What climate activists still haven’t learned

Climate activists have been turning more radical lately, but still not radical enough. There are two crucial thresholds that they need to cross, and haven’t crossed yet:

  • The danger is much worse than they’ve acknowledged. They are merely proclaiming that life on Earth is becoming more difficult, and the changes will kill millions of people and destroy a quarter of the economy by the end of the century. But I’m expecting famines by 2030 and extinction of all life on Earth by 2040.
  • The remedies we need to attempt are much bigger than they’ve acknowledged. They propose retooling our economy on the scale of World War II, but I’m convinced that’s not enough. We’ll need to END CAPITALISM, but even that’s not enough. “Imagine no possessions — I wonder if you can,” John Lennon sang half a century ago.

climate cliffFirst, regarding the size of the danger. Climate activists are extrapolating linearly from the current rate of destruction. That approach overlooks tipping points and shows no understanding of how feedback loops cause exponential acceleration. The clathrate gun has already begun firing — that is, the methane frozen under the Arctic is being released. The ecosystem is interdependent, and growing fragile as it loses diversity; thus it may collapse as abruptly as a house of cards hit by a gust of wind. And there is NO economy on a dead planet.

Now, regarding capitalism:  The people blocking climate legislation are not doing that solely because they’re stupid and crazy. They’re also doing it because they’re getting paid to do it. They’re getting paid by the oil companies, who must compete against each other for high profits.

And it’s not simply because the oil companies are run by evil people (though they are). If any of the oil executives stood up for the ecosystem, he’d be fired and replaced immediately. Thus, by natural selection under capitalism, the ruling class evolves to be run by people concerned only with short-term profit. It is as Upton Sinclair said: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!”

Capitalism is not mentioned in any of the websites and literature of the climate activists. Not in Extinction Rebellion (XR), not in School Strike, and certainly not in 350 dot org.

Bill McKibben came close to seeing it. He lined up all the numbers, and showed that to save life as we know it, the oil companies would have to leave most of their assets in the ground. McKibben seems to blame the oil companies for not doing that. He just can’t quite get through the final step of reasoning, to realize that in our present economic system a company cannot voluntarily walk away from most of its assets.

Naomi Klein missed it, and that surprised me. Her previous book, The Shock Doctrine, showed how very cruel capitalism can be. So when she wrote a book titled“This Changes Everything: Capitalism versus the Climate,” she was in a perfect position to explain how capitalism is inherently ecocidal, in ways that can’t be fixed through reforms. That can be shown by a simple analysis of capitalism.* But instead Klein just described some of capitalism’s symptoms and recommended reform.

(*Here is the simple analysis: The market’s oft-praised “efficiency” only applies to measured costs. Every market transaction has enormous unmeasured side effects, paid for by the community and the environment rather than the buyer or seller. Those are called “externalized costs” or “externalities”; look it up. Studies have shown that no corporation would be profitable if it had to pay for its externalities. The externalities include, war, poverty, and ecocide.)

The idiot corporate executives can’t see it, because each is in the position of “if I want to keep my expensive home, I just have to be concerned with making a quick buck right now; I’ll leave it to someone else to worry about saving the ecosystem.”  That’s how capitalism works.

There is no reforming capitalism; it must be ended. Money IS influence, and it will always find a way around or through any legislation that tries to keep it out of politics. We are ruled by the wealthy, as Gilens and Page proved statistically in 2014. The only way to end rule by the wealthy class is to not HAVE a wealthy class, and that requires a very different economic system. Indeed, trade increases inequality, by favoring the trader who was already in the better bargaining position. Thus, the only way to not have a wealthy class is to end trade — i.e., to share everything. That means resuming some aspects of the hunter-gatherer life, if not all of them — i.e., correcting a wrong turn we made 10,000 years ago. That’s an enormous change. But if we don’t do that, we’re going extinct, an even bigger change.

The first step is to get more people talking about it.


2019 July 13, version 2.01. (Original version: March 14, 2019.) A Spanish translation of this page, by Ulises Eneastro, is available at this link.