20 years ago, in 2001, the report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change highlighted a document from the Global Scenario Group, convened by the Stockholm Environmental Institute, outlining three possible scenarios for humanity’s future resulting from the climate crisis:
“The GSG framework includes three broad classes of scenarios for scanning the future: ‘Conventional Worlds’, ‘Barbarisation’ and ‘Great Transition’ – with variants within each class. All are compatible with current patterns and trends, but have very different implications for society and the environment in the 21st century… In ‘Conventional Worlds’ scenarios, global society develops gradually from current patterns and dominant tendencies, with development driven primarily by rapidly growing markets as developing countries converge towards the development model of advanced industrial (‘developed’) countries. In ‘Barbarisation’ scenarios, environmental and social tensions spawned by conventional development are not resolved, humanitarian norms weaken, and the world becomes more authoritarian or more anarchic. ‘Great Transitions’ explore visionary solutions to the sustainability challenge, which portray the ascendancy of new values, lifestyles and institutions”. from p. 140 of the 2001 IPCC, Working Group 3 report on mitigation
In 2021, following or accompanied by unprecedented heatwaves from Canada to Siberia, floods in northern Europe and China, droughts and wildfires in California, new signs of Arctic ice melting, the first part of the IPCC report, the part which concentrates on the scientific analysis of climate trends, has made it plain that the “conventional” continuation of capitalist accumulation is driving us towards “barbarisation”. With an eye of the October-November COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, the report argues forcefully that without drastic and concerted global action to reduce emissions over the next few decades, it will not be possible to limit temperature rises to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels, a threshold seen as necessary to avert the worst consequences of climate change. Not only that: the report refers to a series of “planetary boundaries” or tipping points which could see an uncontrollable acceleration of planetary heating, rendering large parts of the Earth incapable of sustaining human life. According to many of the experts who are cited in the report, four of these boundaries have already been crossed, notably at the level of climate change, biodiversity loss and unsustainable agricultural methods, with several more, such as the acidification of the oceans, plastic pollution and ozone depletion, threatening to result in mutually-reinforcing spirals with the other factors.
The report also makes it perfectly clear that these dangers derive above all from “human intervention” (which, in essence, means the production and extension of capital) and not from natural processes such as solar activity or volcanic eruptions, explanations which are often the last resort of the increasingly discredited climate change deniers.
The part of the report dealing with possible ways out of the crisis has not been published yet, but from all previous reports we know that, however much it may talk about “transitions” to a new economic model which will cease pumping out greenhouse gases at totally unsustainable levels, the “Intergovernmental Panel” has no other answer than to appeal to governments, i.e. the capitalist states, to come to their senses, work together, and agree on radical changes to the operation of their economies. In other words, the capitalist mode of production, whose remorseless drive for profit is at the very heart of the crisis, must become something which it can never be: a unified community where productive activity is regulated not by the demands of the market but by what human beings need to live.
That’s not to say that capitalist institutions are totally oblivious to the dangers posed by climate change. The proliferation of international climate conferences and the very existence of the IPCC is testimony to that. As the resulting catastrophes become more and more frequent, it is evident that this will have enormous costs: economic, of course, through the destruction of homes, agriculture, and infrastructure, but also social: spreading impoverishment, increasing number of refugees in flight from devastated regions, and so on. And all but the most deluded politicians and bureaucrats understand that this will place huge burdens on the coffers of the state, as the Covid pandemic (which is also linked to the environmental crisis) has clearly shown. And individual capitalist enterprises are also responding: virtually every business now parades its green credentials and its commitment to new, sustainable models. The car industry is a case in point: aware that the internal combustion engine (and the oil industry) is a major source of greenhouse emissions, nearly all the major car manufacturers are switching to electric cars over the next decade. But what they can’t do is stop competing with each other to sell as many of their “green cars” as possible, even if the production of electrical cars has its own significant ecological consequences – most notably due to the extraction of the raw materials, such as lithium, needed to produce car batteries, which is based on massive mining projects and the further development of global transport networks. The same applies at the level of national economies. Already the COP conference is anticipating considerable difficulty in persuading “developing” economies like Russia, China and India to reduce their dependence on fossil fuels in order to reduce emissions. And they resist such pressures for perfectly logical capitalist reasons: because it would severely reduce their competitive edge in a world already glutted with commodities.
The world is no longer big enough for capitalism
Since the days of the Communist Manifesto, marxists have insisted that capitalism is driven by its crises of overproduction and the search for new markets to “conquer the earth”, to become a world-wide system, and that this “universalising tendency” creates the possibility of a new society in which human need, the full development of the individual, becomes the goal of all social activity. But at the same time, this very tendency also contains the seeds of the dissolution, the self-destruction of capital, and thus the imperious necessity for a transition to a new human community, to communism. And at the time of the First World War, marxists such as Bukharin and Luxemburg showed more concretely how this threat of self-destruction would play out: the more capitalism became global, the more it would be consumed in deadly military competition between imperialist nations bent on carving out fresh sources of raw materials, cheaper labour power, and new outlets for their production.
But although Marx, Engels and others could see early on that the capitalist system was poisoning the air and exhausting the soil, they could not have seen all the ecological consequences of a world in which capital had penetrated almost every region in the four directions, subordinating the entire Earth to its rampant urbanisation and its toxic methods of production and distribution. Capitalist expansion, motivated by the economic contradictions contained in the relationship between capital and wage labour, has pushed to the extreme the alienation of humanity from nature. Just as there is a limit to capitalism’s ability to realise the surplus value it extracts from the workers, so the profit-driven spoliation of the Earth’s natural resources creates a new obstacle to the capacity of capitalism to feed its slaves and perpetuate its reign. The world is no longer big enough for capitalism. And far from making the capitalist states see reason and work together for the good of the planet, the depletion of resources and the consequences of climate change will tend to further exacerbate military rivalries in a world where every state seeks to save itself in the face of the catastrophe. The capitalist state, whether openly despotic or covered with the veneer of democracy, can only apply the laws of capital which are the source of the profound threats facing the future of humanity.
Capitalism, if it is allowed to continue, can only plunge the world into accelerating “barbarisation”. The only “transition” that can prevent this is the transition to communism, which in turn cannot be the product of appeals to governments, voting for “green” parties or protesting as “concerned citizens”. This transition can only be taken in hand through the common, international struggle of the exploited class, the proletariat, which will most often be the first victim of the climate crisis as it is already in the case of the economic crisis. The workers’ struggle in the face of attacks on its living conditions alone contains the seeds of a generalised revolutionary movement that will call capitalism to account for all the miseries it is inflicting on the human species and the planet which sustains it.