Natural Limits, Sustainability, and Socialism

by Gabriel Levy on October 3, 2012

Part 2 of an edited version of a talk given at the Communist Party of Great Britian’s Communist University, August 26, 2012.

These are some points (i) about the natural limits confronted by the economy, (ii) about global warming and the energy transition, and (iii) about agriculture.

Natural Limits

In the discussion about natural limits, socialists often feel, with good reason, that they are called upon to respond to Malthusian arguments,[1] i.e. that there are too many people, or – in more recent versions – that there are too many consumers. Judging by the socialists’ collective response to the Occupy movement, for example, I am not convinced that we have really got our act together in this respect. I hope the following might help to put this right.

The first point: there are natural limits within which the economy operates, within which humanity lives, and societies have constantly come up against them in the past. In my view the clearest explanation of the natural limits as they stand at present has been given by a group of scientific researchers at the Stockholm Environment Institute.[2] They aimed to “define planetary boundaries within which we expect that humanity can operate safely”, and to estimate whether, and to what extent, such boundaries are being breached. They concluded that the economy has already gone over the boundaries in three ways:

  1. Global warming, the main cause of which is the emission of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in the process of burning fossil fuels, which in turn results in the “greenhouse effect”. The range of possibly disastrous effects is well known. As I understand the projections by many scientists, they show that the likely results of global warming include sea-level rise such that large parts of countries such as Bangladesh would be submerged. Even earlier in the process there are weather effects on the tropical zone that make agriculture difficult and in some respects impossible – after a history of imperialism that has already been about, for hundreds of years, the tropical zone being looted by the temperate zone. There is a limit.
  2. Biodiversity loss, which is happening at an extremely rapid rate. It produces changes in the earth systems that are hard to predict, hard to understand, and very hard for agriculture to adapt to. The disappearance of species, just like the evolution of new species, happens in nature continually. The point is about the rate of change: under the impact of industry and industrial agriculture, species are being lost at such a rate that uncontrollable consequences follow.
  3. The disruption of the nitrogen cycle, i.e. the cycle of nitrogen through the ecological system. The amount of nitrogen in its reactive forms (i.e. forms that can be metabolised by plants and form the basis of nutrients) has doubled in the past fifty years, and it gathers in concentrations that cause a range of other environmental problems, which I will talk about in the final part on agriculture.

The argument by the researchers at Stockholm is that humanity, through the world capitalist economy, is impacting on earth systems unsustainably in those three ways. They looked at, and tried to determine where the limits are, for other aspects of the earth’s natural systems, including ocean acidification; stratospheric ozone; the phosphorus cycle; and freshwater use. In these cases, they concluded that the impact is problematic but not yet unsustainable.

We can not understand the capitalist economy if we do not understand the way that it hits up against these natural limits. I think this is a modern version of scarcity, not the sort of scarcity that socialists faced in the 1920s. The type of scarcity that was faced then, which caused millions of people to die from hunger, is still present – largely as a result of capitalist social relations, and there is a great deal of research showing that agriculture, at its present level of technology, could feed a much greater number of people than there are alive now – but there is this other type of scarcity, scarcity of natural systems and natural resources on which the economy impacts.

The second point: the history of the people-nature relationship is important. People have many times in history come up against natural limits to economic practices. There are known examples, starting from the time when settled agriculture began, that suggest that people, living in various types of social relations, conducted economic activity unsustainably.

There have been discussions in academia about this history, for example the one about Collapse, the popular book on environmental history by Jared Diamond. (See report here.) He argued that in all the cases of societies that in his view collapsed – and that idea of collapse is itself contested – there has been an environmental element among the causes. Diamond surveys many societies, including such well-known cases such as the Mayans, the Easter Island society, etc. There are ways in which his argument plays into the Malthusian view of population as the cause of the problem.

Those who are polemicising with Diamond have shown, quite convincingly in my view, that he has exaggerated the extent to which these different cases are related. But there is little disagreement over one fundamental point, that there are ways in which societies come up against the natural limits. For example, that many societies have practiced agriculture in such a way that has caused deforestation, and consequent soil erosion, at a level that reacts back on to agriculture and the humans supported by it. This history needs to be studied.

The third point: the clash between socialism and Malthusianism is not about whether natural limits to economic activity exist, as they clearly do, but about how the economy confronts those limits and how its unsustainable characteristics are to be measured and understood.

Take for example the recent Rio +20 conference, at which representatives of most of the nations in the world got together and reviewed the targets they had set themselves for making the economy sustainable at the Rio summit 20 years earlier. They had to conclude that they had not come near to meeting these targets.

Prior to the conference, a special issue of Nature was published that presented the most relevant scientific research. (See report here.) When it came to proposals about what action should be taken, it seems to me significant that the most substantial article was co-authored by the biologist Paul Ehrlich, who in the 1970s made a reputation as an aggressive, Malthusian advocate of population control. Ehrlich, together with two colleagues, now takes what I would describe as a modified Malthusian stance: they emphasize the importance of reducing population – albeit e.g. by providing contraception, and education, rather than compulsorily – and, while they acknowledge the “enormous inequity in wealth” that must be dealt with alongside “environmental hazard”, they retain the approach that the key to dealing with unsustainability is to reduce the number of people and to reduce their level of consumption.

To my mind, their methodology is crude and wrong, and as far as I know it has gone largely unchallenged by other scientists or economists. It passes over the importance of social relations in producing impact on the environment. The equation used to work out environmental impacts, first devised in the 1970s and still used today, is Impact = Population x Affluence x Technology (IPAT). In other words, that the impact of human activity on the environment can be measured with reference to the size of the population, its level of material wealth, and the technology used to produce the goods it consumes.

Even some socialist writers accept the validity of this equation completely, although others have, at least, sketched out the beginnings of a critique of it.[3] In my view we need to go further. Points that would be included in such a critique of the neo-Malthusian approach are:

  • The economy comprises a specific set of social relations, i.e. capitalism, and that is driven in the first place not by consumption but by the constant drive of capital to expand itself, and thereby to expand production.
  • This economy by its nature produces vast quantities of waste.
  • Types of consumption are not fixed but socially determined – and those common under capitalism would clearly have little or no place under any remotely human social relations. An extreme example is the consumption of hamburgers, the production of which is so incredibly expensive in terms of the amount of water used, and which are so damaging to the health of millions of people affected by obesity. (There are estimated to be 400 million obese people in the world, nearly half the number of undernourished people.)

Another example is the extent of motor car ownership. The point I am making, as a person living in a relatively rich country, is not that millions of Chinese or Indian people who now wish to own a car should not do so. The point is that that capitalist society has throughout its recent history assumed and encouraged mass motor car production, which requires endless purchases of motor cars. If and when we live differently, people would not want motor cars in many cases.

The conclusion of this section is that we need a rounded approach that (i) explains the impact of the economy on the natural environment, and (ii) envisages a transition to socialism that takes into account the economy’s collision with the natural limits, i.e. the scarcity of natural resources – which I regard as the big scarcity of the 21st century. Socialism can and will transcend those scarcities.

Discussion

In discussion, the points were made (i) that material goods bring status to people living alienated lives – the example was given of the various devices invented by Steve Jobs, seen as one of the great entrepreneurs of our time, that do not significantly differ in their functions from devices produced by other companies but sell in their hundreds of millions; and (ii) that consumerism is for many people a form of escapism from their working lives, “retail therapy” as it is called.

Comment: I agree with the point about consumerism in relation to status and as “retail therapy”. There is an ideological issue here, about the “green” message from the sections of the establishment that seeks to make individuals feel guilty and responsible for damage to the environment. A very good text on this is Ecological Servitude, by a group of Belgian activists. It is not for us to advocate that people reduce their individual consumption or feel guilty.

When working-class people go shopping, whether for Steve Jobs’ gadgets or whatever else, it is often about seeking a sense of fulfillment in this horrible world that we live in. Isn’t that exactly what Marx said religion was about? This is powerful ideological stuff. Understanding that there are natural limits is not about going round saying to people that they should consume less. It is not the issue.

