Did ‘UN scientists’ suggest transcending capitalism to tackle Climate Change?

capitalism and climate change cartoon

From August 31 this year, a part of the media and social media was abuzz with a supposed oracle of some scientists. Headings like: “We Cannot Fight Climate Change With Capitalism, Says Report,” “A dire new report reveals our capitalist economic system may not be up to the task of dealing with the climate disasters to come”, “This is how UN scientists are preparing for the end of capitalism” appeared in many news portals. “Capitalism and global sustainability are incongruous with one another, according to a recent paper for the UN’s 2019 Global Sustainable Development Report.” — wrote Grit Post. Their article with heading “UN Scientific Paper Says Capitalism Has to Die in Order for the Planet to Be Saved” was shared by portals and social media activists more than 100,000 times though the editors were quick to amend the headline on the same day [a note was added there: “EDITOR’S NOTE, 8/28/18, 3:34 PM ET: This headline was amended from “UN Scientific Paper Says Capitalism Has to Die in Order for the Planet to Be Saved” to “UN Scientific Paper Suggests Capitalism Has to Die in Order for the Planet to Be Saved.””[1]] Well known left website MR Online added that Grit Post article on September 3, which helped that article’s dissemination further[2].

But what did the UN appointed scientists actually say? Did they say or suggest that in order to fight climate change capitalism must end? Did their paper hint it? A curt answer will be: NO. Their paper, ‘Global Sustainable Development Report 2019 drafted by the Group of independent scientists’ by Paavo Järvensivu et al. of BIOS, Finland[3] is not much lengthy and not too technical; non-specialized readers can also read that. We may examine the paper to find out what the scientists said or suggested or hinted.

In the introduction the paper says: “While economists typically emphasize carbon pricing as a policy tool for tackling climate change, natural scientists and multidisciplinary environmental research groups argue for more profound political engagement and proactive governance of economic transition (Chapin et al. 2011, Steffen et al. 2018) – something akin to a global Marshall Plan (Aronoff 2017, Gore 1992).” This sentence, and also referred article like that of Kate Aronoff too [“Could a Marshall Plan for the Planet Tackle the Climate Crisis?” by Kate Aronoff November 16, 2017[4]] did not say or suggest or hint the need to cross or transcend beyond what is commonly termed as capitalism in order to tackle climate change. Moreover, it is well known and documented what a Marshall plan intended to do. As for why the Marshall Plan was designed, we can safely say that the main intentions were (1) to rejuvenate war devastated west European capitalist economies and (2) to halt the spread of communism or socialism. We shall come to what the authors meant by ‘economic transition’ measures later. Before that let us go inside the BIOS paper to look into detail.

The BIOS paper focused on four important fields or domains under the subtitle: “What needs to be done – in social and material terms?” — (1) Energy, (2) Transport, (3) Food and (4) Housing. Let us visit these points one by one. For Energy the important observation made is, “Because renewables have a lower EROI and different technical requirements, such as the need to build energy storage facilities, meeting current or growing levels of energy need in the next few decades with low-carbon solutions will be extremely difficult, if not impossible. Thus, there is considerable pressure to lower total energy use.” As regards Transport the paper suggests: “In cities, walking and biking should be emphasized and the remaining public or semi-public transport in and between cities should be largely electrified.” And the scientists made a very good and futuristic hint: “This will require changes in city planning (for example, how homes and workplaces are connected to each other and how convenient biking is), in vehicle production, in transport infrastructure such as railways, roads and charging stations, and in energy production and storage.” Regarding Food, the scientists told readers to focus on food security of countries – “Countries currently relying on significant amounts of food imports will have to attain a high degree of food self-sufficiency, with international food trade regaining its position as a crucial component of food security rather than serving as a commodity market.” And additionally, “With regard to both production and consumption practices, dairy and meat should make way for largely plant-based diets ….” As regards Housing they suggest wooden buildings reducing steel-concrete usage: “Long-lasting wood buildings, on the contrary, can provide carbon storage …. A significant shift toward using wood in construction would require changes in the entire production network, starting from forestry, in which construction uses compete for example with paper and energy uses.” But as to energy usage in houses, it only says, “In addition to manufacturing, cooling and heating are the most significant drivers of lifetime emissions from housing” which is related to “energy production” and “housing practices”.

