Green capitalism is a con

If religion was the opium of the masses in the days of Karl Marx, then today’s drug is the cult of green capitalism. The West has been fooled into thinking that a combination of futuristic green technologies and green growth will save humanity from the climate crisis. As long as we eat our broccoli stalks and refuse plastic bags, we can continue to turn a blind eye to the truth: that the root cause of climate change is capitalism, and that our current way of life will not only lead to ecological collapse, but in doing so exploit the labour and land of the impoverished Global South.

And yet, rather than wake up to the fact that green capitalism is a myth, Western leaders are doubling down on their commitments to green growth. From President Joe Biden to former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis and British Labour leader Keir Starmer, public figures in both Europe and the United States have succumbed to the siren call of a Green New Deal: a miraculous renewable energy and electric car investment programme that will supposedly spur a transition to a sustainable green economy.

The problem is that even the most radical Green New Deal will never achieve its aims. After all, a green revolution will require not just a transition to electric vehicles, hydrogen planes and renewable energy, but a complete overhaul of our material world. Every single resource we depend on — from agricultural machinery and chemical fertilisers to iron and cement for construction — will have to be replaced by a newer, greener version. And so any feasible Green New Deal will only reduce carbon dioxide emissions relative to GDP, not absolutely, before 2050. In other words, carbon dioxide levels will continue rising, albeit at a slower rate.

The vision of a Green New Deal is alluring, however, partly because it allows us to continue our consumerist frenzy without worrying about the environment — all we need to do to relieve our guilt is buy a Tesla — and partly because it has been hailed as a silver-bullet solution to economic inequality. The dream is that a green transition will create more stable, better-paid jobs for the working class, especially in the former industrial heartlands of America and Europe. Yet the world’s poorest will pay the price for a Western jobs boom. Already, the world’s richest 10% — mostly in the Global North — are responsible for half of worldwide emissions, though the poorer half will be the first to suffer from the effects of climate change. A Green New Deal will shift even more of the burden to the Global South. It is hardly a desirable solution to global poverty.

Take electric vehicles, for instance. Their lithium-ion batteries are made from rare metals found in the Atacama Salt Flats of Chile. Yet lithium extraction is highly water intensive: a single corporation can extract 1,700 litres of groundwater per second. This is already taking a toll on the nation’s ecology, with locals unable to access fresh drinking water. Another crucial metal is cobalt, of which almost 60% of the world’s supply is mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo, one of the poorest nations in Africa. There are around 40,000 children working informally in Congolese cobalt mines, some as young as six or seven, a number of whom have been buried alive in the tunnels. But as long as such neocolonial exploits remain out of sight in the West, they are out of mind too: Western nations continue to plunder the Global South under the guise of making capitalism sustainable.

Some techno-optimists believe that fantastical, still-to-be-invented carbon capture technologies will solve the problem of climate change. Yet these Negative Emissions Technologies (NET) could inflict even more damage on the environment and the Global South. The leading model, Bio-Energy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS), would require farmland twice the size of India to produce enough biomass energy to keep carbon emissions down. Will we steal this land from the Indians or Brazilians who need it to cultivate food? Or will we simply slash down more of the Amazon rainforest? Meanwhile, the technology would also require an enormous amount of water: 400 million metric tonnes of it, in fact, to produce enough electricity to power the US for a year. And even if that’s possible, there’s a high chance that carbon dioxide stored beneath the Earth’s surface will end up seeping back out. By then, it will be too late to think up a better solution.

In effect, then, a Green New Deal will simply shift the dirty work of resource extraction to global peripheries — as capitalism has been doing for centuries. As far back as the mid-19th century, Marx realised that capitalism had a knack of making its ill effects invisible by displacing them elsewhere. He recognised three types of displacement: technological, spatial and temporal, all of which were vulnerable to collapse. And none of which bode well for the Green New Deal. The first idea, that technological advancement can overcome environmental crisis, we have shown to be a techno-optimist fantasy. The second, that we can export our environmental and social problems to the Global South, is a cruel form of ecological imperialism. And the third, that we can dump our problems on future generations, is the epitome of human folly and selfishness.

