The Climate of Capitalism

Capitalism, as a socio-economic system, has lifted the standard of living for untold millions of people all across the globe. It is the nuts and bolts of successful enterprise, bringing in its wake a middle class that enjoys a way of life that prior generations of parents and grandparents never realized, an automated lifestyle filled with gadgets and devices that bring comfort to everyday life like washing machines, automobiles, televisions, cell phones, refrigerators, and life-saving medical developments. And, just to think, who in 1912 would have predicted a person could walk out of their house in New York City in the morning and arrive in San Francisco for a business meeting that same day? There were no airports in 1912.

All the same, capitalism, over time, has grown warts. This is because of an overzealous adherence to its very tenets, which are (1) private property (2) self interest (3) competition (4) market-based (5) economic freedom (6) consumer sovereignty and (7) laissez faire. And, as Adam Smith preached in The Wealth of Nations (1776), the invisible hand of the free market guides people to act in the public interest by following their own self-interest. However, Smith’s famous self-interest dictum has arguably turned against the interests of all but a select few, even though, economically, it remains true that the self-interest dictum, in concert with Smith’s other dicta, prompts capitalism to reward those who bring products to market at the most competitive prices, and this is really what Smith’s theory is all about, and it will always remain true as long as capitalism survives. Even so, it is the bigger picture, the well being of society as a whole, where capitalism is failing so miserably.

The question is: Has the capitalistic system, which has supplanted communism wherever it exists, matured into something different than what Adam Smith envisioned as the solution for harmony and good will amongst the economic impulses of humankind?

In that regard, capitalism is radically different from the days of Adam Smith, and not because the classical tenets of Smith have been altered but because capitalism has super-charged those foundational tenets with testosterones such that it has become rapacious, heartless, fearsome, quarrelsome, and boundless as the primary factor of planetary deterioration. As such, a dark cloud hovers over capitalism’s irrefutable efficacy to provide products to consumers at competitive prices.

As for capitalism’s current status, nobody has stated it any better than journalist Naomi Klein (author of The Shock Doctrine, Knopf Canada, 2007, which book explodes the myth that the global free market triumphed democratically): “We can’t leave everything to the free market. In fact, climate change is, I would argue, the greatest free-market failure. This is what happens when you don’t regulate corporations and you allow them to treat the atmosphere as an open sewer.”1

And, as a collateral point, it is fair to say: Greed is not good! Greed has undermined the heart and soul of the functionality of democratic capitalism, which is a viable middle class. As for this, in the pursuit of profits, capitalists explore the globe in search of dirt-low wages and as little regulation as possible, thus, leaving the hapless middle class with McJobs galore. In contrast, life was not like this for our grandparents. Furthermore, and more universally, capitalism has altered the world climate in ways our grandparents would not recognize today.

Capitalism and a healthy planet do not mix well, leading to the conclusion that the planet is not only the domain for all but unfortunately, the private factory of the few. The operatives of this private factory treat the climate in much the same manner as they do the middle class, with disregard. Consequently, the planet is at risk of climatic disruption of unimaginable scale. Meanwhile, capitalism continues its archaic ways by burning fossil fuels to power the factories and to turn the wheels of transportation.

As an upshot, several of the world’s leading climate scientists have issued the following declaration:

“The planet is on the verge of runaway climate change, leading to the distinct possibility of an extinction event.”

The Arctic Methane Emergency Group (“AMEG”), a group of world-renowned scientists, stand behind this stark forecast of impending doom, and they are dead serious.2

AMEG’s mission statement:

“Our mission is to warn the world that the Arctic and the Earth are in a state of dire emergency and that only immediate drastic action can save us from catastrophe. We have no time left.”

And furthermore:

An Assessment by AMEG:

Could the World be in Imminent Danger and Nobody is Telling?

Uniquely and fearlessly AMEG has studied key non-linear trends in the Earth-human System and reached the stunning conclusion that the planet stands at the edge of abrupt and catastrophic climate change as a result of an unprecedented rate of change in the Arctic.

According to AMEG’s David Wasdell:

A runaway climate change is now clear and beginning to be quantified for the first time… the greatest threat we face as a planet… The rate of change we’re generating in the current situation is between 200-300 times faster than that experience of any extinction event apart from the asteroidal impact. If you look at the general background change, for instance, it takes about 10,000 years to change the concentration of carbon dioxide by 100 ppm — we’re doing it in 30 years at this year’s rate… so, the rate of change in the climate is phenomenal compared to previous extinction events.

But, who is listening? There is no evidence that any governments are taking emergency action to prevent this catastrophe, and the free hand of the market is not interested. It is too costly and not taken seriously, even though capitalism has been the prime beneficiary of ill-conceived use of the planet.

