Getting a little hot around here, eh Friedrich?
It gives me great pleasure to welcome guest columnist Gavin Evans to Rootless Cosmopolitan, with a thoughtful offering on global warming and what it says and does to our received notions of socio-economic progress. Gavin is one of my oldest and dearest friends, dating back to our students activist days in Cape Town. His book “Dancing Shoes is Dead” did for South African boxing what CLR James’s “Beyond a Boundary” did for Caribbean cricket, and he recently asked why I never do anything on the environment on my site. The answer was simply that it’s not a topic on which I have anything original or particularly interesting to say, but I welcome guest columns. I’m delighted that he took up the challenge, and look forward to more.
MARX AND FUKUYAMA WERE WRONG: IT’S THE ENVIRONMENT, STUPID!
by Gavin Evans
We are accustomed to progress. Moving forward, striving, expanding, advancing: this is our way of life. In fact, it’s been the raison d’etre of our social system for at least half a millennium, ever since feudalism began to morph into capitalism (with occasional blips, like the Great Depression). We invent, we discover, and most of all we grow; society moves forever onwards and upwards. This faith is so deeply rooted in our sense of ourselves in relation to our world that we’ve seldom had cause to question it – until now.
Earlier this month the Stern Report – a 579-page document produced for the British government by Sir Nicholas Stern, the former chief economist at the World Bank – set out the stakes in starkly apocalyptic terms. Drawing from models produced by the world’s leading climate scientists it predicts that if carbon emissions continue at current rates, they will drive global average temperatures to 2-3°C above pre-industrial levels. This, in turn, could release stocks of carbon from the soil and permafrost making the situation dramatically worse – prompting a possible 5°C temperature rise by the end of the century. So what would this mean in environmental terms?
At an increase of 2°C: The Mediterranean basin, southern Africa and South America would lose 30 percent of their water, while South Asia, Russia and parts of northern Europe would get 10 percent more water, causing rivers to burst their banks. Seas will rise by up to 32 inches, threatening low-lying coastal areas. Crop yields will fall throughout the southern hemisphere as sources of water dry up, and anything between 30 and 200 million more people would be at risk of starvation, with 60 million more Africans exposed to malaria.
At 4-5°C: London, New York and Tokyo will be threatened by rising sea levels, billions more people would die from diseases such as dengue fever and malaria, hundreds of millions would be permanently displaced by rising sea levels and intense floods and droughts will kill tens of millions each year. Agriculture in substantial parts of the world (the whole of Australia, for example) will disappear while global crop yields will fall dramatically. In sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia poverty could kill a quarter of a million more children per year than at present.
Until now, most of the focus on climate change has been on this environmental impact – floods, droughts, rising sea levels, the disappearance of species of animals. The striking impact of the Stern Report has come through its focus on the economy. A continued failure to reduce carbon emissions (and we are, in fact, increasing them) could bring a downturn in living standards at levels not seen since the Great Depression in the 1930s. When the direct impact on the environment and human health are factored in, Stern says the total cost of climate change over this century could lead to a global decrease of more than 20 percent in annual per capita consumption, with the poorer countries affected far more severely.
But it get worse, because there are a number of other factors – independent variables if you like – that make the future even more volatile and dangerous than Stern suggests. I will summarise these in five points (in order of convenience).
Before we explore these factors, a sidestep towards the intellectual roots of this notion of inherent progress. Faith in a linear, forward-moving societal projection has been one of the central assumptions of economists and political philosophers over the past two centuries – ever since Thomas Malthus’ dire predictions that population growth would outrun the food supply were disproved. In fact it goes further back. In the 17th century Hobbes saw progress being delivered by enlightened self-interest – desire combined with reason. In the 18th century Adam Smith wrote of the invisible hand of market forces benefiting not only the self-interested entrepreneur but society in general. In the early 19th century Hegel saw human progress as motivated by the desire for human recognition (our sense of self-worth, our status and desire for autonomy as free individuals), with the destination being the liberal state. They all shared this faith and until very recently it has not been seriously questioned.
To explore this further I will pick out two very different political thinkers (separated by more than a century but drawing from the same philosophical well) who shared an assumption that society moved forwards and was not open ended.
