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Global warming is unstoppable while capitalism blocks prevention

Photo: Tim J Keegan/Flickr

The tenacious refusal of the world’s business and political leaders to heed the warnings of climate scientists about global warming raises the stark possibility that it may already be too late. The tipping point beyond which concerted preventive action becomes impracticable is just 12 years away, according to the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

That’s all the time the IPCC scientists give us to keep the global temperature from rising above 1.5 degrees Celsius. If it rises higher than that, they warn, the consequent intensity of extreme heat, pollution, droughts, floods, hurricanes, wildfires, rising sea levels, and consequent mounting hunger, poverty, and mass displacements will annihilate billions of people.

Realistically, what are the odds that the scientists’ latest warning about global warming will be heeded, any more than their many previous alarms have been in the past?

I’d put the odds against at 100-to-1, perhaps even 1,000-to-1.

Starting with the Club of Rome’s seminal study on The Limits of Growth in 1972, climatologists, ecologists and other scientists have been trying to stop the economic folly of pursuing infinite growth on a finite planet. They have repeatedly called for curbs on carbon dioxide emissions, air and ocean pollution, resource depletion, deforestation, armed conflict, poverty, inequality, and overpopulation -- each successive plea differing only in its mounting urgency as it fails to spur preventive corporate and political action.

This apparent indifference of CEOs to a looming climate catastrophe is often mistakenly attributed to their dismissal of global warning as a hoax. Some of them undoubtedly are deniers, but most, though they may be avaricious and heartless, are not stupid. They can’t dispute the overwhelming scientific evidence that global warming is real and that, left unchecked, it will make the planet unlivable for billions of people, possibly even wipe out human civilization.

The entrenchment of capitalism 

Why, then, you may ask, do business executives stubbornly continue to maintain a ruinous economic system whose contamination of the environment is clearly the chief cause of global warming?

The obvious answer is that neoliberal capitalism is now so deeply entrenched in both law and practice that even the most intelligent and ethical corporate officials dare not try to reform it on their own. Their legal charters and business mandates oblige them to make the maximization of profits and shareholder dividends their overriding objective. That fixation trumps everything else (no pun intended), including the broad public interest, a clean environment, and even humankind’s survival.  

The enshrinement of profit maximization is built into Canada’s business legislation, as it is in the United States and elsewhere. Our courts uphold this principle. In a noteworthy case in 2004 (the People vs. Wise), Canada’s Supreme Court ruling was based on the Canadian Business Corporations Act. The relevant section of this Act states that corporate directors and officers “owe their fiduciary obligations to the corporation, and the corporation’s interests are not to be confused with the interests of creditors or any other stakeholders.”

And there you have it. Any CEO or board of directors rash enough to deviate from the pursuit of profits for any reason – for the benefit of employees, customers, society as a whole, or even the planet – would be severely chastised. Either they’d be sued by major shareholders under the Act, or the subsequent decline in profits would leave them vulnerable to a hostile takeover.

So the corporations, in effect, are compelled by the law, by the greed of their investors, and by the very nature of their unbridled capitalist economic system, to continue their destructive assault on the environment. Capitalism is inherently dependent on maintaining the lunacy of perpetual economic growth, and hence opposed to any limits being placed on its virulent pursuit of profits. Capitalism and a clean climate, in short, are clearly incompatible.  

As for the world’s governments, who hypothetically have the obligation and potential ability to restrain the corporate environment-wreckers, they have also been effectively hamstrung. The far superior financial and economic might amassed by the big business barons now empowers them, in effect, to dictate most governments’ policies and priorities.

Certainly, any political attempt to seriously hobble the dominant capitalist system is now unthinkable. Even the corporations’ power to retaliate by shifting factories, jobs and investments to more compliant low-wage, low-tax countries is in itself a strong deterrent to would-be political planet-savers.

Is resistance now futile?

