Trying to Square the Climate Circle By William Bowles

16 December 2007

Sink or Swim – The ‘choice’ apparently, is yours, according to Hilary Benn, but only if you can breath under water and swim

Here, in the UK we have a minister for the environment, Hilary Benn is his name, son of doyen of the ‘left’ of the Labour Party, Anthony Wedgwood-Benn, whose swings from right to left are by now legendary (he’s currently stuck somewhere on what passes for the left).

Wedgie as he is known, renounced his aristocratic ‘pedigree’ to become plain ol’ Wedgie Benn. In any case Hilary (who seems to have dropped even more bits of his aristocratic legacy) is currently hanging out in Bali where the Climate Change conference has just come to a cliff-hanging conclusion, was interviewed on BBC Radio 4 on 14/12/07.

The exchange was remarkable for what wasn’t said rather than what Hilary could and should have said. That said, Hilary seems to think that the ‘choice’ is ours, so for example, it’s our ‘choice’ to use low-power light bulbs or only to fly once a year. It’s that or figure how many trips in your car are equal to one trip in a plane, take your ‘choice’, what’s it to be? I kid you not, this is what our thoroughly (by now) misnamed minister for the environment offered the listener when questioned about the plan to add another runway to Heathrow airport, doubling the number of people who will fly in and out of the place to 50 million a year.

Worse still, he went on to say that we can eat our cake and keep it, apparently that ‘choice’ is not ours to make, it’s a force of nature over which poor ol’ Benjy has no control. According to Benjy, “we can continue to have growth and cut consumption.”

Frankly, for a man of Benjy’s intelligence and education, it was an embarrassing display of the total avoidance of the central issue; economics.

Now I don’t know about you, but it’s my understanding of the word growth that it means increased output of everything connected to our economic activities, which, when you think about it, is just about what most of us ever do for most of our lives (aren’t they called jobs or work in less prosaic circles?). In other words, at the root of the situation is the one thing we don’t apparently have any ‘choice’ over, namely how we conduct our economic activities.

Which is why Benjy produced so many lame, nay, dumb, attempts at trying to square the climate circle, square it with an economic system that must grow in order to survive.

Climate deal sealed by US U-turn
I think we have come a long way here said Paula Dobriansky, head of the US delegation.
The EU came to the talks demanding that industrialised nations commit to cuts of 25-40% by 2020, a bid that was implacably opposed by a bloc containing the US, Canada and Japan.

Later in the piece we read:

This dispute was resolved with a text that did not mention specific emissions targets but did acknowledge that deep cuts in global emissions will be required to achieve the ultimate objective. – BBC News Website, 15/12/07

Resolved? How can it be resolved if the real issue, numbers, emission targets etc, has been removed from the final text? As with Benjy, the BBC piece studiously avoids, indeed misrepresents, the fundamental issue, the economics of capitalism and its fundamental connection to climate change.

The “Bali Roadmap” is much like its Middle East counterpart the“Road Map to Peace”, consisting of empty, useless phrases that ultimately let them off the hook by agreeing not to agree on anything of real substance.

The bizarre contradictions become apparent when one investigates any aspect of capitalist growth. To take one example, the destruction of tropical rain forests. Not too far away from Bali, in Sumatra to be precise, where vast swathes of rain forest have been cut down to make, not furniture or houses (in other words, something actually useful) but cardboard cartons for the endless stream of consumer products that fill the malls. Cardboard cartons that get junked in their millions and perhaps some get ‘recycledâ’, but forests cannot be ‘recycled’.

The connection between the two should be obvious but not to Benjy apparently, who sees no contradiction between increased capitalist growth and the thoroughly mangled concept, ‘sustainability’.

The problem would appear to be intractable, after all, we need to have jobs to pay the bills for all those consumer products we purchase (50% of which are bought at Christmas, now there’s an irony for you, the traditional ‘time of giving’).

If any of our governments were to be really truthful about the situation they would have admit that the only solution is literally the complete retooling of our domestic economies (over time obviously). And it doesn’t mean wholesale layoffs (here we need to look at the studies made for ‘defence’ conversion, for example the Project for Defense Alternatives).

But our political classes have no intention for it is not in their interests to ‘bite the hand that feeds them’ and feeds them extremely well thank you very much. This is why individuals like Hilary Benn go through the motions, he has a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, his job and all the perks that go with it.

