Climate Change and the Case Against Capital

On Earth Day—Friday, April 22nd—climate activist Wynn Bruce set himself on fire in front of the Supreme Court in an act of protest against climate change, tragically passing away from his injuries the next day. Kritee Kanko, a climate scientist and friend of Bruce’s, wrote on Twitter that this was “a deeply fearless act of compassion to bring attention to the climate crisis.” His tragic death was motivated by a sense of grief and urgency in the face of climate inaction. 

At the same time, climate activist groups at Tufts and elsewhere have begun to pick up their efforts after being limited by the pandemic. Sophomore and member of Tufts Climate Action (TCA) leadership Ryan Kadet wrote to the Tufts Observer that TCA has recently “collaborat[ed] with other climate justice organizations from universities across the greater Boston area to create a coalition of Boston climate activists.” In a moment that provides renewed opportunities for action in the fight for a livable future, I urge Tufts students to begin evaluating the relationship between climate change and our global political economy which we take for granted—namely, the way in which it is structured around unceasing growth and consumption. At Tufts, we have to interrogate the way we live and the way that our world is shaped, and not take economic growth and extraction of profit as given “goods” when they themselves are the culprits in the crime of global environmental destruction.

 Two degrees of warming above baseline industrial levels was once regarded by the international community as a threshold of climate disaster not to be surpassed. Journalist David Wallace Wells found in his book, The Uninhabitable Earth, that the two-degree limit now appears more like a best-case scenario, with even higher global temperatures likely. However, this “best-case scenario” is still catastrophic: according to Wallace-Wells, ice sheets will begin to collapse, major cities in the equatorial band of the planet will become unlivable due to high temperatures and high humidities, incidence of wildfires will sextuple or more in the United States, and droughts in Africa will extend by five years, impacting food production.

With calamity incoming, our existing solutions—modifying consumer behavior, trading carbon, and gradually transitioning to renewable energy—seem inadequate. If we want to solve the climate crisis, we have to target its root causes. Increasing evidence suggests that there are limits to what we can achieve in an economic system that is fundamentally structured around continued economic growth, increased consumption, commodification of the natural world, and extraction of profit. Climate change and ecological collapse are inextricably linked to the capitalist mode of production and the incentives which structure its outcomes.

Capitalism is the global political-economic structure that is centered around and defined by the production of commodities for sale on the market and the private ownership of production. The fundamental incentive inherent within capitalism—a need for expansion and growth—drives continued extraction of the earth’s resources for the realization of a profit. Nature itself is transformed into something to be bought and sold, with its ability to generate profit prioritized over ecological value. Anthropologist Jason Moore wrote that “Capitalism’s governing conceit is that… [n]ature is external and may be fragmented, quantified and rationalized to serve economic growth…” Ecosystems and natural resources are valued to the extent that they may be utilized for profits. 

Capitalism also requires the creation of more and more commodities—using more and more resources—for sale on a market. The World Economic Forum concedes that, “Production itself is contingent on consumption. Without sufficient consumption…the production cycle would be paralyzed…mass consumption…is embedded in the core tenets of capitalism as an economic system.” On a finite planet with finite resources, however, consumption is a force behind energy usage and exploitation of the world’s resources.

Anthropologist and activist Andreas Malm locates the beginnings of a capitalist mode of production in the extraction of fossil fuels. Economies were constrained by the natural world around them until they began to extract fossil fuels, allowing for continued growth. In his book Fossil Capital, he wrote that energy constraints “explain not merely the preference for fossil fuels, but also, and perhaps more importantly, the very conditions of self-sustaining growth.” This relationship continues to define the foundations upon which an economic system premised on growth was built. 

As such, there are no apparent indications within the investment economy that fossil fuels are being abandoned as a source of fuel. On the contrary, as investment flows into fossil fuel sources, more extraction facilities are constructed. In “How to Blow Up a Pipeline”, Andreas Malm writes that in 2018, two-thirds of capital placed in projects for generating energy went to new facilities for oil, gas, and coal, while only one-third of investment capital went to wind and solar power. We cannot continue expanding fossil fuel infrastructure if we want to have a livable planet in the future—but it seems as though the reliance on profitable energy incentivized by the capitalist political economy encourages it. 

