact of warming caused by other factors which changed the salinity of the ocean water and then in turn caused additional climate changes.

The last ice age ended 10,000 years ago. There is much discussion in the scientific literature about the existence of a "Little Ice Age" that lasted from the mid 1500s to around 1850, with significant impact on Europe and North America, including widespread crop failures, famines, and cultural and economic changes necessitated by colder temperatures. In the 17th century glaciers in the Alps advanced and crushed villages. Canals in Holland froze over. The Thames first froze over in 1607 and the last time in 1814. In 1780, New York Harbor froze over and people were able to walk on the ice from Manhattan to Staten Island. Iceland was completely isolated by sea ice stretching hundreds of miles in every direction. The Little Ice Age is attributed by some to a decrease in solar activity and sun spots.

Since 1850, there has been a gradual warming of the earth's atmosphere and a retreat of the glaciers, widely attributed to these natural processes, which are very gradual. Right-wing propagandists, especially in the U.S., have belittled research that demonstrates the threat posed by GHG and endeavored to put the responsibility for global warming on these natural processes alone. However, since the late 1880s, with the rise of capitalism's mass production industries and the accompanying greatly increased burning of fossil fuels, there has been a rapid increase in greenhouse gas accumulations in the atmosphere and an acceleration of global warming, especially in the last fifty years.

A general consensus has emerged on the dangers of GHG in scientific circles and there is no longer any serious controversy over the role of GHG in worsening global warming... The problem with the environmentalist movement is its penchant for attributing the problem to human activity and modern technology in and of itself. The tendency is for environmentalists to see over-consumption - too much automobile travel, too much "luxurious" living by the masses, which causes too much industrial production, as the cause of the environmental crisis. This opens the door to all manner of anti-technology ideologies that justify belt tightening, sacrifice, and slashes in the standard of living for the working class.

Without a proletarian Marxist perspective, the environmentalist movement fails to understand that it is the capitalist mode of production that is responsible for the degradation of the environment. It is not industrialization per se that is responsible for global warming, but "capitalism's overriding quest to maximize profits and its consequent disregard for human and ecological needs, except insofar as they coincide with the goal of wealth accumulation" (International Review 129, p.2), Because it is a mode of production whose motor force is the drive for profits, not the fulfillment of social need, capitalism is short-sighted, concerned about the short term results and profit margins. The profit motive overrides any attention to the long term social impact of economic activity.

It is the profit motive that leads the petroleum, electricity and coal industries and their political acolytes to sabotage research and development of more environmentally benign alternative fuel sources to power industrial production. It is the profit motive that leads to wasteful production. In order to assure profits, capitalism has resorted to the phenomenon of built-in obsolescence - the purposeful production of inferior quality goods that wear out prematurely and need to be replaced sooner than would normally be necessary. This keeps industrial production artificially higher than it needs to be. It is the profit motive that gives rise to a massive advertising apparatus to manipulate the population and create consumer demand for socially useless and unnecessary products. In this way capitalism artificially creates the need to burn more fossil fuels than necessary. And it is the competitiveness characteristic of capitalism that makes cooperation on the international level necessary to deal effectively and decisively with global warming an absolute impossibility.

Typically 90 percent of the sun's energy that penetrates the earth's atmosphere is reflected back into space. The increasing concentration of GHG, however, traps increasing amounts of this energy, preventing it from being reflected back into space and thereby contributing to a warming of the earth's atmosphere. The coincidence of naturally occurring global warming and the warming caused by accumulating GHG accelerates global warming and creates dangerous conditions that require attention to assure the future of society. Nothing can be done about naturally occurring global warming, but certainly something can be done about GHG produced by capitalism's disgraceful abuse of the environment.

The Myth of the Kyoto Protocols

The Kyoto Treaty of 1997 has become coin of the realm for the environmentalist movement, a virtual rallying cry to save the global ecology. The Bush administration is universally condemned for refusing to endorse and abide by the treaty. But this is much ado about nothing. The Kyoto Treaty, a creation of capitalist governments which are inherently incapable of attacking the root cause of global warming - the capitalist mode of production- is more a mystification than a genuine attempt to deal with a serious problem confronting society. Kyoto is an ideological swindle to create the illusion that capitalism is capable of dealing with the problem. The intrinsic competition between capitalists, especially between each nation state, which is the essential characteristic of the capitalist mode of production, makes genuine cooperation at the international level essentially impossible. This is further exacerbated by the general tendency towards overproduction which intensifies global competition and further undermines possibilities for cooperation.

The cornerstone of Kyoto is the requirement that industrialized countries reduce their GHG emissions by 5 percent below their 1990 levels by 2010, as if there was something "good" or desirable about the 1990 levels, which already represented more than a century of GHG accumulations. To make these requirements even more of a joke, so-called "flexible mechanisms" allowed industrialized nations to meet their GHG emissions limits by purchasing emission reductions either from emission trading groups (organizations dealing with projects that would reduce emission-productions) or from projects in non-industrialized nations that were exempt from emissions limits. For some industrialized nations, Kyoto actually permitted increases in GHG emissions.

