Capitalism will Dictate Environmental Progress, Not the Biden Administration

12 min read

 Every age of man has had its disasters and setbacks. If we take the appearance of homo sapiens as a starting point, around 195,000 ya1, the worst of these disasters were natural in origin – volcanic eruptions, drought caused by shifts in climate cycles and weather patterns, cold periods and warm periods, and the appearance of pathogens for which no immunity had been developed. But it is largely in the last 50,000 years that mankind has begun to alter the environment in a quest to change the conditions of existence from precarious survival to relatively stable and reproducible access to food. And it is only in the last three centuries, or about 0.15% of the time homo sapiens has been around, that we have added to our repertoire of comfort-seeking, stability-enhancing tools the economic behavior that is now known as capitalism. 

A wide range of critical thinkers have analyzed capitalism and its effects on people and the planet. They have done so in detail, and the best of these scholars and researchers have raised alarms about the consequences. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were early, and still highly influential, observers of capitalism and its effects on the people, with special attention to the vast class of persons that capitalism exploits for profit – laborers. More recently, with the advance of our understanding of biology and the related disciplines of ecology and environmental science, the alarms have expanded to address not just the social relations of economics and their very real and often negative consequences for the majority billions of the planet, but also the consequences for the planet itself. The least observant person will realize they cannot live without clean water, breathable air, and arable land. Yet capitalism is in the process of destroying these things, with no regard for the future of humanity. 

Given this, what are the implications of the election of Joe Biden as POTUS for the future of the world? This is at a time when anthropogenic global warming (AGW), a completely man-made disaster, threatens to destroy the only place that can support life as we understand it without resorting to artificial and unsustainable technological solutions. 

Biden and Climate Change – The Prospects for Progress from a Capitalist Party 

The Democrats used a mix of promises and denials to maneuver Joe Biden into the White House with progressive support. Socialists and socialism were excoriated to the Washington establishment to make clear that a Biden presidency would not interfere with capitalist business as usual. The task of rounding up votes from the left of the political spectrum was left to Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and The Squad – Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar and Ayanna Pressley. With help from much of the intellectual left, the press, and TV news, enough people were convinced that Trump was sufficiently terrible to push Biden over the top. Not so for Democrats’ down-ballot races, as they lost seats in the House. Unexpectedly, and largely because Donald Trump turned into a liability for his party, Democrats won both Senate races in Georgia. The Democrats, if they have the political will, can now pass progressive policies, including national health care, strengthening the social safety net, and raising the federal minimum wage. They can also make a significant impact on the US response to AGW. 

The Democrats will not do any of this. This is a certainty, not simply a high probability. With his win, Biden immediately began to nominate Obama era neoliberals to fill his cabinet and occupy important positions in his administration. Antony Blinken at State and Janet Yellen at the Federal Reserve signal that foreign and domestic policy will remain imperialistic and capitalistic, with federal support for the military weapons systems and artificially inflated Wall Street stock prices remaining firm. Lloyd Austin at the Department of Defense, if confirmed, would further erode the concept of civilian control of the military2. Biden has a priori rejected national health care3, and as early as the Democratic national convention, his campaign was signaling that austerity for the public would be economic consequences of electing him to office4

Biden has introduced a team of people who are advertised as his “environmental team”. Saying that there is no time to lose, Biden announced the nominations of New Mexico Rep. Deb Haaland for Interior, Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm for the Department of Energy, and North Carolina regulator Michel Regan for EPA. Appointments that do not require Senate approval are Brenda Mallory for Council on Environmental Quality, former Obama EPA head Gina McCarthy as national climate advisor, and New York Deputy Secretary of Energy and Environment Ali Zaidi as her assistant. 

A notable choice by Biden in this context is former senator and presidential candidate John Kerry as international climate envoy (nominally under the State department). As Obama’s Secretary of State, Kerry was a champion of the oil and gas industry, especially fracked gas, Kerry has established himself in Washington political circles as both a champion of carbon reduction to at least carbon neutrality by 2050 worldwide, and also as a champion of capital investment in renewable energy (which in current Biden administration plans will include nuclear energy). There is little chance that he will allow policy changes that don’t meet the approval of the energy industry and Wall Street. Kerry sees the lure of profits as the key to gaining industry participation. That the industry will extract what profits they can from “green energy” programs is a given, but it is also a given that as soon as profits fall below a certain level, long before they could be described as break even, capital investment will disappear and industry withdrawal from carbon reduction goals will return. 