We should of course highlight the way that some types of consumption are very damaging. Earlier on in our discussion someone said – in order to question my argument against “socialist growth” – that growth is necessary, since there has to be more food, and there has to be more medical equipment and drugs. I would say, it depends. Firstly, because in times and places where people go short of food, where they starve, the cause is almost invariably to do not with a shortage of food as such, but with the way that food is distributed. Secondly, are there not types of food that we do not favor increased production of? Do we really want more hamburgers, to be fed to more teenagers who suffer from obesity? I don’t.

Similar things could be said of medicine. An article in the New Scientist this week demonstrates just how many drugs used by patients in rich countries could be substituted simply with regular exercise. People walking or running for a little time each day. The article demonstrates scientifically something we all probably understand instinctively. But the problem with exercise is the unnatural lives people lead. So here in the south-east of England, where people work mostly in offices, they may think that their working lives have little to compare with those of our great-great-great grandparents who lived in industrial 19th century London. But people live perhaps even more unnaturally. They do not have time –  no time to exercise as people naturally should.

There was more discussion about the contrast between life under capitalism and the life of hunter-gatherers. The point was made that in terms of agricultural production and the consequent growth of human population, “the genie is out of the bottle”; there could be no return to the stone-age economy, under which e.g. only half a million or so people could live on the territory of the UK.

Comment. About the genie being out of the bottle: we do not know how people will or can live in their natural surroundings free of alienated social relationships. The reason for this is that, around the time that settled agriculture was established, so too were forms of social hierarchy and alienation. Forms of economy further on than hunting and gathering have never been tested out in history, except under alienated social relations. We only have a history of humanity confronting its natural environment under alienated forms of social relations. We do not have the data about how it would have been with different types of social relations. We can not go back; the genie is out of the bottle. In this sense, the transition to socialism is a transition to the unknown. We don’t know how humanity will live in some sort of accord with nature, because it has not been tried – at least not consistently, or on a large scale, for a long time. Humanity has only tried living in relatively large numbers in its natural environment under a succession of alienated social relationships, that have to one degree or another ruptured or messed up the relationship with nature. There are physical limits that we have discussed – the limits on the atmosphere, the limited amount of freshwater resources, etc – and the transition to socialism will be a transition to a situation in which we are living in accord with those limits.

I do not accept the bald assertion that we can not sketch out what communism will look like. Of course we can not do it in any exact way. And of course in the future there will be people cleverer and better-equipped than us to do so more effectively, as the transition gets underway. But I still think we can do a better job than we are doing.

Global Warming and the Energy Transition

The most important natural limit to the economy and to human activity is the danger of global warming caused by the rising level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide emissions produce a “greenhouse effect”, i.e. reduces the extent to which the atmosphere reflects sunlight back and retains a greater amount of the sunlight’s energy as heat energy in the atmosphere. Before the industrial revolution this was not the most dangerous rupture between people and nature: then, problems such as deforestation were much more pressing. But it is the case now. For that reason, I will make some points about climate science.

  1. Although there are some people who think that climate science is a conspiracy by the establishment, or a conspiracy by climate scientists to get lots of research money, I do not think it is worth spending time answering those arguments, any more than it is worth answering arguments about the world being flat. One denialist argument is that all animals including humans have lived through changes in climate before and will do so again. That is true, and irrelevant; the issue is about the speed with which these changes take place.
  2. There are huge uncertainties in climate science, and particularly about the manner of predicting future climate – as there are with many aspects of research in many sciences – and all serious climate scientists say so.
  3. Despite the uncertainties, there are some things about which there is no doubt, including that the atmosphere is warming up more quickly than at any previous time in human history, and the cause of this is the burning of fossil fuels since the industrial revolution.
  4. Despite the uncertainties, there are effects of global warming that are not only visible to scientists, but are already affecting millions of people’s lives. The main one of these is volatile weather in tropical zones, which is playing havoc with agriculture in Africa and south-east Asia especially. Farming conditions have changed, or are changing, dramatically, with very serious consequences.

5. Despite the uncertainties about the speed at which global warming will continue from now, it is possible to measure some of the likely consequences quite accurately, e.g. the speed at which sea level rises per degree in average temperature rise is computed quite accurately.

6. An overwhelming majority of climate scientists believe there is a danger of global warming reaching “tipping points”. These can not be predicted with any certainty, and there are many debates between scientists about how likely they are. But the consequences of any of these scenarios would be pretty horrific. In these cases, change would move so fast that it will throw up very serious threats to hundreds of millions of people – and if it happens under capitalism, poor people in particular. The clearest example is the danger of large blocks of Arctic or Antarctic ice melting. This would cause sea levels to rise much more rapidly than previously, with obvious impacts on the hundreds of millions of humans who live near rivers or sea shores.

As you all probably know, there is a much public discussion about whether governments should implement policies to limit climate change, or policies to adapt to it. I think that socialists should keep out of this discussion and continue to do what we are doing, i.e. to try to bring closer a time when these issues will be dealt with by society as a whole, in a completely different manner.

Given the dangers of global warming, and also the fact that fossil fuels (coal, oil and natural gas) are generally becoming more and more difficult and expensive to access, it seems inevitable that there will be a transition from fossil fuels being the predominant sources of energy for human use to other types of fuels. Good work by socialists working to understand the implications of this – and how approaches to the energy transition may be developed together with communities who rely on fossil fuels for work, e.g. of coal miners, oil workers, etc. – has been brought together in a book edited by Kolya Abramsky, which I recommend.[4]

The energy transition can only be a social transition. An example that might seem to suggest that the problem of global warming can be resolved without drastic social change is that of the ozone layer. As I understand it, this is a case in which governments of the large capitalist countries worked together to fix a serious global environmental emergency, i.e. the hole in the ozone layer that was being rapidly enlarged as a result of the emission into the atmosphere of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). Manufacture of the relevant products was banned outright or strictly regulated, with successful results. The hole in the ozone layer, as far as I understand, is getting smaller. In this case, the position of the manufacturing companies – perhaps like the tobacco companies in many countries – was such that governments felt able to regulate in that way.

However I suspect that fossil fuels are so integral to the capitalist economy that it will be different. There will probably be “green new deal” at some point, but it is very difficult to see how capitalism can adapt in the way that would be needed to cut carbon dioxide emissions on the scale required. In that sense the energy transition is very much part of the transition to socialism.

My conclusions on this are:

  • I am opposed to a catastrophist discourse of some so-called eco-socialists, e.g. “capitalism is causing global warming; global warming will cause disaster; in order to avoid disaster we need to overthrow capitalism.” This is not a guide to any type of action. Instead, we need to develop an understanding of the transition to socialism that also embodies a transition to new forms of energy.
  • All previous energy transitions – from human power to animal power, from wood to coal, the introduction of the diesel engine and electricity – have implied huge social changes. The move away from hydrocarbon fuels to other types of energy is also likely to go hand in hand with huge social changes.

Agriculture

Many of the most significant ruptures in the relationship between people and nature occur in agriculture, and often get scant attention from socialists who live and work in cities.[5] Some of the main issues we need to consider are:

1. One of the three natural limits that the capitalist economy is already breaching, according to the research at the Stockholm Environment Institute, is the disbalance of the nitrogen cycle.

The problem concerns reactive nitrogen, i.e. nitrogen in chemical compounds that can be metabolised by plants (i.e. processed to make protein). The amount of nitrogen in this form has more than doubled over the last fifty years, mainly due to the use of chemical fertilizers that put nitrogen into the soil; production of energy from fossil fuels and biomass. Big concentrations of reactive nitrogen cause problems, mainly: eutrophication of lakes and rivers (i.e. excessive concentration of nutrients in them), which e.g. can destroy fish stocks. The exponential increase in the use of chemical fertilisers is starting to produce other negative environmental effects: the saturation of soil in some places, and eventually the reversal of productivity improvements achieved by fertilizers. Productivity of industrial agriculture is still improving, but is not improving as fast as it used to.

In the 19th century, Marx wrote and thought a great deal about the dangers of the disbalance in nutrients caused in Europe by concentration of human population in cities, and the fact that nutrients transferred in foodstuffs to the cities were not returned to the countryside. But in the 20th century, the invention of chemical fertilizer and the advent of industrial agriculture to some extent turned this problem on its head. Marx was alarmed by the loss of nutrients on agricultural land. As a result of the invention of chemical fertilizers, there is now a problem of an excess of nutrients in some places, to the detriment of agriculture as a whole.