In addition, Kyoto explicitly exempted China and India from limitations, which contributed to the acceleration of the transfer of industrial production from developed countries. Western capitalists now had a double incentive to close factories in the metropole countries. They could take advantage of both the lower wages and the GHG exemptions.

The net result has been essentially no improvement in global atmospheric carbon levels and the fact that China is expected to surpass the U.S. and become the world's leading producer of GHG within the next year or two. Only two nations are on course to meet their targeted emissions limits: Britain and Sweden. The United States and Australia, the only major industrial nations to have never ratified the Kyoto Treaty have increased GHG emissions since 1997 - by 16 percent for the U.S. and 25 percent for Australia. Even nations supposedly adhering to the treaty have increased their emissions - Canada by 27 percent, Spain by 49 percent, Norway by 10 percent, New Zealand by 21 percent, Greece by 27 percent, Ireland by 23 percent, Japan by 6.5 and Portugal by 41 percent. China has increased its GHG emissions by 47 percent and India by 55 percent (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change: Changes in GHG Emissions from 1990 to 2004).

Gore acknowledges that Kyoto was never actually intended to decrease carbon emissions, but to establish the principle that international limits could be negotiated and implemented. So, we are to be comforted by the ability of the world bourgeoisie to reach meaningless agreements on the environment.

Environmental Hypocrisy of the Bourgeoisie

Despite all the media glorification celebrating Gore as the preeminent champion of the environment, Gore, like the rest of the capitalist class, is an environmental hypocrite. In light of his acknowledgment that Kyoto was never meant to impact seriously on GHG emissions, Gore's denunciation of the Bush administration's attitude on Kyoto and global warming rings hollow. Furthermore, while Gore voiced support for Kyoto in 1997, the Clinton/Gore administration did nothing to push for ratification of the treaty. A bi-partisan "sense of the Senate resolution" opposing the treaty because it exempted China and India from emissions limits and "would result in serious harm to the economy of the United States," passed by 95-0. Clinton/Gore administration never submitted the treaty for ratification, and the U.S. has not abided by the guidelines. Thus, no matter how much Gore vilifies Bush for not embracing Kyoto and no matter how clumsy Bush is in how he talks about the environment, the rejection of Kyoto has been a consensus policy position of the American bourgeoisie that began on the Clinton/Gore watch. Bush's policy is a continuity of the position set by Clinton/Gore in 1997.

On a more personal level, despite chastising the American public for wasteful abuse of energy and natural resources and calling upon Americans to change the way they live, Gore himself is far from an exemplary energy consumer. Gore has not denied accusations that his Nashville family residence consumes more energy each month than the average American family consumes in a year, and he's profited from a leased zinc mining operation located on his property in Tennessee which has one of the worst pollution records in the U.S.

Prominent American bourgeois personalities increasingly rely on the purchase of so-called "carbon offsets" to allow them to sanitize their environmental credentials, to compensate for their carbon emissions and reduce their carbon "footprint" to zero. These offsets are sort of an environmental shell game whereby wealthy people essentially purchase permission to pollute while pretending that they are canceling out the pollution they cause. Prices for carbon offsets are calculated on the basis of the number of pounds of carbon emissions created by a particular activity - an airplane flight, driving a car, heating a home. The companies or organizations selling the offsets then spend a portion of the offset price on investments in solar or wind energy or reforestation projects to supposedly offset the carbon emissions. Critics charge that the offsets are a sham, doing nothing to reduce pollution, and giving the false illusion that such individual, voluntarist actions can clean up the environment.

This is not meant to deny that there is a difference in the Bush administration's stance on global warming, compared to the greener members of the ruling class. For example, there is ample documentation of the Bush administration's efforts to censor government scientific reports to minimize the dangers of global warming. In 2002/2003, when the Bush administration first begrudgingly began to admit that global warming existed and was caused by human activity, in accordance with the interests of the energy industries with which they were so heavily affiliated, they initially suggested that the best policy would be to adapt to global warming, rather than to prevent it. They suggested for example the increased use of air conditioning and switching to different crops that wouldn't be negatively affected by climate changes.

The same kind of nonsense could be seen in recent attempts to look for the silver lining in the dark cloud of global warming. For example, various pundits have suggested that the melting of the polar ice cap would lead to the opening of sea routes across the Arctic Ocean, or the acquisition of millions of square miles of cultivatable land in northern Canada and Russia, and the possibility of building new cities in those previously uninhabitable territories -- as if that could compensate for the hundreds of millions of people who would be forced to flee from flooded coastal regions, the millions of square miles of land that would be submerged, the hundreds of cities that would be destroyed, etc.

