Capital is the culprit

Submitted by AWL on 9 February, 2021 - 8:01 Author: Zack Muddle
Climate wave

Things are harder for our generation than they were for our parents. But in one respect we are luckier than our parents. We have begun to learn and are rapidly learning to fight — and to fight not as individuals, as the best of our parents fought... but for our slogans, the slogans of our class. We are fighting better than our parents did. Our children will fight better than we do, and they will be victorious.”

Lenin, The Working Class and Neo-Malthusianism (1913)

This article takes up from the review of David Attenborough: A Life on This Planet in Solidarity 580.

Fossil fuel — mostly coal — was used for heating before capitalism. Coal is considerably more energy-dense than wood or other alternatives, suiting it as a fuel to be transported into towns and cities. This heating was largely domestic, so fossil fuel use was tied to population size. That population constraint rules out exponential explosion of fossil combustion.

With capitalism, factories developed and expanded as a way of disciplining workers and regularising production. Having a single external energy source driving its machines — rather than muscle — enforces a constant pace, and yet greater discipline. Automation, and with it deskilling, helps capitalists to break workers’ industrial power more still. External energy sources become even more profitable.

At crucial points in the development of capitalism, coal-fired steam-power allowed capitalists more freedom to move their factorieswhere they wanted, and run them when they wanted, than otherwise cheaper and better water power.

The freedom to locate factories within densely populated cities gave capitalists access to a greater pool of available workers, already used to factory discipline, and looking for work. This required a much lower investment of fixed capital than building a factory and village for workers at a good location for a water wheel.

The ability to reliably run factories all day, every day, helps capitalists extract the maximum labour from workers, especially when workers won limits on the clock-time they could be compelled to work for.

The introduction and expansion of fossil fuels, as the energy basis of production, was thus largely a manoeuvre by capital in the offensive against labour.

Huge dams and complex systems involving aqueducts could have provided reliable power, located in a wide range of places, and cheaper than steam-power. However, that involved more technical planning, imposed interdependence on competing capitalists, and required big investments of fixed capital. From the start, the fossil economy was fuelled by the peculiarities of capitalist relations of production.

In the last 200 years, global population has grown by a factor of roughly 7.3, while global emissions have grown over 100 times as fast, by a factor of roughly 730. The uncoupling of carbon dioxide emissions from population is precisely the problem. Today, one-sixth of the world population — all low-income people in the global south — make no net contribution to global greenhouse gasses. The global discrepancy in energy use, currently, is significantly higher than 1,000-fold.

Population, contrary to David Attenborough and the Malthusians, is not the problem. “Humanity” as a whole is not to blame for climate change. Capital and the ruling-class, not “us all”, have driven it.

Resource depletion and ecosystem destruction are likewise dependent on how society, production, and consumption are organised, much more than how many people populate that society. Indeed, with more people — in a rationally and democratically organised society — comes greater resources of dynamic human labour, which can apply the latest of science to work on environmental issues.

Short of the overthrow of capitalism, we should approach every new person as a potential political agent in transforming society, not simply another mouth to feed.

That all said, the rate of global population growth peaked some decades ago. Following current trends it is often predicted that global population will peak in around a century. I would critique many such models, for simplistic extrapolation to future population which elides complex social, political, economic factors. That is, capital’s sometimes contradictory quantitative and qualitative demands for labour, combined with reactions and resistance to these drives, shape population. The social complexity involved means that we cannot assume a reliable smooth bell-curve. But such simplistic theories do puncture the even-more simplistic fear of too many people existing, each having too much fun.

Attenborough does not follow some “populationists” in advocate legal restrictions on reproductive rights, such as a “one-child policy”. Even less does he follow Malthus, the original populationist, in accepting deaths by famine, war, or disease as necessary to keep population in check. Instead, he advocates tackling poverty and raising the standard of living across the global south, helping girls to stay in education, and empowering them and their reproductive freedoms.

These positive changes would unarguably be key aims of any workers’ government; and they would additionally slow population growth. Yet tipping blame towards the global south, where population is growing fastest, or the exploited classes, who form the numerical majority of the global population, lets the real culprits off the hook.


Submitted by Paul Muddle (not verified) on Mon, 15/02/2021 - 18:03

Whilst it might be true to state that it would reduce overheads and provide easier access to transport, markets etc I find it hard to see that as the determining factor in the adoption of steam power. Steam engines in the UK were first developed for purposes unrelated to the textile industry such as pumping water from mines, they were a solution to a practical problem. By the early decades of the 19th century it became obvious that they were a far more efficient source of power for the textile industry than water mills. I'm not clear if you are positing the possibility of a socialist revolution in pre-industrial ( and pre proletarian) britain bringing to power a regime which would have the power of foresight and stopped the use of steam due to the likelihood of global warming two centuries later??

What about the other applications of steam power? Would a socialist government in the 1820s have put a ban on steam travel? Would Britain have remained a nation of canals and sailing ships?? What impact would a steam free economy have had on productivity? How would it have ensured the production of the necessities of life vital to the material underpinning of a more egalitarian society??

I accept all your points about the global south but your description of an alternative history in the global north seems utopian. To the extent that any economic development in the 19th century would inevitably have involved fossil fuels suggests it is not only capital that is to blame. 

Unfortunately I think socialism being achieved in the timeframe required to bring about a zero carbon economy is extremely unlikely ( if it is ever to happen). espousing the view that only under socialism will we achieve this seems a counsel of despair.

Meanwhile Jaguar have announced they will produce electric only cars by 2025.

Submitted by Fernando Carrizo (not verified) on Mon, 22/02/2021 - 19:38

You claim that population is not the problem, but you refer only to global population. However swift population growth is confined to certain well defined areas of the world. Consequently it is initially not a global problem but a local one, and becomes global only insofar as international migrations or supply chains are triggered. Currently there are 10 million refugees in the world who fled from countries where less than one quarter of women of child-bearing age use birth control, namely from Rwanda, Somalia, Syria , South Sudan, Eritrea, Mali, Sudan, Zaire, Burundi, Nigeria, Central African Republic, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Many of those countries have undergone huge population growth. Syria's population grew six-fold between 1950 and 2010.

As a result of these refugee flows, those countries' population growth has contributed to the political destabilization of Europe by fostering right-wing populist movements.

Consequently your claim that population is not the problem is obviously false.

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