2. Other serious problems aggravated by industrial agriculture include deforestation, and pressure on availability of fresh water. The stress on some of the world’s largest rivers from agriculture means that some of them no longer reach the sea.

3. In my view, there is a strong argument that the tremendous surges in food prices in 2007, and further surges last year and this year, reflected the way that agriculture is hitting the natural limits. For sure, one cause of these surges was financial speculation. But there were other underlying issues: the rising cost of fuel for transport, and of natural gas which is a key raw material for most fertilizers, reflected rising prices of fossil fuels that in turn may reflect the limits of available resources. Relative shortages of land and water, and slowdowns in improvements of productivity, were also among the causes of the price surges, according to most economists who have researched this.

4. Agriculture is also a field where the deformation of the instruments of labor, which we discussed earlier, is most evident. Technologies to support small- and medium-sized farms are not developed: agribusiness does not invest in them because it is against its interests; small farmers do not do so because they do not have the money. The domination of the agribusiness corporations, which rely on large-scale technology and crop monocultures, is supported by the trading rules (under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) and in many other ways by capitalist states. In the last couple of years another form of expropriation, land-grabbing, has become rampant – so for example China buys up land in Africa, with a view to feeding Chinese people who have themselves emigrated from the land into the cities to work. These and other changes in land use have driven literally hundreds of millions of subsistence farmers off the land in poor countries.

Some conclusions on agriculture are:

  1. Socialists have to have something convincing to say about the struggle of small farmers and rural poor in countries like India where literally hundreds of millions of people have been driven off the land but can not be classed easily as urban or rural, or as workers or peasants. Repeating slogans about nationalising land that were relevant in the 1920s is not good enough.
  2. We have to have something convincing to say about how we see agriculture in the transition to socialism. In my view there would be much there about forms of agriculture that work sustainably and in concert with natural environments.
  3. We have to develop some 21st century ideas about overcoming the separation of town and country, which was central to 19th century socialism and was prominently highlighted in the Communist Manifesto, but has largely been lost in the 20th century.

Discussion

One comment was that, in dealing with global warming, time is of profound importance; that climate scientists, and in particular James Hansen, have warned us that time is limited in taking action on carbon dioxide emissions; that this does impart a real urgency to the need to defeat capitalism; for these reasons, is there anything wrong with warning of catastrophe?

Response: The work of James Hansen, one of the world’s leading climate scientists, is really important. He has not only become an outspoken critic of U.S. government environmental policy but has also written for the general public in order to widen understanding of the issues.[6] Hansen has a very clear position on the science: he says that he and his colleagues are sure that there are more and nearer “tipping points” than the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) accepts. He has been fiercely critical of the IPCC on the grounds that its projections of global warming effects have been too moderate. As I understand it, the majority of climate scientists probably think that the IPCC is too conservative, but there is a range of uncertainty and Hansen’s conclusions are not the only ones. He is less skeptical about his results than some other climatologists. The differences between them are not about whether global warming is dangerous; they are about different estimates of how quickly and how ruinously these dangers will materialize, and how sure we can be.

It seems to me mistaken for most of us, who are not climate scientists, to claim that we know which dangers will materialize and when. We do not know, exactly. But we do know that there is a range of dangers about which we are being warned – and of course I am as alarmed as anyone by some of the greatest of these dangers – and that these should never be tested in practice. Humanity collectively must not allow these dangers to materialize.

My point about catastrophism is a political one. Nothing is to be gained by shouting, screaming and panicking. Fear is no way to strengthen social movements. Let us say that capitalism, by its lunacy, by its distortion of the relationship between people and nature, has raised this horrible panoply of dangers, all of which humanity should avoid. That is a convincing enough reason to move forward in the transition to socialism.

Part 1 of the talk is here.

[1] Thomas Malthus argued (i) that population increased geometrically while agricultural production increased only in a linear way (which turned out to be wrong: he underestimated the potential of farming technology) (ii) that population growth, rather than capitalist social relations, was the cause of poverty; and (iii) that the state should not do anything to keep alive those impoverished by changes in the capitalist economy. Marx not only denounced Malthus’s views on poverty, but also polemicised against him theoretically, arguing that “surplus population” had to be understood in the specific historical context, i.e. this population was surplus to the capitalist economy, not surplus in any other sense. Many twentieth-century environmentalist writers have embraced Malthusian arguments, often explicitly (e.g. Garrett Hardin, author of “The Tragedy of the Commons”), sometimes implicitly and partially.

[2] Johan Rockstrom et al., “Planetary boundaries: exploring the safe operating space for humanity”,  Ecology and Society 14(2). Also see: Donella Meadows, Jorgen Randers and Dennis Meadows, Limits to Growth: the 30-year Update (Chelsea Green, 2004). Written by members of the research team who produced the initial “limits to growth” report in 1972, it is broadly neo-Malthusian in its approach, but refers to much important empirical research.

[3] Minqi Li, The Rise of China and the Demise of the Capitalist World Economy (Pluto Press, 2008), pp. 139-147, uses the IPAT equation. There is a critique of it in John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark and Richard York, The Ecological Rift: capitalism’s war on the earth (Monthly Review Press, 2010), pp. 377-399.

[4] Kolya Abramsky (ed.), Sparking a Worldwide Energy Revolution: social struggles in the transition to a post-petrol world (AK Press, 2010)

[5] The best introduction to the wide range of issues by a socialist is: Tony Weis, The Global Food Economy: the battle for the future of farming (Zed Books, 2007).

[6] See James Hansen’s web site. His book addressed to general readers is: James Hansen, Storms of My Grandchildren: the truth about the coming climate catastrophe and our last chance to save humanity (London, Bloomsbury, 2009).

 

{ 30 comments… read them below or add one }

Bill Kerr October 3, 2012 at 10:38 pm

You are deferring to the wisdom of the scientists, as experts, and then putting the immediate politics into the too hard basket. Somehow socialism will sort it out because it is too difficult for capitalism to solve. As an argument for socialism, that fails.

Sustainability does not hold up as a general principle. The world changes continually, there is no ideal or original ideal state of nature or society.

Broadly, 3 positions are possible:
(1) Humans in immediate unity with nature, ie. humans as passive creatures.
(2) Humans overthrowing nature, creating some sort of techn-utopia
(3) Humans are part of nature, they transform nature and in the process transform themselves.

I’m assuming everyone here will agree with position (3).

How does that stand up wrt this article? It is being alleged that capitalism inevitably creates position (2) because they are only interested in profits. The bottom line for capitalism is profits but

Reply

Bill Kerr October 3, 2012 at 10:51 pm

I hit the submit button by mistake, will put full comment here:

You are deferring to the wisdom of the scientists, as experts, and then putting the immediate politics into the too hard basket. Somehow socialism will sort it out because it is too difficult for capitalism to solve. As an argument for socialism, that fails.

Sustainability does not hold up as a general principle. The world changes continually, there is no ideal or originally ideal state of nature or society.

Broadly, 3 positions are possible:
(1) Humans in immediate unity with nature, ie. humans as passive creatures.
(2) Humans overthrowing nature, creating some sort of techno-utopia
(3) Humans are part of nature, they transform nature and in the process transform themselves.

I’m assuming everyone here will agree with position (3).

How does that stand up wrt this article? It is being alleged that capitalism inevitably creates position (2) because they are only interested in profits. The bottom line for capitalism is profits but that in itself is far from proof that they cannot move to position (3). Capitalism is a flexible system. They can continue to make profits and also deal with environmental demands.

For example, it was recently reported that 50% of the coral of the Great Barrier Reef has disappeared in the past 27 years. Ok. Tourism is an enormous industry and so you would expect capitalist interests to move to repair and reverse this damage. The main issue is water quality (too many nutrients), that can be fixed within capitalism. Another issue is coral leaching due to acidification. That is related to CO2 and so is a harder problem but only relates to 10% of the problem.

All the scientists you are deferring to here are products of the capitalist system and its funding arrangements. I’m not a anthropogenic global warming denier but it is clear that the science to politics connection has been distorted by the activities of the IPCC. You shouldn’t write things like “the overwhelming majority” of scientists think such and such wrt an issue which has become so highly politicised. The issue here is the need to do the hard work to find the scientists that can be trusted on such issues.

