Jack A. Smith :
A left solution to climate change

Climate deniers in Congress, exasperating as they are, constitute the farcical sideshow of a much bigger economic and political three-ring circus known as U.S.A. Inc.

green marx 2

System change, not climate change. Image from BostonSocialism.org.

By Jack A. Smith | The Rag Blog | June 8, 2014

Climate change is occurring with extreme rapidity. Recent news headlines warn us: “Earth Could Warm 11 Degrees by 2100,” “Western Antarctic Ice Sheet Is Collapsing,” and “Climate Change Risks Security and Wars” — and this is just the beginning.

Had extreme measures been inaugurated worldwide 20 years ago to sharply curtail reliance on fossil fuels, much of what we are now experiencing — unwelcome temperature change, dangerous storms, droughts, floods, etc. — would have been minimized. But to this day Washington is among the tiny minority of countries that have refused to ratify the basic UN document on climate change, the Kyoto Protocol.

The current stage of the climate crisis will afflict our earth for innumerable generations to come, creating increasing havoc. Stage one will eventually transform to a crueler stage two later this century and other stages eventually unless severe measures are introduced immediately. We know the dire consequences for future generations if we fail to act now.

The well-known Canadian scientist and broadcaster David Suzuki got it right when he said on the Bill Moyers PBS program this month: “Our politicians should be thrown in the slammer for willful blindness…. I think that we are being willfully blind to the consequences for our children and grandchildren. It’s an intergenerational crime.”

Despite the reality of climate change, the major capitalist industrialized countries are moving at a snail’s pace.

Despite the reality of climate change, the major capitalist industrialized countries — most certainly the United States — are moving at a snail’s pace, if moving at all, to mitigate its decimating effects on life on Earth. At issue is whether the capitalist system is willing and able to bring about the immense changes required to prevent climate change from developing into a global catastrophe from mid-to-end century. The evidence so far is that it will not move fast enough.

Virtually all scientists and most concerned people now understand why climate change is happening, and that it will become much worse. Some of them are part of a growing mass movement to stop climate change, which we strongly support. But there’s a catch.

At this point, the problem is deeply embedded in a capitalist economic system based upon the relentless exploitation of the earth and all its resources to obtain super profits that largely accrue to a small minority of people. Capital must be sharply challenged as a system if climate change is to be halted.

Some progress is being made in the conversion from oil, natural gas, and coal to solar, hydropower, wind, biomass (biofuel), and geothermal energy, mainly in several smaller social democratic or liberal countries of Europe and elsewhere. But such progress is the exception and is dwarfed by the greenhouse gas emissions of the major industrialized capitalist economies, led by the U.S. and China.

Of these societies, China — now the world’s largest annual contributor of CO2 to the atmosphere — is devoting the greatest amount of resources and money to develop sources of green energy, but the gap between its fossil and renewable fuels is immense. The U.S., which was the principal emitter of CO2 for well over a hundred years and remains the number one cumulative contributor of poisons in the atmosphere, became number two a few years ago.

Washington lags far behind most major industrial countries in efforts to limit greenhouse emissions.

Washington lags far behind most major industrial countries in efforts to limit greenhouse emissions. American presidents have known about an impending climate catastrophe at least since the Clinton Administration in the 1990s but have done virtually nothing about it. Given its wealth and powerful status as global hegemon, the United States government under the regimes of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, has been the principal obstacle to concerted global climate action.

plant from money cropPresident Obama has finally decided after five years to use the powers he already possesses without the need of Congressional approval to implement certain limited beneficial environmental measures, but this is hardly good enough. Now he is even giving hopeful speeches about climate change. But his few insignificant accomplishments are buried by a mountain of missed opportunities and his dedication to drilling for as much oil and fracking for as much gas as possible, is turning our country into Saudi America.

As said in mid-May by Paul Jay, the senior editor of The Real News Network: Obama “has a big bully pulpit. He could be rallying the country for a new, green America… but [he’s done] next to nothing since he was elected.”

It is convenient to blame the far right and Tea Party know-nothings for America’s shameful lethargy in this regard, but that’s simply not the main problem. Climate deniers in Congress, exasperating as they are, constitute the farcical sideshow of a much bigger economic and political three-ring circus known as U.S.A. Inc. — the world’s largest business/government monopoly. Its run by the wealthiest sector of the population, including the corporate, banking, and finance chieftains, and their well-paid minions in business and government, the mass media, and other key institutions.

