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November 16, 2010

Ecology and Socialism

by Anton Cu Unjieng

Tar Sands

"There is a giant death sentence hanging over much of our world" as Chris Williams states in his new book Ecology and Socialism (Haymarket 2010).

Humanity is pumping toxins into the environment faster than they can be re-processed. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) "predicts the demise over the course of the twenty-first century of 50 percent of amphibians, 70 percent of botanic life, 37 percent of freshwater fish, 28 percent of reptilians, 21 percent of mammals, and 12 percent of all birds." And that's just vertebrates. The extinction rate is so high because we are leveling forests, poisoning waterways, fishing, and in general stressing the planet's ecosystem past recovery.

The single greatest stressor is climate change. Greenhouse gases (GHGs), the gases primarily responsible for global warming, are the most significant of the toxins that we are pumping out. Of all the GHGs, carbon dioxide is the most important because of its longevity and because of the sheer amount of it released by industry. Because of these changes, 11 of the 12 years between 1995 and 2006 were in the top 12 warmest years recorded since 1850 when recording began.

Global warming has had a number of effects including: ocean acidification, increased forest fires, changing migratory patterns, earlier springs, changes in glacial melting, and rising sea levels. The effects upon humans have been severe: "every year climate change leaves over 300,000 people dead, 325 million people seriously affected, [and accounts for] economic losses of US$125 billion. 4 billion people are vulnerable, and 500 million people are at extreme risk."

As Williams points out, the effects of global warming upon the environment cannot be reversed as we are already locked in to a 1.5 to 2ºC increase in global average temperatures by 2050. However, it is still possible to avoid a rise above this level – and it is absolutely necessary to do so: two degrees is a tipping point; anything more than that and we risk setting off feedback mechanisms that lead us "inexorably [to] three degrees of warming, then four, five and six." By the 6th degree of warming, “[the] Amazon will have disappeared and turned into desert...” glacial melting will cause “sea-level rises of 25 meters, inundating coastal cities and placing large areas of land under water. … Fish stocks will plunge due to acidity and decreased dissolved oxygen as oceans warm. … flash flooding will make growing crops impossible across large areas of formerly fertile continents. Southern Europe, and the Southwestern U.S., and Central America, along with Central Asia and Africa and almost the whole of Australia will become desert.” And all this within a time-frame of "a matter of decades" from the date at which warming exceeds two degrees.

Scientists believe that CO2 emissions must be reduced by 80 or 90 percent by 2050 in order to avoid warming above 2 degrees, but, as the spectacular failure of the 2009 Copenhagen Conference (which dropped this goal entirely) demonstrates, our world leaders and the wealthiest sections of capital are entirely unable to take serious action to prevent ecological collapse.

Failed Responses

It would seem to be in everyone's interest to keep human civilization viable on earth – especially for the ruling classes since they are the chief beneficiaries of said civilization. So why have the responses of the powers that be been worse than useless? In Williams' analysis, three reason's stand out: two structural and one ideological.

The ideological reason is the continued strength of the belief in the free-market and the undesirability of government intervention. This belief has taken a good knocking within the environment movement itself. The weaker version is just your typical lesser-evil-ism that admits that market solutions are not ideal but they're the best that we can do.

The market solution most favoured by the ruling class is the emission trading scheme (ETS) or cap and trade. Cap-and-trade works by setting a limit on the amount of carbon that companies can emit. "If individual companies exceed their quota, they can buy carbon credits from other companies...". Companies can also pay other people to trap carbon – say by planting trees – the trapped carbon offsets the actual emissions of the company allowing them to stay within the limit. The idea being that the free market can be made to punish polluters and reward clean industry. The EU implemented this scheme in 2005 and in 2006 emissions actually rose. The first phase (2005-8) yielded no net reduction in carbon emissions.

