The climate crisis calls for an immediate capping – not decapitating – of capitalism

The climate crisis calls for an immediate capping – not decapitating – of capitalism

Jeff Rudin | DailyMaverick | 04 May

The still-to-be-answered challenge in finding a way out of the impasse of the climate crisis is not what constitutes an ‘entirely new economy’ – the answers are plentiful – but rather how to achieve it. More particularly, this means how to persuade the majority of people to support the need for an entirely new economy. And how to do this in a way that most of the privileged few would remain privileged, but in a more measured way.

“The simple fact is, if the climate crisis is not going to bring on the collapse of modern civilisation, the world will need an entirely new economy.”

This beginning to a recent Daily Maverick article by Kevin Bloom serves to remind us of the enormous progress made in the foregrounding of climate change. From a beginning of, at best, just being recognised, it has progressed to increasingly being seen as a global crisis. This, despite the best efforts of the fossil fuel industry, the investors who live off that industry and the politicians who defend both.

A recent poll, for instance, found that climate change is an even greater worry than Covid-19 for young Europeans. Another EU poll found that 68% want their own country’s climate targets to be increased, while 84% support increased climate efforts in transport. A more detailed global survey by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) is even more compelling in its positivity. With 1.2 million respondents, the UN research is the largest study of public opinion on climate change ever conducted. These three polls represent striking progress. The challenge is no longer to persuade people, in large numbers, that climate change is real, or that it is of concern only for the future.

This progress is sufficient to allow us to address Kevin Bloom’s call for “an entirely new economy”. What this means is the big question.

When Mark Carney also calls for economic change, we know that the recognition of climate change is no more than the first big step. Carney – governor of the Bank of Canada and then the Bank of England between 2008 to 2020, co-author of the G30’s “Mainstreaming the Transition to a Net-Zero Economy” – is the current UN special envoy for climate action and finance. In this capacity he spoke on a high-level virtual dialogue on 19 April 2021 themed “Road to COP26: Opportunities, Challenges and the African Transition to Net-Zero”.

Like, Bloom, he, too, sees the unavoidable imperative of major economic changes. But now come the big differences: Bloom’s “entirely new economy” versus Carney’s much more limited need for “significant structural changes”. Variations of an “entirely new economy” would all be nightmares for Carney and the very powerful groups and interests he represents. Since it is these precise groups and interests who have most effectively resisted the changes needed to stop climate change, it is safe to infer the inadequacy of whatever form of ecomodernism they might have in mind.

For those of us concerned about the limits of Carney’s changes, the still-to-be-answered challenge is not what constitutes an “entirely new economy” – the answers are plentiful – but rather how to achieve it. More particularly, this means how to persuade a majority of people to support the need for an entirely new economy.

Who might champion the call for an entirely new economy?

A radical left answer would be the working class as an act of their self-liberation. The trouble here is that large sections of the working class (which includes the unemployed) have other, more immediately pressing needs, even if they are aware of the climate crisis. Moreover, those workers most aware of the crisis are also likely to be most opposed to the renewable energy (RE) remedy. For them, RE (seemingly) imperils their very livelihood, their jobs.

If the working class is not the immediate support base for this change, who, then, might be the champions of the change? The UNDP research suggests an answer.

Most striking in this previously mentioned global study of 50 countries covering 56% of the world’s population, is that positive support to “do something” about the climate crisis is directly proportional to both a country’s wealth and the educational level of respondents regardless of country.

Given that it is the privileged who are most concerned about climate change, the immediate question becomes: if we think the privileged are an important constituency, then we need to find genuine ways of allaying their specific class-related fears. Above all, is their fear of the stark choice ultimately being between climate catastrophe or a return to some form of early industrial, if not pre-industrial, way of life.