Unseen in this mix but influential in what gets done in response to AGW are the advisors that Biden used in developing his climate change response pre-election. As reported at The Intercept5, these are not environmentalists. Instead, they are multi-millionaire investors certain to advise in the crafting of policies that are friendly to oil and gas, and in turn, to investment capital. 

Regardless of the performance of Biden’s appointees, what is certain is that no amount of regulation will serve to save humanity from the dangers imposed by a climate that is on track to reach average temperature increases of 1.5 degrees C between 2030 and 2052, if current

trends continue. The IPCC 2018 report on Global Warming of 1.5° C, in the summary for policymakers6, notes the following: 

● Estimated anthropogenic global warming is currently increasing at 0.2°C (likely between 0.1°C and 0.3°C) per decade due to past and ongoing emissions (high confidence). {1.2.1, Table 1.1, 1.2.4} 

● Warming from anthropogenic emissions from the pre-industrial period to the present will persist for centuries to millennia and will continue to cause further long-term changes in the climate system, such as sea-level rise, with associated impacts (high confidence), but these emissions alone are unlikely to cause global warming of 1.5°C (medium confidence). (Figure SPM.1) {1.2, 3.3, Figure 1.5} 

● “Reaching and sustaining net zero global anthropogenic CO2 emissions and declining net non-CO2 radiative forcing would halt anthropogenic global warming on multi-decadal time scales (high confidence). 

● Impacts on natural and human systems from global warming have already been observed (high confidence). Many land and ocean ecosystems and some of the services they provide have already changed due to global warming (high confidence). (Figure SPM.2) {1.4, 3.4, 3.5}} 

The IPCC Summary for Policymakers notes that there are possible factors that mitigate the impact of these predictions and conclusions. Possibly the changes won’t be as bad as predicted, since they lie within statistical confidence intervals sensitive to a variety of factors. These same confidence intervals, at the upper bounds of their limits, also show that things could get much worse. We simply don’t know. But we do know that the problem has observable impacts now. And we also know that failing to reverse course and limit our emissions of CO2, as well as methane and other heat-trapping gases, will increase the likelihood that global temperature will migrate to the upper bounds of confidence intervals. 

In fact, all we can do now is slow global warming. That in itself is an important endeavor, stretching the increase in temperature over a longer time. But it is no longer possible to reverse global warming in this century. Our emissions to date have “baked in” an increase in average global temperatures of 1.5° C by 21007. This was known in 2017. 

Taken by itself, AGW would be bad enough. But AGW is accompanied by a host of other problems that are intertwined with the energy-intensive methods humanity uses to extract ood and raw materials from the earth, and to produce commodities of questionable utility. For example: 

● Plastic ingested by sea life and land animals – From whales starving to death8to microplastics in the food chain9,10 with uncertain results, we have created a global tsunami of plastic products that now threaten our food chain. This problem is not confined to the seas. 

● Overfishing – This term is used to describe fishing practices that remove a species or multiple species of fish from waters faster than they can reproduce. Current estimates are that 34.2% of fisheries are overfished11. However, these estimates do not take into account illegal fishing, some of it done by countries in violation of international treaties12.

● Loss of arable land – Destructive farming practices are driving deforestation and pollution. From loss of forests to create monoculture crops13to the pollution14 produced by Concentrated Feedlot Operations (CAFOs), modern industrial farming combined with desertification in many areas of the globe is steadily reducing arable land, while the global population continues to rise. 

