Ecology: The moment of truth—an introduction

By John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark and Richard York

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The July-August 2008 (Volume 60, Number 3) edition of the influential US socialist journal Monthly Review is a special issue on ``Ecology: The Moment of Truth”, edited by Brett Clark, John Bellamy Foster and Richard York. The issue is devoted to the planetary environmental emergency. It is essential reading for all socialists and environmentalists. With permission from Monthly Review, Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal here posts the introduction by the editors, and urges Links' readers to purchase the issue and/or subscribe to Monthly Review.

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It is impossible to exaggerate the environmental problem facing humanity in the twenty-first century. Nearly fifteen years ago one of us observed: “We have only four decades left in which to gain control over our major environmental problems if we are to avoid irreversible ecological decline.”1 Today, with a quarter-century still remaining in this projected time line, it appears to have been too optimistic. Available evidence now strongly suggests that under a regime of business as usual we could be facing an irrevocable “tipping point” with respect to climate change within a mere decade.2 Other crises such as species extinction (percentages of bird, mammal, and fish species “vulnerable or in immediate danger of extinction” are “now measured in double digits”);3 the rapid depletion of the oceans’ bounty; desertification; deforestation; air pollution; water shortages/pollution; soil degradation; the imminent peaking of world oil production (creating new geopolitical tensions); and a chronic world food crisis—all point to the fact that the planet as we know it and its ecosystems are stretched to the breaking point. The moment of truth for the earth and human civilization has arrived.

To be sure, it is unlikely that the effects of ecological degradation in our time, though enormous, will prove “apocalyptic” for human civilization within a single generation, even under conditions of capitalist business as usual. Measured by normal human life spans, there is doubtless considerable time still left before the full effect of the current human degradation of the planet comes into play. Yet, theperiod remaining in which we can avert future environmental catastrophe, before it is essentially out of our hands, is much shorter. Indeed, the growing sense of urgency of environmentalists has to do with the prospect of various tipping points being reached as critical ecological thresholds are crossed, leading to the possibility of a drastic contraction of life on earth.

Such a tipping point, for example, would be an ice free Arctic, which could happen within two decades or less (some scientists believe as early as 2013). Already in summer 2007 the Arctic lost in a single week an area of ice almost twice the size of Britain. The vanishing Arctic ice cap means an enormous reduction in the earth’s reflectivity (albedo), thereby sharply increasing global warming (a positive feedback known as the “albedo flip”). At the same time, the rapid disintegration of the ice sheets in West Antarctica and Greenland points to rising world sea levels, threatening coastal regions and islands.4

The state of the existing “planetary emergency” with respect to climate change was captured this year by James Hansen, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies and the leading U.S. climatologist:

Our home planet is dangerously near a tipping point at which human-made greenhouse gases reach a level where major climate changes can proceed mostly under their own momentum. Warming will shift climatic zones by intensifying the hydrologic cycle, affecting freshwater availability and human health. We will see repeated coastal tragedies associated with storms and continuously rising sea levels. The implications are profound, and the only resolution is for humans to move to a fundamentally different energy pathway within a decade. Otherwise, it will be too late for one-third of the world’s animal and plant species and millions of the most vulnerable members of our own species.5

According to environmentalist Lester Brown in his Plan B 3.0, “We are crossing natural thresholds that we cannot see and violating deadlines that we do not recognize. Nature is the time keeper, but we cannot see the clock....We are in a race between tipping points in the earth’s natural systems and those in the world’s political systems. Which will tip first?”6 As the clock continues to tick and little is accomplished it is obvious that the changes to be made have to be all the more sudden and massive to stave off ultimate disaster. This raises the question of more revolutionary social change as an ecological as well as social necessity.

Yet, if revolutionary solutions are increasingly required to address the ecological problem, this is precisely what the existing social system is guaranteed not to deliver. Today’s environmentalism is aimed principally at those measures necessary to lessen the impact of the economy on the planet’s ecology without challenging the economic system that in its very workings produces the immense environmental problems we now face. What we call “the environmental problem” is in the end primarily a problem of political economy. Even the boldest establishment economic attempts to address climate change fall far short of what is required to protect the earth—since the “bottom line” that constrains all such plans under capitalism is the necessity of continued, rapid growth in production and profits.

The dominant economics of climate change

The economic constraint on environmental action can easily be seen by looking at what is widely regarded as the most far-reaching establishment attempt to date to deal with The Economics of Climate Change in the form of a massive study issued in 2007 under that title, commissioned by the UK Treasury Office.7 Subtitled the Stern Review after the report’s principal author Nicholas Stern, a former chief economist of the World Bank, it is widely viewed as the most important, and most progressive mainstream treatment of the economics of global warming.8 The Stern Review focuses on the target level of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) concentration in the atmosphere necessary to stabilize global average temperature at no more than 3°C (5.4°F) over pre-industrial levels. (CO2e refers to the six Kyoto greenhouse gases—carbon dioxide [CO2], methane, nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons, and sulfur hexafluoride—all expressed in terms of the equivalent amount of CO2. While CO2 concentration in the atmosphere today is 387 parts per million [ppm], CO2e is around 430 ppm.)

The goal proposed by most climatologists has been to try to prevent increases in global temperature of more than 2°C (3.6°F) above pre-industrial levels, requiring stabilization of atmospheric CO2e at 450 ppm, since beyond that all sorts of positive feedbacks and tipping points are likely to come into play, leading to an uncontrollable acceleration of climate change. Indeed, James Hansen and other climatologists at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies have recently argued: “If humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted, paleoclimate evidence and ongoing climate change suggest that CO2 will need to be reduced from its current 385 ppm to at most 350 ppm.”9 The Stern Review, however, settles instead for a global average temperature increase of no more than 3°C (a threshold beyond which the environmental effects would undoubtedly be absolutely calamitous), which it estimates can likely be achieved if CO2e in the atmosphere were stabilized at 550 ppm, roughly double pre-industrial levels.

Yet, the Stern Review acknowledges that current environmental sensitivities “imply that there is up to a one-in-five chance that the world would experience a warming in excess of 3°C above pre-industrial [levels] even if greenhouse gas concentrations were stabilised at today’s level of 430 ppm CO2e.” Moreover, it goes on to admit that “for stablisation at 550 ppm CO2e, the chance of exceeding 3°C rises to 30–70%.” Or as it states further on, a 550 ppm CO2e suggests “a 50:50 chance of a temperature increase above or below 3°C, and the Hadley Centre model predicts a 10% chance of exceeding 5°C [9°F] even at this level.” A 3°C increase would bring the earth’s average global temperature to a height last seen in the “middle Pliocene around 3 million years ago.”

Furthermore, such an increase might be enough, the Stern Review explains, to trigger a shutdown of the ocean’s thermohaline circulation warming Western Europe, creating abrupt climate change, thereby plunging Western Europe into Siberian-like conditions. Other research suggests that water flow in the Indus may drop by 90 percent by 2100 if global average temperatures rise by 3°C, potentially affecting hundreds of millions of people. Studies by climatologists indicate that at 550 ppm CO2e there is more than a 5 percent chance that global average temperature could rise in excees of 8°C (14.4°F). All of this suggests that a stabilization target of 550 ppm CO2e could be disastrous for the earth as we know it as well as its people.

