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Stopping Climate Change Will Never Be “Good Business”

Climate activist and writer Bill McKibben's new book is an excellent account of how urgent the climate crisis in front of us is. But it stumbles in trying to prescribe green capitalist solutions to a problem that requires systematic change.

Bill McKibben accepts the EMA Lifetime Achievement Award onstage during the 23rd Annual Environmental Media Awards at Warner Bros. Studios on October 19, 2013 in Burbank, California. (Michael Buckner / Getty Images)

Bill McKibben, climate justice activist and founder of 350.org, professor of environmental studies, best-selling author, and journalist, needs little introduction. He has made enormous contributions to the public awareness of the need to prevent climate emergency. And he continues to promote important developments in the struggle, including Extinction Rebellion and the global September 20 climate strike.

In the thirty years between his widely read The End of Nature and the launch of his new book Falter, this year, the planet’s ecological fate has veered toward the worst-case scenario. Faced with climate emergency now, we urgently need books that convey our dire environmental circumstances and contribute to a political understanding that serves as a guide to action. McKibben’s Falter lives up to the first criteria, but fails badly on the second.

Ecological Breakdown

Falter excels in its account of ecological collapse. It is rooted in climate science, and powerfully recounts the multiple ways that greenhouse gases are forever altering and destabilizing the planet.

Rising extreme temperatures will place 1.5 billion people in areas at high risk of temperature and humidity combinations that humans can’t survive for more than a few hours. Rapidly changing climate conditions threaten to radically disrupt the plant, insect, and soil ecologies that make agriculture possible. Ninety-three percent of the heat is collecting in the water, and ocean acidity has already increased by 30 percent due to CO2 emissions. Further increases risk the total collapse of ocean ecosystems. The International Organization for Migration estimates there will be up to two-hundred million climate refugees by 2050, or maybe even up to the high estimate of one billion.

In what McKibben calls the human game, the board is rapidly shrinking. Ecological destruction restricts the space humans have to maneuver. Whole realms of the human experience of nature are disappearing as well. McKibben presents a nuanced and compelling account of this catastrophe. There is a lot to fight for.

Roots of Catastrophe

How we analyze a problem determines how we are able to address it. So it’s worth digging into what McKibben says about the roots of climate emergency.

Throughout the book, McKibben lists the villains contributing to ecological disaster: oil companies, the Koch brothers, climate denial, our expectations of more and better, system of growth, hyper-individualism, the psychological consequences of participating in a consumer paradise, zeitgeist, and wealth inequality. While he sometimes references powerful actors, he mostly points to attitudes and beliefs.

Consistent with the emphasis on ideas driving ecological destruction, the key historical moment for McKibben, where “America may have decided the planet’s geological and technological future,” was the turn to neoliberalism in the 1970s. McKibben argues that the United States entered a more predatory era of deregulation, privatization, individualistic greed, and wealth inequality foreclosing capitalism’s ability to respond to global warming. He attributes the new capitalist norms to Ayn Rand. Rand is the widely read (among bosses) author of the capitalist manifestos Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead. For McKibben, Rand’s celebration of selfishness and individualism deformed the thinking of US rulers and eroded social-democratic values, which in turn closed off possibilities of staving off climate emergency.

This narrative shows how McKibben mistakenly believes that the problems of climate destruction stem from bad ideas and policies, rather than systemic issues. The 1970s turn toward neoliberalism in fact originated with a general crisis in capitalist profitability, not with Ayn Rand’s ideas.

The post–World War II boom ended in the 1973 recession. The subsequent period of economic stagnation was due to over-investment in production and reduced rates of profit. Capitalists and their governments everywhere, from Houston to Sweden, began carrying out reforms to reduce the costs of production by slashing wages, regulations, and taxes. Destroying unions, austerity, and cutting government programs — except the military — helped buoy profits and return US capitalism to profitability. Capitalism still followed the same growth and profit imperatives (more on this below), but it required a new set of norms.

If you as a capitalist adopt Ayn Rand’s individualistic business ideology, then this will help you be more successful, to more easily dismiss the damage done to workers, communities, and the environment. But her ideology was an aftereffect, not a cause of the neoliberal shift.

Failing to understand the systemic character of capitalism and its relation to climate change also leads to the two technologies of change McKibben advocates: the entrepreneurial potential of solar power to remake capitalism’s energy system, and the politics of nonviolent protest, not as a way to take power from rulers but as a way to change their minds.

Falter leads us toward hoped-for green, capitalist solutions. Highlighting that this is “good business,” McKibben forefronts the work of a Harvard graduate and entrepreneur trying to sell investors on small scale solar (with marginal profit margins) in rural Africa: “I’m not a socialist . . .  I don’t think humans are wired that way. But I also think extractive capitalism has run its course.” Solar panels produce usable power directly from the sun, and the technology is getting cheaper and more widely available, and, in the market, can out-compete fossil fuel produced electricity.

Such green-capitalist type proposals strike one as utopian, given that they depend on unwilling and hostile agents, capitalists, changing their behavior and the functioning of the entire system. Marx explained (and Goldman Sachs would agree) that capitalism is a system of perpetual expansion, not because of the ideas of capitalists, but because owners must invest capital, exploit workers for a profit, accumulate more capital than originally invested, and again and again, or they will be outcompeted and eliminated by other capitalists who are able to generate more profits. National and international competition between capitalists imposes a growth imperative on all. It is a system where “grow or die” determines the trajectory of all major economic institutions.