But if green capitalism isn’t the solution, then what is? The answer, I believe, can be found in Marx’s later writings, many of them unpublished. What many people don’t realise, including those on the Left, is that Marx underwent a drastic theoretical shift towards the end of his life — when he finally realised that technological progress and productivism, far from being forces for the common good, were in fact destroying the Earth. In the five years before his death in 1883, Marx devoted himself to studying the natural sciences, and eventually concluded that capitalism’s quest to accumulate value disrupts the metabolic relationship between humans and nature, creating an “irreparable rift” on a global scale. From then on, he advocated a style of communism that would end capitalism’s exploitation of both workers and the planet, and bring production back in sync with the slower cycles of nature.

While Marx died before he was able to lay out his degrowth communist manifesto in a single work akin to Capital, his vision can be conjured from his scattered ecological critiques of capitalism. Capitalism, he wrote, disturbed “the metabolic interaction between man and the earth”; it hindered “the operation of the eternal natural condition for the lasting fertility of the soil”. Almost a century and a half later, it is time we heeded his warnings.

Of course, I am not suggesting a return to the dark communism of the Soviet Union or 20th-century China, where modes of production were nationalised by tyrannical one-party states. Marx never advocated this form of communism anyway. Instead, we should draw on his concept of “the commons” (equality of economic conditions) to steer a third way between the extremes of US-style neoliberalism and Soviet-style nationalisation. The idea is that certain public goods — such as water, electricity, shelter, healthcare and education — should be managed and shared by every member of society, independent from the markets. What is important is that, in contrast to the administrative monopoly by capitalists or socialist bureaucrats, all the affected people participate in the decision-making process and democratically manage the commonwealth. This is far from a form of top-down climate Maoism, but a grassroots movement that challenges the power of capital.

Once power has been handed over to the people, how can we possibly begin to slow down the economy? We can start by re-reading Marx’s Capital through a degrowth lens. First, we should transition, as Marx instructed, from an economy based on commodity value to one based on social utility (or use-value). We must prioritise the production of goods that are necessary to respond to the climate crisis, rather than desirable luxury goods that are useless and ecologically destructive. Once we stop producing so much meaningless junk, we can start cutting down on general working hours, as well as getting rid of “bullshit jobs” — such as investment banking, marketing and consultancy — whose sole purpose is to make money. Other capitalist extravagances, such as same-day delivery and 24-hour supermarkets, would also be obliterated. Not only will liberating people from wage slavery in this way help the environment, but it will also improve peoples’ lives, allowing more time to devote to childcare, caregiving, education and leisure. In this new system, fulfilling material needs and improving quality of life will become a far more important measure than GDP.

On top of this, we should heed Marx’s call to make work creative and “attractive” again by abolishing the tiresome division of labour that condemns employees to repetitive, inhumane work. In an ideal world, the time that we spend at work should be satisfying, not torturous: workers should have the chance to become masters of industry and rotate between tasks, even if that means their work becomes less productive. Meanwhile, we should place a higher value on emotional labour, such as care work. While this labour-intensive work is crucial to the functioning of society, it is also not economically productive — and therefore is undervalued in a capitalist system. Helping a child or elderly person eat, drink or wash does not boost GDP, but it is a deeply human act of service. Indeed, decelerating our economy in these ways will not only save the planet, but also make our lives richer, more meaningful, and more humane. The phrase buen vivir (“to live well”), originating from the indigenous people of Ecuador, and now used by Leftists all over the world, reminds us to keep challenging the corrupted value system of Western capitalism.

For ultimately, the only thing lacking is the political will. We cannot solve a problem created by capitalism while still preserving capitalism. And while toppling capitalism and the elite 1% who control it will be difficult, it is not impossible. All that’s needed to bring about major political change, according to Harvard political scientist Erica Chenoweth, is the non-violent support of 3.5% of the population: the rest will follow. This is all it took for the “People Power Revolution” to take down the Marcos regime in the Philippines in 1984, and to start the 2003 “Revolution of Roses” in Georgia that culminated in the resignation of then-President Eduard Shevardnadze. Surely, there are already enough people in the West who care about the fate of the planet to ignite a rebellion.

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