To achieve these ends, the paper argues in the next two sections, “It is clear from these examples that strong political governance is required to accomplish the key transitions. Market-based action will not suffice – even with a high carbon price.” They then explained the inefficacy of carbon pricing or Pigouvian fees in solving this. And hence, they argued, explicitly, that a shift is needed from neo-classical to post-Keynesian economic theory and practice which has space for state interventions: “… the Post-Keynesian approach is not a priori wary of the state’s role in the market. It does not assume that markets always seek equilibrium, but maintains instead that capitalist economies tend to generate market bubbles and other crises. Markets do not lead to socially and ecologically desirable outcomes on their own, but require active political guidance.”  Then, “The Post-Keynesian approach challenges economic orthodoxy and supports sustainability transitions in the current economic and political context of Western and other similarly ordered countries. Developments in China serve as a reminder that economic theories other than neoclassical ones are already effective in the world.” Though the paper tells, “Beyond Post-Keynesian theory, there can be a variety of economic theories that support rapid materially and ecologically beneficial transitions. The key theoretical requirement is that they must enable politics to acknowledge transformational social goals and the material boundaries of economic activity”, it did not outline any of those ‘variety of economic theories that support rapid materially and ecologically beneficial transitions’, neither it suggested transcending capitalism towards socialism.

Moreover, according to the paper, there is another very useful by-product of this post-Keynesian approach: “As a practical policy tool, Post-Keynesians have suggested a so-called job guarantee …, which would ensure that all people capable and willing to work would be able to get a permanent, state-funded, and locally administered job.” In the concluding section a motivation or utility of this resulting full-employment boon is stated, “Climate change and other environmental changes threaten livelihoods across the planet and thus give cause for mass migration. It is in the interest of all countries to maintain local opportunities for a good life.”

Nevertheless, the paper warned: “One especially important constraint for rich countries is that dramatic reductions in emissions at current high levels of consumption are very challenging, if not impossible.” This purported change in wasteful commodity-fetish way of life may appear as anti-capitalist, so does the prescribed change in transport, mode of transport and etc. Moreover, there was that example: “In China, economic transitions have not been held back by the ideas of minimum state intervention or a balanced budget…”, plus that full-employment scenario of everybody having ‘permanent, state-funded, and locally administered job’.

On cursory reading these references or hints of state-intervention, state-control, indirect hint of consumption-restriction (say, cycling and electric-driven public-transport instead of fossil-fuel driven automobiles), full-employment, China, etc all these taken together may seem to suggest moving beyond capitalist society. But actually, these state controlled capitalisms, controlled to various extents, may still mean capitalism if seen from the class angle – things that matter are: who run the economy, who own the means of production (and distribution), who run the said transition and how. To Marxists, a state is never a class-neutral player and to them ‘transition’ has some concrete significance.