Accompanying AGW as a side effect, we also have the significant problem of ocean acidification. Carbon dioxide dissolved in the oceans creates carbonic acid. Carbonic acid is steadily raising the pH of the oceans, and making it difficult for corals and other organisms which use calcium carbonate as part of the process of forming shells and reefs to sustain themselves15

For example “The pteropod, or “sea butterfly,” is a tiny sea snail about the size of a small pea. Pteropods are an important part of many food webs and eaten by organisms ranging in size from tiny krill to whales. When pteropod shells were placed in sea water with pH and carbonate levels projected for the year 2100, the shells slowly dissolved after 45 days. Researchers have already discovered severe levels of pteropod shell dissolution in the Southern Ocean, which encircles Antarctica.”16 

More bullets could be added to this list, including loss of living area in coastal regions and island chains, Not addressed here, for example, is the incredibly short-sighted and ignorant foreign policy of imperialism, which threatens to engulf the world in nuclear war, while maintaining a constant level of ongoing war that exacerbates the above problems and creates new ones as the developed countries continue continue to exist under de facto colonial behavior and imperial competition. 

But all of these issues, from AGW and CAFOs to nuclear reactors in orbit, share a common trait, which is that all of them have, at their root, the pursuit of profit under the capitalist economic system. 

Karl Marx might be astounded today to see results of the decades of technological advance that have ensued in the interim since his death in 1883. But he would recognize the system that produced the advances, and he would also recognize the accompanying global death, destruction and disparities in wealth. The solution to these problems has not changed in the interim – we must reorganize our society along democratic lines to determine, using the best information available, what we must do to produce within the limits of our planetary environment, to ensure survival of the ecosystem and thus our own survival within it. 

Marx understood the relations between Nature, the source of all primitive accumulation, and the production of commodities for utility. In the ensuing decades, numerous authors (c.f., Klein, Capitalism and Climate Change, 2013) have expounded on the relations between man as a producer and the environment that is the only base of our sources of production. As the means of production have evolved due to technological change, we have waved away the impacts on Nature. This even as our sciences allowed us to define these impacts and warn of the consequences of failing to curb our appetites for products whose environmental costs were far beyond the carrying capacity of the planet. 

Our answer to this must be the praxis of ecosocialism. Marx has shown us that unless we can create a truly democratic society, as opposed to the controlled faux democratic trappings of the US and other countries, then humanity, both as individuals and as a species, will never develop its full potential. In the current stage of capitalism, the stakes have been raised, and we must include in our thinking not just human well-being but ecological well-being across species and across continents, tribal divisions, ideological differences, and sectarian belief. To counter the globalization of for-profit capitalism, we need the globalization of cooperation among labor. To counter the effects of pollution, we need a mass of people who view egregious pollution as an act akin to homicide. Instead of the struggle for short-term profit, we need to see that people are free enough from the cares of immediate survival to focus on the longer-term struggle to ensure planetary survival. 

The spectre of regulation, which capital flirts within public as a palliative for a restless and worried working class, and fights tooth and nail behind the scenes in the milieu of the parliamentary systems, legislatures, and the courts, is what Biden and company hold out once again. It is easily seen that no amount of enforceable regulation will constrain capital in its pursuit of profits. Any effective regulation that would constrain the externalization of the environment in the profit-loss calculations of global capital would also kill it. The political class which Biden represents, who in turn are representatives of capital, cannot even conceive of the displacement of capitalism as a basis for the organization of society. Because capital has become adept at short-circuiting and maneuvering around these efforts within our political system, the promise of regulation becomes a soporific used to lure the faintly progressive bourgeois element of the public back to sleep. 

While the pursuit of the regulatory, reformist approach to will occupy the time and interest of millions, who will track it dutifully through the brief and semi-opaque views of the mainstream media and organizations like the Sierra Club and 350.org, the recent history of the political output of the parties shows that ultimately these efforts will produce nothing of significance to reverse the decline of both labor and the ecosystem (c.f., Obama and the lack of commitment in the Copenhagen Agreement. ). Put simply, there is no one person, clique or organization acting within our political system that has the imagination to accomplish this, because the starting point for all such discussion is the preservation of capitalism. 