The problem at hand is an alarming rapid melt of the Arctic, which exposes methane hydrates to warmth not experienced over millennia, resulting in massive uncontrollable quantities of methane spewing into the atmosphere. It is happening today… right now. Methane is at least 20 times as powerful as is CO2.

For example, according to Dr. Igor Semiletov of the International Arctic Research Centre at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, who led the 8th joint US-Russia cruise of the East Siberian Arctic seas, “We carried out checks at about 115 stationary points and discovered methane fields of a fantastic scale – I think a on a scale not seen before. Some of the plumes were a kilometer or more wide and the emissions went directly into the atmosphere – the concentration was a hundred times higher than normal.”3 Additionally, recent scientific aircraft expeditions flown over the deep seas of the Arctic far from land registered alarmingly massive quantities of methane spewing out from cracks in the sea ice… never before witnessed.

What do runaway methane emissions have to do with capitalism? Considering the fact that methane hydrates have been at rest for millions upon millions of years, it is evident that a catalyst has disrupted this long siesta in a big way. And, that catalyst is a warming planet, and that warmth, which is on its way to becoming hot as blazes, has been prompted by too much greenhouse gas in large measure generated by burning fossil fuels, most prominently coal, especially in capitalist China (“Communism” is an euphemism for “Closet Capitalists.”)

Since the industrial revolution, capitalism has had a readily available source of energy to provide all the wonders of modern day life. And, even though, for years, the capitalists of the world could have easily focused on clean, climate-friendly energy, like renewables, instead, they selected the most profitable avenue, the least costly and the easiest course of action — fossil fuels.

As a result, the planet is at risk of an extinction event because of short-sightedness, and the pathetic mantra of profits at all costs. Is this the invisible hand of the market guiding people to act in the public interests by following their own self-interest? Yes, it sure is, but that self-interest is not only bringing competitively priced products to consumers, which is what Smith’s self interest is all about, it may be irreparably damaging everybody’s most precious interest, a healthy planet.

Even though capitalism has profited handsomely by providing fancy gadgets that monopolize attention spans and filled fancy homes with every convenience, it has bamboozled the world by ignoring what is happening behind-the-scenes (out of sight, out of mind), even though everybody has known all about the problem of global warming for decades. They choose to ignore it, and they depend upon a tawdry class of climate deniers to confuse the public by repetitively claiming climate change/global warming is Hollywood fiction.

It is precisely this other side of the ledger where people like Larry Bell, a conference speaker at the Heartland Institute’s International Conference on Climate Change, in his book Climate of Corruption claims: Climate change “has little to do with the state of the environment and much to do with shackling capitalism and transforming the American way of life in the interests of global wealth redistribution.” Which is one helluva good idea! And, who knows, maybe Bell’s mention of income redistribution will gain traction. Fortuitously, he is floating the idea.

But, mercilessly, Bell’s income redistribution suggestion will be a serious blow to everything the Right has accomplished ever since supply-sider Reagan took office, distorting the tax code such that federal tax receipts as a percentage of GDP are at 50-year lows. And, let’s not forget the recent presidential election and how vividly Mitt Romney brought to the public’s attention the rich pay taxes of only 15%. What’s your tax rate?

As if America’s ultra low tax code is not enough, capitalists continue beating the drums to outsource offshore businesses to the lowest labor bidder thereby undercutting the middle class, which, in turn, generates higher corporate profits, which inevitably generates bigger stock market profits for CEOs who are paid tens and hundreds of millions, which only strengthens Bell’s comment about income redistribution.

For example: “In what might be an underestimate, a University of California study concludes that 14 million white-collar jobs are vulnerable to being outsourced offshore. These are not only call-center operators, customer service and back-office jobs, but also information technology, accounting, architecture, advanced engineering design, news reporting, stock analysis, and medical and legal services… these are the jobs of the American Dream, the jobs of upward mobility that generate the bulk of the tax revenues that fund our education, health, infrastructure, and social security systems.”4

As such, capitalism’s penchant for profits reaches across the oceans, on the hunt for able-bodied cheap foreign labor to supplant America’s dreams, and the American middle class takes another hit as capitalism reinforces its image as the mindless bully in the room. It’s all about profits.

Alas, since our planet is the private factory of the capital class, why aren’t the CEOs of the world on the front lines, doing something about the impending climate change disaster? Where is the outcry from corporate America about a planet going sour? Why do the young people of the world have to carry the burden of protest about destruction of the environment? As it happens, you can count on this: they’ll be met at the gates by armed forces… Is there something deadly wrong with this picture?

