Global warming shows the need for a science of revolution

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The media response to the publication of the latest report by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was more or less unanimous: the ‘debate’ on whether global warming is caused by ‘human activity’ is now over. There is now overwhelming evidence that climate change is being driven by greenhouse gases produced by factories, power stations, transport, and other sectors of the economy. And it is clear that things are “worse than we thought”, as The Guardian put it the day the report came out. Global temperatures could rise by as much as 6 degrees by the end of the century, with almost incalculable results: melting of the polar ice-caps, vast floods, droughts, famines, and a frightening possibility of ‘feedback’ mechanisms which could lead to an unstoppable spiral of catastrophe.

So we know who’s to blame: mankind. These changes are not brought about by changes in solar radiation or other cosmic phenomena, but by the actions of human beings. In one sense, of course, this is true. It is human beings who build factories and power stations, fly planes and burn down rain-forests.

But this is an observation, not an explanation. The teams of scientists who are trained to analyse and interpret the natural world have no corresponding theory for explaining why mankind’s economic activity operates the way it does, with so little regard for its effects on the natural environment. And as a result they are capable only of identifying the existence of the problem, not of locating its causes and mapping out a solution.

For example: a great deal of attention is paid to the technologies used to generate power and to produce and transport goods. It is recognized that these technologies are unacceptably profligate in the production of greenhouse gases and that new technologies must be found. Power should be produced by wind and tide instead of coal. Cars should be powered by electricity or hydrogen instead of oil. And while the more short-sighted representatives of the energy industry continue to give big hand-outs to the dwindling band of scientists prepared to argue against the conclusions of the IPCC, more and more spokesmen for business express the confident hope that the search for new technologies will generate new markets and so allow them to preserve and even increase their profit margins.

No doubt, any solution to the gigantic environmental problems facing humanity will involve fundamental changes at the level of technology. But the problems, at root, are not to be found in technology. They are to be found in the very structure of present day society, in the basic motivation of economic activity.

Present day society is not just ‘industrial society’. It is bourgeois society – capitalism, a system where for the first time in human history all production is driven by the competitive hunt for profit. It is this motivation which forces the system to grow and grow and keep on growing regardless of the human and ecological consequences. It is structurally incapable of producing for human need, of adjusting production to what is humanly and ecologically viable. For capitalism that would signify the end of accumulation – suicide, in other words. And since, to grow faster than your rivals, you must cut production costs as much as possible, you need to invest in the type of technology that does the job as quickly and as cheaply as possible, regardless of the damaging consequences for the generations of the future.

By the same token, as a system irredeemably divided into competing national units, it is equally incapable of acting in a truly cooperative way at the global level. On the contrary: the more national capitals are faced by economic difficulties and diminishing resources, the more they will be obliged to retreat behind their national barricades and look for military solutions to their problems. Well-meaning commentators may lament the fact that, instead of pouring resources into saving the planet, the world’s leading powers (and, proportionally, all other states) are pouring them into developing the weapons of war. From a human point of view this is indeed absurd and tragic, but it makes sense from the point of view of the ‘nation’, of the capitalist state.

The problem of the environment is indeed a problem for mankind – for the very survival of the human species. But it cannot be solved by the very institutions whose function is to guard and maintain the present social system. This is why a science of society must also be a science of revolution. Amos 3/2/7

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