With both corporations and complicit governments thus locked into a perpetuation of environmentally destructive capitalism, it is not surprising that some scientists and activists have become deeply discouraged, and a small but growing number forlornly conceding that further resistance is probably futile.

Among the stalwarts who adamantly remain convinced that the struggle is not yet lost is climatologist Bill McKibben. In a recent New Yorker essay, he admits that “we are on a path of self-destruction, but argues that “there is nothing inevitable about our fate. Solar panels and wind turbines are now among the least expensive ways to produce energy. Storage batteries are cheaper and more efficient than ever. We could move quickly if we chose to, but we’d need to opt for solidarity and co-ordination on a global scale.”

He admits, however, that “the chances of that look slim.” One wonders, as time passes through the relatively brief 12-year deadline set by the ICCP, how much longer McKibben’s optimism will last.       

One of the eminent experts on the environment who is not at all sanguine about humanity’s chance of survival is Elizabeth Colbert, a staff writer for the New Yorker and author of a recent best-selling book, The Sixth Extinction.

She lists the five major extinction events that have occurred since complex animals evolved on Earth more than 500 million years ago, first quoting from a plaque in the Hall of Biodiversity in the Museum of Natural History in New York:

“Global climate change and other causes, including collisions between Earth and extraterrestrial objects, were responsible for the previous five extinctions. But today we are in the midst of the Sixth Extinction, this time caused solely by humanity’s transformation of the ecological landscape.”

“In an extinction event of our own making,” Colbert muses, “what will happen to us?” Her blunt answer: “Most likely, we will cause our own extinction.”

She reminds us that, “Having freed ourselves from the constraints of evolution, humans still remain dependent on Earth’s biological and geochemical systems. By disrupting these systems -- cutting down tropical rainforests, altering the composition of the atmosphere, acidifying the oceans -- we are putting our own survival in danger.”

In her book, she describes how humans have already driven hundreds of species into extinction, and many more into near-extinction. On a planet where most forms of life are interdependent to some extent, this mass slaughter is disastrous.

She quotes Paul Ehrlich, an ecologist at Stanford University: "In pushing other species into extinction, humanity is busy sawing off the limb on which it perches."

Colbert concludes her book with this somber epilogue: “Right now we are deciding, without meaning to, which evolutionary pathways will remain open and which will forever be closed. No other creature has ever managed this, and it will unfortunately be our most enduring legacy. The Sixth Extinction will continue to determine the course of life long after everything people have written and painted and built have been ground into dust and giant rats have inherited the Earth.”

Prominent pessimists

An even more pessimistic writer on the environment is William T. Vollmann, whose latest book, Carbon Ideologies, was recently reviewed in Harper’s by Nathaniel Rich. He describes it as "one of the most honest -- and fatalistic -- books about global warming yet written."

Rich notes that nearly every book about climate change that has been written for a general audience contains within it a message of hope, and often a prod toward action. But Vollmann declares from the outset that he will not offer any solutions because he does not believe any are possible:

“Nothing can be done to save the world as we know it; therefore, nothing need be done.”

Rich says that anyone who begins reading Carbon Ideologies in a hopeless mood will finish it hopeless. “So will the hopeful reader. But there exist other kinds of readers. Those who do not read for advice or encouragement or comfort. Those who seek to understand human nature, and themselves. Because human nature is Vollmann’s true subject -- as it must be.

"The story of climate change hangs on human nature, not geophysics. Vollmann seeks to understand ‘how we could not only sustain, but accelerate the rise of atmospheric carbon levels, all the while expressing confusion, powerlessness, and resentment.’ Why did we take such insane risks? Could we have behaved any other way? If not, what conclusions must we draw about our lives and our future?"

Rich sees Carbon Ideologies as being “in the vanguard of the coming second wave of climate literature -- books written not to diagnose or solve the problem, but to grapple with its moral consequences.”

One of the climate commentators already in this vanguard is author Jonathan Franzen, whose latest book from Farrar, Straus and Giroux is titled The End of the End of the Earth. He bluntly compares the state of our planet to “a patient with bad cancer” whose death is certain and whose main concern is maintaining as good a quality of life as possible before the end.