Why then, if the risks to the planet and civilization are so enormous, does the Stern Review emphasize attempting to keep global warming at 3°C by stabilizing CO2e at 550 ppm (what it describes at one point as “the upper limit to the stabilisation range”)? To answer this it is necessary to turn to some additional facts of a more economic nature.

Here it is useful to note that an atmospheric concentration level close to 550 ppm CO2e would result by 2050 if greenhouse gas emissions simply continued at present levels without any increases in the intervening years. However, as the Stern Review itself notes, this is unrealistic under business as usual since global greenhouse gas emissions can be expected to continue to increase on a “rapidly rising trajectory.” Hence, an atmospheric CO2e level of 550 ppm under more realistic assumptions would be plausibly reached by 2035. This would increase the threat of 750 ppm CO2e (or more) and a rise in global average temperature in excess of 4.3°C (7.7°F) within the next few decades after that. (Indeed, IPCC scenarios include the possibility that atmospheric carbon could rise to 1,200 ppm and global average temperature by as much as 6.3°C [11.3°F] by 2100.)

To counter this business-as-usual scenario, the Stern Review proposes a climate stabilization regime in which greenhouse gas emissions would peak by 2015 and then drop 1 percent per year after that, so as to stabilize at a 550 ppm CO2e (with a significant chance that the global average temperature increase would thereby be kept down to 3°C).

But, given the enormous dangers, why not aim at deeper cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, a lower level of atmospheric CO2e, and a smallerincrease in global average temperature? After all most climatologists have been calling for the stabilization of atmospheric CO2e 450 ppm or less, keeping the global temperature increase at about 2°C above pre-industrial levels. While Hansen and his colleagues at NASA’s Goddard Institute have now gone even further arguing that the target should be 350 ppm CO2.

The Stern Review is very explicit, however, that such a radical mitigation of the problem should not be attempted. The costs to the world economy of ensuring that atmospheric CO2e stabilized at present levels or below would be prohibitive, destabilizing capitalism itself. “Paths requiring very rapid emissions cuts,” we are told, “are unlikely to be economically viable.” If global greenhouse gas emissions peaked in 2010 the annual emissions reduction rate necessary to stabilize atmospheric carbon equivalent at 450 ppm, the Stern Review suggests, would be 7 percent, with emissions dropping by about 70 percent below 2005 levels by 2050. This is viewed as economically insupportable.

Hence, the Stern Review’sown preferred scenario, as indicated, is a 550 ppm target that would see global greenhouse gas emissions peak in 2015, with the emission cuts that followed at a rate of 1 percent per year. By 2050 the reduction in the overall level of emissions (from 2005 levels) in this scenario would only be 25 percent. (The report also considers, with less enthusiasm, an in-between 500 ppm target, peaking in 2010 and requiring a 3 percent annual drop in global emissions.) Only the 550 ppm target, the Stern Review suggests, is truly economically viable because “it is difficult to secure emission cuts faster than about 1% per year except in instances of recession” or as the result of a major social upheaval such as the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Indeed, the only actual example that the Stern Review is able to find of a sustained annual cut in greenhouse gas emissions of 1 percent or more, coupled with economic growth, among leading capitalist states was the United Kingdom in 1990–2000. Due to the discovery of North Sea oil and natural gas, the United Kingdom was able to switch massively from coal to gas in power generation, resulting in a 1 percent average annual drop in its greenhouse gas emissions during that decade. France came close to such a 1 percent annual drop in 1977–2003, reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 0.6 percent per year due to a massive switch to nuclear power. By far the biggest drop for a major state was the 5.2 percent per year reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in the Former Soviet Union in 1989–98. This however went hand in hand with a social-system breakdown and a drastic shrinking of the economy. All of this signals that any reduction in CO2e emissions beyond around 1 percent per year would make it virtually impossible to maintain strong economic growth—the bottom line of the capitalist economy. Consequently, in order to keep the treadmill of profit and production going the world needs to risk environmental Armageddon.10

Accumulation and the planet

None of this should surprise us. Capitalism since its birth, as Paul Sweezy wrote in “Capitalism and the Environment,” has been “a juggernaut driven by the concentrated energy of individuals and small groups single-mindedly pursuing their own interests, checked only by their mutual competition, and controlled in the short run by the impersonal forces of the market and in the longer run, when the market fails, by devastating crises.” The inner logic of such a system manifests itself in the form of an incessant drive for economic expansion for the sake of class-based profits and accumulation. Nature and human labor are exploited to the fullest to fuel this juggernaut, while the destruction wrought on each is externalized so as to not fall on the system’s own accounts.

“Implicit in the very concept of this system,” Sweezy continued, “are interlocked and enormously powerful drives to both creation and destruction. On the plus side, the creative drive relates to what humankind can get out of nature for its own uses; on the negative side, the destructive drive bears most heavily on nature’s capacity to respond to the demands placed on it. Sooner or later, of course, these two drives are contradictory and incompatible.” Capitalism’s overexploitation of nature’s resource taps and waste sinks eventually produces the negative result of undermining both, first on a merely regional, but later on a world and even planetary basis (affecting the climate itself). Seriously addressing environmental crises requires “a reversal, not merely a slowing down, of the underlying trends of the last few centuries.” This, however, cannot be accomplished without economic regime change.11

With climate change now more and more an establishment concern, and attempts to avert it now increasingly institutionalized in the established order, some have pointed to the “death of environmentalism” as an oppositional movement in society.12 However, if some environmentalists have moved toward capitalist-based strategies in the vain hope of saving the planet by these means, others have moved in the opposite direction: toward a critique of capitalism as inherently ecologically destructive. A case in point is James Gustave Speth. Speth has been called the “ultimate insider” within the environmental movement. He served as chairman of the Council on Environmental Quality under President Jimmy Carter, founded the World Resources Institute, co-founded the Natural Resources Defense Council, was a senior adviser in Bill Clinton’s transition team, and administered the United Nations Development Programme from 1993 to 1999. At present he is dean of the prestigious Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. Speth is a winner of Japan’s Blue Planet Prize.

Recently, however, in his Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability (2008), Speth has emerged as a devastating critic of capitalism’s destruction of the environment. In this radical rethinking, he has chosen to confront the full perils brought on by the present economic system, with its pursuit of growth and accumulation at any cost. “Capitalism as we know it today,” he writes, “is incapable of sustaining the environment.” The crucial problem from an environmental perspective, he believes, is exponential economic growth, which is the driving element of capitalism. Little hope can be provided in this respect by so-called “dematerialization” (the notion that growth can involve a decreasing impact on the environment), since it can be shown that the expansion of output overwhelms all increases in efficiency in throughput of materials and energy. Hence, one can only conclude that “right now...growth is the enemy of [the] environment. Economy and environment remain in collision.” Here the issue of capitalism becomes unavoidable. “Economic growth is modern capitalism’s principal and most prized product.” Speth favorably quotes Samuel Bowles and Richard Edwards’s Understanding Capitalism, which bluntly stated: “Capitalism is differentiated from other economic systems by its drive to accumulate, its predisposition toward change, and its built-in tendency to expand.”