Seventeen years have passed since Francis Fukuyama came up with his frequently misinterpreted notion that the world had progressed to the point of the ‘end of history’. For Fukuyama, the combination of science (when coupled with enterprise, through capitalism) and Hegelian recognition had driven society forward to its ultimate destination: capitalist liberal democracy. When he spoke of the end of history he meant that with the end to the Cold War, “all the really big questions had been settled” in terms of institutions and underlying principles. Liberal democracy had conquered all rival ideologies and constituted the “final form of human government” and the “end point of mankind’s ideological evolution”. Defending this position against its many critics six years later, he cast his eye over Islamic fundamentalism, tribalism, nationalism, neo-facism, neo-Bolshevisim and noted that when set against capitalist liberal democracy “it is difficult to identify plausible ideological competitors and there are few alternative institutional arrangements that elicit any enthusiasm”, although he conceded that “Asian paternalistic authoritarianism” was a more serious competitor, albeit not one that threatened the dominance of liberal democracy.
I will return to his assumptions, but first, another Hegelian: Until 1989 various interpretations Marx’s idea of progress held sway not only in the countries calling themselves “actually existing socialist” but among a surprising number of Western intellectuals (and I have to admit, I was once one of them).
Marx famously turned Hegel on his head (or so it was claimed) by applying the Hegelian notion of the dialectic (thesis-antithesis-synthesis) to the material world (dialectical materialism) and, in particular, to production relations. The contradiction that drove society to new and higher modes of production was that between producers and owners of the means of production. “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles,” Marx and Engels, wrote. Under capitalism this was rooted in the contradiction between the forces and relations of production: in short the growth of capital created a class of workers who owned nothing but their labour power. They were brought together in larger numbers, giving them the collective potential to seize control of the means of production, driving society forward again, via socialism to a classless society called communism. On the road to this classless nirvana all fundamental contradictions would disappear along with the state.
Marx’s first fallacy is philosophical. The quaint idea that the collision of two forces produces a new synthesis is, frankly, ridiculous. But when applied to history, with an in-built hierarchy topped by the sphere of production, it becomes even more absurd. Historical change is the product of vast range of forces, some complementary; some antagonistic and some uncertain, with the pressures and counter-pressures coming from all angles, and there is no inherent hierarchy of causation. But this is not the place to take further unpick his understanding of history, nor to discuss the keypoint of his analysis of capitalism – his labour theory of value (or rather his interpretation of David Ricardo’s theory) and his related belief that there was a tendency towards a falling rate of profit under capitalism. Merely to stress that this view contributed to his perspective on the inevitable decline of the system. Marx had immense admiration for the power and creativity of capitalism as it swept all before it and sometimes wrote beautifully about its capacity in creating wealth as well as poverty. But he was convinced that it held within it, the means of its own destruction. It was, quite simply, historically inevitable that it would be superseded.
This whole process had an objective quality to it. His method was a ‘science’; therefore his conclusions were as ‘scientific’ as those of, say, Newton. His 20th century followers, however, were not content to allow capitalism to mature until its innate contradictions matured. Instead, in one of capitalisms backwaters, they adopted a thoroughly un-Marxist approach of extreme voluntarism by seizing power through the vehicle of a small band of revolutionaries. And from Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin the voluntarism spread, so that states calling themselves socialist were set up through war, invasions and coups. Not that they would have had their way had they followed Marx more attentively, because capitalism was hardly following his prognosis. Instead, as it became more fluid and fast-moving, labour’s power diminished, while, particularly in the advanced industrialised states, the boundaries between classes became blurred. The idea that labour presented a serious challenge to the system became ridiculous.
Meanwhile, the challenge from ‘actually existing socialism’ was also petering out. As Gorbachev lamented in his book, Perestroika, his system lacked the thing that gave capitalism its extraordinary creative power: the market. Once Hungary opened its borders to Austria, prompting the fall of the Berlin Wall, the game was up, not only for Soviet-style socialism, but for socialism per se, and, indeed for Marxism. Even the anti-Soviet academic Marxists were forced to give up the ghost, quite simply because it became apparent that its putative antithesis was a chimera. After that the thinkers of the former left gave up the habit of thinking big. The world seemed too chaotically immune to analysis and so they settled instead for the more confined post-modern universes of signs and symbols. The big thinking, the global constructs, were, by and large, left to the thinkers of the right – men like Fukuyama, who declared that, in fact, the highest stage had already arrived: capitalist liberal democracy.
Capitalism – or the world economic system, if you prefer – had seen off its would-be competitor and was doing precisely what Fukuyama predicted, growing, expanding into new markets, changing form, flourishing. Human society, he wrote, was free from fundamental internal contradictions and, eventually, all societies would move in this direction because the “logic of modern natural science” would prompt “a universal evolution in the direction of capitalism”.
