The climate crisis will spiral out of control unless the world applies “emergency brakes” to capitalism and devises a “new way of living,” according to a Japanese academic whose book on Marxism and the environment has become a surprise bestseller in Japan. Capital in the Anthropocene has become a massive hit among young people and is about to be translated into English. The Guardian broke it down in the article, “‘A new way of life’: the Marxist, post-capitalist, green manifesto captivating Japan.” We extend the analysis with commentary from a Retake post from 2017 featuring the perspective of Richard Heinberg.
Retake has periodically noted that capitalism’s need for sustained growth is incompatible with addressing the climate catastrophe that isn’t coming; it has arrived. The Guardian puts it this way:
Capitalism’s demand for unlimited profits is destroying the planet and only “degrowth” can repair the damage by slowing down social production and sharing wealth.
In practical terms, that means an end to mass production and the mass consumption of wasteful goods such as fast fashion. In Capital in the Anthropocene, Saito also advocates decarbonisation through shorter working hours and prioritising essential “labour-intensive” work such as caregiving.The Guardian: “‘A new way of life’: the Marxist, post-capitalist, green manifesto captivating Japan”
The “developed” world has offered a different strategy for combating climate change, one that simply asks capitalists to invest in fuels that can lower the carbon footprint when we fly planes, drive cars, or ship goods. In other words, we continue to grow, we just grow green. It won’t work. Saito and others like Richard Heinberg have taken a totally different view.
The mere mention of the word degrowth conjures negative images of wealthy societies plunged into a dark age of shrinking economies and declining living standards. Saito admits that he thought a book that draws on strands of Marxism as a solution to modern-day ills would be a tough sell in Japan, where the same conservative party has dominated politics for the best part of 70 years.
“‘People accuse me of wanting to go back to the [feudal] Edo period [1603-1868] … and I think the same sort of image persists in the UK and the US,” he said. “Against that background, for the book to sell over 500,000 copies is astonishing.”The Guardian: “‘A new way of life’: the Marxist, post-capitalist, green manifesto captivating Japan”
Saito notes that the kind of radical degrowth strategy for which he calls has been proven to be possible during COVID:
“One thing that we have learned during the pandemic is that we can dramatically change our way of life overnight – look at the way we started working from home, bought fewer things, flew and ate out less. We proved that working less was friendlier to the environment and gave people a better life. But now capitalism is trying to bring us back to a ‘normal’ way of life.”The Guardian: “‘A new way of life’: the Marxist, post-capitalist, green manifesto captivating Japan”
Saito goes on: “In my book, I start a sentence by describing sustainable development goals [SDGs] as the new opium of the masses,” he said, using a phrase Marx used to describe religion. More from Saito:
“Buying eco bags and bottles without changing anything about the economic system… SDGs mask the systemic problem and reduce everything to the responsibility of the individual, while obscuring the responsibility of corporations and politicians.”
“I discovered how Marx was interested in sustainability and how non-capitalist and pre-capitalist societies are sustainable, because they are realising the stationary economy, they are not growth-driven,” Saito said.
We face a very difficult situation: the pandemic, poverty, climate change, the war in Ukraine, inflation … it is impossible to imagine a future in which we can grow the economy and at the same time live in a sustainable manner without fundamentally changing anything about our way of life. “If economic policies have been failing for 30 years, then why don’t we invent a new way of life? The desire for that is suddenly there.”The Guardian: “‘A new way of life’: the Marxist, post-capitalist, green manifesto captivating Japan”
Retake has written frequently about the incompatibility of capitalism with a sustainable planet:
- “The Hidden Costs of Capitalism,” April 29, 2017… Yes, five years ago and every word still stands, as the piece lays out how capitalism counts profits while externalizing social, community, and environmental costs. This post is very relevant to today’s post.
- Richard Heinberg on the Only Real Solution to the Looming Climate Catastrophe – 100% Renewables Won’t Get It Done, May 3, 2022.