Reply

Christian October 4, 2012 at 5:37 pm

A new book out on the role of soil depletion in the decline of different societies:
http://www.amazon.com/Dirt-Civilizations-David-R-Montgomery/dp/0520248708

For tipping points, research sea ice and methane. When sea ice melts, instead of a white covering reflecting that heat and energy back out into space, it is absorbed by the dark ocean. So once you get rid of the sea ice, sea temperatures, and therefore earth temperatures, start warming at a much sharper angle. Essentially it is impossible to go back once you have walked off that cliff.

Another is methane, which is a green house gas about 20 or more times as powerful as carbon is with regards to its global warming effects when released in the atmosphere. There is a LOT of methane frozen in the permafrost in places like Siberia and Northern Canada. Once this stuff melts- and we are already seeing it bubbling up to the surface in arctic oceans- it goes into the atmosphere, and it’s like you just put a whole lot of more coal plants online that you can never take off. So that’s another irreversible feedback loop that we will probably kick off.

It’s important to note that we have dealt with expanding our civilization over its natural limits, enduring the subsequent “wrath” of nature, and working together to sort it out before. In the United States the greatest example of this was the dust bowl. A lot of marginal land in Western Kansas and Oklahoma and Eastern Colorado was opened up for homesteading after 1909. The world war especially not only drove up the prices of agricultural goods but also beef. So plows and cattle were run all over this area where there was a very thin layer of small plants holding together a vast amount of sandy soil. Once that was torn up, it was only a matter of time until a few years of drought and winds came along- which did in the 1930s. The result was entire towns were buried by windstorms. Livestock died. Farmers couldn’t grow anything, and a lot of people had to leave. Federal agencies helped a minority of victims by buying their cows before they died and helping them resettle onto better land (Of course this was ironic, because at the same time there was still more food being grown, nationally, than the depressed urban markets could afford to buy).

That’s one well known example. But there are countless others. In the Escalante Valley in Southwest Utah there was a boom in the 1920s of dry farming, where ground waters were pumped up and used to grow crops. A railroad that connected the area to Los Angeles made for good access to markets, and soon companies from California were buying up large areas of land and attempting to sell it to potential farmers. Perhaps the worst named of these was the Beryl United Colony Farming Association. The outfit was owned by California stockholders and expected to be paid dividends from the profits made by homesteaders pumping up the allegedy “inexhaustible” supply of groundwater to irrigate the desert. In 1936 farmers started to notice the water table was starting to drop significantly. A demand was made to not put in any new wells. By 1940 out of 370 wells that had been put in place, only 87 were still operating. The state water engineer that year finally rejected the final appeal of the Colony project. There plans still were- despite the overwhelming evidence that it was a bad idea- to put in an additional 987 wells.

You can find local examples like that all over the place. There are capitalists who- despite overwhelming evidence that their projects are unsustainable and environmentally harmful- will continue them anyway. Here is the link to the Rolling Stone article that came out this summer ( http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/global-warmings-terrifying-new-math-20120719 ), which makes there very interesting point that if existing known and proven reserves of oil, natural gas, and coal were used up in their entirety, that carbon load would take us several times over into the worst case scenarios predicted by climate change scientists. Yet, you may have noticed, energy companies are still exploring. They are not satisfied with what they have, they are searching the most remote corners of the world for new resources yet to burn. Geology students today are learning how to do this, and they are being courted by energy companies even while they are in undergrad to become future locators of new oil and gas fields.

The point is pretty clear that things need to change. We need to pressure all existing avenues of power to make this happen. I agree with the author of this article that reformist slogans like “1 million green jobs” do not address a lot of underlying issues, but they are are still steps in the right direction. We need to lower the output of carbon, and start developing genuinely renewable forms of energy, however we can. That will means supporting “green” reformist plans whereever we can get them because, like a person on food stamps, we need all the help we can get where ever we can get if from, whether or not a short term reform in the here and now is really enough.

We also need to work with green types to fight against reactionary ideas that belittle the impact climate change will have on our lives. We need to win the argument that solar and wind actually ARE cheaper when you factor in the human and economic costs of wars, and the financial costs of military industrial complexes, which are as large as they are today in large part to secure energy supplies. So there are political and practical fights that need to be made. It is very important for marxists to be non-sectarian about this. You might easily dismiss your neighbor who likes to recycle or bike to work or grow a garden to “do his part” to help the environment. Often I think people do that because they feel politically disempowered and that is one of the few ways they feel they can make a direct impact. But people’s feelings and desires for change run a lot deeper than that. Those are the kind of people who you want to talk to and who will probably come out when there is a rally planned or an important ballot proposition to consider. They also probably care a lot about the social issues you care about as well.

The point is that no one has the right answer. Neither green capitalism nor dogmatic revolutionist marxism alone has all the answers. You need to combine the two.

If you are interested in this stuff, here is an article I wrote two years ago called “Green Capitalism vs Revolutionary Ecology.” There are some good links at the bottom as well, and similar, but slightly different version of the excellent venn diagram the author here uses.

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Christian October 4, 2012 at 5:39 pm
Bill Kerr October 4, 2012 at 6:46 pm

Christian:

For tipping points, research sea ice and methane. When sea ice melts, instead of a white covering reflecting that heat and energy back out into space, it is absorbed by the dark ocean. So once you get rid of the sea ice, sea temperatures, and therefore earth temperatures, start warming at a much sharper angle. Essentially it is impossible to go back once you have walked off that cliff

Tipping points sound scary. Before repeating such phrases a little research is in order. The issue for me is finding which experts you can trust on these issues. I am wary of climate alarmism in general since I have been deceived in the past. But put it this way. It isn’t hard to find credible scientists who debunk the above assertions.

Judith Curry:

The first issue to debunk is that an ‘ice free’ Arctic is some sort of ‘tipping point.’ A number of recent studies find that in models, the loss of summer sea ice cover is highly reversible.

The impact of September sea ice loss on the ice albedo feedback mechanism is interesting. The minimum sea ice occurs during a period when the sun is at low elevation, so the direct ice albedo effect isn’t all that large. Less sea ice in autumn means more snowfall on the continents, which can have a larger impact on on albedo.

The impacts of the freeze-thaw over the annual cycle influences ocean circulations. But sea ice would continue to freeze and thaw on an annual cycle.

Clouds would change, atmospheric circulation patterns would change. The net effect on climate outside the Arctic Ocean would be what? More snow during winter on the continents is the most obvious expected change. But we really don’t know.

There would likely be regional triggers that could feedback onto larger scale regime shifts. Would any of these patterns or extreme events fall outside the envelope of what we have seen over the past century? Hard to know.

Would melting sea ice trigger some sort of clathrate methane release into the atmosphere? Well in terms of thawing permafrost, it seems like more snow fall on the continents would inhibit permafrost thawing. Same for the stability of the Greenland ice cap.

These are all qualitative speculations, but I am not seeing a big rationale for climate catastrophe if the see ice melts? I would be interested in other speculations on this.
http://judithcurry.com/2012/09/17/reflections-on-the-arctic-sea-ice-minimum-part-ii/

Note her style of writing. It is scientific, not dogmatic. She is open to further study and research.

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Pham Binh of Occupy Wall Street, Class War Camp October 8, 2012 at 11:17 am

Tipping points is another way of saying “irreversible damage.” Obviously we need to be really specific and contextual when we try to flesh out what constitutes a tipping point, but I think anyone who studies biology will recognize that certain types of damage and trauma will kill or permanently cripple an organism. The same applies to the planet, especially if we are talking about a planet that is habitable for human beings.

So yes, there is a lot of alarmism on this issue, not all of it factually grounded, but a lot of the environmental problems we face are too big and too complex for capitalist nation states (much less corporations) to handle or significantly tackle even if they were governed by hardcore anti-capitalists, which is kind of scary and gives rise to this alarmism.

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Arthur October 8, 2012 at 12:45 pm

One aspect of the alarmism that results in scientists promoting it as that it is very different to see how current capitalist institutions could deal with a problem 50 to 100 years away that primarily affects future generations.

So on the one hand there is genuine fear that nothing effective will in fact be done in time and on the other hand a simplistic belief that the greater the alarmism the greater the likelihood of effective action.