If we take continued growth as a necessary precondition of a capitalist economy (though continuous growth has been pursued by other economies as well), this will jeopardize a full transition to renewable sources of energy. While it may be possible to transition our economy to 100 percent renewable energy, economist Jason Hickel writes that “we cannot do it fast enough to stay under 1.5°C or 2°C if we continue to grow the global economy at existing rates.” The world can produce eight more megawatt-hours by renewable energy sources than it could in 2000, but economic growth has increased energy demand by 48 more megawatt-hours, meaning this increase in renewable energy supply has been outstripped by growth in consumption. If we grow the economy by current rates it will double by the midcentury. While decarbonizing our existing economy is difficult enough, with ecological consequences of its own, decarbonizing it twice over becomes insurmountable. 

Outside of the production of fossil fuels and their emissions, the pursuit of profit and commodification of the environment causes countless ecological disruptions and crises. The endless expansion of industrial agriculture—driven by the profit motive—is “undermining the planet’s capacity to support life,” according to Foreign Policy Magazine. In areas of India, the water supply has been poisoned by the overuse of pesticides, while in the US, the intensity of industrial agriculture has eroded away topsoil and made landscapes uninhabitable. We can see these as extensions of the need for capital to expand and grow to attain a profit, and commodify land itself.

Along these lines, a full-scale transition to renewable energy without any cutbacks in consumption or growth could further exacerbate ecological disruption. According to Less is More, for us to power a little under half of the output of our global economy by solar and wind power would require 4.8 billion tons of iron as well as a 2700 percent increase in the mining of lithium. This is not to say that renewable energy sources are not essential, only that without a significant change in our mode of living, utilization of “green” technologies may exacerbate ecological collapse.

TCA, through its targeted approach aimed at divestment of university funds from fossil fuels, has made a crucial connection between climate change and financial instruments within our political economy. Outside of TCA’s strategic approach, Tufts students can also bring an evaluation of these kinds of interconnections between the global economy and climate change to other aspects of campus life, like courses themselves. 

Economics is one such discipline that portrays growth and profit as norms or values to which societies should aspire, without always evaluating the ways in which the economy translates into environmental harm. Environmental economics does incorporate the effects of carbon emissions and other forms of pollution into its models as “social costs” or externalities. However, we still see economic growth preferred. Tufts Professor Ujjayant Chakravorty, an expert in Resource and Environmental Economics, stated in an interview over Zoom, “At least this is my belief and [that of] a lot of other economists, that if you have the correct policies, then you can incentivize the economy to innovate along in terms of a cleaner growth process, cleaner production process, cleaner development.” 

Chakravorty urged solutions for sustainable growth and beneficial innovations while acknowledging that there are justice issues with levels of consumption worldwide. However, while economists often propose assigning taxes on carbon or integration of the value of ecological resources—which may inflate the cost of goods to high levels—and using democratic regulations on producers to incentivize protection of the world’s ecosystems, we may not have time for such incremental market measures if we intend to preserve the planet’s habitability. 

We can’t wait for carbon trading to become effective, or for renewable energy sources to suddenly become more profitable and thus more viable for energy producers. Tufts students need to interrogate the mechanisms of the economic system that dictates how resources are used on our finite planet. We have to question prioritization of profit as the basis of our economic system, and unsustainable growth and consumption without end which drive us to the brink of disaster. This includes being more critical of courses that normalize environmental destruction for the sake of preservation of an unjust system. We shouldn’t accept without question courses of study that obfuscate the global environmental impacts of the phenomena they study, and should be more aware of the ways in which the political, economic, and environmental realities of our world interact.  If our political-economic system stands in the way of a just and livable future, it is necessary for us to rethink it, and instead prioritize one that is equitable for all. As the late anthropologist David Graeber wrote, “The ultimate, hidden truth of the world is that it is something that we make, and could just as easily make differently.”