The unholy trinity

Most people are now pretty well aware of climate change, though few seem to have much sense of the magnitude of the threat or the urgency of action demanded if we are not to suffer catastrophically. Some people are also aware that ‘peak oil’ is also upon us – the point at which we will have extracted half of our realistic oil reserves. This is critical because:

  • Oil and gas (whose peak we may well have already passed too) provide most of the industrial world’s energy supplies.
  • All energy consumption projections say that the world demand for oil and gas is going to grow, not shrink.
  • Major strategic industries such as transport, plastics and fertiliser have little or nothing in the way of alternatives.

This effectively eliminates many of the options for even a quite radically adapted version of ‘business as usual’ as a way forward.

Taken together, climate change and peak oil are quite big enough – certainly far beyond anything our current plans can hope to deal with. However, there is yet a third problem, as yet largely neglected except in small corners of the political world. This is the fact that, not only is capitalism not geared up to such a radical change, but it is extremely doubtful whether capitalism is even remotely up to the challenge.

The problem has many strands, but here are three worth thinking about. Firstly, responding to both peak oil and climate change demand some form of ‘power-down’ – a radical reduction not only in energy use but also in consumption. It is true that capitalism, however useful consumerism has been to certain parts of capitalism, consumerism is not essential to capitalism as such. They can extract an equally acceptable profit from exploiting any number of other markets, including services that don’t require that anything be made at all. And as they managed to prove in the Second World War (which the USA left twice as rich as when it started), big companies can thrive on global crisis, given the right lead. So they might be able to come up with the goods this time too. Agree some basic global standards (e.g., a legal minimum of 75 mpg and negligible carbon emissions for all cars by 2012 and zero carbon for all homes, old and new, by 2020) and we might be able to make a fight of it.

But powering down isn’t likely to be that easy. How many of our industries would in fact be completely wiped out by any attempt to deal with climate change or peak oil? How much of mass consumerism is in fact based on products for which there is absolutely no environmental or energy justification? Can we have a fashion industry at all? Or any industry in which rapid turnover is driven by anything as ephemeral as fashionableness? How many people work in such industries? If they grind to a halt, what work these people do instead? How much such disruption can an advanced industrial county take before it ceases to be able to plan, manage and resources its response?

Finally, capitalism is not just predicated on profit. It is predicated on constantly expanding profit. Neither climate change nor peak oil is likely to make that possible, but we have plans neither to assure capitalism’s profits nor to extract ourselves from capitalism’s embrace. And what, in the mean time, will capitalist corporations do as their profits not only cease to grow but actually shrink?

Based on their track record when faced with obstacles to their profitability, it is not a pleasant prospect.

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