The principal environmental problem for Speth then is capitalism as the “operating system” of the modern economy. “Today’s corporations have been called ‘externalizing machines.’” Indeed, “there are fundamental biases in capitalism that favor the present over the future and the private over the public.” Quoting the system’s own defenders, Robert Samuleson and William Nordhaus, in the seventeenth (2001) edition of their textbook on Macroeconomics, Speth points out that capitalismis the quintessential “Ruthless Economy,” engaged “in the relentless pursuit of profits.”

Building on this critique, Speth goes on to conclude in his book that: (1) “today’s system of political economy, referred to here as modern capitalism, is destructive of the environment, and not in a minor way but in a way that profoundly threatens the planet”; (2) “the affluent societies have reached or soon will reach the point where, as Keynes put it, the economic problem has been solved...there is enough to go around”; (3) “in the more affluent societies, modern capitalism is no longer enhancing human well-being”; (4) “the international social movement for change—which refers to itself as ‘the irresistible rise of global anti-capitalism’—is stronger than many imagine and will grow stronger; there is a coalescing of forces: peace, social justice, community, ecology, feminism—a movement of movements”; (5) “people and groups are busily planting the seeds of change through a host of alternative arrangements, and still other attractive directions for upgrading to a new operating system have been identified”; (6) “the end of the Cold War...opens the door...for the questioning of today’s capitalism.”

Speth does not actually embrace socialism, which he associates, in the Cold War manner, with Soviet-type societies in their most regressive form. Thus he argues explicitly for a “nonsocialist” alternative to capitalism. Such a system would make use of markets (but not the self-regulating market society of traditional capitalism) and would promote a “New Sustainability World” or a “Social Greens World” (also called “Eco-Communalism”) as depicted by the Global Scenario Group. The latter scenario has been identified with radical thinkers like William Morris (who was inspired by both Marx and Ruskin). In this sense, Speth’s arguments are not far from that of the socialist movement of the twenty-first century, which is aimed at the core values of social justice and ecological sustainability. The object is to create a future in which generations still to come will be able to utilize their creative abilities to the fullest, while having their basic needs met: a result made possible only through the rational reorganization by the associated producers of the human metabolism with nature.13

Such rational reorganization of the metabolism between nature and society needs to be directed not simply at climate change but also at a whole host of other environmental problems. Some of these are addressed in the present issue: the geopolitics of peak oil (John Bellamy Foster), the production of biofuels as a liquid fuel alternative and its consequences (Fred Magdoff), the economics of climate change (Minqi Li), the science of climate change (John W. Farley), the ocean crisis (Brett Clark and Rebecca Clausen), the problem of large dams (Rohan D’Souza), and the world water crisis (Maude Barlow). Other ecological crises of great importance are not, however, dealt with here: species extinction (and loss of biological diversity in general), deforestation, desertification, soil degradation, acid rain, the proliferation of toxic wastes (including in living tissues), market-regulated biotechnology, urban congestion, population growth, and animal rights.

No single issue captures the depth and breadth of what we call “the environmental problem,” which encompasses all of these ecological contradictions of our society and more. If we are facing a “moment of truth” with respect to ecology today, it has to do with the entire gamut of capitalism’s effects on natural (and human) reproduction. Any attempt to solve one of these problems (such as climate change) without addressing the others is likely to fail, since these ecological crises, although distinct in various ways, typically share common causes.

In our view, only a unified vision that sees human production as not only social, but also rooted in a metabolic relation to nature, will provide the necessary basis to confront an ecological rift that is now as wide as the planet. Such a unified vision is implicit in the articles included in this issue. A more explicit treatment of the political aspects of this struggle will appear in a second special issue of Monthly Review on ecology (meant to complement this one) to be published this coming fall.

Why not?

In 1884, William Morris, one of the great creative artists, revolutionary socialist intellectuals, and environmental thinkers of the late nineteenth century, wrote an article entitled “Why Not?” for the socialist journal Commonweal. He was especially concerned with the fact that most people, including many socialists in his time, in rebelling against the evils of capitalism, tended to picture the future in terms that were not that far removed from many of the worst, most environmentally and humanly destructive, aspects of capitalism itself.

“Now under the present Capitalist system,” Morris observed,

it is difficult to see anything which might stop the growth of these horrible brick encampments; its tendency is undoubtedly to depopulate the country and small towns for the advantage of the great commercial and manufacturing centres; but this evil, and it is a monstrous one, will be no longer a necessary evil when we have got rid of land monopoly, manufacturing for the profit of individuals, and the stupid waste of competitive distribution.

Looking beyond the “terror and the grinding toil” in which most people were oppressed, Morris argued, there was a need to recognize other ends of social existence: most notably “the pleasure of life to be looked forward to by Socialists.” “Why,” he asked,

should one third of England be so stifled and poisoned with smoke that over the greater part of Yorkshire (for instance) the general idea must be that sheep are naturally black? And why must Yorkshire and Lancashire rivers run mere filth and dye?

Profits will have it so: no one any longer pretends that it would not be easy to prevent such crimes against decent life: but the ‘organizers of labour,’ who might better be called ‘organizers of filth,’ know that it wouldn’t pay; and as they are for the most part of the year safe in their country seats, or shooting—crofters’ lives—in the Highlands, or yachting in the Mediterranean, they rather like the look of the smoke country for a change as something, it is to be supposed, stimulating to their imaginations concerning—well, we must not get theological.

In rejecting all of this, Morris asked, was it not possible to create a more decent, more beautiful, more fulfilling, more healthy, less hell-like way of living, in which all had a part in the “share of earth the Common Mother” and the sordid world of “profit-grinding” was at last brought to an end? Why not?14

1. John Bellamy Foster, The Vulnerable Planet (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1994), 12. The four decades projection was based on work by the Worldwatch Institute: Lester R. Brown, et. al., “World Without End,” Natural History (May 1990): 89, and State of the World 1992 (London: Earthscan, 1992), 3–8.

2. James Hansen, “Tipping Point,” in E. Fearn and K. H. Redford eds, The State of the Wild 2008 (Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 2008),, 7–15. See also James Hansen, “The Threat to the Planet,” New York Times Review of Books, July 13, 2006. The argument on tipping points with respect to climate change is best understood in the context of a series of biospheric rifts generated by the system of economic accumulation. On this see Brett Clark and Richard York, “Carbon Metabolism and Global Capitalism: Climate Change and the Biospheric Rift,” Theory and Society 34, no. 4 (2005): 391–428.

