How to Solve Climate Breakdown: Evaluating Three Strategies
The question of whether or not we will avoid climate catastrophe — a catastrophe which, in the death grip of business-as-usual, continues to metastasize — is a process of social problem-solving writ large. Problem-solving — as the critical theorist Rahel Jaeggi argues in her Critique of Forms of Life (2018), drawing on the process of inquiry outlined by John Dewey — has both objective and subjective components. The objective side consists in an ‘indeterminate situation’, which comes to consciousness as a disturbance in our ‘interpretative whole’: the set of ideas and practises through which we relate to the world. In the present case, such an indeterminate situation is indicated by climate science — the carbon PPM, the headline temperatures — and the natural convulsions they track — from historic Australian bushfires to the increased incidence of zoonotic diseases. But such quantitative observations, locked in the putatively neutral discourse of the natural sciences, can only tell us the bare ‘what’ of the situation, not the ‘why’ or the ‘how’ (Moore, 2016: loc.155). ‘Stylized and anaemic’, they cannot ‘lay bare processes of causation, specify who did what for what reasons and in service of whom to set the world on the path to this blaze’ (Malm, 2016: 221). On the subjective side, then, this situation must be interpreted; the problem must be ‘constructed’ out of the objective elements, thereby producing potential, underdetermined solution-paths. ‘Better’ or ‘worse’ solutions can be distinguished to the extent they actually do appeal to the objective phenomena indicated by the indeterminate situation, to the extent they appropriately draw causal links and resolve that indeterminacy.
There are three broad problem-solving approaches to climate breakdown, and this essay will take each in turn. First, and most likely giving the existing balance of power, is the green capitalist position. Here capitalism is not the culprit, but the saviour; climate breakdown is accidental to this social system, emerging from the insufficient application of market rationality, capable of being resolved within its institutional nexus. Advocates pin their hopes on ‘natural capital’ approaches, in which the value of nature is internalised by putting a price on ecosystems, impelling sustainable growth through capitalism’s decentralised coordinating logic. Whereas such a position believes market logic itself can solve the problem, our second problem-solving approach — geoengineering — deploys state power in Promethean geoengineering projects ‘to manipulate the Earth’s cloud cover, alter the chemical composition of the oceans or release a ‘solar shield’ of sunlight-reflecting sulphate particles into the upper atmosphere’ (Burton & Somerville, 2019: 95). But this system-compatible version, which operates alongside capitalism at the expense of infrastructural transformation and is informed by a non-political concept of the anthropocene, can be counterposed to a system-incompatible one, wherein global, concerted climate restoration coincides with a transformed political-economy. This spectre of transformation brings us to the final strategy, eco-socialism. Proponents posit that ‘a systemic ‘ecological contradiction’ is inscribed in the DNA of capitalist society’, the ouroboros of capital accumulation eventually undercutting the conditions of its own reproduction, thereby pointing toward a transition programme in which the ‘signature institutional structure and developmental dynamics’ of capitalism are either suspended or abolished entirely (Fraser, 2021: 99). Disagreement here pertains over the competing Green New Deal or degrowth programmes, which expose a deeper fault line over the intractability of the structural contradiction and the viability of a ‘tamed’ capitalism.
What should be further emphasised is that these approaches do not arise immaterially, disconnected from the structural interests of concrete actors. Insofar as one of the three positions above win out, they do so on the back of particular social forces and their interests, at the expense of others. My argument herein is that the superiority of the eco- socialist position consists in its ability to apprehend the central causal mechanism — capitalism’s constitutive imperative to capital accumulation — and to challenge the social forces arrayed in its defence. The other two proposals — green capitalism and status-quo geoengineering — merely attempt to defer, temper, or circumvent the ecological contradiction, failing to grasp the structural nature of the crisis and overestimating the problem-solving capacities of market logic and technological panaceas. They do so because of their mystification of, or alliance with, the overriding structural interests of capital. Such projects desperately try to resolve climate catastrophe within the practises and interpretations constitutive of capitalism, thereby materialising Jameson’s foreboding dictum: in refusing to imagine the end of capitalism, they hasten the end of the world.