A strong environmental movement can fix many of the problems associated with cap-and-trade. We could demand that the limit be much stricter, that no credits be given out for free, that no one be exempted from the scheme (especially not the major polluters), and that credits expire at the end of every year, and that no credits be given for planned expansions which are subsequently shelved. But none of this would fix the fundamental problem: cap-and-trade is designed not to work. It is supposedly a free market solution which actually requires incredible vigilance that is virtually impossible to monitor as the UN and even the US government has admitted.

Williams gives a bizarre example of the scheme at work: Plantar, a major Brazilian “forest resource” company … has set up a eucalyptus plantation where the trees are harvested then burnt and turned into charcoal for use in a nearby factory making pig-iron … Each stage of this process has been certified by UN-approved organizations charged with verifying that Plantar deserves carbon credits for reducing carbon emissions. One might legitimately ask how a monoculture of eucalyptus trees growing in a former rain forest that are turned into charcoal for a pig-iron factory and turning a profit from carbon trading … could be justified as a carbon reduction scheme. The answer lies in how the land had been cleared for cattle grazing, so planting a monoculture absorbs more carbon than grassland; this therefore earns carbon credits. The kilns used for making the charcoal are designed to reduce methane … – more carbon credits … Then, because the pig iron factory burns charcoal rather than coal to make the iron, that process also receives carbon credits.

So Plantar has planted a monoculture crop over what used to be rainforest in order to fuel their smelting furnaces – and they are rewarded with more than 11 million carbon credits worth $100 million in the EU carbon credit market. And this is regarded as legit! To prevent outright fraud would require, in Williams' words, "a vast army of bureaucrats … to oversee and check every capitalist enterprise for cheating on health and safety and environmental laws." (84) But even if such an army could be called into existence, there exists no social force in the world capable of keeping it honest.

A far simpler solution, and one that doesn't leave nearly as much room for scams, would be to tax the polluters and use the income to invest aggressively in the sorts of industries that would put the polluters out of business: renewable energy, public transportation, retrofitting homes and buildings to be more energy efficient.

So why has the ruling class been so effective – united, even – in selling the ETS as the best and only solution? This brings us to the two structural issues that Williams discusses: the sheer size and strength of the fossil fuel industry and imperialism.

Structural Barriers

For Williams, the "fact that the entire economy runs on essentially three substances — oil, coal, and natural gas – and that these are the three most responsible for global warming presents capitalism with an essentially insurmountable problem."

It is difficult to exaggerate the importance of the fossil fuel industry to the world economy and to the economies of the various individual nation-states that compose it. The amount of investment already sunk into the fossil fuel industry is absolutely staggering: more than $13 trillion dollars of capital are invested in infrastructure directly related to oil and gas production, refining and use … In the United States alone, there are 150 oil refineries, 4,000 offshore platforms, 160,000 miles of oil pipelines, facilities to handle more than 15 million barrels per day (bpd) in imports and exports … This doesn't even count all the billions of dollars of investment and government subsidies in roads and the mining, refining and manufacture of asphalt, rubber, steel, aluminum, cars trucks, etc.

This massive investment cannot simply be written off. “Previous investments in fixed capital all have to be utilized to the fullest extent until their depreciation costs are acceptable”. Otherwise, there will be massive losses.

But several studies show a transition to renewable energy is possible. One study suggests that "a majority of the world's energy [can come] from renewable sources by … 2030." We would "need to build 3.8 million large turbines and 900,000 solar panels." To put that into perspective, we build "million cars every year." Another, less recent and less ambitious study, claims that America could meet 69 percent of its electricity and 35 percent from its total energy demands from solar power alone by 2050 – it would require an investment of $420 billion. This would reduce US emissions to 62 percent below 2005 levels. As Williams points out $420 billion over 40 years is considerably less than the annual Pentagon budget as the current defense budget, not counting the cost of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, is $535 billion.