3. Lester R. Brown, Plan B 3.0 (New York: W.W. Norton, 2008), 102. The share of threatened species in 2007 was 12 percent of the world’s bird species; 20 percent of the world’s mammal species; and 39 percent of the world’s fish species evaluated. See International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, Table 1, “Numbers of Threatened Species by Major Groups of Organisms,” Additionally, climate change is having significant effects on plant diversity. “Recent studies predict that climate change could result in the extinction of up to half the world’s plant species by the end of the century.” See Belinda Hawkins, Suzanne Sharrock, and Kay Havens, Plants and Climate Change (Richmond, UK: Botanic Gardens Conservation International, 2008), 9.

4. David Spratt and Philip Sutton, Climate Code Red (Fitzroy, Australia: Friends of the Earth, 2008),, 4; Brown, Plan B 3.0, 3; James Hansen, et al., “Climate Change and Trace Gases,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society 365 (2007), 1925–54; James Lovelock, The Revenge of Gaia (New York: Basic Books, 2006), 34; Minqi Li, “Climate Change, Limits to Growth, and the Imperative for Socialism,” this issue; “Arctic Summers Ice-Free ‘by 2013,’” BBC News, December 12, 2007.

5. Hansen, “Tipping Point,” 7–8.

6. Brown, Plan B 3.0, 4–5. Although Brown, correctly depicts the seriousness of the ecological problem, as a mainstream environmentalist he insists that all can easily be made well without materially altering society by a clever combination of technological fixes and the magic of the market. See the article by Minqi Li below.

7. Nicholas Stern, The Economics of Climate Change: The Stern Review (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).

8. The Stern Review has been criticized by more conservative mainstream economists, including William Nordhaus, for its ethical choices, which, it is claimed, place too much emphasis on the future as opposed to present-day values by adopting a much lower discount rate on future costs and benefits as compared to other, more standard economic treatments such as that of Nordhaus. This then gives greater urgency to today’s environmental problem. Nordhaus discounts the future at 6 percent a year; Stern by less than a quarter of that at 1.4 percent. This means that for Stern having a trillion dollars a century from now is worth $247 billion today, while for Nordhaus it is only worth $2.5 billion. Nordhaus calls the Stern Review a “radical revision of the economics of climate change” and criticizes it for imposing “exessively large emissions reductions in the short run.” John Browne, “The Ethics of Climate Change,” Scientific American 298, no. 6(June 2008): 97–100; William Nordhaus, A Question of Balance (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008), 18, 190.

9. James Hansen, et. al., “Target Atmospheric CO2: Where Should Humanity Aim?,” abstract of article submitted to Science, (accessed in May 2008). Even before this Hansen and his colleagues at NASA’s Goddard Institute argued that due to positive feedbacks and climatic tipping points global average temperature increases had to be kept to less than 1°C below 2000 levels. This meant that atmospheric CO2 needed to be kept to 450 ppm or below. See Pushker A. Kharecha and James E. Hansen, “Implications of ‘Peak Oil’ for Atmospheric CO2 and Climate,” Global Biogeochemistry (2008, in press).

10. Stern, The Economics of Climate Change, 4–5, 11–16, 95, 193, 220–34, 637, 649–51; “Evidence of Human-Caused Global Warming is Now ‘Unequivocal,’” Science Daily,; Browne, “The Ethics of Climate Change,” 100; Spratt and Sutton, Climate Code Red, 30; Editors, “Climate Fatigue,” Scientific American 298, no. 6 (June 2008): 39; Ted Trainer, “A Short Critique of the Stern Review,” Real-World Economics Review, 45 (2008),, 54–58. Despite the Stern Review’s presentation of France’s nuclear switch as a greenhouse gas success story there are strong environmental reasons for not proceeding along this path. See Robert Furber, James C. Warf, and Sheldon C. Plotkin, “The Future of Nuclear Power,” Monthly Review 59, no. 9 (February 2008): 38–48.

11. Paul M. Sweezy, “Capitalism and the Environment,” Monthly Review 41, no. 2 (June 1989): 1–10.

12. Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, “The Death of Environmentalism,” Environmental Grantmakers Association, October 2004,

13. James Gustave Speth, The Bridge at the End of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008), xi, 48–63, 107, 194–98; Samuel Bowles and Richard Edwards, Understanding Capitalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), 119, 148–52. On the Global Scenario Group see John Bellamy Foster, “Organizing Ecological Revolution,” Monthly Review 57, no. 5 (October 2005): 1–10. On ecological sustainability, classical socialism, and Marx’s critique of capitalism’s metabolic rift with nature see John Bellamy Foster, Marx’s Ecology (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000).

14. William Morris, “Why Not,” in Morris, Political Writings (Bristol: Thoemmes Press, 1994), 24–27.

Submitted by Terry Townsend on Fri, 07/25/2008 - 11:33


Climate Change, Limits to Growth, and the Imperative for Socialism

Minqi Li 

The 2007 assessment report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) confirms that it is virtually certain that human activities (mainly through the use of fossil fuels and land development) have been responsible for the global warming that has taken place since the industrial revolution. Under current economic and social trends, the world is on a path to unprecedented ecological catastrophes.1 As the IPCC report was being released, new evidence emerged suggesting that climate change is taking place at a much faster pace and the potential consequences are likely to be far more dreadful than is suggested by the IPCC report.

The current evidence suggests that the Arctic Ocean could become ice free in summertime possibly as soon as 2013, about one century ahead of what is predicted by the IPCC models. With the complete melting of the Arctic summer sea ice, the disintegration of the Greenland ice sheets may become unavoidable, threatening to raise the sea level by five meters or more within this century. About half of the world’s fifty largest cities are at risk and hundreds of millions of people will become environmental refugees.2

The world is currently about 0.8˚C warmer than in pre-industrial times and is within one degree of the highest average global temperature over the past one million years. The world is warming at a rate of 0.2˚C per decade and given the greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere, there will be a further long-term warming of 0.6˚C. Moreover, now with the likely loss of Arctic summer sea ice, the Arctic Ocean will absorb rather than reflect back solar radiation, which may lead to an additional warming of 0.3˚C. Taking into account these developments, the world may be already almost committed to a 2˚C warming relative to pre-industrial times, widely considered to be a critical threshold in climate change.3

A 2˚C warming is likely to result in widespread drought and desertification in Africa, Australia, southern Europe, and the western United States; major glacial losses in Asia and South America; large-scale polar ice sheet disintegration; and the extinction of 15–40 percent of plant and animal species. Worse, with 2˚C warming, substantial climate feedbacks, such as dangerous ocean acidification, significant tundra loss and methane release, and disruption of soil and ocean carbon cycles, will be initiated, taking the course of climate change beyond human control.