I — GREEN CAPITALISM
Green capitalist problem-solving strategies adopt a non-structural analysis of climate crisis, presuming that the problem can be solved within the existing nexus of practises, through an adaptation or extension that leaves its constitutive logic intact. After relaying how this discourse constructs the problem of climate breakdown, we can move on to critically examine three examples of so-called ‘natural-capital’ solutions. To pre-empt the conclusion of this section, the blinders of market logic ensure that such approaches are unable to match the problem-level of climate catastrophe, only serving to buttress the ideological legitimacy of capitalist social relations.
According to The United Nations Environment Programme’s 2011 ‘Green Economy’ report, the numerous ecological challenges pressing down upon us — ‘climate, biodiversity, fuel, food, water’ — ‘all share a common feature: the fundamental misallocation of capital,’ resources pouring into fossil fuels at the expense of renewables and other sustainable practises (quoted in Buscher & Fletcher, 2015: 281). What initially seems a quite powerful admission — that the market does not appear to be producing the most efficient allocations possible, its Panglossian economism breaking down — is revealed as a restatement of the fundamental effectiveness of that mode of coordination. Correct allocation entails not the abolition of the price-system and the system of private production it mediates, but itsextension. Nature is to be transmogrified as ‘natural capital’, an amalgam of fungible and quantitatively defined ‘assets’ and ‘ecosystem services,’ to be traded ‘“in the marketplace” […] at a price which signifies the value (utility) of the goods and services flows as inputs to commodity production and in consumption’ (O’Connor, 2009). By economising nature, capital seeks to internalise the reproduction costs of ecological degradation, a gambit that has intuitive plausibility, insofar as, in ‘making the value of nature visible’, capital appears to be reckoning with the fundamental disavowal of ecological processes that is intrinsic to its crisis tendency (Fraser, 2021; O’Connor, 2009). This move — that ‘acts of ‘‘nature saving’’ must be imbued with profit potential or else there is little incentive for rational actors to pursue it’ (Buscher et al., 2012) — thus keeps faith with the originary fable of capitalist rationality — to transmute private vices into public goods (Streeck, 2016) — while extending its purview.
But the ultimate failure of this expansion of commodity-logic can be seen in three examples. First, the carbon trading schemes institutionalised with the Kyoto Protocol — the intention of which is to reduce CO2 emissions through the trading of pollution-permits, generating an incentive for ‘carbon-inefficient firms to mend their ways’ — simply ensure ‘the surplus-generating use of fossil energy by the industrial North is prolonged, while further profits are realized through commerce in a new commodity’ (Lohmann, 2012). Lobbying forced the number of permits up, thus pushing prices way below any effective level (Vetesse, 2018); while accounting tricks and counterfactual estimates enable companies to increase emissions or deforestation so long as it can be somehow demonstrated that it is less than would have occurred without the scheme (Lohmann, 2012). Having become the favourite sustainability tool of business, states, and transnational regulatory institutions alike (Guererro, 2018), the only real effect seems to be diverting resources and energies away from more substantive decarbonisation efforts (Vetesse, 2018).
Second, environmental auction scenarios — like New Zealand’s capitalization of their fish resources through commodified catch quotes — often reproduce colonial dispossessions, and subordinate fair and rational use to the vagaries of market-power. Once the ‘asset’ in question was enclosed by the state, large commercial fishing operations simply outbid local Maori communities who relied on subsistence fishing for the permits, thus legitimating commercial exploitation. Far from being a pure indication of ‘utility’, of course, one’s ‘“willingness to pay” is constrained by disposable incomes’ (O’Connor, 2009: 29). Even if the asset was given to the Maori, they may become incorporated by the social and material power of proximate capitals, tempted ‘to exploit the cash-generating potential’ to the detriment of its long-term sustainability (O’Connor, 2009: 30). In any case, as O’Connor (2009: 31) concludes, the capitalisation of nature is ‘biased systematically in favour of appropriation by commodity-producing capital,’ its ‘full-value’ only realised upon ‘their insertion within the sphere of exchange-value.’