Environmental destruction is built into the core of capitalism. Capitalism operates on wage labor. When owners expropriate the earth, nature is then a mere resource that is combined with labor in production to generate profits. This creates what Marx called a “metabolic rift.” In the early capitalist separation of town and country, capitalist production was fundamentally out of sync with the earth’s ecological requirements — in this case, Marx noted the destruction of soil fertility while towns dumped human waste into rivers. John Bellamy Foster in Marx’s Ecology elaborated on Marx’s insight showing the fundamental incompatibility of capitalism with the rest of nature.

Fossil fuels played an essential role over the last almost two-hundred years in the development of this system. McKibben importantly notes that “A barrel of oil, currently about sixty dollars, provides the energy equivalent to about twenty-three thousand hours of human labor.” But he takes it no further. The fact, though, is crucial for understanding that capitalism developed together with fossil fuels because this portable, compact energy source enormously increased business owners’ power over labor, and thus worker productivity and profits. There is no equivalent substitute in capitalism.

For those wanting to dig into this, read Fred Magdoff and Chris Williams’s book, Creating an Ecological Society. Magdoff and Williams begin in a similar place as McKibben with the principles and violations of the planet’s ecology. But they maintain a scientific approach to analyzing the material causes of the environmental destruction in capitalism and draw conclusions from that about politics and strategies for transforming society.

Is There an Alternative?

Is there an alternative to capitalism? What about socialism? McKibben says no to both. He agrees with Ayn Rand’s anticommunism, dismissing socialism (which he confuses with Stalinism) as totalitarian. He also notes the environmental destruction and social stagnation of Russia during the Cold War.

There is an important point here. If you believe that all working-class led revolutions end in disaster, and that it is therefore necessary to prioritize collaborating with the existing rulers of society (the capitalists and their governmental representatives), then a radical alternative to the status quo is not possible.

Fortunately, since the 1950s, historians have produced many critical, sympathetic, and searching accounts of the short-lived Russian Revolution that seek to inform current generations on how to win an alternative to capitalism. An excellent place to begin is the recently published, October: The Story of the Russian Revolution, by China Miéville.

Are, as McKibben argues, Sweden and social democracy the potential basis of an alternative? Greta Thunberg says that only 2 percent of the Swedish population are climate deniers, yet she launched her protest in front of the Swedish parliament due to its inaction. What a state says it believes has little impact on policies.

We all can agree with McKibben that there are aspects of Swedish society like its education, health care, and retirement that are better than those in the United States. But it is also the case that these gains were won by working-class struggle after the First and Second World Wars in a region of the world characterized by mass strikes, workers’ councils, mass revolutionary socialist parties, and the world’s first and inspiring working-class revolution in Russia. Social democratic gains are due to this, not better ideas from the rulers. And since the 1970s in Sweden and elsewhere, all those gains are under attack in a world of neoliberal restructuring and austerity.

It is also important to note that Sweden is a top arms exporter and that Norway is a petrostate, leading oil and gas producer mining North Sea reserves, and is still ramping up extraction infrastructure investment. In terms of growth, more regulated capitalist economies also must engage in competitive growth to avoid falling into an economic crisis.

Having ruled out revolution, McKibben recommends technologies of change like village solar panels in a narrative where good technologies promoted by enlightened capitalists can displace the bad over time. Given the systematic character of the problem though, this is wishful thinking. Just as it is wishful thinking that “extractive capitalism” has run its course. Investment in extraction continues worldwide.

There are trillions of dollars in investments, not only in oil wells and pipelines, but also in plastics, power plants, airlines, autos, shipping, and other manufacturing that will have to be abandoned. Capitalist managers have no incentives to abandon such lucrative investments, and serious risks to profitability if they do.

Climate Justice and Anti-Capitalism

It’s unfortunate McKibben’s narrative throws cold water over the recent period of rising class consciousness, teachers’ strikes and victories, and deepening anticapitalist sentiment.

We need to win Green New Deal–type reforms in the short term — redirection of state investment to new transportation infrastructure, Medicare for All, and mass deployment of solar and wind electric power. Class struggle and strikes, because of workers’ power to shut down and even run production, are the most important leverage that the vast majority has over the few who hold power.

The September 20 global climate strike (for workers and students) is an important development, especially if understood not just as another global protest, but as a step in a process of harnessing collective organizing in the workplace to the climate struggle. This presents an alternative to just lobbying and hoping that corporations will come to their senses. If the system is the problem, then strikes are where we have the actual power to win reforms.

But ultimately, if ecological destruction is built into capitalism, we also need system change. The new socialist movement, the largest in the United States since the 1930s — one of the last times, incidentally, that social-democratic gains were won in this country — has a lot to contribute to integrating class and climate struggle.

Read this book, but discuss and debate. The existential threat that is already affecting millions will reach us all. We need class-struggle politics. We need socialism, including a democratic economy that prioritizes human needs and the needs of the rest of nature.