The capitalist path to ecocide

We face a monumental choice: global capitalism or ecocide

Science has told us, repeatedly, that without a massive and unprecedented turnaround in the way human affairs are conducted over the next decade or two, we will not stop Earth becoming an uninhabitable hell.

What is preventing us from acting? Bill Clinton – “it’s the economy, stupid” – said 30 years ago that a malfunctioning economy was what stirred people to act. Now, after the world’s pandemic shock, he would probably have added human health.

“The economy” – how we manage and use resources – is in a strange place. The financial collapse of 2008, followed by multiple weather-related disasters and a global contagion, has left the world’s leaders in a complete muddle over how to get things moving again.

Leaders have responded to the pandemic by talking up the economy. They focus on moments of joy in stock, housing and employment data while ignoring underlying weaknesses. And they grease capitalism’s biggest wheels while oiling just enough smaller cogs to keep those big wheels moving.

All the while, the same capitalism that makes some of us rich is destroying us. Extreme inequality, with a handful of individuals each controlling more wealth than whole countries, is forcing more and more people into poverty. Over generations, this accelerating trend has left us ill-prepared to deal with the towering, all-embracing threat posed by climate change.

Looming alongside the climate crisis is a related threat: the global capitalist juggernaut. If capitalism and its false creed of endless growth is the cause of our climate mess, why on earth are we even imagining it can save us from it? If we can’t stop that juggernaut, global ecocide is staring us in the face.

The Extinction Curve, a new book by University of Tasmania criminology professor Rob White and Canberra sociologist John van der Velden, has gone into uncharted waters to explore how we survive today’s “climate endgame” to emerge better and stronger.

For half a century the Cold War drilled into our brains the message that capitalism encompassed all things good and socialism all things bad. Van der Velden and White beg to differ, describing a future underpinned by the six pillars of social life – water, air, food, energy, shelter and security – in which today’s dominant global capitalism has no place. 

We have already begun to travel down this road, they point out, starting with the 2008 financial crisis. Last year the Morrison government, confronted by the pandemic, driven by structural necessity and supported by business already facing growing labour-market disruption, “instantly converted to Keynesian-style socialists overnight”.

The government’s COVID-19 measures, says The Extinction Curve, were designed “to stem outright rebellion”, including money-printing and deficit financing to keep private enterprise afloat, and providing for basic social needs including a boost to unemployment benefits.

Those measures were a significant if limited nudge towards a universal basic income and an economy driven by government mandate. As White and van der Velden point out, they are all a pointer to a future without big capital.

As I write these words I sense a sharp intake of breath from readers for whom a non-capitalist economy is unimaginable. Think Russia, China, communist revolution, and the old socialist utopian dream which history tells us quickly dissipates, victim of greed, self-interest, factionalism and so forth.

But this revolution, driven by a changing climate and a degraded environment, is different. The threat to civilised life is starting to push humanity everywhere to transform how it organises itself. Without change at the top, without governments accepting and coordinating a transition to a new economy, unruly masses in streets will come into play.

White and van der Velden present a compelling argument that capitalism, which by its nature is private, secretive, competitive and authoritarian, is incapable of dealing with a situation demanding decision-making processes that are public, open, cooperative and democratic.

Governments’ fierce attachment to big capital and their persistent dismissal of expert advice have left little time to sort things out. Guided by party functionaries in bed with big business, they are now in an unholy alliance with authoritarian capitalism.

When they fully grasp the gravity of the situation, national and regional communities will move to protect economies and lives. Their goal will be positive, to build an open, democratic economy attending to essential human and planetary needs. But first they must smash that unhealthy nexus between government and big business. 

The revolution is under way. We won’t avoid conflict and radical change. The question is not whether we keep our old ways of doing business, but how we will deal with their demise.

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