The Plutocracy cannot lose, no matter who wins.

Theoretically, American democracy is a means of organizing a society based first and foremost on an honest electoral system to choose its leaders and hold them responsible. The electoral system is still based on one person, one vote, but it is corrupted absolutely by the power of big money contributions from the multi-millionaires and billionaires in the ruling class. And by seeing to it there are only two viable parties to choose from — both capitalist, one representing the right and far right and the other the center right — the Plutocracy cannot lose, no matter who wins.

A capitalist society is supposed to be one where, though citizens may not be economically equal, they are not as unequal as in the U.S. today. Of all the OECD’s major industrial economies America is last in equality. In its quest for ever-greater profits, this ruling class is shredding what remains of that democracy. In the process it has also fought to lower the income and politically disempower the middle and working classes.

According to economic columnist Eduardo Porter in the May 14 New York Times:

The growing concentration of income can, in fact, make inequality more difficult to correct, as the wealthy bring their wealth to bear on the political process to maintain their privilege. What’s more, disparities in income seem to produce political polarization and gridlock, which tend to favor those who receive a better deal from the prevailing rules.

What’s this got to do with climate change? Everything. Fossil fuel interests (oil, gas, coal) are major elements of the U.S. economy — so much so that Washington subsidizes this industry with from $10 billion up to $52 billion a year (which includes costs of defending pipelines and shipping lanes in the Persian Gulf). Fossil fuel makes its owners, executives and stockholders incredibly rich. All America’s industries and corporations are dependent in one way or another on prevailing energy resources.

Most big corporations and financial interests are wedded to the short-term profit picture.

Most big corporations and financial interests are wedded to the short-term profit picture, such as a company’s quarterly economic performance charts. Heads roll when profits drop. The fossil fuel industry in particular, and big business in general, fear profits will fall if the U.S. sharply lowers greenhouse gas emissions.

Another factor is that a commitment to reduce greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and to stop the devastation of the ecological system means that the consumption in the richer countries inevitably must be reduced — an utter anathema for capitalism, which is based on continual expansion of demand.

Neither the existing ruling class nor the political system will support the required massive and prompt transition to renewable fuels and the establishment of a sustainable ecological policy to slow down and eventually halt the continual increase in global warming and the decimation of the natural and human environment.

It will take decades of transformation away from fossil fuels and from conspicuous consumption for tangible progress to be made. But only in this way can global warming and ecological disaster be avoided.

In effect, however, the owners of big capital say to this:

No go! Our profits may fall. And we’re certainly not going to tell consumers to cut back on demand! We can make lots of money by adjusting to climate change — building sea walls, retrofitting businesses, schools and other structures to withstand powerful hurricanes or tornadoes, building houses in cooler parts of the country, selling air-conditioners, extracting oil from the Arctic and Antarctic and so on and on. It’s endless. We can finally sell refrigerators to Eskimos! Don’t you realize that adapting to climate change can be an economic boom for big business?

There are two options confronting the American people: (1) Long-term survival and a revived world for future generations by swiftly replacing fossil fuels to mitigate a potential climate change calamity for the 9.5 billion human beings who will inhabit the increasingly inhospitable world of 2050. (2) The other option, evidently intended to protect the economic status quo and strengthen immediate profits, is to prolong the transition to renewable energy as long as possible, meanwhile focusing on profiting from adaptation to rising temperatures and sea levels and so on.

Working toward a better world  requires a radical solution.

Working toward a better world  requires a radical solution. There’s a fitting slogan in parts of the worldwide environmental movement that expresses the real situation: “System Change, Not Climate Change.” The existing capitalist system demonstrably works against the needs of the masses of people, and not only in climate change.

tree fistThe U.S. economy is in long-term stagnation, kept going by financial bubbles that profit the wealthy and penalize the middle class, working class and poor; joblessness is expected to remain high in future years; 50% of the American people are low income or poor; many young people, saddled with excessive college debts, are often rewarded with substandard jobs and pay; personal privacy of almost any kind is on the way out, now that the NSA knows all and sees all. There’s more — war, racism, sexism, dead-end minimum wage jobs, and so on and on.

It is imperative that a far more powerful environmental movement develops in the next few years to put some effective breaks on greenhouse gas emissions and the despoliation of the land, water and quality of life. It’s time for the various components of the environmental and left political movements, while retaining their identities and missions, to unite in action on the issue of climate change and build the struggle for climate sanity into a powerful political force.