Third, and more generally, such projects just do not seem very profitable, and thus do not attract the capital required. With for-profit conservation, the low-liquidity and low- returns of investments proves an important barrier to attracting private-funds (Dempsey & Suarez, 2016). Insofar as one thinks the logic is deeply flawed, this is no problem; but in terms immanent to the strategy itself, it reveals the hubris of assuming the particular interests of capital could be so cleanly sutured to those of nature. Natural capital, far from constituting a mature green capitalism, shorn of its destructive ‘externalisation’ of ecological phenomena, is therefore an egregious example of ‘closed loop thinking,’ in which ‘the self- corrective actions of an ill-functioning system perpetuate illness-causing conditions, while providing temporary illusion of improvement’ (Buscher et al., 2012: 14).
This last point is important, since it helps us grasp what, exactly, this reconfiguration of the economy/nature division is enacting, in the absence of conclusive evidence of effectiveness. Two interpretations emerge here. First is the notion of ‘accumulation by conservation’ (AbC). Drawing upon world-systems theory, such theorists historicise the capitalisation of nature as a new socio-ecological regime of accumulation (Buscher & Fletcher, 2015). Pushed forth from the ‘developmental crises’ of the prior Fordist regime — where attempts to internalise costs were conducted through the coercive power of state regulation, alongside the rapid acceleration of the fossil fuel industry through extractivism abroad and the incorporation of labour through mass production and consumption (Fraser, 2021; O’Connor, 2009) — AbC constitutes a spatio-temporal ‘fix’ for crises of accumulation, securing an expanded and rapidly financialised biophysical zone to absorb the capital unable to valorize through the ‘concrete commodity market’ (Buscher & Fletcher, 2015: 291). But what is positioned here theoretically as a powerful new ‘new ‘phase of capitalism’ as a whole’, transforming ‘joint environmental and accumulation possibilities’ (Buscher & Fletcher, 2015: 283), is unveiled in Dempsey and Saurez’ (2016) thorough empirical analysis as a damp squib. Very little private capital is actually funnelling into such channels, funding is dominated by state and philanthropic actors, and where projects have emerged to mild success — like in Costa Rica’s payment for ecosystem services — they have resembled nothing like capitalist markets, with no actual commodification taking place, instead operating like a state ‘subsidy in disguise’ (Fletcher & Breitling, 2012).
This brings us to the second interpretation, in which the ideological reproduction of capitalism, and the deflection of alternative problematizations, is the central effect. Natural capital’s ‘rhetorical harmonization’ of market logic and ecological processes is an instance of what O’Connor (2009: 34) terms, following Baudrillard, ‘semiotic domination’. Unruly or hostile nature is pacified in its discursive subsumption under the commodity form, and the legitimacy of capitalist social relations — as a totalising rationality of social life, able to efficiently coordinate all phenomena under the market — is reproduced. Despite not directly commodifying nature, its economisation institutes a neoliberal governmentality, in which political conflict is dissolved by putatively neutral technocratic management through the price-system (Davies, 2014; Brown, 2017; for an account of this in ecological practice, see Buscher, 2012). Entrepreneurial subjectivation thus pervades conservation projects, and our attention is diverted from ‘broader structural forces as the locus of problem solving, resulting in broad-scale yielding of consent to rules of the game once challenged and powers once resisted’ (Dempsey & Suarez, 2016: 666).
Green capitalism’s non-structural approach is thus a desperate attempt to maintain the present interpretative framework: its attempt to internalise nature fails because that which is internalised remains only that which aligns with capitals interests, with the sheer socio-ecological complexity of our climate unable to be incorporated into the logic of the cash-nexus. Unable to resolve the present epochal crisis, then, capital seeks to reproduce itself on the level of ideology, of an obstinate political-rationality or governmentality, thus diverting energies away from structural-conflictual problematizations.
II — GEOENGINEERING
There are two potential versions of geoengineering: system-compatible, and system- incompatible, a distinction taken from Hamilton (2014). System-compatible versions are intended, to borrow from Buck (2019: 45), as a ‘blanket infrastructure preserver’, a work- around that avoids stranding assets and confronting fossil capital, while system-incompatible versions presuppose transformative change in our political-economic structure. A qualified embrace of the latter will be the conclusion of this section; a thorough critique of the former takes up the rest.