Quite apart from improving our civilization's chances of survival, this transition will be quite labour intensive and should create new value at a very high rate of profit. This move could take capitalism out of its current crisis of profitability, and clear large stocks of constant capital. However that is precisely what makes the process so difficult: $13 trillion in capital invested around the world being written off as loss would have an enormous short and medium term impact upon the economy. To put that in proportion, only $1 trillion was lost on mortgages during the 'sub-prime crises' which sparked the greatest financial crisis since the Great Depression. It is entirely possible that the fossil fuel industry is 'too big to fail'.

Possibly the most important structural barrier to ecological reform is inter-imperial rivalry. The various governments of the world – particularly the major imperialist powers – cannot coordinate a change in the way we produce because they must first and foremost look after their own national capitals. As Williams says, "under capitalism, to place environmental regulations on your own corporations while other countries don't will lead to competitive disadvantage. This is why the competitive pressures between nation-states drive them all to do the minimum to stop greenhouse gas emissions." I would also add that a rapid shift from an oil economy to renewables would overturn sixty years of imperialist policy devoted almost exclusively to securing access to the world's sources of oil.

Williams' lays the system's priorities frighteningly bare: "investment in energy research and development, a mere $3 billion in the 2006 [American] federal budget, has declined in real terms by 50 percent since 1979. Over the same time period, military research has increased by 260 percent to more than $75 billion a year."

The Canadian Dimension

These contradictions are being played out in Canada.

Canada is the second largest source of globally proven oil reserves, mostly in the Tar Sands. The Tar Sands, projected to be 36% of American oil imports by 2030, will soon be the United States top source of oil imports, equaling the combined imports of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

But the environmental and social costs of the Tar Sands are enormous. In order to get the oil, the boreal forests and peat-land ecosystems will have to be destroyed; according to Greenpeace these ecosystems collectively store approximately 186 billion tonnes of Carbon – equivalent to 27 years' worth of global emissions at the 2003 rate.

The tailing ponds from processing the bitumen extend for 130 square kilometres along the Athabasca River and can be seen from space. They leak in excess of 11 million liters daily into the river and water table, deforming fish and animals, and increase cancer risks for residents downstream.

The toll upon workers in this toxic environment has been heavy. Oil companies hire non-union workers, and increasingly foreign temporary workers at low wages. Fort McMurray has the highest suicide rate among men aged 18-24 in Canada, reports five times more drug offences, a rate of assault 89 percent greater, and an impaired driving rate 117 percent higher than the rest of Alberta. Alberta itself has the highest level of spousal abuse in the country and, in a three month period in 2008, reported 800 complaints of abuse of guest workers.

To maximize the tar sand's profitability, it is also necessary to sell the oil to more buyers than just the US, which is why a pipeline is under way to transport oil from Alberta to the BC coast. According to the online newspaper, this pipeline will be 1,170 kilometres long and transport 525,000 barrels of bitumen daily from Fort McMurray to Kitimat BC. This will bring approximately 225 oil tankers per year to ship the product to California and Asia. The pipeline itself would cross over 1000 rivers and streams, and is opposed by most of the First Nations' whose unceded territory it crosses.

Socialism and Ecological Survival

The only thing that can prevent disastrous climate change is "a truly massive international movement" which raises the political costs of destroying our planet. Only this kind of movement can force market elites to implement the kinds of changes necessary to lower emissions to acceptable levels.

The environmental movement has always been a social justice movement, but the conditions of workers in Canada and across the world also gives the movement an opening to work with the most powerful social force on the planet. Therefore, the ecological movement must support and strengthen the demands of these workers for better wages and conditions, and safer, less toxic work environments. The ecological movement must also demand that workers be retrained to supply the labour power which will be necessary to build the turbines and solar panels to put industry on a sustainable base.

But capitalism's profit priorities mean that for as long as capitalism exists we will be waging a defensive war against it for the fate of our planet and our species. To achieve a lasting and permanent victory, the environmental movement will have to become a part of a revolutionary socialist struggle.

The movement has raised the slogan, "whose planet? Our planet!" To make that slogan true, Green will have to become Red.