In this connection, it is timely to recall this statement by Hungarian philosopher István Mészáros: “The uncomfortable truth of the matter is that if there is no future for a radical mass movement in our time… there can be no future for humanity itself.”

The best opportunity we have to end increasing climate change is system change.

The best opportunity we have to end increasing climate change — before high temperatures, air pollution, flooded coastlines, droughts, fierce storms, scarcity of potable water and famine reach disastrous heights — is system change. This is already obvious to much of the left — and will become clear to those in the struggle as the crisis increases — but the government and business are content to take minimal steps, concentrating more on adaptation than mitigation.

The capitalist industrial world has done much to improve life in the last 200 years (not counting wars, imperialism, colonialism, exploitation and inequality) but now that same economic system’s industrialization is threatening life on Earth. The only alternative system to global capitalism, is 21st century socialism, which has learned a lot from its 150 years of efforts, experiences, trials, errors, and successes.

It took capitalism over 600 years to get to where it is now, including the colonial theft of three-quarters of the world and the degradation of its peoples, hundreds of years of slavery, Jim Crow segregation laws, gross inequality, wage-theft, the subjugation of women, child labor, the holocaust imposed upon Native Americans, two World Wars (including another holocaust), thousands of nuclear weapons ready for the next war, grotesque poverty for over half the 7.2 billion people on Earth today, and predictions of much worse environment changes with each passing decade.

That, they say, is the price of progress. Another price, if we allow it to happen, will be severe climate change for future generations. Actually, capital is proving itself incapable of doing the right thing about three existential matters confronting the world and its people today and in the future: climate change, poverty/inequality, and wars.

Socialism isn’t finished because of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the development of market economies in some remaining societies. The first chapter of a longer book is over. It’s time for socialism’s second chapter.

Socialism comes in different varieties but none of them would allow profits to stand in the way of creating a society based on renewable fuels, sustainable development, and new ecological, industrial, economic, and social policies. It wouldn’t tolerate great inequality and poverty. It would do its best to avoid war. In our view the world needs this desperately; it requires system change, not climate change.

Read more articles by Jack A. Smith on The Rag Blog.

[Jack A. Smith was editor of the Guardian — for decades the nation’s preeminent leftist newsweekly — that closed shop in 1992. Smith now edits the Hudson Valley Activist Newsletter.]

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13 Responses to Jack A. Smith :
A left solution to climate change

  1. anonymous says:

    Great; only worldwide socialist revolution can halt climate change.

    We really are doomed.

  2. R Zwarich says:

    Mr Smith has done a very good job of crafting a consummately well-written article that says pretty much the exact same thing that dozens, or hundreds, (or more likely many thousands), of other articles have said in the various Left media. One cannot help but wonder what purpose he thinks this serves. Had he published this on a forum that was read by people whose consciousness was not yet developed enough to understand the workings of our political/economic system, that would be one thing, but to write this article and publish it on a blog that is read by people who already thoroughly understand his thesis, have already read countless other articles saying the exact same thing, and many (or most) of whom likely agree with him, strikes me as nothing more than a ‘preaching to the choir’ exercise in narcissism. Did he think that his words would work some kind of magic, when those of so many other authors produced no appreciable result?

    OK, then…..”Capitalism is bad, therefore we need to convert to Socialism to solve our problems”. That appears to be his basic thesis. Unfortunately, this thesis makes no logical sense. whatsoever. The second premise simply does not follow from the first. Anybody reading The Rag Blog, (or most of us, anyway), likely agree that “Capitalism is bad”, but even when we accept that premise, it simply does not follow that ‘Socialism’, (whatever he means when he uses that essentially meaningless catchword), is good, or better than capitalism. It is entirely possible that capitalism is bad, and socialism is just as bad, or even worse. Mr. Smith offers absolutely no argument of any kind toward proving that socialism is (or would be) a better system than capitalism.

    All he offers is a rather sparse plea that just because socialism has failed in every single country in which capitalism was overthrown and socialism was installed, (usually causing great suffering among the citizens of those countries), that doesn’t mean it’s not a great system, and we need to give it another chance, because, (for reasons not specified), it’ll surely be better next time.

    To point to just one example of the logical disconnects in his many false syllogisms, he complains that our so-called democratic system is rigged in favor of the plutocracy. Surely very few (if any) reading The Rag Blog would disagree. He writes that only the two major parties, both under the control of the plutocracy, have any chance of winning elections. He writes that “the plutocracy cannot lose, no matter who wins”. This is clearly very true in our winner take all voting system, but we do not need socialism to fix this mission critical problem. We only need a different voting system. There are many to be considered, such as instant run-off, proportional representation, etc. The institution of a different voting system is a very tall task, to be sure, but in the overall scheme of things it seems a lot more doable than overthrowing the entire economic/ political system.