It will be worthwhile if in this Marx-200 year we reread how Marx and Engels viewed capitalism, socialism and transition. We may not find in Marx a precise and concrete definition of ‘capitalism’. But reading Marx we know it is a society, an economy, where commodity production, commodity exchange, money, private property of means of production, wage labour etc. categories predominantly prevail. As Engels showed, capitalist crises push capitalism to take some measures and this was behind rise of state owned/controlled enterprises within capitalism (explained in Anti Dühring). When the working-class rebels against this system and overthrows the rule, it cannot jump at once to communism – communism being the opposite of capitalism, where there will be no classes and hence no wage labour, no commodities and money, even no distinction of manual labour and mental labour, no antithesis of town and country and so on. In between capitalism and establishment of classless society there lies a long transition period. In this transition period, named ‘Dictatorship of Proletariat’ by them, many revolutionary changes will start taking place. Some important aspects of going beyond capitalism will be changes regarding ownership and control of means of production, changes in property rights and laws about inheritance, and so on – even in the Communist Manifesto, which they authored in early years of their life, we can find this. [“The proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degree, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralise all instruments of production in the hands of the State, i.e., of the proletariat organised as the ruling class; and to increase the total productive forces as rapidly as possible. Of course, in the beginning, this cannot be effected except by means of despotic inroads on the rights of property, and on the conditions of bourgeois production; by means of measures, therefore, which appear economically insufficient and untenable, but which, in the course of the movement, outstrip themselves, necessitate further inroads upon the old social order, and are unavoidable as a means of entirely revolutionising the mode of production.”[5] And then 10 measures were listed there as possible steps to be taken in advanced capitalist countries, in which Point no: 1 is “Abolition of property in land and application of all rents of land to public purposes” and Point no: 3 is “Abolition of all rights of inheritance”.] We can learn this also from Lenin and Mao [for example, say, “Chairman Mao has pointed out: “China … Even now she practises an eight-grade wage system, distribution to each according to his work and exchange by means of money, which are scarcely different from these in the old society. What is different is that the system of ownership has changed.”” And there it was explained that the society in transition could well revert back to capitalism if the capitalist-roaders wrests the control.[6]] Obviously, those UN scientists did not hint such transition.

Whether such state-controlled capitalisms or post-Keynesian economies as hinted by those UN scientists will be able to solve the climate change problem is another matter. Scholars can investigate what might be the ecological result of essentially capitalist attitude towards nature that permeates through ‘solutions’, for example, what happens if we treat forests and trees as wood, and wood as ‘carbon-sink’, if we treat nature as collection of ‘useful substances’! It demands a detail theoretical discussion which is beyond the scope of this short article. But here we can underline one thing only, that is the said paper did not hint to go beyond capitalism. To natural scientists and to many social scientists too, the meaning of ‘capitalism’ may not be clear; as we can see clearly in the article by Kate Aronoff November 16, 2017 which the paper referred. There, Professor Kevin Anderson said in that interview, “I’ve had plenty of arguments with people that we can’t really define capitalism. Is what we see in the US the same as what we see in Sweden? Are they both capitalist? There are some elements that are clearly crossovers, but there are also big differences.” From this we can guess what ideas those scientists may bear regarding capitalism and what they may mean by going beyond capitalism. But for Marxists, it will be a gross negligence if we overlook the class question while looking at ‘state’ or ‘government’. Marxists, unlike many ‘leftists’, do not confuse welfare state or state capitalism with socialism.

By their suggestions of changes those scientists indicated that capitalism as it practised today must be changed in order to tackle climate change; but the changes they postulated did not specifically mean going beyond capitalism (towards socialism).

[A shorter version of this article appeared online in Frontier Weekly site on Nov 24.]

[1] See https://gritpost.com/un-paper-capitalism/

[2] See https://mronline.org/2018/09/03/un-scientific-paper-suggests-capitalism-has-to-die-in-order-for-the-planet-to-be-saved/

[3] Available at https://bios.fi/bios-governance_of_economic_transition.pdf

[4] Available at https://www.thenation.com/article/could-a-marshall-plan-for-the-planet-tackle-the-climate-crisis/

[5] Taken from https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1848/communist-manifesto/ch02.htm

[6] On the Social Basis of the Lin Piao Anti-Party Clique by Yao Wen-yuan, available at https://www.marxists.org/subject/china/peking-review/1975/PR1975-10a.htm

Sandeep Banerjee is an activist who writes on political and socioeconomic issues and also on environmental issues. Some of his articles are published in Frontier Weekly. He lives in West Bengal, India.  Presently he works in a research organisation. He can be reached at [email protected]

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