In fact this, emotional and opportunist approach has, like so many others, proved totally counter-productive. It gets coopted into usless measures that enable people to say and even believe they are “doing something” but benefit only rent seekers (marketing technologies that can never compete with coal and administering bureaucracies to tell people to lower consumption etc etc). The more alarmism the less people actually think rationally about what needs to be done over the next 50 to 100 years.

Nobody has seriously attempted to answer the obvious point that poor countries WILL industrialize using fossil fuels during that period and NONE of the measures on which time and money is being expended in the West will persuade them not to.

The only solution has to involve massive R&D for both fundamental science and R&D for both development of alternative energy souces that would actually be cheaper than fossil fuels and geoengineering and other measures to adapt to the long lead time likely to expire before either such technologies become feasible or poor countries are sufficiently developed that they could be persuaded to use more expensive technologies than fossil fuels.

The flat refusal to attempt an answer to this arises from the fact that Greenies are far more motivated by an actual desire to deindustrialize and move to “simpler” lifestyles than they are be the issues they raise alarm enough. Only a small minority are consistent enough to actually support nuclear energy replacing fossil fuels despite the fact that it is the only technology that comes close to being economically feasible. They simultaneously say the planet is doomed and reject any possible solution, but are happy to be funded to spread this message of doom and thus encourage passivity.

We shoud be spreading confidence in human capacity to change the world including developing new technologies. This was cenral to the socialist and communist movements and closely related to the critique of capitalism as a fetter holding back the productive forces.

The real tipping points are social. The leap from feudalism to capitalism unleashed enormous productive potential and the leap from capitalism to communism will do so even more. Rejection of that core aspect of scientific socialism is central to conciliation with reactionary romanticism.

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Bill Kerr October 9, 2012 at 8:40 pm

Pham Binh:

… a lot of the environmental problems we face are too big and too complex for capitalist nation states (much less corporations) to handle or significantly tackle …

I agree that environmental problems are complex. If we take the signature issue of global warming there is not a consensus amongst informed scientists but a range of opinions from Hansen (it’s alarming) to Lindzen (it may not be happening). These scientists understand the scientific issues better than anyone here.

However, I believe the real issue here is the connection b/w science and politics / economics. That connection is not and should not be linear for an issue such as global warming.

Global warming is a different type of issue to depletion of the ozone layer or an asteroid that is on a collision course with the earth. The latter problems can be solved or not solved by scientific means which do not impact significantly on core political / economic issues such as Development. So for the latter problems the connection b/w science and policy is linear.

Since global warming / CO2 emissions is so intimately bound up with development then the connection b/w them is not linear. The role of scientists here (unlike the rogue asteroid case or ozone case) is to act as honest brokers. Here are the range of possibilities of what might happen with such and such confidence limits. Then it is up to the political process, which must be democratic, to make a choice about which policy options to select in response.

Unfortunately, the role of the global body, the UN has not been good because IPCC massaged the data to pretend there was a consensus amongst global warming scientists. This has now come unstuck following climate gate.

We could halt or dramatically slow development and control CO2 that way. That was rejected by the developing world at Copenhagen in 2009.

We could replace fossil fuels with nuclear but that is too expensive at the moment and so would also slow development dramatically.

We can pretend that alternative green energy sources can do the job. But the maths doesn’t add up.

We can invest massively in R&D to come up with cheaper energy sources which can do the job.

Now why is it that socialists can solve this problem and capitalists can’t? There is only one bottom line for capitalism: the production of surplus value.

I think we should focus on problems that capitalist’s can’t solve: the economic crisis.

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Bill Kerr October 5, 2012 at 2:29 am

Gabriel:

The work of James Hansen, one of the world’s leading climate scientists, is really important. He has not only become an outspoken critic of U.S. government environmental policy but has also written for the general public in order to widen understanding of the issues.[6] Hansen has a very clear position on the science: he says that he and his colleagues are sure that there are more and nearer “tipping points” than the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) accepts. He has been fiercely critical of the IPCC on the grounds that its projections of global warming effects have been too moderate. As I understand it, the majority of climate scientists probably think that the IPCC is too conservative, but there is a range of uncertainty and Hansen’s conclusions are not the only ones. He is less skeptical about his results than some other climatologists. The differences between them are not about whether global warming is dangerous; they are about different estimates of how quickly and how ruinously these dangers will materialize, and how sure we can be.

Your comment here could have been written before climategate and the failure of the 2009 Copenhagen climate conference. Climategate revealed corruption in the IPCC process (an attempt to create a phoney “consensus”) and Copenhagen revealed that the developing world was not going to be bullied by the developed world into curbing their development.

I’ve read James Hansen’s book (Storms …). He is a credible climate scientist and argues a strong case that we should be alarmed. I have since found out that his computer model predictions have not been accurate. I’ll dig up the link if anyone here is interested.

However, the main issue with James Hansen is that he does not understand the connection b/w science and politics. The science of global warming is a scientific issue. The policy response is a political issue.

The reality of the matter is that the public, despite the IPCC massage of the data, has yet be persuaded that global warming is an issue for alarm. The public is concerned but not alarmed. They would accept a mild reduction in standard of living (SOL) to address global warming but not a dramatic reduction. Pro-Green parties obtain, say, 10-15% of the vote but as soon as their policies start to look like they might reduce SOL significantly they lose support.

If you actually do the maths of what energy changes would be required to reduce CO2 emissions from fossil fuels to 50% of 1990 levels by 2050 (the target of the failed Copenhagen conference) then you will realise that that would require a “state of emergency” mentality which does not exist. So for Hansen to achieve what he wants would require a Green Dictatorship, the end of Democracy as we know it, where people are forced for their own good to reduce their SOL. Do you support that? Your idea of waiting for socialism to appear to magically solve the problem strikes me as equally unrealistic.

Are there policies under capitalism that might achieve significant decarbonisation at costs that would be acceptable to the developing world? These policies have been worked out by Lomborg and Pielke jnr who are politically middle of the roaders. I’m happy to develop the argument further for anyone who is interested.

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Arthur October 5, 2012 at 7:21 am

Part 2 is expressed less obnoxiously than part 1. But the claimed rejection of malthusianism and of denouncing people for consuming too much is just to make the same stuff less obviously repulsive.

“If and when we live differently, people would not want motor cars in many cases.”

Of course not, we’ll want helicopters and spaceships!

Claiming people will WANT even worse material conditions than under capitalism is intended to sound less oppressive than simply endorsing a general wage cut. But its actually a demand that we smile and say thank you for saving the planet while copping it.

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Pham Binh of Occupy Wall Street, Class War Camp October 8, 2012 at 11:18 am

I wouldn’t want either of those. Too many people in the comment threads on this site are in spaceships as it is. I’d rather bike, walk, or take a train, thank you.

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byork October 8, 2012 at 6:36 pm

But Pham, compared to helicopters and spaceships, biking, walking and train travel is so BOOOOORING! Leftists of the colour red are the only people who still believe in reaching for the stars. In the mid-C19th, Marx said “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”. In the C21st, let’s add “… and wildest fantasies and fun”!

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jim sharp October 8, 2012 at 7:52 pm

Pham Binh of Occupy Wall Street, Class War Camp October 8, 2012 at 11:18 am
I wouldn’t want either of those. Too many people in the comment threads on this site
are in spaceships as it is. I’d rather bike, walk, or take a train, thank you.
but then pham binh it sounds like you ain’t as obese as your protagonists
coz those who once luvved
the sound of their own spruiking
are now sounding off in cyberspace

the way i’m reading this exchange is that
bill kerr.arfur & pat muldowny
as well as the grand old duke of B.york
ostensively think they have a direct link to the sky pilot
who for gude or evil as tasked ’em to advertise globally
their goddess given “genuine leftism” & without doubts
to go do battle against the dominant pseudo lefties

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Aaron Aarons October 23, 2012 at 1:40 am

Arthur: “[…] we’ll want helicopters and spaceships! […] Claiming people will WANT even worse material conditions than under capitalism […]”

For the majority of the world’s population, having a reasonably safe and comfortable place to sleep and a quantity of nutritious food sufficient to maintain them at a healthy weight while allowing their children to grow up healthy would mean far BETTER material conditions than they have under capitalism. Being denied helicopters (except perhaps in emergencies) and spaceships would not fit most people’s concept of what is “oppressive”. Such a notion of oppression would probably be shared mostly by super-annuated teenage boys who haven’t outgrown Marvel Comics.