The second post focuses on the work of Richard Heinberg. In his essay, “The Only Long-Range Solution to Climate Change,” Heinberg lays out clearly what the correct and far more difficult path requires. His essay begins by neatly framing the issue (emphasis mine):
Climate change is often incorrectly described as an isolated pollution issue. In this flawed framing, humanity has simply made a mistake in its choice of energy sources; the solution entails switching sources and building enough carbon-sucking machines to clear the atmosphere of polluting CO2.
But techno-fixes (that is, technological solutions that circumvent the need for personal or cultural change) aren’t working so far, and likely won’t work in the future. That’s because fossil fuels will be difficult to replace, and energy usage is central to our collective economic power.
In other words, power is the key to solving climate change—but not necessarily in the way that many pundits claim. Solutions will not come just from defeating fossil fuel interests and empowering green entrepreneurs; real climate progress will require the willingness of large swathes of the populace, especially in wealthy countries, to forgo forms of power they currently enjoy: comfort and convenience, the ability to travel far and fast, and the option to easily obtain a wide range of consumer products whose manufacture entails large inputs of energy and natural resources.
But the real show-stopper came much more recently. The adoption of fossil fuels gave humans the biggest jolt of empowerment ever: in just the last two centuries, our global population has grown eight-fold, and so has per capita energy consumption. Our modern way of life—with cars, planes, supermarkets, tractors, trucks, electricity grids, and internet shopping—is the result.
Climate change is the shadow of this recent cavalcade of industriousness, since it results from the burning of fossil fuels, the main enablers of modern civilization. Nevertheless, rapidly increasing population and consumption levels are inherently unsustainable and are bringing about catastrophic environmental impacts on their own, even if we disregard the effects of carbon emissions. The accelerating depletion of resources, increasing loads of chemical pollution, and the hastening loss of wild nature are trends leading us toward ecological collapse, with economic and social collapse no doubt trailing close behind. Ditching fossil fuels will turn these trends around only if we also deal with the issues of population and consumption.“
This is not a feel-good message, but the longer we postpone grappling with power in this larger sense, the less successful we’re likely to be in coming to terms with the climate threat.Retake Our Democracy: Richard Heinberg on the Only Real Solution to the Looming Climate Catastrophe – 100% Renewables Won’t Get It Done, May 3, 2022.
Heinberg goes on to outline how solar panels, wind turbines, and technology fixes like Carbon Sequestration won’t address the fundamental problem outlined in the quote above. The second half of his article outlines the science and economics behind his assertions. To read Heinberg’s entire piece, click here. Well worth your time. To whet your appetite further:
Many folks nurture the happy illusion that we can do it all—continue to grow the economy while also funding the energy transition—by assuming that the problem is only money (if we find a way to pay for it, then the transition can be undertaken with no sacrifice). This illusion can be maintained only by refusing to acknowledge the stubborn fact that all activity, including building alternative energy generators and carbon capture machinery, requires energy.
We citizens of industrialized nations will have to change our consumption patterns. We will have to use less overall and adapt our use of energy. Our growth-based, globalized economy will require significant overhaul.Retake Our Democracy: Richard Heinberg on the Only Real Solution to the Looming Climate Catastrophe – 100% Renewables Won’t Get It Done, May 3, 2022.
Certainly, there are a raft of Retake readers sympathetic to this thinking — a radical shift in our approach to life is desperately needed, one that involves having less, doing less, travelling less, consuming less. In short, less is more. Less is the only method for adapting to and perhaps even mitigating the environmental and economic catastrophes that are coming. Hell, they’re here. just ask Pakistan or California.
But even green advocates cling to the “happy illusion” described by Heinberg, feeling that green grown and an e-revolution is sustainable, and shy away from the more substantial transformation of our economy and the essential transformation of our personal and collective expectations, assumptions, and aspirations. From one of our readers, Brian O’Keefe: “We in the US use 1/4 of all the world’s output of resources and are 4% of the global population. We need to reduce our consumption and wasteful practices by about a factor of 5 times. Can we exist as a society with only a fifth of our resource usage? Can even middle-class lifestyles exist, not to speak of the upper and uber-upper classes? How do we reduce the global population by a large enough amount that would make a difference? China tried, but faced the realities of an aging population that increased at a much faster rate than young and productive segments. The result was untenable with all of those retirees having to be supported by a smaller young population. Hence the now ‘two child policy’.”