The planet has become capitalism’s private oyster, especially with China kicking into gear over the past 30 years. China, similar to America and the UK in the 19th century, has become the manufacturing hub of the world and now responsible for spewing 30% of the world’s CO2 into the atmosphere, setting new annual records for emissions year after year. This is one reason why the citizens of Beijing are occasionally seen wearing medical masks on the way to work. Burning one-half of the world’s annual supply of coal will do that to you, but imagine what all of that CO2 does to the oceans, which are acidifying 10 times faster than at any point in recorded history. As a result, nine million marine species are threatened to extinction this century. Fish can’t wear masks.

According to Dr. Alex Rogers, Scientific Director of the International Programme on the State of the Ocean5 :

I think if we continue on the current trajectory, we are looking at a mass extinction of marine species even if only coral reef systems go down, which it looks like they will certainly by the end of the century. That would, in my mind, constitute a mass extinction event… up to 9 million species are associated just with coral reefs…many of the symptoms that we are seeing of change in the oceans indicate that the effects will be much wider than coral reef existence… rising temperatures are already changing distribution of organisms….

The oceans are only one part of a much larger mosaic that is now shaping up to change the world like never before. The world’s glaciers are melting like there is no tomorrow. And, China recognizes this dilemma, openly stating that climate change is anthropogenic, and their scientists are abreast of the problem, with first hand knowledge that 70% of the glaciers at the headwaters of the Lancang River (the Danube of the East) are gone, as well as all of the country’s navigable waterways equally threatened. But, moneyed interests keep the coal-burning plants active, adding one new coal-burning plant every 10 days.

Worldwide, glaciers that supply drinking water, crop irrigation, major rivers (like the Rhone), and hydropower are melting faster than scientists ever thought possible. What will one billion people in Asia and more than one hundred million people in South America do when their glaciers are gone? The World Bank has expressed concern. India depends upon glaciers for 60% of crop irrigation, China 80%.

Alaska has glaciers that have retreated over 10 miles up the fjord, and the rate of retreat is eight times faster today than 20-30 years ago. Climate change is accelerating, and if the scientists of AMEG are correct, we are literally on the doorstep of a massive acceleration of runaway climate change, which will bring embedded droughts that make the 2012 Midwest cooker look like a picnic. Embedded droughts, caused by the warm Arctic air disrupting atmospheric jet streams, are now worldwide, hitting Russia hard, India hard, Syria severely hard, and numerous other breadbaskets these past few years. Why? According to AMEG, “The Arctic Thermostat for the World is Broken.”

Meanwhile, according to AMEG, “the Arctic is in a Meltdown” and methane is gushing into the atmosphere like never before. Can it be fixed? According to AMEG, the answer is ‘maybe’ via geo-engineering by scattering sulfur dioxide in the atmosphere over the Arctic, which purportedly will cool the Arctic. There are, however, scientists who disagree, feeling this could be a dangerous intrusion into nature, causing a Frankenstein climate. But, in the final analysis, the alternative of an impending extinction event may very well carry the day for the fix-it crowd. Nevertheless, unless the world gets off fossil fuels, geo-engineering in the Arctic will only prove to be an enormous band-aid.

And, why haven’t governments been promoting renewables in place of fossil fuels?

As a matter of fact, from coast-to-coast, America’s politicians are gloating over the prospect of fossil fuel energy independence.

Meanwhile, capitalists remain behind the scenes as their sycophants, from coast-to-coast, denigrate any mention of climate change. So far, it works!

  1. Bill Moyers, Journalist Naomi Klein on Capitalism and Climate Change, Moyers & Company, Nov. 19, 2012. []
  2. Go to www.amge.me to read all about it. []
  3. Steve Connor, Vast Methane ‘Plumes’ Seen in Arctic Ocean as Sea Ice Retreats, The Independent (UK), Dec. 13, 2011. []
  4. The Offshore Outsourcing of American Jobs: A Greater Threat Than Terrorism, Dr. Paul Craig Roberts, Global Research, May 2, 2013. []
  5. OneWorld (UK) Video Interview, August 2011 []

Robert Hunziker (MA, economic history, DePaul University) is a freelance writer and environmental journalist whose articles have been translated into foreign languages and appeared in over 50 journals, magazines, and sites worldwide, like Z magazine, European Project on Ocean Acidification, Ecosocialism Canada, Climate Himalaya, Counterpunch, Dissident Voice, Comite Valmy, and UK Progressive. He has been interviewed about climate change on Pacifica Radio, KPFK, FM90.7, Indymedia On Air and World View Show/UK. He can be contacted at: rlhunziker@gmail.com. Read other articles by Robert.