How capitalism drives climate catastrophe

Portland, Oregon

Since I moved to Oregon, all I’ve been hearing is: “This weather isn’t normal. It’s too hot in the summers, too cold in the winters.” You hear the same story all across the globe. Every year, everywhere, new weather records are broken.

Anecdotes aside, the data is indisputable. Already we’ve seen historical bread baskets start to fail. Places where crops have been grown for generations are suddenly no longer viable. Whether it’s due to freak storms, temperature changes, lack of rain or water sources drying up, farmers are losing their livelihoods. 

The global economy is interconnected, so this dismal situation is not just going to cause problems locally; if you take away one part of the supply chain, everything else starts to collapse. It’s a domino effect, and the result is a worldwide economic catastrophe.

During this COVID-19 pandemic, we saw how supply shortages caused prices to skyrocket, and even after the problems were fixed, companies refused to lower their prices. As the Earth heats up, COVID-19 along with other diseases, such as malaria and dengue fever, that were previously confined to tropical places, will spread to temperate areas. And other viruses are mutating with today’s economic globalization, such as bird flus and the family of coronaviruses, for which people won’t have antibodies to resist.

Pandemics will become much more commonplace; and given how badly capitalism is handling this one, that should be cause for alarm. Pharmaceutical companies have been predicting higher profits from this phenomenon, as capitalism never lets a good tragedy go to waste. (European Pharmaceutical Review, Aug. 5, 2019)

As economies die, as the increased temperatures and freak weather make life unbearable and as cities become swallowed up by rising sea levels, mass migration will occur on a scale that will make the current refugee crisis look inconsequential. These climate refugees will undoubtedly serve as a convenient scapegoat for neoliberals and fascists. 

You may find yourself wondering why politicians aren’t doing anything about climate change. Why are they keeping us distracted with culture wars, instead of focusing on the impending catastrophe? Is it simply greed and shortsightedness? While that may be a big part of it, the real answer is that they aren’t just unwilling to do anything; they are incapable of it. 

Under capitalism a tendency exists for the rate of profit to fall. In order to counteract this, capitalism necessitates infinite growth; it must always expand into new markets, extract every possible resource at an ever-quickening pace and drive down wages. If a capitalist economy is not growing, it is dying. World leaders know that if they were to get serious about climate change, it would impact their capitalist economies. 

System change, not climate change 

But not all systems require infinite growth. A planned economy that produces for human needs, rather than the accumulation of profit, can remain stable with a stagnant or even negative growth rate. This is not to say that a planned economy would be an immediate solution to the climate crisis. 

But under a socialist economy, there is the potential of fighting climate change, because human needs, not corporate profits, are the driving force. Under capitalism, there exists no option no matter how badly we want it. 

However, time is a critical factor. Stopping climate change isn’t like hitting the brakes on your car; it’s more like hitting the brakes on a mega-freight train. Even if the entire globe reached net zero emissions today, the Earth would continue to heat up for a time. 

The question is no longer: “Will the people stop climate change?” It’s: “How bad will it get?”  

The worst-case scenario is hitting a feedback loop. For one example, there is an immense amount of natural gas and methane hidden under the Earth’s permafrost. As the higher temperatures melt the permafrost, the gases are released, increasing the greenhouse effect and causing ever hotter temperatures. 

The Earth will continue to heat up in a self-contained cycle no matter what is done, due to the over 417 ppm (parts per million) of carbon already in the atmosphere. There will no longer be brakes on the train, because it will be plummeting off a cliff. 

There are only two choices: socialism or the environmental destruction that threatens life on Earth. We must organize like our lives depend on it — because they do. 

Maddi Johnson

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Maddi Johnson

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