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Bill Kerr October 5, 2012 at 9:01 pm

Gabriel:

We can not understand the capitalist economy if we do not understand the way that it hits up against these natural limits. I think this is a modern version of scarcity, not the sort of scarcity that socialists faced in the 1920s

… The most important natural limit to the economy and to human activity is the danger of global warming caused by the rising level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

I want to point out here how you equate natural limits with scarcity (as other environmentalists do) and then state that global warming is an example of such natural limits.

I agree that global warming is a real issue (with serious qualifications with your poorly researched “facts” about it) but it is an economic issue not an issue of natural limits. For example, fossil fuels can be replaced by nuclear energy and that would solve the CO2 problem. There are other options which could be developed for cars, incidentally. The reason this is not happening quickly is that nuclear is more expensive than fossil fuels. It’s an economic issue, not a natural limit.

Here is what I notice about your essay in general. You are substituting the words “natural limits” and “scarcity” where the correct word would be “rapid change”.

Instead of:
The most important natural limit to the economy and to human activity is the danger of global warming caused by the rising level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere
Try:
The most important rapid change to the economy and to human activity is the danger of global warming caused by the rising level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere

I still wouldn’t agree with the latter. The most important change to the economy IMO is the current economic crisis. But it does blow your inaccurate usage of emotive terminology out of the water.

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Gabriel Levy October 8, 2012 at 3:42 am

Thanks for these useful comments, many of which I need to think about. Just quickly, though … I remain to be convinced that it is wrong to think in terms of natural limits, within which the capitalist economy operates and within which humans under any form of social organisation would operate. Surely e.g. the amount of fresh water is a natural limit (unless and until some sort of reasonably efficient desalination is invented), the amount of atmosphere into which you can emit greenhouse gases is a limit, etc. I accept the points about science and scientists; I may not have said it in the talk but I have certainly written elsewhere about the importance of understanding the position of science in society. … As for motor cars, I don’t envision people wanting worse material conditions in a future socialistic society, but I do envisage progress towards breaking down the division between town and country (which was a big deal for 19th century socialists), not sitting in traffic jams for hours to go to do pointless jobs, etc. May be young men will not require cars as status symbols, because their lives will be more creative and fulfilling than they are now, etc. I don’t know how things will pan out, this is just my thoughts about possibilities. On the other hand I think that equating human development, creativity and happiness with an endless accumulation of the type of material goods available in rich countries displays an awful lack of socialist imagination.

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Arthur October 8, 2012 at 9:51 pm

Equating endless accumulation of material goods with happiness is classical bourgeois complacnency rather than lack of socialist imagination. But denying that people will want (and subsequently need) far more material goods than capitalism is able to deliver to satisfy their wildest imaginations and fun is a denial of the human spirit. We’ve come down from the trees and we’re headed for the stars.

Breaking down the division between town and country will require a lot more transportation facilities than walking, bicycles and limited numbers of railway stations. We already like to visit different parts of different countries and we’re more likely to extend that to different planets than to return to village life without much travel. Naturally people who prefer to walk, bike or take a train will have more leisure time in which to do so but others will also choose to spend their time in different ways.

BTW reasonably efficient desalination was invented long ago. Its used only where cheaper than local or transported water resources. Australia is notoriously a “dry” continent and desalination is a live issue here at the moment due to expensive precautionary projects in case of future droughts. (Also related, we experience massive flooding and Greenies blame both, which are long term features of the Australian climate, on climate change – and oppose building damns to cope with either droughts or floods. Naturally they are widely despised.)

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byork October 10, 2012 at 6:19 pm

On the topic of ‘damophobia’, I had this opinion piece published in The Australian newspaper last year: http://www.theaustralian.com.au/opinion/seeing-red-on-dams-not-green/story-e6frg6zo-1225987397128

Excerpt: “It always strikes me, when these issues arise, how backward the social system of capitalism really is. Human lives and billions of dollars are lost, yet only a pittance is invested in geo-engineering research and development, let alone dams, and even that is contested by the reactionaries”.

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Aaron Aarons October 21, 2012 at 8:16 pm

In the real world, dams are built mostly where and when they serve the needs and desires of more privileged groups, including especially capitalist developers, at the expense of the poor and, especially, indigenous peoples. The latter have, IMO, the right to stop such damned development by any means necessary, just as they have the same right to stop other kinds of capitalist development (extractive industries, industrial agriculture, etc.) that negatively impacts them.

If reacting negatively to anything that serves the real or imagined needs of the rich at the expense of the lives and well-being of the poor makes me a “reactionary”, so be it.

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Aaron Aarons October 23, 2012 at 2:23 pm

Even if there were zero probability that drought and flooding in Australia or anywhere else had anything to do with global warming, the history of projects like dams and levees under capitalism and under other class societies shows that they generally do a lot more harm than good, at least to the subordinated majority of the population. And, class issues aside, dams are an example of the kind of manipulation of nature that replaces frequent minor disasters with perhaps-less-frequent major disasters.

I suspect that the people who despise “greenies” are largely the same ones who celebrate the founding of Australia as a white settler colony.* I also suspect that, as in the United Snakes, the supporters of unrestrained “development” are disproportionately found among those who believe that the earth is 6,000 years old.

* OTOH, maybe they’re just despised by everybody with the one-word pseudonym, ‘Arthur’.

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Bill Kerr October 8, 2012 at 6:08 pm

Gabriel,
Development uses resources and resources are finite. Therefore development must be limited at some point. There is no escape from that logical loop. But we live in a real world.

If we have ample energy (eg. nuclear) for a billion years sustainable development in practice we are not going to worry about it. The same applies to water and the rest of the litany. They are not environmental issues, as such, but economic issues. eg. Lomborg estimates the total accessible run-off of water to be 12,500 cubic km, which is equivalent to 5,700 litres of water for every single person on the earth every single day. The average citizen in the EU uses about 566 litres of water per day. These are old figures in his 2001 book, The Skeptical Environmentalist, p. 150

It seems that all that can be established at this point is that there is not a natural connection b/w left wing and environmental concern on the one hand and right wing and lets trash the planet on the other. Both sides are capable of nonsense. Once free of that ideological crutch we can then examine environmental issues of concern on a case by case basis. eg. endangered species is a real concern IMO but like you I also feel the need to research more.

If you are really going to think about it perhaps start with Lomborg’s The Skeptical Environmentalist. He quote Julian Simon at the start:

This is my long run forecast in brief

The material conditions of life will continue to get better for most people, in most countries, most of the time, indefinitely. Within a century or two, all nations and most of humanity will be at or above today’s Western living standards.

I also speculate, however, that many people will continue to think and say that the conditions of life are getting worse.

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byork October 16, 2012 at 3:05 am

The notion of ‘finite resources’ can be challenged. In what meaningful sense do we even know what the resources are? Nature becomes a resource only when humans develop a technology with which to explot it. Water is a resource when it is dammed and used for irrigation, etc. In Roman times, coal was used as an ornament. Imagine someone saying back then that one day coal will be used as a principal energy source, fuelling an industrial revolution that will do away with feudal lords and tranform social relations, and (eventually) bring about a qualitative rise in living standards. In ancient Egypt, uranium was used for its colour, as a ‘paint’ or dye. The same may be said of oil: Is it really a resource without the technology to exploit and use it (e.g. internal combustion engine)?

Instead of emphasizing finite resources, leftists influenced by Marxism should be demanding vastly greater government funding into research and development of new technologies that will create from nature resources that we didn’t know existed. A case in point, that the left should be campaigning for (in opposition to reactionary ‘green’ notions such as opposition to consumerism and ‘sustainability’), is nuclear fusion. Clean, non-greenhouse emissions, enough energy to last for thousands of years – the creation by humans of little stars on our own planet. Beautiful beyond description.

Such a campaign also highlights the zombie nature of capitalism. We would already be there under socialism, with its unleashing of imagination and productivity for human benefit rather than for concentrated private profit. The idea that we’ve already exceeded the planet’s natural limits merely reflects the dominant capitalist class’ sense of doom about its own future – especially in this time of global economic crisis – and its system of social relations.