    It’s not my intention here to be unkind to Mr. Smith. He is certainly a very good writer. I’m only trying to point out what appears to be very obviously a major reason that the American Left continues to be so pitifully weak and completely marginalized from the nation’s political life. We are so religiously committed to ideologies that we have lost our ability to argue coherently in their favor. We simply go around saying, over and over, “have you accepted socialism as our personal savior?” What does anybody even mean when they use this word ‘socialism’? If anybody, (Mr. Smith for example), even knows, they never give any indication that they do.

    I would suggest that Mr. Smith, (and the countless other writers who write the same article over and over), should turn his considerable talents to making arguments that support his thesis, rather than just re-hashing a thesis that is based on false logic. What does he mean by ‘socialism’? How would this system work? Why would it be better than capitalism? How could we establish such a system?

    RZ

    • Dieter Heymann says:

      Karl Marx did not expect that “the left” or “the liberals” but that the labor class would make the socialist revolution. Any discussion of communism/socialism in the context of what it is and whether it has failed or succeeded without also considering the class structure of a society is analogous to the description of a Picasso painting by a colorblind person hence is hilariously useless. In a society such as ours with its huge so-called middle class there will be no social revolution until that middle class has sunk deep into penury by another huge depression. Middle classes make no revolution exactly because they fear their descent into penury. In fact, as Weimar Germany has demonstrated, a middle class which fears descent to proletarianism is very dangerous and is prone to accept dictatorships.

  3. David Hamilton says:

    Despite Mr. Zwarich’s ever tiresome reservations, the point that the politics of environmental sustainability are anti-capitalist politics, is a point that is seldom made and I commend Jack Smith for doing so.

    • R Zwarich says:

      Perhaps I habitually read more material in the various Left media than does Mr. Hamilton, (I have no way of knowing), but I have most certainly read a great many articles, over many years, that say essentially the same thing as Mr. Smith says here. So many, in fact, that they begin to drone on and on, and one cannot help but wonder what these writers’ purpose is. What are they trying to accomplish by saying the same things over and over (and over)? It surely often seems to me as if their primary purpose is to ply their skills at wordcraft in order to gain recognition for doing so.

      I am fairly certain that Mr. Hamilton, as a renowned leftist activist, already thoroughly understood the dangers that unfettered capitalism poses to our environment before he read Mr. Smith’s article. I am also fairly certain that nearly all of the readers of The Rag Blog thoroughly understood this premise as well, before reading this article. If I understand Mr. Hamilton correctly, he is commending this writer for preaching a good sermon to those who have ‘already accepted socialism as their personal savior’, (figuratively speaking).

      Mr. Smith is a clearly a very good writer. I guess the point I am trying to make is that it might be more valuable to a shared cause if he (and other talented writers) broke out of their comfort zones (as they say), and strove to reach some new understandings of our predicament, rather than just plying their craft as writers by just saying the same things over and over.

      Anyway…Thanks to Mr. Hamilton for his comments. Since I haven’t written anything, anywhere, for several years now, (I’ve been working very hard for years now to establish a small homestead in rural MA), I guess he finds it “ever tiresome” when I say anything at all, ever. That’s his prerogative, of course.
      RZ

  4. Jack Smith presses all the right buttons in this piece, things that pass as obvious among the left, mainly that capitalism’s industrialism is wreaking havoc with the environment, and to save ourselves, getting rid of it tops the list–and there’s not much time left.

    All of which are sort of true, and some powerful forces at the top being dunderheads, as a practical matter, we may indeed need proletarian revolution of an ecosocialist type to save us. If so, I’d also suggest, in the short run, getting your survivalist gear together and heading for high ground.

    But I’d one who believes that while capitalism requires energy, there is no theoretical reason why it must continue to get it by burning carbon and/or uranium,

    This is a good thing, because if we are going to save the planet in time, I suggest we start on it now, before the revolution of a new type emerges as dual power in the streets.