Bonneuil and Fressoz (2016) see the first form as an outgrowth of the anthropocene problematization. This roots climate breakdown idealistically in the inheritance of Greek science and the Cartesian-Newtonian paradigm, positioning scientists as the ‘as the ecological vanguard of the world’, shaking the moderns from our catastrophic ignorance toward nature (Bonneuil and Fressoz, 2016: loc.1397). Here, the positivist observations of the earth sciences are yoked to a grand narrative of human awakening, with those forces that manufactured (and continue to manufacture) ignorance, and those asymmetric social structures that necessarily complicate any positing of an uninformed, homogenous mass of humanity, effaced. Humanity appears here pacified, infantilised, victim to cognitive dissonances and political duplicity, in need of salvation from a geo-government of experts (Bonneuil and Fressoz, 2016). Exercising what Bonneuil and Fressoz (2016: loc.1560), channelling Foucault, term ‘geopower’, this regime constitutes the earth system as an object of knowledge-power, a global ‘space of calculation’, and is tasked with implementing technological climate stabilisation systems. The most likely of these is sulphate aerosol injection, or solar radiation management (SRM), in which bespoke aircraft shoot aerosol precursors into the stratosphere to block sunlight (Buck, 2019). It is hard not to note the irony here: what begins as a critique of modern hubris comes out the other side wedded to a tenuous deus ex machina instantiating mastery of the earth. But the sheer power of humanity designated by the anthropocene — a sublime force ‘equipotent’ to nature itself, capable of reshaping geological epochs — comes to legitimate ‘humanity as pilot and engineer of the planet’, reflected in astrophysicist Lowell Woods beaming rhetorical: “We’ve geoengineered every other environment we’ve lived in, why not the planet?” (Bonneuil and Fressoz, 2016: loc.1492). Why not, indeed.
The reasons to avoid doing so are numerous, but perhaps more interesting are the forces pushing for its implementation. While present research is admittedly underdeveloped, a number of significant risks have already been identified: as Vetesse (2018: 73) relays, SRM ‘will bleach the sky white, cause tens of thousands of deaths from aerosol pollution, gash the ozone layer and interrupt vital climactic systems like the monsoon and the Gulf Stream.’ Malm (2018: 172), supplements this with ‘disruptions to photosynthesis’ and ‘generally declining precipitation’. While Buck (2019: 233) emphasises the catastrophic potential of a so-called ‘termination shock’ should the system falter, the previously deflected beams bearing down at once in a heating event on a similar magnitude to a nuclear winter (Vetesse, 2018). Despite the obvious risks, though, system-compatible geoengineering is impelled by capitalism’s desire for another ‘socio-ecological fix’ (Fraser), a temporary stabilisation of its ecological contradiction. Its popularity in elite circles suggests that faith in market mechanisms may be insufficient, and that the state must intervene on behalf of the system of capital for its reproduction (Mann and Wainwright, 2018). But far from resolving the ecological contradiction, sulphate aerosol injection seems to only defer it once again, in much the same way that the colonial extraction of guano from Peru did in relation to the exhaustion of British soils over one and a half centuries ago (Foster & Clark, 2018), the characteristic offloading of costs to the global poor now coming in the metastasization of air pollution or the disruption of the Indian monsoon. Instead of a final submission of nature, then, ‘all indications are that it would rather push the contradictions towards some new bursting point’ (Malm, 2018: 173).