Put simply, a Tesla in every solar-paneled garage will not get it done. And the ugly truth is that producing enough e-vehicles, solar panels, and wind turbines to power a swift transition from fossil fuel to renewables will require another round of extractive exploitation of the Global South so that we can sustain our commitment to comfort and convenience — a renewable energy economy will require rare minerals like lithium and, as reported by the NY Times in its, “A Smarter Transition to Electric Vehicles,” the extraction of Lithium is not good for the environment. From The Times:
Today, most lithium comes from one of two sources: rocks and Bjut brine. The extraction methods are quite different.
The first method generally involves digging for an ore called spodumene that contains high levels of lithium. Australia, the world’s largest single produce of lithium, relies mainly on this technique. Spodumene is mined much like gold or iron ore, in open pits. And it has many of the same problems. There are big risks to the environment, both from digging up the land and from the processes used to extract the ore. Mines in Tasmania, for example, have been leaking contaminated water for the past five years, according to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
That kind of pollution is a big concern for Indigenous Americans. According to research from MSCI, an investment research firm based in New York, 79 percent of extractable lithium in the United States is found within 35 miles of Native reservations.
In the other method, brine is mixed with freshwater and left to sit in ponds for up to 18 months. The water eventually evaporates and leaves behind minerals. Then, with a bit more processing, you can extract lithium for use in batteries. My colleague Somini Sengupta described the process and the scene in an article from the Atacama Desert in Chile.
As Somini pointed out, the Atacama is great for lithium production in one sense: It has the highest solar radiation levels on Earth, so water evaporates astonishingly fast. But it’s also one of the driest places on Earth, and the brine method relies heavily on water. So the industry makes the region even more susceptible to drought. The same is true of many other places, like Argentina and Bolivia, where lithium is extracted from brine.NY Times: “A Smarter Transition to Electric Vehicles”
All of this manipulation of nature and exploitation of the Global South and indigenous peoples worldwide, is to accommodate our collective need for comfort and convenience. Our convenience simply can no longer trump the rights, environment, and livelihoods of indigenous peoples or Global South residents, or for that matter a livable planet for future generations.
What would degrowth mean?
- Instead of a proliferation of personal e-vehicles, we invest in various forms of green public transportation and we drive and ride less and walk and pedal more.
- Vastly reduced consumption of industrial beef, poultry, and fish;
- Expanded and ubiquitous local food systems that include farm to table, farm to school, urban food gardens, roof gardens, etc.
- If we want to sustain contact with distant children and grandchildren, we may need to go “old school,” with family members moving to one community and walk or bike to see each other, or go “new school” with Zoom. But you can’t hug on Zoom.
- The end of the fashion of the month that foments over-consumption.
- Heavy taxes on online orders and the end of overnight or same-day shipping. Do you really need your new set of Tupperware tomorrow? For that matter, do you really need the new set at all?
- Far more “stay”cations filled with reading, music, and dinners at home, and far fewer transcontinental trips to see whatever.
- Heavy taxes and vastly reduced consumption of foods and beverages produced thousands of miles away.
- Last, and fundamental to it all, the end of capitalism and its profit driven lust for growth, extraction, and exploitation.
This list could go on and I’d encourage readers to extend this list. But the bottom line is we can’t technofix our way to a sustainable future. We need to change our way of thinking and being and realign and reconstruct the capitalist economic system that supports and exploits our current lifestyles. We need local economic systems that promote cooperation, collaboration and sustainability to better support “less is more” and “local is best” lifestyles.
This is not an easy post, so we end with some humor from George Carlin and his epic “Stuff” monologue (see below). But before you reach for George, this post leads to some uncomfortable conclusions that hopefully spur some deep thinking. Please offer your comments below.
In solidarity & hope,
Paul & Roxanne
Categories: Environmental Justice