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Dump the system to save the planet

This article is over 7 years, 11 months old
Politicians say “we” must change our ways to save the planet—but Sadie Robinson argues waste is built into capitalism
Issue 2391
Capitalism creates enormous waste, such as this US landfill site
Capitalism creates enormous waste, such as this US landfill site (Pic: Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources)

Recent storms have put climate change centre stage. More people are rightly worried as the changing climate leads to more unpredictable, extreme weather.

Human action has generated the greenhouse gases that have caused climate change.

For some, this has led to despair about humanity as a whole. “People” are destroying the planet, they say, and “nature” is now taking its revenge.

Yet climate change isn’t an inevitable result of people acting on the environment. Nor is everyone equally responsible for it. Climate change flows from the logic of the system we live in—and those who benefit from that system are the most culpable.

One startling report published last November laid this bare. Richard Heede’s study estimated that just 90 firms produced nearly two thirds of the world’s carbon dioxide and methane emissions between 1751 and 2010.

He added that these estimates were “generally conservative”.

Some 83 of the firms produced oil, gas or coal and the remaining seven were cement manufacturers. The biggest emitter was Chevron USA, followed by ExxonMobil USA. BP in Britain came fourth.

Many of the most heavily polluting industries have been the most profitable ones—and the ones central to modern capitalism.

Fossil fuel companies have fought to create a system heavily reliant on their products. At times they have done this more blatantly than at others. 

In 1940 General Motors, with help from Standard Oil and the Firestone tyre company, took over an electric rail firm in the US. It set about systematically destroying the tracks so that people would be more reliant on cars.

Powerful interests such as this shape the individual “choices” that we are able to make and are typically blamed for. And because polluting firms have so much invested in their products, their immediate incentive is to keep polluting.

So, Heede’s study reported that half the estimated emissions were produced in the last 25 years. That’s well after the impact on the planet had become clear.

The people responsible for climate change are the same everywhere—the rich and powerful, and those with vested interests in polluting industries. They are also responsible for allowing the problem to grow by refusing to take the action that could really tackle it. 

Yet we are forever being told that it is down to individuals to make the right choices to cut down their “carbon footprints”.

Politicians tell us that we must recycle more, use energy more efficiently and eat less meat. And many people are keen to do whatever they can to help. But the problem is that the changes individuals can make go nowhere near bringing about the cuts in greenhouse gas emissions that we need.

So, government-run initiatives target consumers who they claim are wasting too much food. Yet it’s the big supermarkets and food producers that create enormous waste—both in what they throw away themselves and in what they sell just in time for it to go off.

The system doesn’t leave most people the time, money or energy to get an environmentally friendly diet, even if one was available.

People can try to cut down on car use, for example by trying to negotiate car shares to work. But to make a real difference would require the state to nationalise public transport in order to provide cheap, efficient travel.

And it’s unfair to tell people to save energy when landlords and housing policy have pushed them into badly-insulated homes that cost a ­fortune to heat.

Focusing on individuals ignores the fact that waste and inefficiency are built into capitalism.

Production isn’t planned in a rational way, but in a way that sees each firm trying to put its own profits first. Firms compete in the hope of undercutting other producers, leading to overproduction.

They create built-in obsolescence in as many products as they can get away with, so that electronic goods and fashionable clothes need to be replaced as often as possible.

Governments could bring in measures to combat climate change in a way that individuals acting alone could never do. They could scrap the  ­multi?billion pound subsidies they pay to the nuclear firms and channel the money into renewable energy instead.

But they are constantly trying to find scapegoats for climate change to divert attention from the damage their system has done.

Commentators in the West routinely blame people in countries with much poorer populations for rising emissions—especially China.

It’s utter hypocrisy for any rulers to claim to care about the planet, particularly those in the developed countries that are responsible for most emissions historically.

Even in cases where poor people destroy the environment—such as poverty-stricken farmers who clear forests—it is because they are left no choice by a system that keeps them poor.

Capitalism and the way it has developed isn’t something that we are all equally responsible for. It has been driven by decisions taken by people at the top to meet their own ends—often in the teeth of resistance from ordinary people.

Take the enclosures in Britain. These handed swathes of common land to the rich and forced poor farmers to look for work elsewhere. The people driven into polluting factories had very little choice about it. Are they and their bosses really equally responsible for the pollution?

Capitalism is a class society based on competition. For the handful of rich and powerful bosses, accumulating profit comes before everything else.

This isn’t because they are individually greedy but because others could force them out of business if they don’t compete successfully.

To make money they exploit workers. They employ people to produce things, but pay them less than the value of what they produce. The bosses pocket the difference.

Climate change has sown some divisions within the ruling class. Some capitalists see that it threatens the very system they profit from. Others try to deny the problem—or cash in on it. Yet as long as capitalism remains, the short-term goal of making money will ultimately override all environmental concerns.

Our rulers want us to focus on individual solutions to divert attention from their unsustainable, wasteful system. But the only real solution lies in building a movement that can get rid of that system altogether

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