According to James Lovelock, one of the world’s leading earth system scientists, if the global average temperature rise approaches 3˚C (relative to pre-industrial times) and the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) rises above 500 parts per million (ppm), both the world’s oceans and the rainforests will turn into net emitters of greenhouse gases. In that event, the global average temperature could rise further by up to 6˚C, making the greater part of the earth uninhabitable for human beings, raising the sea level by at least 25 meters, and causing the extinction of 90 percent of species and a possible reduction of the world population by 80 percent.4

James Hansen, the director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies and one of the world’s leading climate scientists, argued that to avoid a devastating rise in sea levels associated with the irreversible ice sheet loss in Greenland and Antarctica, as well as massive species extinction, the world should aim to limit further global warming to no more than 1˚C (or 1.8˚F) relative to 2000. According to the existing IPCC models, this implies an atmospheric concentration of CO2 no more than 450 ppm. However, in a recent study, Hansen argued that the IPCC models failed to take into account various potential climate feedbacks. Paleoclimate evidence suggests that “if humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization has developed and to which life on earth is adapted,” atmospheric concentration of CO2 must be reduced to about 350 ppm. The world’s current CO2 concentration is 387 ppm and growing at a rate of 2 ppm a year.5

It is quite obvious that the very survival of humanity and human civilization is at stake. Given the gravity of the situation, many people (including some who claim to have the socialist political perspective) put their hope on an ecological reform of the global capitalist system, insisting that such a reform is within the technological and institutional feasibilities of the existing social system. The urgent and unavoidable political questions are: is it at all possible for the existing social system—the system of global capitalism, in all of its conceivable forms—effectively to address the crisis of global climate change and avoid the most catastrophic consequences? If not, what would be the minimum requirements for an alternative social system that will have the institutional capacity to prevent the crisis or, if the crisis cannot be prevented, to help human civilization to survive the crisis? These are the questions that anyone who is seriously concerned with the global ecological crisis will have to confront one way or the other.

Stabilizing the Climate: Technical Options

To prevent or alleviate further global warming, greenhouse gas emissions from human activities (especially the CO2 emissions resulting from the burning of fossil fuels) will have to be greatly reduced. The emissions of CO2 in turn depend on the emissions intensity of energy consumption (“Emissions Per Unit of Energy Consumption”), the energy intensity of economic output (“energy consumption per unit of output”), and the level of economic output (typically measured as GDP.) Thus, CO2 emissions = economic output ´ energy consumption per unit of output ´ emissions per unit of energy consumption.

Capitalism is an economic system based on the pursuit of profit and capital accumulation. Individual capitalists, corporations, and nation-states engage in constant and intense competition against one another in the capitalist world market. To survive and prevail in the competition, and driven by the desire for greater profits (or more rapid economic growth), individual capitalists, corporations, and nation-states are all pressured and motivated to expand production and accumulate capital on increasingly larger scales. Thus, under capitalism, economic output normally tends to grow, except in periods of economic crisis.

On paper, if energy intensity falls rapidly to offset economic growth, then the level of energy consumption does not have to grow. However, all economic activities inevitably involve certain physical or chemical transformations and must consume some energy (this is true not only for the material production sectors but also for the so-called services sectors). There is a physical limit to how much energy intensity can fall given any economic activity.

Given the way that capitalist markets operate, any decline of energy intensity tends to make energy products cheaper, as short-term demand for energy falls relative to supply. Cheaper energy products, however, encourage people to consume more energy in the long run. Thus, falling energy intensity (i.e., rising energy efficiency) is simply translated into more rapid capital accumulation (economic growth) and rarely leads to absolute declines in energy consumption.6

In reality, capitalist economic growth is usually accompanied by rising energy consumption. Since 1973, despite relatively sluggish world economic growth, world energy consumption has been growing at 2 percent a year. At this rate, world energy consumption will increase by 130 percent between now and 2050. Given these trends, the emissions intensity of world energy consumption will have to be cut drastically or the scale of economic output will have to decline markedly if there is to be any hope of reducing CO2 emissions to an appropriate level.

Fossil fuels account for about three-quarters of the primary energy consumed in electricity generation. To reduce CO2 emissions from electricity generation, there are three technical possibilities: carbon capture and storage; nuclear electricity; and electricity generation from renewables (such as geothermal, wind, solar, tides, waves, and ocean currents).

Emissions from power plants using fossil fuels can be reduced if the carbon emitted in the process of electricity generation can be captured and then stored underground without being released into the atmosphere. Carbon capture and storage is likely substantially to increase the capital cost of electricity generation and reduce energy efficiency (as the process of capturing and storing carbon requires energy). There may not be enough good, leak-proof sites to store very large amounts of carbon. The technology remains unproven, and cannot be applied to existing power stations. This means that, at best, it will take decades before carbon capture and storage is applied to a substantial portion of the world’s power plants.7

Nuclear electricity has very serious environmental and safety problems. It produces massive amounts of radioactive wastes. It uses uranium, which is a nonrenewable mineral resource. The German Energy Watch Group points out that the world’s proven and possible reserves of uranium would be able to support the current level of demand for uranium for at most seventy years and the world could face uranium supply shortages after about 2020. Moreover, given the long lead time to plan and construct nuclear reactors, it will be difficult to replace the half of existing nuclear power plants that will retire in the coming one to two decades.8

Electricity generation from renewables is not an environmental panacea. The equipment and buildings required for “renewable” electricity need to be built by the industrial sector using fossil fuels and nonrenewable mineral resources. Relative to conventional electricity, electricity generated from renewables remains expensive. Wind and solar—the two most important renewable energy sources—are variable and intermittent, and, therefore, cannot serve as the “base-load” electricity, requiring substantial conventional electricity capacity as backup.9

With the exception of biomass, renewables can only be used to generate electricity.10 Electricity generation accounts for less than 40 percent of the world’s total primary energy supply and only 20 percent of the total final consumption. About one-third of the primary consumption of fossil fuels is used for electricity consumption, but two-thirds are used as liquid, gaseous, and solid fuels in transport, industrial, agricultural, services, and residential sectors.

Out of the total final consumption of fossil fuels, about 40 percent is used in the transport sector, 24 percent in the industrial sector, 23 percent in the agricultural, services, and residential sectors, and 13 percent is used as raw materials for chemical industries. Electricity obviously cannot replace fossil fuels as chemical industrial inputs. In addition, it would be very difficult or impossible for electricity to replace fossil fuels in their uses in sea and air transportation, freight transportation on roads, high-temperature industrial processes, and the powering of heavy equipment in industrial, construction, and agricultural sectors. While it might be technically feasible to replace the gasoline-fueled passenger cars with electric cars (and passenger cars might be the crux of modern capitalist consumer culture), the technology remains immature and it could take decades before the electric car dominates the market.

Moreover, as currently about three-quarters of the primary energy used in electricity generation derives from fossil fuels and about three units of coal are required to generate one unit of electricity, an electrification of transport, industry, and other sectors would tend to increase rather than decrease CO2 emissions. For the purpose of climate stabilization, electrification of these sectors would not make much sense unless the bulk of the electricity generation has been “de-carbonized” (that is, the conventional fossil-fuels generated electricity replaced with carbon-captured, nuclear, and renewable electricity).

Even if all of the economic and technical difficulties discussed above were to be overcome, it is likely to take decades before the world’s electricity generation is largely transformed, and it could take several more decades to electrify much of the world’s industrial and transportation infrastructure. By then global ecological catastrophes would be all but inevitable.