From a different angle you might also say that this vibrant economic system was doing just as Marx and Engels predicted. They may have been off the mark about the underlying reasons for capitalism’s need for perpetual growth, but they were more perceptive when it came to appreciating the scale and form of this compulsion. As they put it, 150 years earlier: “All fixed, fast frozen relations… are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned…The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere.” Capital settled into the third of the world previously cut off from its charms and then began to alter its form with the arrival of the information age. What Manuel Castells calls the “network society” (“characterised by the mass production of customised cottages” ) was able to “link up or de-link the entire realm of human activity”, switching territories on and off, bypassing government controls and individualising workers.
The great paradox is that the very thing that has made capitalism so strong and vibrant – its apparently unlimited capacity for innovation, expansion and growth – was the source of its most profound challenge. There are two prime reasons for this: First, the more we produce under current methods the more the earth protests, which in turn could destroy the capacity for production; Second, our capacity for production is reliant on a declining resource, oil (which, for example, supplies over 90 percent of our transport needs). If the decline in the oil supply happened a bit sooner and quicker, we might not be faced with the current carbon emissions crisis. But our timing has been terrible. It is not occurring quite fast enough to reduce carbon emissions but it may well be happening too fast for us to find viable alternatives. This, in turn could have a huge political impact. As oil becomes scarce, so the price will rise along with relative power of the oil producing countries will increase (until it runs out altogether, at which point the power of the oil producing countries will evaporate).
The thirst for oil from China and India could place them in conflict with each other, and, even more so, with the United States – conflict likely to centre on oil producing parts of the world like the Middle East where China’s oil-thirsty interests might one day differ substantially from America’s when it comes to Israel-Palestine. When you factor into this Middle Eastern prognosis the overlap between the politics of oil and the politics of competing religious fundamentalisms, and then add in the possibility that with global warming most other economic activities in the region will be threatened, the mix becomes extremely volatile. And just to throw in one more incendiary factor: as water dries up, agriculture becomes impossible and livelihoods are threatened by starvation, so the pressure to migrate will grow – from Israel back to Europe and America and from Palestine all over the world, including to Israel itself (and, as we’ve seen in Berlin, in apartheid South Africa, and along the Rio Grande, desperate people eventually find ways of getting past walls and fences).
I’ve already suggested that human migration will become the prime political issue within the advanced capitalist states of the north this century, but this issue may be even more pertinent in parts of the southern hemisphere. To take another area of interest to me (and to this website), South Africa. Already, the flow of migrants from southern, central and west Africa as a result of civil wars, economic collapse and drought is bubbling up as a zone of major social conflict. But at even a 2°C average temperature rise, the southern flow of migrants could involve millions of people.
So, combine prognoses about human migration, oil shortages and religious fundamentalism with the environmental and economic impact of failing to reduce carbon emissions, and the world of our children and theirs looks nothing like our own. Aside from the direct devastation caused by floods, tornadoes, droughts and rising sea levels, the human cost could be immense: through economic collapse, disease, starvation and mass population relocation. And no doubt they will also experience new and more deadly wars, terror attacks, coups and revolutions.
But to return one last time to Fukuyama and Marx: The perspective of the former that capitalist liberal democracy is ‘end of history’ has yet to be disproved, but as even he now acknowledges it is under rather more serious challenge than when he first coined the phrase (the fundamentalists and Asian paternalists are proving more formidable than anticipated). In a globally warmed world these challenges will be magnified, raising the possibility of a reversal in the linear forward trajectory that was previously taken for granted. There is a real possibility that this will be the first century in nearly a millennium to see a substantial contraction in the world economy and, in large parts of the world, a kind of de-civilisation.
But there is another possibility – not one involving production relations but something completely different. We are seeing a dawning realisation, rooted in the incompatibility between perpetual economic growth and the earth’s ability to sustain it, that we need to find new ways of ordering our affairs on a global scale. The Stern report says it will cost the world about one percent of global GDP to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and offset the worst of global warming (through carbon pricing, technology policy and greater energy efficiency). But he warns that we have about 15 years to get it right, after which the world will reach “catastrophic tipping points”. After that the release of carbon from the soil and the melting of permafrost could make the process of warming entirely self-sustaining.
So, the idea of a bigger future, and even a better one, can no longer be taken for granted. The hope is that somehow, over the next decade, we will find the global will and communal spirit to co-operate across borders to reduce carbon emissions, slow climate change and find alternatives to oil before it is too late. But it has to be said that this is not the way the world works right now. Quite the opposite, in fact.
Still, the choice remains: either we substantially change our ways of life over the next decade or a self-sustaining rise in global temperature will force changes that are far more fundamental and damaging for our children and theirs. And by then, the option of “progress”, in anyone’s terms, will be over.