But this is not the only way geoengineering could be executed. Buck (2019) is careful in this respect to adopt a different conceptual language, speaking instead of ‘climate restoration’ or ‘carbon removal’, indicating distinct political-economic foundations. The logic is that climate breakdown is not simply a result of industrial emissions, but the concomitant destruction of the natural carbon sinks that could absorb them: soils, for instance, are ‘vast reserves of carbon,’ holding ‘three times the amount of CO2 currently in the atmosphere’ (Buck, 2019: 101). But the chemical-laden, tillage-heavy, monoculture ‘intensive crop cultivation’ characteristic of capitalist agriculture has decimated ‘landscapes carbon sequestration capacity’ (Selwyn, 2021: 2). Proper regenerative agriculture would necessitate‘methods that manage the land holistically for carbon sequestration, crop resilience, soil health, and nutrient density’ (Buck, 2019: 98); but precisely this kind of holistic production, governed by natural-material use-values, is what is precluded by capital’s narrow concern for profit. Likewise, preserving tropical rainforests — some of the most important ecosystems for an effective carbon cycle — requires challenging global demand for meat, and the powerful agribusiness lobby that feeds it; and replenishing the existentially threatened blue carbon sinks — seagrasses, mangroves, tidal marshes — necessitates dramatic reductions in industrial pollution and ‘development.’ The core point here is that many of these climate restoration processes entail the planned curtailment of large and profitable portions of capitalist activity, which will not, of course, be enacted within the framework of capital itself, but presuppose their active confrontation and replacement.
Moreover, while the replenishment of these natural drawdown processes are necessary to zero-carbon scenarios, and their benefits for biodiversity cannot be understated, they will only knock off about ten to twenty gigatons of CO2 equivalent from annual emissions of around fifty (Buck, 2019: 115). Buck (2019: 33) is thus emphatic, against a common left-wing conflation of all geoengineering with the complacency of business-as-usual, that ‘climate restoration’ cannot occur ‘without massive transformation: economic, political, cultural.’ Widespread efforts to rehabilitate rapidly degenerating carbon sinks — efforts which must operate alongside immediate industrial decarbonisation — thus constitutes the first solution-formation analysed here that does not rely upon, or indirectly reinforce, the system of incentives and procedures congenial to capital. What exactly the associated transformation may look like is the concern of our concluding section.
III — ECO-SOCIALISM
In contrast to the above two approaches, eco-socialist see the problem of climate breakdown as arising with industrial capitalism as a structural necessity. While pre-modern ecological destruction arised from ignorance, and Soviet forms were impelled by a contingent fetishistic attachment to the development of productive forces and a ‘catch-up’ extractivism conditioned by the competitive ‘geopolitical soil’ of the 20th century capitalist world-system (Fraser, 2021: 98), capitalism is constituted by an ecological contradiction, essential to the dynamics of capital accumulation. After expanding on this contradiction and its mutual imbrication with other logics of domination, we can examine what solutions emerge in response, cutting a path through the Green New Deal versus degrowth debate.
Crucial here is that the ecological contradiction is both structural and multidimensional, intersecting with other forms of domination and crisis-tendencies. Structural, because in seeking the infinite augmentation of value, the general formula of capital (M-C-M’) institutionalises a push for expansion and extraction that is in fundamental contradiction with the finite use-values of natural processes. With Marx, and via Foster (2018), capitalism abstracts social processes of production, now governed by the insatiable accumulative imperative of exchange-value, from the underlying natural-material use values in a world-historic ‘metabolic rift’. Marx (1894: 754), following German chemist Justus von Leiberg, observed this in the exhaustion of soil perpetuated by British industrial agriculture, reflecting that ‘the entire spirit of capitalist production, which is oriented toward the most immediate monetary profit — stands in contradiction to agriculture, which has to concern itself with the whole gamut of permanent conditions of life required by the chain of human generations.’ Capital neglects those natural processes which fall outside the system imperative of accumulation — like, for instance, Liebig’s ‘law of replenishment’ or ‘compensation’ of the soil — as ‘externalities’ to production. The soil’s abstract value as an input to production is presupposed without concern for the costs of its reproduction, generating a crisis-tendency in which the ecological conditions of production are systematically destabilised. Constitutively ‘primed to free-ride on a nature that cannot really self-replenish without limit, capitalism’s economy is always on the verge of destabilizing its own ecological conditions of possibility’ (Fraser, 2021: 101).