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Brian S. October 16, 2012 at 10:45 am

Well, the material world is certainly finite (if you are a materialist); human creativity and knowledge is obviously more elastic,and can act as a multiplier of finite values; but it represents serious “species arrogance” to suggest that the latter has no limits – even more so to suggest that it can advance without costs to the material world (non-human and by extension human). There is no reason to assume that technology will advance evenly – so even if technological solutions are eventually found to resource limitations – there could be huge human and environmental costs before we get there. To invoke a possible remote future technology as an answer to problems that are arriving on our doorsteps, is very poor reasoning. The “precautionary principle” and “sustainability” (which has an ethical as well as a utilitarian dimension”) make far more sense.And why on earth should socialists (not the “scocial” root) be singing the praises of an individualist, profit-obsessed “consumerism”?

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byork October 16, 2012 at 5:24 pm

As a leftist, I’m all for ‘species arrogance’! It is ‘species arrogance’ that transformed coal from an ornament of the rich in Roman times to a world-changing source of energy centuries later. Nuclear fusion R&D is already under way – it’s just taking a terribly long time (due to lack of adequate investment, due to absence of clear profit outcome, and also due to dominant bourgeois ideology that opposes progress). Greens suggest that we have already exceeded the natural limits. I would think they are a very long way off, especially when socialism creates conditions for vastly greater research and development of such technologies – and ones we can’t imagine right now (just as the Egyptians could never have imagined future uses for their yellow dye, uranium). It strikes me that this is an outlook consistent with what the left has always believed, and a confidence in the future also characteristic of the left. We’re not the ones advocating or defending a moribund system.

Our vision has always been for ‘Abundance for all’ – which is what I have in mind with consumerism. The two billion of our fellow humans who exist in acute poverty will never be raised from their condition without consuming more. The rest of us, who are not hungry, enjoy ‘more stuff’ for a variety of reasons (usually individual-based reasons, which raises a very significant issue to do with socialism and communism and individuality).

Philosophically, a materialist does not confine their view of nature to our little planet. There’s an entire solar system out there! (And let’s not forget the rest of the universe). We’re getting to know both a lot better but are mere babes in our understanding thus far.

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Aaron Aarons October 21, 2012 at 8:35 pm

“The two billion of our fellow humans who exist in acute poverty” can be provided with decent material conditions by diverting resources away from the provision of luxuries that only the highest-consuming 10% or so of the global population can afford and from the building and maintenance of imperialist militaries.

As for those who violently resist such diversion? They could help the environment by serving as fertilizer!

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Bill Kerr October 16, 2012 at 5:53 pm

Brian S:

The “precautionary principle” and “sustainability” (which has an ethical as well as a utilitarian dimension”) make far more sense

The Precautionary Principle and sustainability actually represent a denial of all past human progress as well as future human progress. All new technology involves positives, negatives and uncertainties. For example, it was argued that the Large Hadron Collider could cause the destruction of the earth by a black hole, that the first nuclear test would trigger a chain reaction destroying the earth etc. etc. If we took the PP seriously then we would halt all technological progress. New technology means change. In a change process there are always winners and losers. Put a robot on the assembly line and Giovanni and Luigi lose their job. Hence, robots were named after Giovanni and Luigi in a certain car factory. What we have to look at is our perspective or point of view in evaluating these changes. Is it a good thing that humans spend their lives doing boring manual work that robots can do? Wouldn’t it be better to transform the social system where humans can prosper without that particular sort of work?

Sustainability is another recently defined word, as you say Brian, an ethical word, that creates expectations of what humans ought to be which are actually not human and not natural in the very real sense of what humans and nature have been historically.

Sustainability is defined as a requirement of our generation to manage the resource base such that the average quality of life that we ensure ourselves can potentially be shared by all future generations. Development is sustainable if it involves a non decreasing average quality of life (Geir Asheim. Sustainability. The World Bank, 1994)

This, in fact, does not contradict Barry’s optimistic vision. But words and definitions are grounded in usage. And the generally accepted usage of sustainability is “sustainable living”, for individuals and society to consciously reduce their use of the Earth’s natural resources, to practice frugality, to tread lightly on the earth, to live in fuzzy harmony with nature, to not empty the bathtub and ask visitors to flush the toilet using used bath water.

So, sustainability, as a word has evolved from “endure” or “bearable” to “capable of being continued at a certain level” into a modern ethical imperative. Normal humans don’t accept this. Travel by plane continues to increase dramatically.

This sustainability ethical imperative represents a denial of both normal nature and what it means to be human.

Nature is not frugal or reserved or incrementally continuous. Floods, fires, volcanoes, earthquakes are a normal part of nature. Evolution with all it leaps is a normal part of nature. Humans transforming the environment is a normal part of nature and is the singular human contribution to nature. Engels picked up on the work of other scientists in his essay, The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man.

Yet we now read in the media how floods in Pakistan or Queensland a few years ago have according to The Greens been cause by the coal industry. Natural events, which may have been slightly augmented by global warming, are categorised as not natural. Floods have always been natural.

As development advocate Julian Simon pointed out every generation rediscovers this anti development mantra, to paraphrase: “Development uses resources. Resources are finite. Development tends towards exponential growth. Development will eventually exhaust resources.”

What is wrong with that thinking? It is instructive that Lomborg began his work by attempting to refute Simon’s optimism and then after much research decided that the litany of impending environmental catastrophes was grossly exaggerated. Read The Skeptical Enviromentalist for the full story. The gloom and doom logic is formal logic, it is not real world logic.

The current signature issue of the environmental movement, Global Warming alarmism, is pretty much in tatters. Global warming has paused. As well as every generation rediscovering gloom and doom, every generation also rediscovers optimism at the sustainability of human progress.

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Brian S. October 22, 2012 at 2:32 pm

Your position is both purblind and incoherent.
“The Precautionary Principle and sustainability actually represent a denial of all past human progress as well as future human progress. ” I have no idea what ” the denial of all past human progress” means – its one of those vacuous phrases “full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing.” Do you mean denying that it has occured? Or that it should have occured? Of course greens do neither.

“Sustainability … creates expectations of what humans ought to be which are actually not human and not natural in the very real sense of what humans and nature have been historically.” So: we are simultaneously supposed to give unfettered reign to the sweep of human reason but this faculty and our being is to be limited by what “we have been historically”,
You offer up a fairly established definition of “sustainability” but rather than engage with it carry out a semantic sleight of hand to substitute a definition that you find more convenient: “sustainability is ‘sustainable living’, for individuals and society to consciously reduce their use of the Earth’s natural resources, to practice frugality, to tread lightly on the earth, to live in fuzzy harmony with nature, to not empty the bathtub and ask visitors to flush the toilet using used bath water.” Passing over your effort to trivialise this stance, why should we accept as self-eviden your negative evaluation: what’s wrong with it ? Actually, I think “fuzzy harmony” is a quite a good slogan for my preferred brand of environmentalism.
You seem to have no understanding at all of the precautionary principle: It doesn’t mean a “halt to all technological progress” but a recognition of the negativities and uncertainties that may accompany technology, and an attempt to duly weight them in public decision making, instead of donning the usual blinkers.
What is striking is the complete lack of any dialectic in your thinking: you want to free humanity from “doing boring manual work that can be done by robots” – but how did they end up in that position? Wasn’t it through a previous phase of unreflexive “development”? And where are those headed who gain this freedom: Isn’t it into “manual work that CAN’T be done by robots”?
At root your view displays a deep onservatism: the whole material world can be transformed but not our own beings, which are so confined that we have to bow down abjectly before the behaviour of “normal humans”.