Environmentalism in the Service of Capitalism

The U.S. bourgeoisie is increasingly happy to turn to environmentalism as an ideological weapon to control the working class, promote acceptance of a declining standard of living, unify the population behind the state, and repair the international authority of American imperialism. In the hands of the bourgeoisie, environmentalism is used as a means of diverting attention from the class struggle against capitalism. It provides the capitalist propaganda machinery with the opportunity to reinforce the false view that the threat to humanity's future is NOT the continued domination of a historically anachronistic system based on exploitation and rampant imperialist appetites, but rather the view that the problem is a society drunk on irresponsible over consumption. Environmentalism advances an inter-classist perspective on the world's problems which seeks to disarm the class struggle against capitalism - which alone has the capacity to address the basic causes of global warming.

By blaming over-consumption of the masses for global warming, the bourgeois environmentalist movement lays the ideological groundwork for austerity. Instead of raising the standard of living of the world working class, so that all may benefit from the increased productive capacities, environmentalism makes cutbacks in the standard of living a social good, a humanitarian goal. We should travel less, consume less, and use less for the betterment of the environment and the future of human society. As Gore says in the conclusion of "Inconvenient Truth," "Are you ready to change the way you live." Can you imagine the ecstasy of a ruling class facing a working class that wants a decline in its standard of living for the good of humanity?

In his 1992 bestselling book, "Earth in the Balance," Gore outlined the importance of environmentalism as a unifying ideology for the ruling class. Warning that "we now face a global civil war" between those who would countenance the continued despoliation of the environment and those who would resist the destruction of the ecology, Gore wrote, "the time has come to make the struggle the central organizing principle of world civilization" (p. 294).

While individuals in general and the working class in particular are exhorted to change the way they live on a moralistic basis, to do the right thing for the environment simply because it is just the right thing to do, in "Earth in the Balance," Gore acknowledged that the only way to use "free market economic forces" and enlist the participation of capitalist corporations in the effort to save the environment is to guarantee profits, extremely high profits, for developing and switching to new technologies. While it isn't talked about much openly in the media, including "Inconvenient Truth," in 1992 Gore described the obvious policy options for American state capitalism for re-orienting economic activity in a green direction, including:

  • imposition of higher taxes on old, non-environmentally friendly technologies to discourage use (who knows, the government might turn the purchase of carbon offsets into a new tax)
  • government funding for research and development of new technologies
  • Government purchasing programs for early pioneer technology and products to ensure profitability
  • Guarantees of high profits
  • Improved patent and copyright protections for developers (p.320)

Government investment in environmentally benign technologies will inevitably be financed by cutting the standard of living of the working class, through higher taxes and cuts in the social wage.

Currently the U.S. is branded by most of the world as an environmental villain because of its refusal to endorse the Kyoto protocols and the awkward, clumsy posturing of the Bush administration. Coupled with the catastrophic conduct of foreign policy by the Bush administration, particularly in Iraq, this has led to a crisis of American imperialism. By reorienting its Iraq policy (probably after the 2008 election) and simultaneously becoming a champion of the environment, American imperialism could begin to repair its image, and international political and moral authority. In his 1992 book, Gore was very conscious of the role that environmentalism could play in advancing American imperialist interests. He called for the U.S. to take the lead in a new global Marshall Plan, patterned after the efforts that cemented American dominance in Western Europe after World War II. Emulating Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative (Star Wars), Gore advocated an American Strategic Environmental Initiative. His theorization of environmentalism as a unifying ideology for contemporary civilization reflects an attempted ideological manipulation that parallels the role of anti-fascism in the 1930s and ‘40s, anti-communism during the Cold War, and anti-Islamicism in the period since 9/11.

The Environment and the Working Class

The ecological crisis is real and endangers the future of humanity. It is yet another example how decadent capitalism, which is literally in a state of decomposition, threatens the destruction of civilization and a descent in barbarism, even if world war is avoided. The problem cannot be solved by or within capitalism, which is the cause of the problem in the first place and is incapable by definition of cooperation on the global level that is necessary to address the crisis. Capitalism can only take advantage of rising public concern over global warming as a means to derail the working class from the path of class struggle, as a smokescreen to gain popular support for the increasing austerity necessitated by its deepening economic crisis and produce extortionate profits, and to mobilize the population around a unifying, inter-classist ideology.

Freed from the disastrous profit motive, the working class can pursue what is directly necessary to fulfill the social needs of humanity. To assure that technology serves the social needs of society and not the blind, insatiable drive for profit that fuels capitalist economic activity, the working class must understand the nature of its revolutionary responsibilities. Every problem that confronts humanity today increasingly demonstrates the necessity for the working class to rise to the historic challenge of destroying capitalist domination and creating a new society in which the workers of the world can decide what should be done to satisfy the needs of humanity and guarantee the future of society. Capitalism has disqualified itself on an historic level.

Jerry Grevin, July 2007.