Book review: Capitalism and climate change

Book review: Koch, Max. Capitalism and Climate Change: Theoretical Discussion, Historical Development and Policy Responses. Houndmills, Basingstroke, Hampshire UK: Macmillan, 2012. Print.

At this time in history a movement to forestall climate change catastrophe is being organized. Yet one can at the same time read into the situation signs that the movement itself is already inadequate to the task of marshaling support for climate mitigation. Public opinion reveals this inadequacy as much as anything else:

New post-ABC News poll: Keystone XL project overwhelmingly favored by Americans

The findings also show that the public thinks the massive project, which aims to ship 830,000 barrels of oil a day from Alberta and the northern Great Plains to refineries on the Gulf Coast, will produce significant economic benefits. Eighty-five percent say the pipeline would create a significant number of jobs, with 62 percent saying they “strongly” believed that to be the case.

The general confusion within the movement about what to do is illustrated well in this Earth First! polemic:

An Open Letter to the No KXL Movement

The ways that we’ve been taught to fight back aren’t cutting it. Not even close. Candlelight vigils, petitions, chaining yourself to the White House fence, none of it is going to make the continued extraction of fossil fuels less profitable, and none of it is going to shift our communities away from a way of life centered on profit.

In order to achieve some actual, lasting climate change mitigation (and this is the goal of the climate movement, I hope), climate change activists need to do something more than point to Republicans and yell "DENIERS!". In public rhetoric and action, climate change activists need to make a connection between the abstract goal of "lasting climate change mitigation" and the concrete goals people pursue in living on the Earth of today as embedded in late, neoliberal, capitalism. If the majority of the American public supports Keystone XL, it stands to reason that activists aren't making that connection.

Essentially, then, climate change activists will have to bring the ostensibly distant threat of climate change Armageddon into focus by connecting that threat to the public embeddedness within the capitalist system. Observers of "climate change action" (including protests, marches, etc.) are no doubt asking "what does climate change have to do with me?" The idea that humanity's participation in capitalism threatens each of us needs to be made real -- and so activists should be making more connections between capitalism, in which we are all embedded, and the climate change which is to come. A good title for a book addressing that concern, then, would be "Capitalism and Climate Change." There actually exists such a book -- and although some of its tightest arguments merit improvement, and although it leaves us with the same quandary we can read into the Earth First! polemic above, it sets a meaningful standard for books about such an important topic.

According to its back cover, Max Koch's (2012) book Capitalism and Climate Change, subtitled "Theoretical Discussion, Historical Development, and Policy Responses," "discusses climate change as a social issue by analyzing its development in parallel with capitalism." Koch's book goes a long way toward making the connection between the continued operation of the capitalist system and the progressive deepening of climate change on planet Earth. Koch's book is also part of the general literature of climate change concern, and so (for instance) its author cites Nicholas Stern, according to whom:

A rise in temperature of 4-5 degrees C or more over a few decades is well beyond human experience and imagination. One thing, however, is clear: temperature changes of this magnitued over a short period of time mean that the 'physical geography is rewritten.' And, if this occurs, 'so too is the human geography of the world (Stern 2009, p. 31). Billions of people would migrate at short notice, plunging 'the world into massive and extended conflict' (Stern, 2009, p. 31).

Koch's book, then, is of use to activists. His method, however, involves a good deal of academic short-cut using. Although not marked as such, "Capitalism and Climate Change" is actually divided into four sections:

1) a description of the climate change threat,

2) a general discussion of capitalism, focusing on Marx's labor theory of value and on the three volumes of Marx's "Capital,"

3) a discussion of the last two stages of capitalist development, namely that of "Fordism," in which the assembly line and the consumer society were made the productive basis of the system, and also of the financialization of the system of recent times, and

4) the global fossil energy regime (e.g. the Kyoto Protocol) and what it has done so far about climate change.

The first section, as I noted above, summarizes climate change as an issue. Koch's book importantly discusses the problem of delayed feedback effects -- "carbon dioxide emissions" today will cause climate change years later, so it's hard to make the connection between today's fossil fuel use and tomorrow's climate change. The case for climate change as a priority of the future world-society is made cogently in this and a number of other texts; one thing I learned, however, was that "human societies are today returning CO2 into the atmosphere around one million times faster than natural processes remove it," (4) quoting a book titled "Ecological Debt."

The second section dives right into Marx. Now, a discussion of the mechanics of the capitalist system is important to a discussion of how capitalism fosters climate change -- but Koch's points are most effectively made when he goes into the theory of "metabolic rift," in which the out-of-control metabolism of capitalist development consumes our planet at excessive and destructive rates. In my opinion this section needs to be expanded to make the connection between climate change and Marx's theories in "Capital" clearer: thus, for instance, Koch argues:

It is ultimately due to the commodity form of labour products and to the corresponding separation of human producers from the means and objects of production that the economic system tends towards indifference with respect to its spatio-temporal and matter-energy specificities. (35)

What needs to be pointed out at this point in Koch's text is that a system guided by profit-seeking capitalists and their client politicians and motored by alienated labor is not going to produce a lasting solution to abrupt climate change. This is so because all actors are so distracted by the commodity form that they cannot do what it takes to insure their collective survival.

The third section of this book appears as a review of the history of capitalist development. Readers of this section might tend to become impatient for connections between capitalist history and the development of human-caused climate change as an environmental phenomenon. This section is summarized by this passage:

Part II has demonstrated that Fordism's industrial paradigm made use of methods of material throughput that would undermine economy and society for the future generations. The energy regime was dependent upon the consumption of vast amounts of fossil-fuel resources; this was accompanied by the emission of enormous and growing amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere, triggering the greenhouse effect. The question is whether the transition toward a finance-driven accumulation regime and the transnational relocation of production sites moderated or even overcame the fossil energy regime. (122)

Of course, "post-industrial society" has deepened, not mitigated, industrialism.

The last section of this book goes over the details of the Kyoto Protocol, and the flaws in cap-and-trade schemes. Koch argues that "by assuring that tackling climate change as an issue does not contradict finance-driven capitalism and that this issue is dealt within its institutional structure, resistance and the establishment of alternative ways of working and living become more difficult." (176) It would also been nice had he suggested that corporate profit, rather than climate-change mitigation, was the real motivation behind the Kyoto Protocol.

A tightly-argued conclusion illustrates the vast gap between social process and desired outcome. Koch laments:

The climate crisis, for its part, is constantly ignored or understated by policymakers -- and used instead as an additional investment area for financial capital -- because of the delayed reaction of the climate system to past and present excessive greenhouse emissions. (193)

In this reified picture, we will wait until the runaway greenhouse effect is upon us and it is too late before we do anything about it. On the other hand, however, earlier in his book Koch recommends that neoliberalism be abandoned (and that capitalism be abandoned where necessary) if anything serious is to be done about our world-society's addiction to fossil fuels. Koch's analysis reveals, by looking both at what has happened and at what will be necessary, the uselessness of incrementalism in today's society. Gradual change will eventually kill us all, because under capitalism it moves relentlessly in the direction of the accumulation of financial power.





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