    The fact is that a good number of top capitalists are investing billions in solar and wind. Billionaire Warren Buffet just doubled down on his initial $15 billion last week, and there’s more where he came from. http://www.businessweek.com/news/2014-06-10/buffett-ready-to-double-15-billion-solar-wind-bet

    This doesn’t mean we still don’t have a huge and fierce fight on our hand that may be on the scale, say, of getting rid of slave capital. And it may also provide openings for socialism, just as Reconstruction in the South did in the 19th Century.

    But it also does mean we would be wise to segment out a section of capitalism that wants to make lots of money from solar, wind and wave power, and see them as our allies, especially if we’re in a hurry to curb and lower CO2 levels. Who knows? Since socialism starts off as a mixed economy, we may even drag a few over the revolutionary hump along with us.

  5. Ian Monoe says:

    “We are doomed historically to history, to the patient construction of discourses about discourses, and to the task of hearing what has already been said.”

    Michel Foucault

  6. Extremist2TheDHS says:

    Watching socialists argue over economic theories is kind of interesting and laugh inducing.

    Asking those “less enlightened” who are tightly wedded to the “capitalist economic system” for the few bucks they need to pay rent and buy food and and get some weed for the weekend, to overthrow their economic system (and to make themselves unemployed in the process) is remote. Asking them to do so for a problem that is prioritized as low as climate change is laughable.

    What Mr Smith calls “system change”, i.e. a socialist revolution, will never become clear to them no matter how hysterically the progressive left ticks off the potential results of climate change. They are focused on their next car payment and their next rent check.

    The alternative to capitalism, i.e government controlled “everything”, seems less appealing with each new government scandal of incompetence, payback and greed.

    The political right has a pipe dream of ridding our country of illegal immigrants and returning them to Mexico. And the left has its own pipe dream of the great unwashed rising up to overthrow their capitalist masters and replace them with socialist masters. Neither is going to happen.

    – Proud to be an Extremist2TheDHS

    • Dieter Heymann says:

      This critique could have been written by Louis XIV or his minister of finance at the time when capitalism began to replace mercantilism. Capitalism? Laughable!
      To me it is pretty clear that economic/financial systems begin to fail and are replaced when population density has reached a critical value which demands a change. If that had not happened often we would still be hunter-gatherers.

      • Anonymous says:

        Dieter, I think you misunderstand. Whatever demands that might be made by the great unwashed, or more likely created out of whole cloth to serve a political end like the 99% rallies that happened in 2012, which require the loss of personal property rights and other constitutionally protected liberties will fail. The do nothings in society who want to get something for nothing from their government are free to rabble rouse and make demands.

        However the government response will be limited to that which does not cross a red line that causes a rebellion, armed and otherwise by productive members of society. The government knows there are red lines they cannot cross, red lines where productive capitalist pigs will take it into their hands to start eliminating activists, societal leeches and socialist sympathizers in government who threaten property and liberty. Threatening to eliminate capitalism and the way of life it affords for those willing to work and educate themselves is definitely one of those red lines.

        – Proud to be an Extremist2TheDHS

      • Extremist2TheDHS says:

        Dieter, I think you misunderstand. Whatever demands that might be made by the great unwashed, or more likely created out of whole cloth to serve a political end like the 1% rallies that happened in 2012, which require the loss of personal property rights and other constitutionally protected liberties will fail. The do nothings in society who want to get something for nothing from their government are free to rabble rouse and make demands.

        However the government response will be limited to that which does not cross a line that causes a rebellion, armed and otherwise by productive members of society. The government knows there are red lines they cannot cross, red lines where productive capitalist pigs will take it into their hands to start eliminating activists, societal leeches and socialist sympathizers in government who threaten property and liberty. Threatening to eliminate capitalism and the way of life it affords for those willing to work and educate themselves is definitely one of those red lines.

        – Proud to be an Extremist2TheDHS
        “Nothing says No Thank You Mr Government Bureaucrat quite like a red laser dot painted on their chest”

  7. Dieter Heymann says:

    Karl Marx was aghast by the destruction of nature caused by the industrial revolution in England. He was a member of an environmental organization based in Lausanne. I know that because my grandfather was a member too and I found the name of KM on a membership list in my grandpa’s library.

  8. anonymous says:

    Haven’t there been numerous articles of a similar ilk saying we can’t eliminate racism, sexism, “barbarism,” etc any number of evils unless we get socialism first?

    Thank God (sorry for the theological reference if you are a militant Atheist) we DIDN’T wait to opt for feasible incremental approaches with civil rights, unionism, feminism, environmental reformism, etc.

    We don’t need to overthrow capitalism to have effective climate action, and we can’t wait.

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