Capitalism Can’t Combat Climate Change

Editorial for issue 35 of Socialist Revolution magazine. Subscribe now to get your copy!

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Judging by the panicked tone of the liberal press, the only way forward for humanity is to ensure the Democrats maintain control of Congress in the midterms. In a coordinated campaign to browbeat voters to the polls, the memory of January 6 is kept alive with an endless stream of congressional hearings, trials of Nazi sympathizers, and talking heads lamenting the tattered Constitution and bleak future for American democracy. They tie themselves into knots to put a shine on Biden’s floundering presidency, blaming conservative individuals, far-right ideologies, or plain “bad luck” for his impotence.

They bend over backward to explain away the lack of enthusiasm for a fourth-rate mediocrity plagued by ineptitude and legislative failures. They gloss over the fact that American democracy is bourgeois democracy—democracy for the few, the rich, the powerful—not the many. They cannot fathom that Trumpism and January 6 are not primary causes of the crisis of US bourgeois democracy, but symptoms of its utter rot and decay. They refuse to accept that, like the bourgeois social relations it codifies, the US Constitution will not last forever. And they are blind to the fact that Biden was doomed from the moment he was elected because salvaging a system teetering on the edge of a trash heap is impossible.

In a campaign to browbeat voters, the memory of January 6 is kept alive with endless congressional hearings and lamentations of American democracy’s bleak future. / Image: Tyler Merbler, Wikimedia Commons

Although the volatility of modern American politics means anything could happen, things look grim for the Democrats on November 8 and in 2024 as a political hurricane brews in Florida. According to a former analyst at the Brookings Institution, a Trump victory would:

Consolidate his control over the institutions of government, bending them to his will, removing any lingering resistance from the Republican Party. Meanwhile, by confirming that the United States has rejected its traditional leadership role, a second Trump term would make a lasting impact on the world right when it is at a particularly vulnerable moment. US alliances would likely crumble, the global economy would close, and democracy and human rights would be in rapid retreat.

To be sure, Trump 2.0 would mean an all-out attack on the working class and would need to be fought tooth-and-nail in the workplace and on the streets. But an even more urgent crisis faces our species: the question of climate change. It is not a matter of if or when, but of how quickly and intensely every inhabitant of the planet will be affected. Already, the reality facing billions of people is stark.

In 2021, 59.1 million people worldwide were internally displaced, more often due to climate-related disasters than armed conflict. Within 50 years, massive chunks of the planet, which are currently home to one-third of the population, will be as hot as the hottest parts of the Sahara. No fewer than 1.2 billion people will fall outside the sweet-spot “climate niche” in which humans have been able to thrive for millennia.

In some form or another, every country is already affected. After smashing the Caribbean and knocking out 100% of Puerto Rico’s power grid, Hurricane Fiona slammed into Maritime Canada, wiping out homes and critical infrastructure. Hot on its heels and rapidly gaining strength, Ian could turn into “something that we haven’t seen in our lifetime,” according to a Tampa, Florida forecaster.

In some form or another, climate change already affects every country. After knocking out Puerto Rico’s power grid, Hurricane Fiona slammed into Maritime Canada. / Image: NASA

Meanwhile, halfway around the world in Pakistan, devastating floods of “Biblical” proportions have inundated one-third of the typically arid country. Thirty-three million people have been displaced, 16 million of them children, and 3.4 million of these require “immediate, life-saving support,” according to UNICEF. Millions of kids are living out in the open, exposed to the elements, without easy access to drinking water or food, and dying from diarrhea, malaria, dengue, and other preventable illnesses and infectious diseases.

It is said that the nature of a society can be judged by how it treats its women, children, the aged, and the infirm. The catastrophic scenes in Pakistan are a graphic condemnation of society—not just Pakistani society—but the entirety of capitalist society, which is necessarily global in nature. In response, the US government has sent $50.1 million in “aid,” which is less than $1.52 per person affected. Compare this to the $13.5 billion sent so far by US imperialism to Ukraine to fight a proxy war with Russia—270 times more than what was sent to Pakistan. This makes it crystal clear where the ruling class’s priorities lie.

The tragedy is that the resources needed to restructure society to manage this already exist. A worldwide program of planned public works and investment in sustainable energy production, housing, roads, flood and earthquake-proofing, municipal water systems, and other infrastructural improvements would eliminate unemployment and raise the quality of life of billions. The technology is there—but not the profitability—and under capitalism, profitability is king. The capitalists own the means of production and can therefore do whatever they want with them in the pursuit of profit, no matter the impact on humanity.

But there is a solution. A democratically planned economy could turn the tide in less than a generation. Only a socialist revolution can ensure the key levers of the economy are in public hands, to be run by the vast majority in our interests. Only a rationally planned economy can rebalance our species’ relationship with the planet. After all, you can’t plan what you don’t control and can’t control what you don’t own.

Engels made prescient observations on the dialectical interrelationship between human productive activity and nature. These ideas were ahead of their time then—and remain so today. / Image: Socialist Revolution

Marxists have long understood the delicate balance and dialectical interrelationship between human productive activity and nature. As far back as 1876, Friedrich Engels made the following prescient observations on the relationship between man and nature. These ideas were ahead of their time then—and remain so today:

Mastery over nature began with the development of the hand, with labor, and widened man’s horizon at every new advance. He was continually discovering new, hitherto unknown properties in natural objects. On the other hand, the development of labor necessarily helped to bring the members of society closer together by increasing cases of mutual support and joint activity, and by making clear the advantage of this joint activity to each individual…

In nature, nothing takes place in isolation. Everything affects and is affected by every other thing, and it is mostly because this manifold motion and interaction is forgotten that our natural scientists are prevented from gaining a clear insight into the simplest things…

Let us not, however, flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human victories over nature. For each such victory, nature takes its revenge on us. Each victory, it is true, in the first place brings about the results we expected, but in the second and third places, it has quite different, unforeseen effects which only too often cancel the first…

Thus, at every step, we are reminded that we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing outside nature—but that we, with flesh, blood, and brain, belong to nature, and exist in its midst, and that all our mastery of it consists in the fact that we have the advantage over all other creatures of being able to learn its laws and apply them correctly.

In Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, Mike is asked how he went bankrupt. His reply? “Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.” This neatly sums up the dialectics of change and the transformation of quantity into quality. Tipping points can happen in the blink of an eye. Contradictions accumulate gradually and imperceptibly, and before you know it, everything is transformed. This applies to nature and society, hurricanes and climate change, political parties, institutions of class rule—and revolution.

Revolutionary Change Not Climate Change – Socialist Revolution NYC Climate Strike Contingent
There is an alternative to capitalist barbarism, accelerated by the climate crisis: the road of the world socialist revolution and workers’ democracy. / Image: Socialist Revolution

Innumerable objective and subjective accumulations are converging towards a decisive societal showdown. The liberal apologists and defenders of bourgeois democracy are indeed in an existential crisis. They can’t deal with climate change because they are tied to private property and the profit motive. And they can’t stop Trumpism because they can’t stop capitalism. Not only are they ideologically bankrupt, but they are also terrified of the only force that can tackle the multiple crises that threaten us—the slumbering giant of the working class. The alternative needn’t be Trumpist reaction and a continued descent into capitalist barbarism, accelerated by the climate crisis. Another road is possible—the road of the world socialist revolution and workers’ democracy.

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