But this contradiction is also multidimensional, because precisely this process of expropriation — the extraction of value without compensation or replenishment — reoccurs in relation to social reproduction and imperial domination (Fraser, 2021). In the first case, the value of domestic labour under capitalism is presupposed and invisibilized, overburdening and ‘depleting’ the finite energies of the women performing it (Bauhardt, 2014: 61). In the second, state power is used to divide workers, dignified by the payment of wages and bourgeois rights, from racialised ‘dependent or unfree subjects … whose labour and wealth it simply seizes’ (Fraser, 2021: 106). All three processes are present in Britain’s attempt to solve the exhaustion of the soil by forcefully extracting guano, a natural fertilizer, from South America in the 1840s (Foster, 2018). This ‘fix’ attempted to overcome the socio-ecological impasse emerging in the core by plundering the periphery’s natural wealth, with the rapid expansion and accumulation of the core nations predicated upon the ‘ghost hectares’ and stolen resources of the colonised nations, externalising ‘environmental damages by the phenomena of dispossession and unequal exchange’ (Bonneuil and Fressoz, 2016: loc.4096). Meanwhile, by ‘destabilising the ecosystems that support human habitats’, capital ‘jeopardizes caregiving as well as the livelihoods and social relations that sustain it’ (Fraser, 2021: 105). Such a phenomena of course continues today: the conflict at Standing Rock, wherein the Sioux tribe ‘water-defenders’ collided with private security forces and state- police alike over the proposed Dakota Access oil pipeline, illuminates the interlocking injustices of ecological, social reproductive, and racial violence.
This structural problematization gives rise to two competing transition programmes: the Green New Deal (GND), and degrowth. The disagreement pivots on whether one thinks growth is compatible with ecological sustainability. On the one hand, then, Robert Pollin (2018: 12) advances a coordinated programme of global investment to expand renewable energy, halt fossil fuel production, and to ‘dramatically raise energy-efficiency levels’. This is connected to a ‘labour and employment strategy’, often referred to as the ‘Just transition’, wherein the economic dislocation arising from the abolition of dirty industries is absorbed by active labour-market policies and ‘numerous, new high-quality jobs in environmentally sustainable sunrise industries’ (Bauhardt, 2014: 63). Such a Green New Deal need not require gutting energy-use nor significant reductions in the overall size of the economy, and Pollin sees this as core to the plausibility of his proposal. This relative timidity — a broadly social-democratic offer, reflected in its discursive genealogy in Roosevelt’s New Deal — might explain why it has so quickly risen to the forefront of electoral politics, providing a focal point for the policy platforms of the transatlantic left.
By contrast, degrowth takes aim at the fundamental assumption underlying the GND: that economic activity can be absolutely decoupled from fossil fuel consumption. Rather, degrowth demands that while an immediate ‘switch to renewables’ is necessary, it must be complemented with a ‘drastic contraction of the material size of the economy through cutting industrial production, construction, agriculture and distribution’ (Seaton, 2019: 107). To do so without punitive austerity, the degrowth argument hinges on another kind of decoupling — of living standards or welfare from growth — achieved through a dereification of the capitalist conception of the good life, and a substitution of unsustainable levels of private consumption with public or communal luxury. ‘Several additional Earths would be required to allow all of humanity to live in a suburban house with two cars and a lawn’ (Davis, 2010: 43), and even if we could, degrowthers question whether or not we would truly want to (Burton & Somerville, 2019: 103). Capitalism’s promise is here redressed as a pathology, an ‘affluenza’ (cf. James, 2007), a claim buttressed by research demonstrating the superfluous or negative impact of economic growth above a certain level (cf. Wilkinson & Pickett, 2009). Through aggressive redistributive policies, state caps on resource use, and the attendant decommodification and collectivisation of social necessities and niceties, resources can be pooled and high living standards can be guaranteed independently of high-incomes; while institutional experiments with commoning, co-operatives, and circular economies can be scaled up to institutionalise ‘lower consumption and shorter production–consumption circuits based on the principle of sufficiency’, not profit (Mastini et al., 2020: 5).