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Bill Kerr October 22, 2012 at 4:33 pm

Brian S:

Your position is both purblind and incoherent

Not dim witted but there was some incoherence of course, that is normal

I have no idea what ” the denial of all past human progress” means …

I meant that human progress would not have occurred if the PP had been strictly followed. I think that should have been clear from some of the examples I provided – the Large Hadron Collider and nuclear testing. One reading of the PP is that if significant risks are involved then you stick with the status quo and the earth being swallowed by black hole or suffering a nuclear chain reaction does represent a significant risk. The PP is an argument against scientific and social revolution. Coming down out of the trees onto the savannah was an enormously risky move. Columbus kept sailing despite the fear that he might sail off the edge of the earth. Anyway, such examples bore you and do not address your real argument …

You offer up a fairly established definition of “sustainability” but rather than engage with it carry out a semantic sleight of hand to substitute a definition that you find more convenient: “sustainability is ‘sustainable living’ …

I did give that bit some thought actually. Words do change their meanings, they evolve, that is the dialectical approach, Brian, since you accuse me of not being dialectical. The way the word sustainable is used in practice is as I said it was, a moral imperative to tread lightly on the earth because if we don’t then future generations will suffer a lowered standard of living. Can we agree that definitions should be / are grounded in actual usage of words? One standard environmental conception of the “real world” is that it is an apple and a worm called human progress is eating it at an exponential rate. If that is your view of the world then the World Bank definition of sustainability would imply the need for our current generation of be frugal.That I would argue is the way many people think about it and so I suggest there is no semantic slight of hand going on here, rather I am presenting an argument grounded in real world perception.

You seem to have no understanding at all of the precautionary principle: It doesn’t mean a “halt to all technological progress” but a recognition of the negativities and uncertainties that may accompany technology, and an attempt to duly weight them in public decision making, instead of donning the usual blinkers.

So, how is the PP being used in the current environmental debate? How is it being used by you, Brian:

… even if technological solutions are eventually found to resource limitations – there could be huge human and environmental costs before we get there …

You have bought into the big fear, that the current risk to the earth is extreme. I disagree. My assessment is that we ought to be concerned but not alarmed. But, at any rate, no one here has yet to attempt to justify or document any cause for real environmental issue. It has so far been generalised handwaving and bowing down before the Greens and their certain certainties about the test tube is nearly full and we don’t have another planet to trash. Isn’t that outrageous, just accepting what phony experts (eg. IPCC) have argued and no thinking critically about it or even seeking out an alternative view. There is simply no evidence on this thread that anyone who thinks green + red is a good mix has done that.

ie. don’t argue the PP in general. Pick a particular issue and tell us why we should be alarmed. I have comments on this thread pointing out that the signature issue of the environmental movement is in tatters. Global warming has paused. It hasn’t gone away and become a non issue but the evidence is that some massive exaggeration is in the process of unravelling.

One standard environmental view is that we should cut back on fossil fuels dramatically and replace them with renewables. There is no clear statement from the environmental movement (except for Lomborg, Pielke jnr and co who are regarded by Greens as renegades) of the need for massive R&D, the assumption on their part is that renewable are capable of doing the job. Well, if you do the maths you will find they won’t do the job. So, reality check, this is arguing without admitting it for not a halt but a dramatic slowdown of human progress which would lead to a decline in standard of living.

Lomborg has a worthwhile discussion of the PP on p. 348-50 of The Skeptical Environmentalist. After contrasting the extreme Anglo Saxon (take no risks) with the German version (better safe than sorry) of the PP he goes onto point out that most of our decisions – political as well as environmental – are irreversible. The discussion I would like to have is not on the “take no risks” version but the inadequacy of the apparently sensible “better safe than sorry” version. My argument is that only rapid technological progress will lead to an optimal future. I would agree, however, that rapid technological development needs to be guided with human need and not profit in mind.

When you say I don’t understand dialectics and that my views display deep conservatism then I lose the thread of your argument. I think you have set up a straw man in your head there, not me. ie. you have taken some words I have said and then use some imagination to pigeon hole me into something that I am not. eg. if normal humans choose to travel by plane then I support them in that, does not mean that I don’t disagree with many aspects of the status quo. Labelling others when debating (purblind, complete lack of dialectics, deep conservatism) is not a virtue IMO. I haven’t labelled you. Rather I have quoted your words and attempted an argument against. Sorry for any incoherence, which hopefully will become less as the discussion continues. Some of the issues I am still thinking through and there is always some haste involved in these blog discussions.

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Bill Kerr October 19, 2012 at 9:59 pm

Gabriel:

Despite the uncertainties, there are some things about which there is no doubt, including that the atmosphere is warming up more quickly than at any previous time in human history, and the cause of this is the burning of fossil fuels since the industrial revolution. (my emphasis)

I’ve researched some of the recent science on the global warming issue. It can be argued that both parts of Gabriel’s “no doubt” statement are incorrect.

(1) Global warming has paused for the last 15-17 years
(2) This has led to a re evaluation by some experts about the significant global warming that did occur in the 1980s up until roughly 1995. As a result of that re evaluation the dominant role of burning fossil fuels is now in doubt (which is not to say that pumping huge amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere is not an important event)

What is needed to get our heads around this is an alternative hypothesis or hypotheses to the IPCC hypothesis that CO2 is the main problem. Outright denial doesn’t make much sense to me. The majority of climate scientists are not frauds even though I believe that the IPCC did not understand how the science to politics connection should have been conducted and a result some scientists became over zealous and subjective.

Nevertheless, to explain the pause in global warming does require some sort of alternative hypothesis to enable those without scientific expertise to conceptualise at some level what might be going on. The pause needs a scientific theory so that people do not drift into unthinking scepticism about the whole nature of the scientific process itself.

Such hypotheses are provided by climate scientists such as Judith Curry (see Trends, change points & hypotheses) and Roger Pielke snr (with others), see NONLINEARITIES, FEEDBACKS AND CRITICAL THRESHOLDS WITHIN THE EARTH’S CLIMATE SYSTEM

Judith Curry’s preferred hypothesis:

Climate shifts hypothesis: 20th century climate variability/change is explained by synchronized chaos arising from nonlinear oscillations of the coupled ocean/atmosphere system plus external forcing (e.g. Tsonis, Douglass). The most recent shift occurred 2001/2002, characterized by flattening temperatures and more frequent LaNina’s. The implications for the next several decades are that the current trend will continue until the next climate shift, at some unknown point in the future. External forcing (AGW, solar) will have more or less impact on trends depending on the regime, but how external forcing materializes in terms of surface temperature in the context of spatiotemporal chaos is not known. Note: hypothesis III is consistent with Sneyers’ arguments re change-point analysis. Challenges: figuring out the timing (and characteristics) of the next climate shift.

Pielke snr et al abstract:

The Earth’s climate system is highly nonlinear: inputs and outputs are not proportional, change is often episodic and abrupt, rather than slow and gradual, and multiple equilibria are the norm. While this is widely accepted, there is a relatively poor understanding of the different types of nonlinearities, how they manifest under various conditions, and whether they reflect a climate system driven by astronomical forcings, by internal feedbacks, or by a combination of both. In this paper, after a brief tutorial on the basics of climate nonlinearity, we provide a number of illustrative examples
and highlight key mechanisms that give rise to nonlinear behavior, address scale and methodological issues, suggest a robust alternative to prediction that is based on using integrated assessments within the framework of vulnerability studies and, lastly, recommend a number of research priorities and the establishment of education programs in Earth Systems Science. It is imperative that the Earth’s climate system research community embraces this nonlinear paradigm if we are to move forward in the assessment of the human influence on climate

Follow the links above for a more detailed analysis.

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Aaron Aarons October 23, 2012 at 6:03 am

I don’t think there’s any doubt about the greenhouse effect caused by, among other things, the CO2 released into the atmosphere by human industry. But, since many other things, both natural and human generated, are happening at the same time, the secular warming trend caused by CO2 will sometimes be over-ridden by countervailing factors.

One of those cooling factors is the release of tremendous amounts of particulate matter by some of the same human activity that generates CO2, including the burning of coal and the destruction, often by burning, of forests. This particulate matter, especially when water vapor clings to it, reflects sunlight back away from the earth before the CO2 can trap it.

Unfortunately, this balancing of CO2-generated warming by particulate-caused cooling has several problems, including:
1) The particulate matter stays in the atmosphere for a far shorter amount of time than does the CO2.
2) The particulates, both before rising into the atmosphere and after coming down, are a major cause of illness and death among humans and other animals.
3) The blocking of sunlight by particulates probably does more harm to the growth of plants than any good done by the increase in CO2.

But the big problem in analyzing and dealing with these problems is that the science and the practical actions taken are dominated by capitalists and others who benefit by producing commodities for exchange on the world market.

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