So our starting point must be the replacement of capitalism with the previously described democratic forms of organization. As the past 400 years of history have shown, this effort can produce significant changes and gains. But it has also produced significant, often violent, and always punitive reactions from the forces of capital. As 2021 begins, the economic and material realities have capital in what appears to be a nearly unassailable position to resist democratic change. We cannot accept that this is true because the success of capital means the death of the planet. So we must return to the time-honored practices of organization and education. We must do this with greater urgency because it is quite possible that we do not have enough time to save both the planet and ourselves. The only certainty is that capitalism will not only fail to save us but will hasten our path into the apocalyptic future that is so zestfully described in the movies and entertainment it produces, sold to us in our psychologically induced pursuit of pleasure and fulfillment. Intentionally, the response of capitalism to climate change will be sterile and ineffective for the mass of humanity and will transfer more public wealth to the pockets of the wealthy.

References 

1https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn9989-timeline-human-evolution/ – New Scientist  reference for human timeline

2https://www.politico.com/news/2020/12/23/lloyd-austin-confirmation-jeopardy-450307

3https://www.cnbc.com/2020/03/10/biden-says-he-wouldd-veto-medicare-for-all-as-coronavirus-focuses-attention-on-health.html

4https://www.jacobinmag.com/2020/08/biden-democratic-national-convention-austerity

5https://theintercept.com/2020/08/07/joe-biden-climate-policy-advisers/

6IPCC, 2018: Summary for Policymakers. In: Global Warming of 1.5°C. An IPCC Special  Report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and related  global greenhouse gas emission pathways, in the context of strengthening the global  response to the threat of climate change, sustainable development, and efforts to  eradicate poverty [Masson-Delmotte, V., P. Zhai, H.-O. Pörtner, D. Roberts, J. Skea, P.R.  Shukla, A. Pirani, W. Moufouma-Okia, C. Péan, R. Pidcock, S. Connors, J.B.R. Matthews,  Y. Chen, X. Zhou, M.I. Gomis, E. Lonnoy, T. Maycock, M. Tignor, and T. Waterfield (eds.)].  World Meteorological Organization, Geneva, Switzerland, 32 pp.

7https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/07/170731114534.htm  

8https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/2019/03/whale-dies-88-pounds-plast  ic-philippines/#:~:text=This%20whale%20had%20more%20than,its%20stomach%20when  %20it%20died&text=Researchers%20pulled%20nearly%2090%20pounds,the%20plastic%2  0in%20its%20belly .

9https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/from-fish-to-humans-a-microplastic-invasion  -may-be-taking-a-toll/

10https://thehill.com/changing-america/well-being/longevity/531322-for-the-first-time-sci entists-find-microplastics-in?fbclid=IwAR08yRA6deIteh_rDO8ZqS6xHxd24-PK1zopWQM0 2_yhigUoV2FNlslpkpo .

See also https://www.endocrine.org/topics/edc/plastics-edcs-and-health and Jâms, I.B.,  Windsor, F.M., Poudevigne-Durance, T. et al. Estimating the size distribution of plastics  ingested by animals. Nat Commun 11, 1594 (2020).  https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-020-15406-6

11https://sustainablefisheries-uw.org/fao-state-of-world-fisheries-2020/  

12https://fortune.com/2020/07/22/illegal-fishing-flying-squid-prices-asia-global-fishing-wa  tch/  

13https://globalforestatlas.yale.edu/land-use/industrial-agriculture  

14https://www.ncsl.org/research/agriculture-and-rural-development/concentrated-animal-f  eeding-operations.aspx  

15https://www.noaa.gov/education/resource-collections/ocean-coasts/ocean-acidificatio  n#:~:text=Carbon%20dioxide%20and%20seawater,ions%20(HCO3%2D).  

16Bednaršek, N., Tarling, G., Bakker, D. et al. Extensive dissolution of live pteropods in the  Southern Ocean. Nature Geosci 5, 881–885 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1038/ngeo1635  

17 https://www.counterpunch.org/2020/12/15/the-big-push-for-nukes-in-space/ 

For more reading on Biden’s picks to address climate change, see:  

https://apnews.com/article/joe-biden-donald-trump-climate-climate-change-environment-7755de c25951b39f26b0124487fcdba3 

https://newrepublic.com/article/160358/obama-reunion-isnt-nearly-enough-stave-off-catastrophe