17-18 March 2007
I hope that my piece ‘Don’t bother breathing out’ (see below) didn’t lead readers to assume that I don’t think that global warming is not the result of human actions. If so, I wish to clarify that all the available evidence points to the fact that global warming is the result of human activity.
One of the points that I am trying to make is that science, like all human activities is not neutral and that it gets manipulated to suit the dominant culture’s needs and moreover, the directions that science takes are socially determined, that is to say, without funding, for example developing sustainable energy sources, will not occur and that funding is determined by those with the most political and economic clout.
The second point is, now that it is clear beyond all reasonable doubt that our climate is changing as a result of human activity, rather than dealing with the root causes—an economic system that relies on continual economic expansion for its survival—is doing its utmost to shift the burden onto ordinary working people and to use climate change as an excuse to resist the demands of the developing countries to improve their own standard of living under the guise of limiting carbon emissions.
So for example, the leading capitalist powers like to point to China’s economic development as a threat to the climate but the facts speak for themselves; per capita production of carbon of China’s population amounts to 3 percent of the total global carbon emissions compared to around the US per capita production of around 25 percent.
And whilst it’s also true that China like all industrialised or industrialising countries needs to pursue sustainable economic policies, again the facts speak for themselves; much of China’s economic growth is the result of Western countries shifting production to China where costs are lower in part because it has very poor pollution regulation, let alone labour costs which are a fraction of ours.
If the Western countries really cared about climate change then we would be using our tremendous wealth and technical advantage to alter our production as well as making investment in countries like China conditional upon them implementing sustainable production techniques and actually using our wealth to assist them in the process.
But of course the whole point of shifting production to China is to reduce the short term cost of production in order to maintain and increase profits for a handful of giant multinational corporations. If sustainable production were a condition then much of the cost advantage would disappear.
It should also be pointed out that it is only because Western governments have been forced by public opposition to enact strict (or stricter) controls over pollution, that has also contributed to the shift in manufacturing to the developing world where regulation is for the most part, non-existent.
All we have done therefore, is relocate carbon emissions from one part of the world to another, hence the ‘carbon trading’ schemes, whilst maintaining our own standards of living.
It should be obvious therefore, that the capitalist economic system is structurally incapable of solving the problem without altering the very basis of its reason for existence, namely private profit rather than the social good.
The climate crisis has brought this fundamental paradox home with a vengeance, made all the more so by the globalisation of production and distribution, whereby capital goes where returns on investment are the highest regardless of the consequences.
Don’t bother breathing out By William Bowles
“We imagine that we live in an age of reason. And the global warming alarm is dressed up as science. But it’s not science; it’s propaganda.” — ‘The Great Global Warming Swindle’, Channel 4 TV
Perhaps the greatest contribution socialism has given us is the idea that we could, at last, take charge of our own destinies. Prior to this, we assumed that ‘our betters’ knew best and that such ideas as freedom and justice, especially economic justice were utopian dreams, simply not realisable. People were too selfish (or ‘stupid’) to strive for the good of all. And indeed the capitalist creed is founded in part on the false notion that ‘human nature’ is an immutable force, self-interest will always win out, it’s built into our ‘genes’, no matter how hard we try, greed will triumph.
It’s a powerful argument reinforced by the simple fact that the powerful and ‘successful’ for the most part, are indeed greedy. But most importantly, the powerful dictate the nature of the society we live in and the rules they make are the ones we are forced to live by and which determine what we think is realisable.
Science is one of the most formidable weapons at the state’s disposal, it is we are told, ‘neutral’ and ‘objective’, guided only by ‘natural laws’ (at least the ones we are aware of) and by the scientific method; deduction, experimentation, peer review and so forth.
Meanwhile, we are being promised zero carbon capitalism if only we’d stop eating, breathing and moving. You do realise that every time you exhale your ‘carbon footprint’ gets bigger and every time you eat a burger, a cow somewhere has farted its last methane-loaded fart and every time you visit your favourite consumption cathedral, it means we’re a few miles nearer to Armageddon. If we are to believe the profits of doom, we are trapped somewhere between starvation and gluttony.
‘Green capitalism’ promises all things to all men and women (unless of course, you live in the Third World, in which case, you can look forward to a life of less than you have already), and it is a wonder to behold. We can go to bed at night, wrapped up nice and snug in our green (recycled) duvet (cotton from the Third World), heated with green heat (supplied by our roof-mounted wind turbine, made in China), get up in the morning, take a green shit in our bio-degradable karsy (also no doubt, made in China), take a solar shower (ditto China), eat a green breakfast (cereals from Africa) and go to work in our environmentally green office (heated with the all hot air generated in corporate PR meetings trying to figure out how to keep capitalism going). The entire issue is framed in the context of consumption or lack of it. In other words, how to keep the capitalist system a going concern and rectify the mess its made of the planet. No mean feat and one the spin doctors are working overtime on selling to us.
Every facet of society is conditioned by these ‘rules’, especially education, the law, science and the media, all conspire as it were to rule out any alternative as either unworkable or just plain ‘against nature’.
These ‘rules’ are reinforced endlessly even down to the tiniest detail in the language of daily discourse, an aspect brought home by the reams of analysis of the role of the media in shaping our interpretation of reality.
The current debate on climate change is a perfect example of the process in action. The changes being wrought on our finely balanced climate first came to public notice with the destruction of the ozone layer and as the debate unfolded, it became clear that our climate is the result of an infinitely complex interaction of forces which for millions of years has been shaped by Nature.
