Why the Obvious Isn’t

Capitalism and carbon dioxide emissions

Why are greenhouse gas emissions not being drastically curtailed? As carbon dioxide levels rise, temperatures rise, oceans become more acidic, polar ice caps melt, sea levels rise, the atmosphere absorbs more water. Floods, hurricanes and droughts become more frequent and more destructive.

Science makes it clear that global warming is caused by the burning of fossil fuels—coal, oil, natural gas—and biofuels.

In September 2013 scientists on the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released their conclusion: the burning of fossil fuels at current levels will lead to devastating warming within this century. In 2012, the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature Study reached the same conclusion. This was a surprise since it had been financed by Charles Koch and led by Richard Muller, one of the few reputable scientists who had remained a global warming sceptic. Shortly after the release of the Berkeley study, the U.S. association of meteorologists, who had not taken a position on global warming, announced that they accepted the science.

In the face of the scientific consensus and worsening natural disasters, corporate capitalism responds by investing billions in fracking, tar sands, deep sea petroleum development, and expanding pipelines.

Although some individual capitalists are alarmed by global warming, capitalists as capitalists focus on maximizing profits. In theory, green industry could be just as profitable, but profits are made on existing corporations. In resource extraction, materials processing, agribusiness, manufacturing, international trade, communications, and finance, profits are based on cheap energy from fossil fuels.

Supporters of the system claim that capitalism empowers individuals. Capitalism has actually pushed individual enterprise to the fringes of economies. No more than ten percent of populations are self-employed. In Canada and the U.S. ninety percent depend on wage and salary work. Although capitalism gives individual capitalists title to means of livelihood—title that is bought and sold for private profit—wage and salary workers are actually engaged in cooperative, coordinated social labor.

Corporations, capitalism’s dominant institutions, are minority-owned collectives that dominate markets, monopolize supplies, and control technologies. The twenty largest transnational corporations have more revenues than most governments.

Corporate governance is neither democratic nor egalitarian. Those with the most shares have the most votes. Less than one in four own any corporate shares. Most corporate shares are owned by less than five per cent of populations. Major shareholders and top executives, who combined are less than 0.1 percent of populations, control most corporations.

Under capitalism, the productivity of social labor has substantially increased. Aided by technology and expanding markets, humankind can now deforest entire continents, level mountains, dam major rivers, deplete mineral reserves, and fish sea life to extinction. Meanwhile, private title allows corporations to give priority to profits and to externalize environmental costs, to pass these on to communities, workers, future generations, and other species.

In the 1970s, neo-conservatives like Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan initiated what are now called neo-liberal policies. Taxes paid by corporations and the wealthy were cut. Laws and regulations were changed to make it more difficult for unions to organize and to make gains in collective bargaining. Public utilities and services were privatized. Capital was freed to move abroad in pursuit of cheaper labor, lower taxes and weaker environmental standards. As capitalists got richer, they gained more capacity to dominate political agendas and to manipulate the media and the outcome of elections.

So long as capital-owning minorities are entitled to direct economic and political activity in their private interests, private profit will take precedence over human wellbeing. The alternative is economic democracy. With economic democracy, community ownership would replace corporate ownership. Everyone—wage and salary workers, the self-employed, the unemployed, students, and the retired—would have a right to a voice and equal vote in their communities’ economic decisions. Workplace democracy would replace master-servant relations.

When everyone is equally entitled, communities will focus on meeting human needs, on providing employment and social services, on sustaining and improving the quality of present and future life. Instead of focusing on what is the most profitable, communities—responsible to all equally—would aim to balance employment opportunities with available labor. Public revenues would be balanced with needed social services. Imports would be balanced with exports. Industrial activity would be deliberately limited to the carrying capacity of environments.

Humankind cannot afford to delay action until the system changes. We must act now to cut greenhouse gas emissions. As individuals we can walk instead of driving, live in smaller residences, travel fewer air miles, eat less meat and choose produce grown organically. But so long as capitalists are entitled to direct economies in their private interests, corporations will continue to externalize environmental costs. The corporate media will continue to identify happiness with consuming more. Most employment will continue to depend on capitalist profit.

Isolated individual action has little impact, but human activity does transform the natural environment for good and ill. Capitalists can pass on environmental costs; humankind cannot.
We can begin by acting together to reduce damage to the environment. Some action—far too little—is already being taken to cut dependence on fossil fuels. Cities can be reconfigured so that most people can walk or bike to work, to school, to entertainment and recreation.

Investment in public transit can reduce dependence on private automobiles. With current technology, wind and solar energy could be much more widely used. Geothermal and waste heat networks would further reduce fossil fuel emissions. Governments could speed up development of cheap, safe, plentiful sources of energy. Public investment—freed from nuclear weapons interests—could determine whether breeder reactors would eliminate radioactive waste, and whether thorium reactors would eliminate the danger of meltdowns.

International agreement to raise average tariffs from the current five percent to thirty percent (as in the 1950s and 60s) would increase local production in agriculture and manufacturing, replacing fossil fuels with human energy. The revenues raised would help provide governments with the funds needed to redirect social labor to more sustainable ways of meeting human needs. Substantially increasing taxes on corporations and the highest incomes would further increase public revenues and would have the added benefit of reducing the money available to promote narrow capitalist agendas.

Communities can act now to assert their right to veto damaging industrial activity. Parties and coalitions can be formed to give priority to human wellbeing. Campaigns for electoral reform can make governments more transparent and responsible to general human interest. Expanding social entitlements, the right to food, housing, education, health care, employment and basic income would reduce dependence on capitalist profit.

Before retiring Al Engler was president of Local 400, Marine Section, International Longshore and Warehouse Union-Canada. He has written two books and numerous articles on capitalism, economic democracy, and the environment. His grandsons, age two and five, live on Westminster Quay directly across from the Fraser-Surrey docks. Read other articles by Al.