The Tory government’s decision to allow a third runway at Heathrow Airport underlines how the political and corporate worlds have become entirely estranged from the real world. This is an outcome of the fundamental alienation at the heart of the capitalist system.
The climate has entered a new phase as a number of tipping points have passed. There is enough greenhouse gas in the atmosphere to go over the 1.5ºC increase in global surface temperatures that was agreed as a target at the Paris climate talks. It has arrived at 400 parts per million and what is new is that this is not a transient fluctuation or measured at a single location – it is a global average. It will stay like that for the foreseeable future, and the result is damaging changes in the climate that are already happening.
Extreme heat – in July this year temperatures over 50ºC in the Middle East, India and Pakistan for long periods.
Extreme floods – this October 2016 in Spain, Albania, Romania, heavy rains and floods. Areas in the the UK hit by floods 3 times in the last 5 years have still not recovered, and last year 3 huge storms damaged homes, business and infrastructure.
Drought – Ethiopia has worst drought for 50 years, with 18 million people facing starvation. California is in its sixth successive year of drought. More than 600,000 acres have burned in wildfires, some burning on for weeks.
Stronger hurricanes – after Hurricane Matthew, the island of Haiti is in ruins, with 1.4million people out of a population of 10m needing food aid, 1.5 million homeless and typhoid spreading rapidly.
Rising oceans – Island peoples are already having to move inland. In the Marshall Islands and Kiribati, high tides wash through streets and farms. There is concern that 100,000 people from Kiribati will need to move in the next decade or so. Climate driven migration has begun. Rapidly melting ice sheets and glaciers mean scientists now struggle to estimate how high and how fast sea levels will rise. In Siberia, the city of Norilsk is sinking because it is built on melting permafrost. At a recent conference cities as diverse as Miami, Mumbai, Lagos, Ho Chi Mhin City and St. Petersburg met to share information and support.
Not only the climate but also the eco-system is degraded. The latest Living Planet Index states that the number of wild animals will fall by two-thirds by 2020. Animal populations alread fell 58% between 1970 and 2012, and losses could be 67% by 2020.
At recent a meeting at the White House President Obama told campaigners it was impossible to start to move rapidly away from fossil fuels because “I have to live in the real world”. But his is not the real world – it is the fantasy world where capitalist business as usual is possible.
It is not that governments are entirely inactive – it is simply that they will never commit to firm intervention because even the easiest actions – and there are many available – will never take priority over profit-driven growth and the demands of corporations. The disconnect between governments and reality has become the single most deadly issue facing humanity and indeed every other species too.
Of course the corporations will not tackle the problem – because that is not what they are structured to do. They are organised to deliver profits and really everything else is outside their brief.
Capitalist globalisation has created a world where we are forced to operate on the principle that the only real business of human society – and in fact the whole of nature – is producing commodities for profit. Capitalism by its very nature must constantly revolutionise the means of production, extract more and more raw materials, and develop technology to increase the productivity of labour.
The amount of profit, and above all the rate of profit, needs to grow year on year and it follows that more and more objects, with briefer useful lives, are produced to offset the tendency the rate of profit to fall as productivity increases. This tide of over-production of commodities has brought the eco-system to its knees.
Over several centuries there has been a mutually conditioning process whereby the developing capitalist economic form has shaped trade, governance, law, the state and constitution. Of course within that there is resistance and there are parties that have, at certain moments, implemented reforms. But intervention to defend the environment in a significant way is self-evidently impossible when national governments bow to the will of global economic forces beyond their control.
But it must not remain impossible because it is only through governing arrangements – or constitutional, state, legal bodies – we can begin to make the social transformation that is needed.
Unlike other species human beings relate to nature not directly, but through economy. The extractive relation with natural resources is how we live. This relation with the source of our livelihood is mediated through our society – in the present day that means capitalist economy and its supporting state structures.
In other words, capitalism is the economic form through which our present relationship with nature is mediated. It is an alienating form because does not reflect the actual objective relation – which is that we are part of a natural whole and dependent on it. It serves instead the increasingly bizarre requirement to take actions that destroy the ecology on which all future economy, or husbandry, or livelihood, depends.
Over time the state of society and politics – and in particular law, constitution, education, and so on – have been brutally shaped to promote the assumption that the capitalist economic form is the natural nature of this relation.
This alienated one-sided relation has to be transcended in order for humans to begin acting to bring about a transformation in our states, in our hollowed-out democracies.
So we can say that tackling climate change is a democratic issue. And example of why this is the case is fracking in the UK. The government overthrew a democratic decision of Lancashire County Council to deny Cuadrilla permission to frack. North Yorkshire County Council agreed to permit fracking at Kirby Misperton in the teeth of massive opposition from local people. In Scotland, anti-fracking groups came together in a Broad Alliance to make a powerful Community Case Against Unconventional Gas, knowing that in the end, even if hundreds of thousands in the Central Belt oppose this dirty new industry, it will not be their decision to make.
In the anti-fracking movement, which is the vanguard of the environmental movement in the UK today, campaigners say that the government has no social licence for unconventional gas extraction.
The concept of a social licence is very helpful as we consider the way forward. In fact we must find ways to withdraw the social licence from governments to operate on behalf of only one very limited aspect of social relations – profit-driven growth. This requires a democratic revolution everywhere.
It is not surprising that people are increasingly inspired by the understanding of the human/nature relation that is part of indigenous culture, that is early communist forms.
The vast majority of people relate to nature not directly, but at one remove as wage slaves. Until we transcend the whole concept of waged workers and profit driven growth, and develop a completely different “social metabolic relation” (as Istvan Meszaros building on Marx puts it) we can’t protect the human future or the future of millions of other precious species.
Protecting species and eco-system diversity is a critical aspect of continuing life on earth. Life came about through co-evolution, and survival of the best adapted within a system of interconnected species and habitats. The interpretation of evolution as a life and death struggle where the strongest individual survives is entirely unscientific because it is only one aspect of the evolutionary whole.
This is the heart of the purpose of trying to develop a real democracy. In a real democracy, communities of different kinds, deciding through structures they themselves have formed and which they control, will offer a social licence to economic activities that are carried out for the common good.
They will transform the one-sided extraction only relation with nature into a dialectical and natural relation, which is restorative and conservative as well as extractive. They can redefine and regenerate the concept of Commons. And only in this way can we develop into a new stage of evolution.