Biomass is the only renewable energy source that can be used to make liquid and gaseous fuels.11 However, limited by the available productive land and fresh water, biomass cannot provide more than a small fraction of the world’s demand for liquid and gaseous fuels. Worse, recent studies reveal that taking into account emissions in land development and soil erosion, fuels made from biomass actually emit more greenhouse gases than conventional petroleum.12

Climate Change and the Limits to Growth

According to the IPCC report, to limit global warming to 2–2.4˚C (relative to the pre-industrial temperature), it is necessary to stabilize the carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e)—taking into account the total effects of CO2 and other greenhouse gases—in the atmosphere at 445–490 ppm. This would in turn require that global CO2 emissions peak between 2000 and 2015, and fall by 50–85 percent from the 2000 levels by 2050.
Global CO2 emissions have been growing at about 3 percent a year since 2000. If the current trend continues, by 2010 global emissions would be 34 percent greater than the 2000 levels. It follows that to stabilize the CO2e at 445–490 ppm, global emissions need to fall by 63–89 percent from the 2010 levels.

Can these emissions reduction targets be accomplished under the system of global capitalism, with its constant tendency towards accumulation of capital and economic growth? Table 1 presents several alternative scenarios of emissions reduction and economic growth that are consistent with a 63 percent reduction of emissions (which would allow for stabilizing CO2e in the atmosphere at 490 ppm), assuming global emissions peak in 2010 and decline thereafter. In other words, the intent is to point to some possible combinations of changes in energy intensity, emissions intensity, and economic growth that would meet the target of stabilizing CO2e levels at 490 ppm. These scenarios, while hypothetical and based on optimistic assumptions, highlight the dramatic changes necessary to stabilize CO2 levels. They help to illustrate that no sensible goals of climate stabilization can be accomplished under conditions of endless economic growth and capital accumulation.

As is discussed above, in many areas it is technically very difficult or impossible to replace direct consumption of fossil fuels with electricity. Nevertheless, in all scenarios, it is assumed that 50 percent of the fossil fuels final consumption will be electrified by 2050. Moreover, despite various limitations to carbon-captured, nuclear, and renewable electricity, in different scenarios, it is optimistically assumed that 50, 75, or 100 percent of the electricity generation currently using fossil fuels will be de-carbonized by 2050 (corresponding to average declines in emissions intensity of 1, 1.7, or 2.7 percent a year respectively). Energy intensity is assumed to fall by 33, 45, or 55 percent by 2050 (corresponding to average decline of 1, 1.5, and 2 percent a year respectively). With a 33 percent reduction of energy intensity, the world average would approach the average level of “energy efficiency” seen in “advanced” capitalist countries today. With a 45 or 55 percent reduction, the world average would be comparable to the “energy efficiency” levels of Western European countries today.13

The observed levels of “energy efficiency” in the advanced capitalist countries result not only from some advanced technologies, but also from the massive relocation of energy-intensive industries to the global periphery. This raises the question whether these “efficiency” levels can ever be accomplished by peripheral countries, making the assumptions of global improvements in efficiency of this magnitude highly optimistic. It is also important to recognize that the three factors assessed in these scenarios—emissions intensity, energy intensity, and economic growth—are not necessarily independent of one another. Certain changes in the types of fuel used to alter emissions intensity, for example, may adversely affect the potential to improve energy intensity or economic growth, and vice versa. However, in the presented scenarios, these problems are optimistically ignored.

Given the assumed declines in emissions intensity and energy intensity, one can then calculate the maximum economic growth rate that is consistent with the emissions reduction objective. For example, in scenario 1, assume that 50 percent of electricity generation currently using fossil fuels will be de-carbonized by 2050 (implying that emissions intensity declines at an average annual rate of 1 percent) and that energy intensity falls at an average annual rate of 1 percent. Then to reduce emissions by 63 percent from 2010 to 2050, the average annual economic growth rate from 2010 to 2050 must not exceed –0.4 percent, that is, the economy must contract. Similarly, in scenario 9, assume that 100 percent of electricity generation currently using fossil fuels will be de-carbonized by 2050 (implying that emissions intensity declines at an average annual rate of 2.7 percent) and energy intensity falls at an average annual rate of 2 percent, then the average annual economic growth rate from 2010 to 2050 must not exceed 2.3 percent.

It is clear from table 1 that the assumed declines in emissions intensity and energy intensity are much more dramatic than the historical performance of the global capitalist economy (what the IPCC refers to as “business as usual”) and the assumptions for all scenarios are, therefore, very optimistic. Nevertheless, in most of the scenarios, the world economy would have virtually to stagnate and in one scenario, the world economy actually needs to contract absolutely. And this is even assuming declines in emissions and energy intensity that exceed historical averages, and dramatically so in the case of emissions intensity, where the scenarios are based on a rate of improvement of at least more than three-fold and up to nine-fold the historical rates. Considering that the world population growth rate is about 1 percent a year, only the most optimistic scenarios would result in positive growth of per capita GDP.

Table 1. Stabilizing CO2e in atmosphere at 490 ppm, 2010-50: scenarios relying on various declines in emissions intensity of energy and energy intensity of the economy and the rates of economic growth they allow (annual rates of change).

Table 1: Stabilizing C02e in atmosphere...

Source: Historical data for world economic growth, energy consumption, and emissions are from World Bank, World Development Indicators Online,2008.

And even with these highly optimistic scenarios on atmospheric carbon stabilization, according to the IPCC estimate, the world would still warm by 2.4˚C (relative to pre-industrial times). Indeed, the IPCC projections fail to take into account many of the latest developments. The Arctic summer sea ice is now likely to disappear and the Arctic Ocean will, therefore, absorb more heat. An atmospheric concentration of CO2e of 490 ppm will probably lead to a global warming of 2.7˚C (rather than the 2.4˚C suggested by the IPCC report), taking the world dangerously close to the 3˚C threshold, which according to James Lovelock would amount to a global collective suicide by humanity.

If the goal is to stabilize atmospheric concentration of CO2e at 445 ppm, instead of 490 ppm, then the global emissions need to fall by 89 percent, not just 63 percent. At 445 ppm, global temperature would still rise by 2˚C (relative to pre-industrial times). Some major ecological catastrophes would be unavoidable and dangerous climate feedback cycles could be initiated. Far more drastic cuts in global emissions would be required if the goal is truly to stabilize the climate and create a sufficiently large safety margin.

Table 2. Scenarios of emissions reduction and world economic growth (stabilizing CO2e in atmosphere at 445 ppm, 2010-50, annual rate of change).

Table 2: Scenarios of emissions reduction and world economic growth

Source: Historical data for world economic growth, energy consumption, and emissions are from World Bank, World Development Indicators Online,2008.

Table 2 presents the alternative scenarios of emissions reduction and economic growth that are consistent with an 89 percent reduction of emissions. The rest of the assumptions are the same as table 1. It turns out that the world economy would have to contract in all scenarios. For scenarios 1 to 3 (where the assumed declines in emissions intensity and energy intensity are clearly optimistic in comparison with the historical performance of global capitalism), the world economy would have to fall by two-thirds to three-quarters after 2010 to accomplish the objective of emissions reduction.