To add to capitalism’s climate woes, it has entered one of its periodic crises (and possibly its last) but under conditions never encountered before where the technical integration of the movement of capital now inextricably connects competing national economies (whether they like it or not). The old phrase, ‘General Motors catches a cold and Europe sneezes’ now has a new and even more ominous ring to it: the usual international economic anarchy but with all the competitors now chained to each other via global financial institutions which in turn are the proud owners of the major corporations that determine our collective future (or lack of one). It’s a fragile house of cards, which needs only a shove for it to collapse.

The ‘free market’ has proved that it can do nothing to solve the current crisis, indeed it’s the ‘free market’ that has caused it. Enter the state (using our money of course), which has been forced to bail out virtually all the major banking institutions.

In an unheard of move, we witness the banking institutions of the US Federal Reserve, the Bank of England and the European Bank actually getting together to pump billions into the major private banks, which are all caught in a bind of not being able to borrow from each other because the cost of borrowing is too high.

Even the name for the latest crisis of capital, the ‘credit squeeze’ hides the underlying causes. Find a story in the mainstream media if you can, that unpacks the ‘credit squeeze’ for what it is, a recurring symptom of the over-accumulation of capital of which ‘the sub-prime lending’ scam was merely a symptom. It worked whilst money was ‘cheap’, that is to say, cheap to borrow and as the banks engaged in this (previously and possibly still illegal activity) argued, ‘no problem if they default, we’ll simply repossess the houses.’

With tens of thousands of (effectively worthless) properties now owned by the banks and nobody with the means to buy them, entire communities have been devastated. Worse, the ripple effect of entire neighbourhoods of boarded up dwellings is obvious; local businesses go bust as localities become ghost towns.

But printing billions of even more devalued currencies merely puts off the day of reckoning, for even a capitalist economist knows that such an act leads to inflation, which means down the road aways, more and more people will find their devalued pounds, dollars and euros buy them less, and more will default on mortgage repayments, credit card bills. It’s a vicious spiral over which our governments have no real control without direct intervention.

Will we have another crash?


Will we have another credit crisis?


Can we do anything about it?

No. — Alan Greenspan, September 2007

So too with the reduction in the interest rate both here and in the US, which also leads to inflation, something reflected in the dive stocks took on Wall Street with the announcement by the Fed.

These ‘remedies’ are no more than short-term fixes, they do nothing to address the underlying contradictions of an economic system caught between a rock and hard place; expand or die. The problem is that without actually removing the competitors (China, India, the EU, take your pick) and opening up new markets for the handful of corporations that control the ‘global market’, or, as they have done in the past, really large wars that burn up all that surplus capital sloshing about the ‘system’ (not to mention ‘take care’ of an enormous surplus labour market), there is no solution.

This is what Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, Iran, Venezuela and other points South is really all about, forget the ‘war on terror’, it’s the political economy of capitalism and what it needs to sustain itself and the ends it will go to in order to obtain it.

The depressing thing about this situation is that it’s not new, it’s been happening for literally hundreds of years, but made all the more so now because of the inter-connections between the major economies and the fact that much of surplus value being generated is composed either of financial speculation (which utilises the global circuit of capital to print money with) or consumer spending (almost 60% of the so-called GDP in the UK for example is composed of consumer spending). In other words, this mythical growth is actually nothing more than an illusion; real growth, for example in affordable housing, better health care and education, decent and cheap public transport, which would constitute real growth, is conspicuous by its absence.

‘Growth’ consists of an endless stream of consumer products, all of which are extremely energy and resource intensive in every phase of their life cycle, a cycle which grows shorter and shorter as revolutions in production take on an ever more frantic pace.

There’s only one way this can be done sustainably and that is by the state directing investment not for the benefit of shareholders but for the public good. There’s an entire world out there desperate for real development.

Of course if Benjy were to speak the truth about the situation he would lose his job quicker than he could say ‘Bali Roadmap’ (just look at what happened to Michael Meacher, former minister for the environment, who dared to speak out).

When it comes to public discourse, real economics is a taboo subject, relegated to the ‘economics’ section of the major media, where only those interested in the value of their stock portfolio bother to go. For the rest of us, news on economics is presented as a fait accomplis, too difficult to understand and in any case, there’s nothing we can do about it anyway.

Instead, we are presented as the cause of climate change once it was belatedly recognised as a reality, trapped as we are in the consumer/debt cycle, with our futures totally dependent on maintaining an insane system of ever-expanding production.

No wonder the economics of capitalism and its relationship to climate change and of course to poverty, is a taboo subject, for to admit it into the mainstream of public discussion would open a can of worms.

Best therefore that economics is left alone, better still, make it obscure and too difficult to understand by mystifying the processes. Even better, present it as a ‘force of nature’ over which we have no real control.

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