Capitalist governments can’t save us from global disaster

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The world’s oceans have become warmer and more acidic due to capitalism spewing out increasing quantities of greenhouse gases, particularly CO2. There is an urgent need to limit these emissions and keep the rise in global temperatures below 2°C. Failure to do so threatens not just wildlife, but increasing disasters, droughts, floods and loss of human life on a massive scale.

We have been alerted on these matters by a conference of climate scientists in Exeter, by the report on ocean temperatures and by the publicity surrounding the introduction of the Kyoto Protocols on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Given the seriousness of the situation it is natural that anyone who thinks about the future should want to work towards saving the environment.

Why we can’t trust the state to save us from global warming

The Exeter conference, ‘Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change’, was called by Tony Blair to coincide with Britain’s presidency of the G8. Alongside climatologists warning that the Kyoto Protocol does not go nearly far enough, that the problem is already at dangerous levels, “the UK head of Shell, Lord Oxburgh, took time out - just before his company reported record profits mainly achieved by selling oil, one of the main causes of the problem - to warn that unless governments take urgent action there ‘will be a disaster’.” ( This contradiction reveals the hypocrisy of the bourgeoisie, and particularly the organisers of this conference, but it is nothing unusual: “Countries like Britain are pretending to reduce their national emissions while actively supporting massive fossil fuel projects in other countries, such as the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline project. Meanwhile, the World Bank has been exposed as investing primarily in fossil fuel projects despite a massive public relations effort to portray itself as focused on climate change mitigation” (

This is not just a public relations exercise. Britain can use the Kyoto Protocol as a diplomatic weapon against the USA, which continues to refuse to sign it. It is certainly not a question of discussion between reasonable men, trying to persuade the world’s largest consumer of natural resources of the danger of its actions. It is part of the current imperialist strategy where the “British bourgeoisie, drawing on its long experience, generally recognised that its interests were best served by trying to play the US off against Europe” (‘Resolution on the British situation’ WR 281). After supporting the US in Afghanistan and Iraq – wars that show complete contempt for the environment – “not from any sense of loyalty or solidarity in the war against terror, as the media proclaimed, but in order to be in as good a position as possible to safeguard and defend its interests” (WR 281) the Kyoto Protocol, allows Britain to move out of America’s shadow.

The ruling class has produced a lot of propaganda on responding to climate change. We only have to turn on the TV to see hints on small energy saving measures: turn the TV off instead of putting it on standby, don’t put more water in the kettle than we need… This is no mere public relations exercise, any more than the Exeter conference, but an ideological campaign directed against the working class with 3 big lies. Lie number one is that we are responsible as greedy and profligate individuals for using too much of the earth’s resources and should choose to live in poverty instead. Lie number two is that we can ‘do something’ about the problem by everyday frugality within present day capitalism. Lie number three is that the ruling class are taking action to deal with the problem.

The fact is that the very competition that made capitalism so dynamic, that gave rise to modern industry, that makes it impossible for any capitalist, or all capitalists put together, to rein back the environmental disaster that their system is creating. “The need for a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere” (Manifesto of the Communist Party, Marx and Engels). This need for a constantly expanding market forces each capitalist to expand production, to reduce costs, to try and corner the market at the expense of his rivals, which holds true – sooner or later – whether the capitalist is an individual proprietor, a huge corporation or a nationalised industry. If burning fossil fuel, CO2 emissions and all, is cheaper energy for production then the capitalist who uses it has a competitive advantage over the capitalist who uses something more expensive and will tend to drive the latter out of business.

This is why their conferences on climate change, science or no science, can never rise above the basest hypocrisy, and why the head of Shell is not out of place in such company.

Why democratic pressure by individuals cannot succeed in saving the planet

Within the broad church of anti-globalisation and anti-capitalism there are many organising around environmental issues, many of these recognising the role of the various capitalist corporations and their search for profit, concentrating their energies on publicising or opposing their harmful actions. So we can read about the occupation of the London petroleum exchange on the day the Kyoto Protocol came into effect, or the protests against a Greenpeace Business Lecture in January for its ‘greenwash’ of Shell.

What is implied in these actions is that it is this or that ‘bad’ or ‘polluting’ enterprise that is responsible for the destruction of the environment, as though it were not the logic of capitalist competition itself that forces them to pollute. For this reason, when such protests are reported at all they simply become grist to the mill of the campaigns about global warming that are being conducted by Blair et al.

Others have tried to take on big business through the courts. A meeting in Cambridge shortly after the ESF in London heard, among other projects, about efforts to protect water resources in Brazil: “Franklin is part of a campaign that launched a lawsuit against NESTLE. This court case was won and the factory was shut down for two days. However, the company’s lawyers managed to reopen the plant and the next part of the court case may well take 10 years to finish. By then, the water resource will be depleted” ( In each case, whether or not they win a court case, capital continues its destructive march.

What each little court case victory does is give the impression that the national state, or the European Court, or the UN, or any other bourgeois institution can be used by the ‘individual’ or the ‘community’ to halt this destruction. All these institutions ultimately represent capitalism, the ruling class and its interests. The activists, like gamblers winning a few coins, or missing only one number for a win in the lottery, are induced to go on investing more and more of their energies in something that really benefits the illusions in democracy.

An article on the Enrager website, ‘Advertising and Consumerism’ ( linked consumerism, the most brutal forms of exploitation in the third world and the destruction of the environment. It even stated “If we want to create real freedom and happiness for ourselves and a decent environment to live in we need to start challenging the constant messages thrown at us by those who are presently in control and who don’t have our interests at heart. They’ve got us into this mess and they’re hardly likely to get us out. We need to regain control of our own lives, and communities, creating a new society.” Unfortunately, it did not attempt to explain who it is that is in control, and how and why they have got humanity into this mess. But without such an analysis, which can only be made by marxism, it is not possible to challenge the constant messages thrown at us by bourgeois propaganda effectively. The same article, under the heading “What can we do?” begins its answer “Talk to friends, neighbours and workmates about these issues. When you’re out shopping, QUESTION - Do I really need it? Could I make one? Could I re-use, repair or recycle what I already have? Could I share one with someone else?” In other words it takes us back to the same individual frugality recommended in the public service campaign on TV.

The individual consumer is simply not able to choose to shop in an environmentally friendly way. “The use of products is determined by the social conditions in which the consumers find themselves placed, and these conditions are based on class antagonisms” (Marx, ‘The Poverty of Philosophy’). When economics dictates, we buy shoddy goods that fall apart, we live somewhere cheap even if we spend hours travelling to work. When economics dictates, we consume that which we know to be destroying the environment. As Marx said “In a future society, in which class antagonism will have ceased, in which there will no longer be any classes, use will no longer be determined by the minimum time of production; but the time of production devoted to different articles will be determined by the degree of their social utility” and that social utility will include their safety for both human beings and the environment. Alex, 1.3.05