These fears are well captured by Malena Ernman, Greta Thunberg’s mother. Writing about Sweden, she notes, in “Our House is On Fire”:

  • “It’s not about listening and finding solutions. It has never been about that. Because who wants a solution to a crisis… that [would mean] everything has to change?… That the prevailing world order is responsible for a failure of cosmic proportions, since the threat is much greater than anything humankind has ever faced before. No, that’s inconceivable for anyone who does not want to see comprehensive change.” [p 248]
  • “The… secret is so simple. All you have to do is get as many people as possible to defend their little part of the universe. Their job. Their home. Their holiday. Their car. Their money. It’s about scaring as many people as possible with the threat of change and decline. And doing it to such an extent that in principle they are prepared to do anything to stand up for their own microscopic part of this gigantic world.” [p 251]
  • “Only a small minority live outside the planetary limits of what is sustainable. The problem is that we belong to that minority.” [p 261]

How do we address these real fears and understandable concerns? They might be “only a small minority” but they are hugely important both economically and politically.

My immediate answer is that what “we” have been doing doesn’t help. By “we” I mean those of us who recognise Kevin Bloom’s call for “an entirely new economy”. We are the “degrowth” movement; we are embodied in the call for a “steady state economy”. Given the pervasiveness of the idea that “growth” is not only good but essential for economic wellbeing, including such basic things as employment, the mere suggestion of anything involving “degrowth” invites dismissal. “Steady-state” is evocative of “sustainable”, which is much better PR than “degrowth”. However, it doesn’t address the fears of the “small minority” regarding the privileges they will lose: “Their job. Their home. Their holiday. Their car. Their money,” as Malena Ernman tells us, so pithily.

Worse still, the term, steady-state, fails to allow for the global majority who know little, if anything, of what Ernman refers to as “the planetary limits of what is sustainable.” Given the inequalities within countries, they may well be aware of their own limits, of their own exclusions. Either as servants, waiters or just as workers – whether or not they’re involved with the manufacture or distribution of luxury goods – they will viscerally know what is not for them. This knowledge-from-a-distance is the usual limit of their direct experience of the 21st century.

An “entirely new economy” must begin with this challenge of placing the privileged “microscopic part” within the poverty of the surrounding world. A vast expenditure of resources – both physical and financial – are integral to this new economy. Apart from where these resources are to come from, this means standing degrowth on its head and postponing notions of a steady-state economy.

Climate change is a luxury in this global context. Or is it? Might there yet be a win-win way out of what appears to be a number of dead-ends, or a series of impossible either/ors?

A closer look at the innards of our global economy offers hope: hope for both the majority of those excluded from the 21st century as well as the (relatively) small minority who alone experience 21st-century privileges. The realisation of each hope however is dependent on the achievement of both. This – as will be seen in what follows – is because of the complex of interconnections that link all countries and all regions into a whole-world economy. Climate change is a global phenomenon for physical as well as economic reasons.

Hope for the small minority

A Lamborghini Sian on display at the second press preview day of the International Motor Show IAA in Frankfurt, Germany in 2019. (Photo: EPA-EFE / FRIEDEMANN VOGEL)

I begin here because of the catalytic potential of this “small minority”.

I begin, more prosaically, with motor cars. A recent Daily Maverick article, titled, “Lamborghini Had Its Most Profitable Year Ever During Covid,” attributes this achievement to the “wildly successful Urus SUV and the sold-out runs of… supercars such as the $3.3-million Sian.” Powered by a 6.5-litre V12 hybrid engine, the Sian accelerates to 100km/h in 2.8 seconds and has a top speed of 350km/h. First released in 2019, they were sold out “the minute they went on sale”.

The Daily Maverick article informs us that “Chinese car buyers in recent years have developed an appetite for ultra-luxury SUVs” such as Rolls-Royce, Bentley, Lamborghini and Ferrari. According to the article, “In China, as elsewhere, high-performance, mid-six-figure SUVs outsell the rest of the sedans and sports cars in those manufacturers’ lineups. Last year the Urus accounted for 59% of Lamborghini sales worldwide.” 


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