We Can’t Defeat Climate Change Without Defeating Capitalism

Corporate interests want to divert the climate movement into individual solutions, but paper straws and low-energy light bulbs won't save the planet – we need a movement to end the system that's destroying it.

Illustration by Adam Avery

It was once the case that a major obstacle for environmental activists was climate change denialism. Funded in secret by the fossil fuel industry, the science was fiercely discredited. Misinformation was pumped out to hide a deadly truth.

Today, with some notable exceptions, there are few who would deny the evidence of climate change. That argument has largely been settled. Even oil giant Shell is compelled to acknowledge the climate emergency, recently imploring us, in a tweet, to consider, ‘What are you willing to change to help reduce emissions?’

But the refusal to properly understand climate change has not altogether gone away. Instead we confront a different, more subtle form of climate denialism.

This perspective does not deny the science of the climate emergency: it denies the politics. It pretends that tweaking the system here, or modifying it there, is enough to avert disaster. It acts as if business as usual is viable, focusing on banning plastic straws and encouraging bags for life. It suggests that the climate crisis is a problem of personal consumption, as if a change in consumer preferences might be enough to prevent climate disaster.

This liberal fantasy is accompanied with another misleading notion: the so-called ‘Anthropocene’. A concept increasingly popular among both academics and climate activists, it suggests that human beings in general are responsible for the increase in parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from 280 in 1750 to 417 in May of last year.

This approach to the climate crisis is similar to those schools of establishment thought which blame grave social ills — such as poverty or illiteracy — on society as a whole, rather than the economic system that causes them and the wealthy few who have power to ameliorate them.

There is also a darker side to the Anthropocene thesis. If human beings collectively can be blamed for the planet’s ills, so the logic goes, then a reduction in human population could be a solution. This, of course, is not a new idea: British economist Thomas Malthus expounded similar ideas in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Shortly afterwards, the Malthusian overpopulation thesis was critiqued by Marx and Engels, who called it a ‘libel on the human race.’ For socialists, Malthus had mistakenly attributed blame on humanity as a whole for the problems which derived from a particular social system. If things were produced and distributed based on human need rather than capitalist growth, and if technology was directed towards the same ends, there was no reason why humans could not live in harmony with the planet.

The evidence backs this thesis up. A 2017 report by the Carbon Disclosure Project showed that 100 companies have been responsible for 71 per cent of global emissions since 1988. In 2019, a similar study from the Climate Accountability Institute found that just 20 companies were responsible for 35 per cent of all energy-related carbon dioxide and methane worldwide since 1965.

Our problem, in other words, is not the Anthropocene. Our problem is capitalism. The ecological collapse we face today can be squarely blamed on the accumulation of vast swathes of the world’s resources by a tiny elite, who drive climate change with their greed. Capitalism is a system of highly concentrated power. And whether as individual consumers — through their private jets and lavish overconsumption — or as capitalists in the broader economy — pushing for new oil and gas extraction and driving production to cheaper but more pollutant locations — the ruling class have a vastly disproportionate impact on our climate.

In a class society, the desires of a tiny minority are prioritised above everyone’s survival, as capitalism conscripts us to endless accumulation. Capitalists and workers alike are disciplined under the rules of the market — we must sell or die. Capital, as Marx put it, is ‘self-valorising value’: wealth is compelled to generate more wealth.

As we burn up the ground beneath us and herald rising GDP figures on our finite planet, the current social order begins to look like a death cult. The distinctiveness of capitalism is that it is both a system of class power and universal domination — these two impulses rendering it doubly toxic for the environment.

The thesis that capitalism as a system, rather than humans as a species, is responsible for our ecological crisis is growing in popularity. Swedish writer Andreas Malm’s Fossil Capital explores the role that steam power in Britain’s Industrial Revolution played in this dynamic, arguing that the logic of capital — and in particular its drive to subordinate labour—was crucial in the ascent of climate-changing technologies.

Jason Moore, an environmental historian and sociologist at Binghamton University, goes even further. He argues that it is not the Anthropocene which we are experiencing, but the Capitalocene — pointing out that the majority of the world’s emissions come from production, something which the masses of the people have little to no control over. In our economies, the means of production remain squarely in private hands — in the hands of capitalists.

Once we can name capitalism as the problem, the solutions become much clearer. If capitalism means class power and an endless pursuit of profit, socialism must mean democratic power and production for need. Those two things should be our lodestars in fighting climate change.

Targeting the conspicuous, utterly unnecessary consumption of the capitalist class would be a first step. The main aim, as Moore suggests, must be winning collective control over production itself — a way of ensuring that what is produced today is not simply that which is most profitable, but best for society and the planet as a whole.

And think of the benefits that this could have. Rather than spending our lives tied to our jobs, we could take democratic control and plan our resources and our work. We could set climate targets and achieve them while ensuring that the standard of living for most people increased — through the redistribution of wealth, the effective organisation of production and, simply, greater time off.

And climate-friendly policies could have much broader benefits too. There are plenty of homes that need insulating, and solar panels and wind turbines to be built. We could train a new generation of workers for green jobs that help to mend the climate rather than further polluting it. States can do this, but only if they take wealth from capitalists and use it for common and useful ends, rather than private and profiteering ones.

This is the demand for a Green New Deal — the radicalism of which only grows as climate disaster approaches ever closer. Its alternatives do not offer us a future: a green capitalism, favoured by the liberal centre, fails to tackle the ecologically destructive tendencies at the heart of our system. Or worse, eco-fascism: a growing ideology which seeks to insulate a small Western minority from the fallout of the climate disaster while forcing the poor masses of the world to bear its costs.

This far-right environmentalist agenda places a spotlight on another aspect of our struggle. Capitalism is a global system. Any resistance to it must traverse borders too. Failure to do so will feed an increasingly exclusionary green politics which is more concerned with litter in our localities than floods which could displace as many as one in seven people in Bangladesh by 2050.

Decisions made around a boardroom in London or New York can pollute rivers in Bangladesh or destroy rainforests in Brazil. A Green New Deal that fuels electric cars with lithium batteries mined in unsafe conditions in the Global South is not good enough.

The coalitions we need to beat fossil capitalism will gain their power by bringing together flood victims from England to Indonesia and many others too, in an eco-socialist movement that speaks for the global 99% and against polluting profiteers — wherever they might plunder the earth.

These are the first principles for a green socialism. Much of the important work lies in filling in the details, but the climate movement must begin by dispelling some illusions. To paraphrase an old line, those who do not wish to speak about capitalism must remain silent about ecological devastation.

Far from being the problem, the Anthropocene might be the solution: the idea of humanity collectively taking charge of our destiny, making history deliberately across borders in a common project to improve life. Today, the demand for democratic planning, pitted against the anarchy of the marketplace and the concentrated power of the capitalist class, is a demand for nothing less than survival.