But before getting into an analysis of the debate it is important for us to understand how the sciences have evolved and how they shape our perceptions of the world.
It is a common misunderstanding that the sciences are somehow neutral, ‘just the facts ma’am, just the facts’ is the mantra rolled out on a daily basis, you can’t argue with the facts. But which facts, who choses to examine what and why and finally, how to interpret them?
The first problem is that what we choose to examine in the natural world is socially determined and most importantly, determined by those who pay and those who do the examining. So for example, for the last 500 or so years, our understanding of the natural world has been undertaken largely by men with all that this entails, a process that is far from neutral for we live in a patriarchal society and interpretations of the ‘facts’ will always favour the dominant culture, those who pay the bills and the conclusions drawn will always favour the powerful.
Advances in the accurate measurement of time which although ultimately of benefit to all, were funded initially by the British Admiralty, anxious to be able to keep track of its navy and thus control the seas and access to its colonies. In turn, accurate measurement of time required ever greater precision of manufacture (for gears, springs and so forth), leading to advances in engineering and materials science. Thus advanced the industrial revolution, if not by plan then through ‘positive feedback’, with one invention or technical advancement leading inexorably to another.
Second, our explorations of the natural world are always socially determined as ultimately it comes down to the resources we have at our disposal and what these resources will used for. An obvious example of this is to found in the study of evolution. When Darwin and his contemporaries first advanced the idea of evolution of the species it was vehemently resisted by organised religion as it not only challenged the prevailing ideas that maintained the status quo, it revealed the intimate, indeed incestuous relationship that existed between the state and religion.
And it’s not merely the fact that the science of evolution challenged the Bible’s view of the world, it’s the fact that Christianity was an integral part of a capitalist world view which asserted a hierarchal society, for example, between the state and the people. Indirectly, in challenging the Church’s view, evolution also challenged the prevailing and allegedly fixed social relationships of master and servant, of ruler and the ruled. This relationship is not at all obvious until one starts ‘connecting the dots’ and for this to happen, discrete explorations had to link up, for example, the study of history and economics.
Ultimately of course, the evolutionary interpretation of natural history (creationism notwithstanding) triumphed but not before undergoing some fundamental rewriting as it entered the public discourse.
In fact, far from threatening the rule of capital, evolutionary theory underwent a transformation and became the basis for what is called ‘social Darwinism’, a theory which attempts to justify the rule of capital as if it were a natural law, ‘survival of the fittest’ and so forth, thus reducing human actions to not much more than genetic programming in which the ‘law of the jungle’ prevails. Very convenient for a society predicated on the domination of the strongest and the subjugation of the weak and defenceless (those ‘less fit to compete’).
And in fact, we saw the development of the ‘sciences’ of anthropology and eugenics utilise a bastardised version of evolution to justify slavery and colonialism and its handmaiden, Christianity by branding the ‘African’ as pagan and thus not covered by the writings of the Bible, as only Christians were truly human. Here, religion and science (or pseudo-science) worked as one in order to justify economic exploitation, the effects of which still underpin racism today.
So too, we see a comparable process at work in the decades during which our understanding of capitalism’s effect on the climate has gone through a transformation, first denial then a grudging acceptance and finally an attempt to bend the science to maintain the status quo.
The mendacious and misleading documentary ‘The Great Global Warming Swindle’, aired on Channel 4 TV and dealt with most effectively in the Medialens article ‘Pure propaganda – the great global warming swindle’, contains excellent examples of how science plays an avowedly political role in the debate about economic policies and indeed, the role of science in society.
“It’s very rare that a film changes history, but I think this is a turning point and in five years the idea that the greenhouse effect is the main reason behind global warming will be seen as total bollocks.” (’”Global Warming Is Lies” Claims Documentary,’ Life Style Extra, March 4, 2007
So writes Mark Durkin, writer and director of the documentary that asserts that global warming is not man-made. But scientists are people too with their own prejudices and self-interests as the Medialens piece reveals. But does this mean that we cannot trust science or scientists, an especially important question given the centrality of science to the issue of climate change?
And even more so because ‘climate science’ actually involves a multitude of formerly separate disciplines, each one no more nor less important than the rest. In fact, the issue of the climate highlights a fundamental transformation that has taken place in humanity’s relationship to the world, to Nature. Our impact on the planet is no longer local but planet-wide, even extra-planetary in scope.
Thus not only is it vitally important that we understand the role of science to our future but to recognise that science is a social process largely determined by forces that have absolutely nothing to do with science.
But given the complexity of the climate debate, how is the ‘lay-person’ to get a handle on the debate? Who are we to believe? The ‘Climate Swindle’ documentary referred to above is a perfect example of the problem we confront as even well-informed individuals have been misled by the claims made in the programme, which in turn emphasises the fact that the climate debate is not just about the climate or even industrialisation but about who makes decisions and why? Yet this is almost entirely absent from the ‘debate’. Instead, we are relegated to the role of passive onlooker as the ‘experts’ battle it out and politicians hide behind the skirts of the ‘experts’.
Which brings me back to my observations about controlling our own destinies, destinies which should no more be decided by scientists than by politicians and big business.
Unless the issue of climate change is made part of a broader debate about the kind of society we want, decision-making will remain the exclusive domain of the ruling elites, who will set the agenda and determine the limits of the debate, which is exactly what is happening.
There is no questioning the nature of capitalism as the sole cause of the current situation. It is assumed that by merely ‘rejigging’ some elements we can maintain business as usual, when it is surely obvious that capitalism’s impact is now global in scope and unless steps are taken now to challenge its domination, the future looks even bleaker than it already is.