The results presented in tables 1 and 2 suggest that under no plausible circumstances could the objective of climate stabilization be compatible with the endless expansion of the global capitalist economy. However, the capitalist economic system is inherently incapable of operating with a non-growing (not to say contracting) economy.

The Politics of Climate Change and the Imperative for Socialism
Could this author be too pessimistic? Is the “ingenuity,” “innovativeness,” “adaptability,” and “resilience” of capitalism underestimated? The spokespersons of the mainstream environmental movement, such as Lester R. Brown (author of Plan B and director of Earth Policy Institute) and Amory Lovins (coauthor with Paul Hawken and L. Hunter Lovins of Natural Capitalism), try to convince us that magical technologies will come to the rescue. Solar panel costs will fall to the floor, as energy efficiency will surge ten-fold. Greenhouse gases emissions and other pollution can be reduced drastically, while gross domestic product will keep growing explosively. For them, there is no inherent conflict between production for profit and capital accumulation on the one hand and ecological sustainability on the other.

Their typical line of argument is that “the technology is already available” and “all that is needed is political will.” By “political will,” they are of course not referring to anything like fundamental social transformation. Instead, they are talking about some legislative reforms and international agreements within the basic capitalist framework. At most, they would demand some limited changes in personal consumer behavior.

The mainstream environmental movement, as far as its social composition is concerned, mainly consists of people who belong to the upper middle class in a capitalist society. They include the university professors, engineers, technicians, managers, financial analysts, and other professionals. Although they typically do not own significant amounts of the means of production, they play important managerial and technical functions for the capitalists and enjoy substantial material privileges relative to the working class.

In periods of revolutionary upsurge, such as in the 1960s, some of them could be rapidly radicalized and become various “ultra-leftists.” In periods of counter revolution, they could become the most important ally of the ruling class in the offensive against the working people. In the 1980s and ’90s, the upper middle class was an important social base for neoliberalism in many countries and they played a crucial role in the restoration of capitalism in the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, and China.

As the global ecological crisis deepens, some among the upper middle class recognize or sense that the existing capitalist “life style” is in serious trouble and cannot be sustained indefinitely. Yet, they are unable or unwilling to imagine anything beyond the capitalist system, on which their relatively privileged material life depends. They are not yet ready to give up their implicit political support for the capitalist class. Their living conditions and experiences are very much detached from those of the working class. It is therefore difficult for them to see that only with a massive mobilization and organization of the working class could there be any hope for the social transformation required for ecological sustainability to be accomplished. The upper-middle-class environmentalists, as a result, have to put their desperate hope (or faith) in technological miracles on the one hand and the power of moral persuasion on the other hand (which they hope would convince the capitalist class to behave morally and rationally).

However, the laws of motion of capitalism will keep operating so long as the capitalist system remains intact, independent of the individual wills and against the best wishes of the upper-middle-class environmentalists. Sooner or later, those truly conscientious environmentalists will have to choose between the commitment to ecological sustainability and the commitment to an exploitative and oppressive social system. Furthermore, with the deepening of the global ecological crisis and the crisis of global capitalism in general, it may soon become increasingly difficult for the capitalist system to accommodate the material privileges of the upper middle class while simultaneously meeting the requirements of production for profit and accumulation.

As I discussed earlier, there are many technical obstacles to the de-carbonization of the world’s energy system. Brown and Lovins have greatly exaggerated the potentials of technical change. But even if many of the proposed highly efficient energy technologies using renewables become available right away, their application will be delayed by the inherent obstacles to technological diffusion in the capitalist system. In an economic system based on production for profit, a new technology is “intellectual property.” People or countries that cannot afford to pay are denied access. Even today hundreds of millions of people in the world have no access to electricity. How many decades would it take before they start to have access to solar-powered electric cars?

Moreover, unlike consumer novelties such as cell phones or lap tops, which can be readily manufactured by the existing industrial system, the de-carbonization of the world’s energy system requires fundamental transformation of the world’s economic infrastructure. This basically means that the pace of de-carbonization, even under the most ideal conditions, cannot really be faster than the rate of depreciation of long-lasting fixed assets. Considering that many buildings and other long-lasting structures will stand for half a century or even longer, the assumed rates of de-carbonization presented in tables 1 and 2 must be seen as extremely optimistic.

From a purely technical point of view, the most simple and straightforward solution to the crisis of climate change is immediately to stop all economic growth and start to downsize world material consumption in an orderly manner until the greenhouse gases emissions fall to reasonable levels. This can obviously be accomplished with the existing technology. If all the current and potentially available de-carbonization technologies are introduced to all parts of the world as rapidly as possible, the world should still have the material production capacity to meet the basic needs of the entire world’s population even with a much smaller world economy (scenarios 1 to 3 in table 2 would roughly correspond to a return to the 1960s material living standards).

However, under a capitalist system, so long as the means of production and surplus value are owned by the capitalists, there are both incentives and pressures for the capitalists to use a substantial portion of the surplus value for capital accumulation. Unless surplus value is placed under social control, there is no way for capital accumulation (and therefore economic growth) not to take place. Moreover, given the enormous inequality in income and wealth distribution under capitalism, how could a global capitalist economy manage an orderly downsizing while meeting the basic needs of billions of people? Economic growth is indispensable for capitalism to alleviate its inherent social contradictions.

The Kyoto protocol requires that the advanced capitalist countries reduce their CO2 emissions by 5 percent from 1990 to 2012. Figure 1 presents the CO2 emissions of the world’s largest economies from 1990 to 2005.14 The United States refused to sign the protocol and U.S. emissions grew by 22 percent from 1990 to 2005. Among the signatories of the Kyoto protocol, Japan’s emissions grew by 16 percent and the Euro-zone emissions tended to grow since the mid-1990s. UK emissions (due mainly to its massive shift from coal to North Sea gas) have been on a flat trend.

Ironically, Russia is the only large economy that has reduced emissions substantially since 1990, during a period in which its economic output and population declined. Russia’s emissions fell by one-third from 1990 to 2005, with an annual rate of reduction of 2.7 percent. If the world economy were to repeat the Russian experience three times, that is, toexperience the kind of economic collapse that Russia experienced in the 1990s three times with a comparable reduction of emissions, then by 2050 the world emissions would fall by two-thirds. This would only allow the atmospheric concentration of CO2 equivalent to stabilize at about 490 ppm. As is discussed above, this would still fall short of what is necessary.

Chart 1. CO2 emissions, selected countries (millions of tons)

Chart 1: CO2 emissions, selected countries

Source: World Bank, World Development Indicators Online,

Since 1990, China’s emissions and India’s emissions have more than doubled, and China has now overtaken the United States to become the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases. At the current rate, China’s emissions will double in ten years and India’s will double in less than fifteen years. The European Union is currently committed to a reduction of emissions by 20 percent (from the 1990 levels) by 2020. All of this reduction would be offset by just one year of China’s economic growth. With the great Chinese capitalist boom, China now builds two coal-fired power plants every week. This means that every four years China will build as many coal-fired power plants as currently exist in the United States. What hope is there for climate stabilization with this kind of fanatical drive for accumulation? What magical technology can make this kind of capitalism sustainable?