The advantages of the degrowth transition programme consists in its better ‘fit’ with the structural problematization of climate breakdown. Pollin’s social-democratic approach, while advancing a similar structural diagnosis and structural fix — one that centres on the dynamics of capital accumulation, and the need to suspend or override market-logic to solve the pressing crisis — offers too partial an account, in two ways. First, Pollin unfortunately localises the imperative to profit-maximisation to the neoliberal revolution of the 70s, and his carefully circumscribed solution, limited to interventions in the fossil economy, leaves ‘the overall system of commodification, and the motors of expansion, firmly in place’ (Burton & Somerville, 2019; p.104). Degrowth makes no such mistakes. It heeds Marx’s insight that capital accumulation is ‘the differentia specifica of capitalist production’ in general, it’s ‘absolute law’ (Marx, 1867: 769); an imperative that lies in irreducible antagonism with the need to reduce material throughput and the production and combustion of fossil fuels. While there does indeed seem to be some absolute decoupling present in the US and EU28 ‘in both territorial and consumption-based terms, from 2006 to 2016’, it cannot happen ‘fast enough to respect the carbon budgets for 1.5C and 2C’ (Hickel & Kallis, 2020: 490). And insofar as total material throughput is concerned, absolute decoupling is straightforwardly impossible (Hickel & Kallis, 2020: 475), with efficiency gains in production cancelled out by the imperative to produce more for accumulation in the so-called ‘Jevons Paradox’ (Foster et al., 2009).
Second, Pollin’s overriding focus on fossil fuels — arguing that the ‘single most critical project is to cut the consumption of oil, coal and natural gas dramatically and without delay’ (2018: 8) — ends up effacing the depletion of other finite resources, and the cascading environmental effects their continuing extraction begets. By contrast, degrowth excels in recognising the scope of the ecological contradiction, hitting up against general limits to growth that involve ‘water, air, forests, crop-lands and fishing grounds, as affected by the processes of production, consumption and trade’ (Burton & Somerville, 2019: 98). This attentiveness extends to the interlocking social injustices — of imperial domination, of social reproduction — through which climate catastrophe is articulated and reproduced. Simple expansion of renewable energy alongside ballooning growth accelerates the exhaustion of mineral deposits — estimates suggest that ‘with an annual growth of 10% in extraction rates, proven lithium reserves would become exhausted in 50 years’ — and the destabilisation of the lifeworlds arrayed around them (Mastini et al., 2020: 5).
This structural problematization thus generates a mammoth solution-formation: the wholesale delinkage of the world-economy from profit-making, and its concurrent reconstitution as democratically governed production for socio-ecological needs. We can grasp this as a tripartite transition programme: first, industrial decarbonisation of the kind called for by the GND is necessary to immediately prohibit fossil fuel production, rapidly decommission existing infrastructure, and roll-out green energy sources. Second, for such proposals to work, they must be connected to a wider degrowth strategy. Third, these interventions must also serve to implement the aforementioned large-scale ‘climate restoration’ projects, with post-capitalist social-property relations instituting a new metabolic interaction with nature.
I’d like to end with a note on realistic utopianism. Despite their colloquial use, these terms are not necessarily contradictory. As developed by the philosopher Raymond Geuss against the prevailing ‘idealist’ or first-principles orientation in liberal political theory, realism indicates a mode of intellectual action that is ‘concerned in the first instance […] with the way the social, economic, political, etc., institutions actually operate in some society at some given time, and what really does move human beings to act in given circumstances’ (Geuss, 2008: 9). If utopianism means the capacity to ‘think differently’, to explode the given boundaries of the possible, this begets no immediate contrast, so long as the utopian gambit is governed by an unfailingly realist orientation (Geuss, 2017); so long as, to follow Gramsci, it is able to sit with pessimism and optimism at once: to correctly diagnose historically-structured threats and opportunities to success without giving up faith in the revolutionary capacity to reshape the existing order. If the preceding analysis has demonstrated anything, in fact, it is that the ‘utopians’ (in the pejorative) are those who believe that climate catastrophe can be avoided by going on as normal. The non-structural problematization — whether it take the shape of green growth, natural capital, or fantasies of solar radiation management — precisely does not acknowledge the actual shape of social power as exercised under capitalism, does not develop solutions that can halt the motor of expansion integral to capital, and thus does not attempt to confront the bloc whose interests are wedded to the preservation of that system. By contrast, the structural problematization yields a three-pronged transition strategy — industrial decarbonisation, degrowth, and climate restoration — that accurately apprehends capitalism as the cause of climate breakdown, operating simultaneously on multiple different fronts against it. Whether it will be implemented in time, and with the force necessary, is, as ever, a matter of praxis.
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