The failure of COP27 and the alternative to capitalism


First published at Rappler.

COP27 (the 27th Conference of the Parties on Climate Change) is meeting this week in Sharm el-Sheik, Egypt, from November 6 to 18. The COP is the largest conference of the United Nations on climate change, held annually in different countries and participated in by around 25,000 representatives of different governments.

Greta Thunberg, a well-known Swedish climate activist, criticized the global summit as a forum of “greenwashing” that is not really meant to change the whole system but encourages only paltry changes. Thunberg’s statement highlights the position taken by a growing number of Left activists in the Philippines who are coming together soon to launch a movement called ecosocialism. 

The character of capitalism 

Capitalism cannot solve global warming and the destruction of the ecosystem as these are brought about by the operations of the system itself, from the burning of coals and fossil oils, to the inauguration of the petrochemical industry, industrial farming, extractive mining, massive logging, and the like. Capitalism is based on the private ownership of the means of production, especially large means of production, by a few rich capitalists or corporations. It is in capitalism’s nature to destroy the environment and the ecosystem as it pursues its overarching need to gain profit and accumulate capital.

In the history of capitalism, the means of production have always been in the hands of private individuals. While capitalism introduces advances in technology, it suffers two impairments. First, capitalism is founded on competition, where many capitals compete for a maximum profit and an unceasing accumulation of capital, thus its tendency to ignore the harmful effects of its production processes on the environment.

Second, the system is founded on the exploitation of the working people, which brings about extreme inequality in society marked by a few individuals and families comprising the super-rich in society on one end and a vast number of the super-poor on the other end. 

Capitalism is entwined with the fossil fuel industry

In the history of Western capitalism in the early 1800s, industrial production developed through the establishment of factories using machines driven by water power, such as the spinning and weaving machines of the cotton industry. Water in streams and rivers powered the operations of factories. Water mills are in fact using clean and renewable energy in their operations. With the invention of the steam engine, it was later replaced by steam generated by burning coal, which became the predominant form of energy.

As coal mining became widespread, factories were refitted and started to use coal energy. The coal was mobile. Capitalists could move production where the labor sources were, rather than transporting people to where the energy source was. 

After coal came oil. Gasoline became a main source of energy. Gasoline powered the new machines invented at that time: cars, airplanes, tanks, warships, and submarines. The fossil fuel industry later branched out into a number of significant affiliated industries, such as the petrochemical, pharmaceutical, synthetic, and plastic industries. No wonder the capitalists and corporations that dominated the fossil fuel industry then ventured into pharmaceuticals and petrochemicals in the 1900s, like Standard Oil magnate John D. Rockefeller, who pioneered in the pharmaceutical industry.

The burning of fossil fuels exacerbated the global warming problem as it led to the accumulation of massive amounts of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere compared to the previous modes of production. This is threatening humanity and the globe, but this type of production cannot be stopped because the world is controlled by a few elite clans that control not only the means of production and the economy but also the state and the political system.

Aside from climate change emanating mainly from the burning of fossil fuels, there has been a growing loss of biodiversity due to widespread deforestation, chemical industrial production, and large-scale mining. They destroy the ecosystem in an immeasurable and irreplaceable way. 

Socialism is the alternative

The only alternative is a system that is the antithesis of what capitalism is all about. This system is socialism, where the means of production and the production processes are not privately owned but instead in the hands of the working people or in the hands of the communities managed by the community members themselves.

However, the first model of socialism, which is now called 20th century socialism, was a failure in several aspects. It had to contend with a world largely dominated by capitalism and the capitalist market system. In competing with the global capitalist system, its focus shifted towards producing more goods not only needed by the population but also goods and hardware that could defend and arm itself against capitalism’s encirclement.

This 20th century socialism adopted what is being critiqued by several Left groups today as a “productivist” system of production. This is the idea that the purpose of society’s development is to achieve “more production” and “growth,” similar to capitalism. This type of development ignores sustainability and the impact of production processes on the environment and ecology.

Socialists have been proclaiming that the main tenet of socialism is to produce goods in “abundance.” Abundance of goods ensures the implementation of the socialist banner, “from each according to one’s ability, to each according to one’s needs.” We thought this would be the solution to the problem of inequality in society. It turns out that changing the relations of production to ensure that the working masses benefit from the fruits of their own production is not the entire story. The productive forces, including the production process and technology, are also important factors to consider. The idea that we can merely focus on changing the relations of production has nothing “green” about it.

The socialist Left in general is beginning to understand that it has to discard the idea of a development that is aimed merely at producing more and more goods, and has to ensure that the production of society’s needs should nurture the environment and the ecosystem.

What is ecosocialism?

It is socialism with an ecological foundation. In a re-reading of the work of Karl Marx, the founder of scientific socialism, the Left found out that he did not merely talk about the need for abundance to solve the inequality in society. Marx stated the need to fix the environment, or the problem brought about by what he called the “metabolic rift” in the way the capitalist system is operating. Recognizing capitalism’s continuing breach in the ecological foundation of the planet, Marx cautioned that in producing for the needs of humanity, we must ensure that the environment is protected and even enriched for future generations to come.

This reminded me of a popular quote from tribal hero Macli-ing Dulag, who was assassinated in 1980 by the Marcos military forces for his opposition to the Chico River Dam Project. He said, “How can we speak of owning the land when the land outlives us?”

Now it is clear: there is no socialism without an ecological foundation. And the climate crisis and the destruction of the ecosystem can only be resolved under a socialist system founded on ecological principles. 

Sonny Melencio is the chairperson of the socialist party Partido Lakas ng Masa. His group is launching the Ecosocialism Movement at the University Hotel, University of the Philippines, Diliman, Quezon City on November 25, 2022.