It should be pointed out that the Chinese workers and peasants have not at all benefited from this relentless search for capitalist profit. It is the transnational corporations (who use China as the world’s “workshop”) and the Chinese capitalist elites that have reaped enormous profits from this. To a lesser extent, the upper middle classes in the advanced capitalist countries have also benefited from the cheap consumer goods and “services” produced by the workers in China, India, and other parts of the periphery.

On June 14, 2007, Financial Times published a quite bizarre article (“What is at risk is not the climate but freedom”) by Vaclav Klaus, the president of the Czech Republic and the former leader of the anticommunist “velvet revolution”:

We are living in strange times. One exceptionally warm winter is enough...for environmentalists and their followers to suggest radical measures to do something about the weather…Rational and freedom-loving people have to respond. The dictates of political correctness are strict and only one permitted truth, not for the first time in human history, is imposed on us…

[Global] warming hysteria has become a prime example of the truth versus propaganda problem. It requires courage to oppose the “established truth”…As someone who lived under communism for most of his life, I feel obliged to say that I see the biggest threat to freedom, democracy, the market economy and prosperity now in ambitious environmentalism, not communism. This ideology wants to replace the free and spontaneous evolution of mankind by a sort of central (now global) planning.

The freedom-loving President Klaus (who is apparently a good student of Friedrich Hayek) then demanded that scientists “have an obligation to declare their political and value assumptions and how much they have affected their selection and interpretation of scientific evidence.” Klaus then assured us that “advances in technology” and “increases in disposable wealth” will continue and “will solve any potential consequences of mild climate changes.”

One has to admit that it does take some courage for Klaus to defend “freedom” at a time when an important political consensus is being formed among the international bourgeoisie that the issue of climate change cannot be ignored any more. Given my own political experience and background in China (a former socialist state like Czechoslovakia), I do feel some strange familiarity with Klaus’s position.

Frankly, only an extremely reactionary politician who has deep-in-the-heart hatred of the working class and socialism could have made such outlandish comments. In one respect, however, Klaus is closer to the truth than all the mainstream environmentalists. It does take global “central” planning for humanity to overcome the crisis of climate change, if by “central” one is talking about self-conscious, rational coordination by democratic institutions.

The technical requirements for climate stabilization are clear. The global energy infrastructure needs to be fundamentally transformed to be based on renewables. Much of the world’s economic infrastructure will have to be changed accordingly. Agriculture will need to be reorganized to follow sustainable principles and to be freed from dependence on fossil fuels for fertilizers and machineries. The entire transportation system will have to be re-built, with railways and public transportation operated by renewable electricity playing prominent roles. The scale of the world economy will need to be reduced in accordance with the emissions reduction objectives. All of these need to be accomplished without undermining the basic needs of the world’s population.

It is clear that capitalism cannot accomplish these objectives. If we do not want to undermine the ecological conditions that support civilization, what else can accomplish these goals other than socialism with public ownership of the means of production and democratic planning?

So-called “market socialism” is not an option. Both theory and historical experience have demonstrated that “market socialism” inevitably leads to capitalism. Those who object to socialist planning might argue that the experience of historical socialisms suggested that socialist planning would be “inefficient.”

Leave aside the question that the future socialism would no doubt do better than the historical socialisms in democracy and economic efficiency, given the extreme gravity of the global ecological crisis, “efficiency” is simply not a relevant issue. The real question is: can socialism provide food, education, and health care to everyone on the earth? We know that historical socialisms were able to, and Cuba is still able to accomplish this with quite limited material resources.

Capitalism has always failed to provide food, education, and health care to at least hundreds of millions of people. If the global ecological crisis is not overcome, then capitalism will eventually fail the entirety of humanity. Is the choice not clear enough?

1.   Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, “Summary for Policymakers of the Synthesis Report of the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report,” November 2007,
2.   David Spratt, “The Big Melt: Lessons from the Arctic Summer of 2007,” October 2007,
3.   David Spratt and Philip Sutton, Climate Code Red (Friends of the Earth, 2008),
4.   David Spratt and Philip Sutton, Climate Code Red; Jonathan Leake, “Fiddling with Figures while the Earth Burns,” Times Online, May 6 2007,; James Lovelock, The Revenge of Gaia (New York: Basic Books, 2006), 15–38.
5.   James Hansen et al., “Target Atmostpheric CO2: Where Should Humanity Aim?” (abstract), April 2008, (accessed May 2008). Also see John Bellamy Foster, “The Ecology of Destruction,” Monthly Review 58, no. 8 (2007): 1–14.
6.   This is known as the Jevons Paradox, named after the nineteenth-century British economist William Stanley Jevons who first took note of this perverse effect. See Brett Clark and John Bellamy Foster, “William Stanley Jevons and The Coal Question,” Organization & Environment 14, no. 1 (2001): 93–98; John Bellamy Foster, Ecology Against Capitalism (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2002), 94–95.
7.   Ted Trainer, Renewable Energy Cannot Sustain A Consumer Society (Dordrecht, Netherlands: Springer, 2007), 110–11.
8.   Energy Watch Group, “Uranium Resources and Nuclear Energy,” EWG-Series No.1/2006 (December),
9.   Michael H. Heusemann, “The Limits of Technological Solutions to Sustainable Development,” Clean Technology and Environmental Policy 5 (2003): 21–34. A recent experiment sponsored by the Germany government intends to show that a network with 61 percent of electricity from wind, 14 percent from solar photovoltaics, and 25 percent from biomass, can meet up to 100 percent of electricity demand (“Renewed Energy,” The Guardian, February 26, 2008). But as discussed below, biomass is very problematic and could emit more greenhouse gases than fossil fuels. Thus, the experiment suggests a 75 percent limit to de-carbonization of electricity generation.
10. The energy statistics discussed here and in the following paragraph are from: International Energy Agency, Key World Energy Statistics 2007.
11. Although there has been much talk of developing a “hydrogen economy,” hydrogen itself is not a primary energy source (i.e., there are no natural stores of hydrogen to be exploited). Hydrogen fuel is produced from water, a process which requires energy input. Thus, hydrogen is simply an energy storage mechanism (much like a battery), and its environmental consequences depend on the source of energy that is used to produce it.
12. Joseph Fargione, et al., “Land Clearing and the Biofuel Carbon Debt,” Science 319, no. 5867 (2008): 1235–38; Timothy Searchinger, et al., “Use of U.S. Croplands for Biofuels Increases Greenhouse Gases Through Emissions from Land-Use Change,” Science 319, no. 5867 (2008): 1238–40.
13. According to Key World Energy Statistics (see footnote 9), in 2005, measured by 2000 U.S. dollars, the energy intensity of OECD countries was 37 percent below the world average, France 41 percent below world average, Germany 44 percent below world average, and UK 56 percent below world average.