"Drastic planetary overheating is a done deal," Franzen declared in an article he wrote in 2015. "No head of state anywhere, even in places most threatened by flooding or drought, has committed to leaving carbon in the ground." The essay was angrily denounced at the time, especially by environmentalists and critics on the left.

In an interview with Postmedia, Franzen said that, if the essay had been published today, he wouldn’t expect it to have had such a furious reaction. “I think in the last three-and-a-half years that it has become much more apparent to many more people that we are not stopping climate change. We’re not even coming close to stopping it. In fact, we are continuing to accelerate it.”

He says that his foremost aim is to encourage people to live responsibly in the face of our all but certain extinction as a species. “Our world is poised to change vastly, and mostly for the worst. I don’t have any hope that we can stop this change from coming. My only hope is that we can accept the reality in time to prepare for it."

In much the same vein, Postmedia’s David Reevely, in a column last fall titled "Let’s prepare for climate change if we’re not going to fight it," urged that Canadian governments should at least make it a priority to help people adapt to a much warmer future.

Among his suggestions were: conserve city water and get used to brown parks and fields during the summer; renovate public buildings, especially schools and nursing homes, to cope with hotter weather; add air-conditioning, improve ventilation, and plant more shade trees; increase our capacity to fight forest fires; enhance medical research and training to cope with tropical diseases that don’t yet afflict us here; start building

high flood walls around our coastal cities to protect them from rising sea levels; build more and wider roads to the Far North, so that, “when the Russians start eyeing our Arctic (as a safer residence), we can stop them with something other than pickup trucks."

"All of this, Reevely admits, “will make for a more expensive, more precarious, more cruel world. But, if we aren’t seriously trying to stop global warming, we should at least be getting ready for it."

Plutocrats plan for survival

Ironically, that is what many of the main propagators of global warming are doing. Corporate executives who are locked into the capitalist system’s suicidal pursuit of profits are secretly preparing to survive the catastrophic outcome.

This activity was revealed last year by the New Yorker’s Evan Osnos in an article aptly titled Survival of the Richest, and subtitled Why some of America’s wealthiest people are preparing for disaster.

Osnos tells us that “survivalism -- the practice of preparing for a crackup of civilization -- has spread among many of the CEOs, financiers, bankers and big investors: the same capitalist kingpins whose devastation of the planet is causing the catastrophe they now plan to outlive.”

He says it’s difficult to find out how many wealthy people have become survivalists, but notes that it has certainly taken root in Silicon Valley and New York among technology executives and hedge-fund managers.

Osnos was told by Steve Huffman, co-founder and CEO of Reddit, that he and at least half of the Silicon Valley billionaires have acquired some "apocalypse insurance" in the form of "a hideaway somewhere in the U.S. or abroad." One of them has bought five wooded acres on an island in the Pacific Northwest and stocked it with generators, solar panels and thousands of rounds of ammunition. Others have bought houses or cabins in New Zealand, which has become a favoured refuge from a global cataclysm.

Other wealthy would-be survivalists have built luxury complexes underground in abandoned nuclear missile silos. One of them, Larry Hall, paid $300,000 for a silo and another $20 million to create 12 private apartments that he has sold for $3 million each. They are stocked with enough food to sustain 75 people for five years, mainly by raising tilapia in fish tanks, and growing hydroponic vegetables under glow lamps.

"Opulent survival shelters like this, of course, are beyond the financial capacity of most victims of an apocalyptic event,” Osnos points out. “It is bitterly ironic that those most likely to live through such a calamity are the ones whose greed and power precipitated it."

Extinction may yet be averted

Despite these bleak and depressing forecasts, most people continue to reject rather than accept them. Perhaps they are right to remain optimistic about the future and continue to “eat, drink and be merry” as long as they can. But will the wisest and brightest of them belatedly be motivated by the increasing violence of Nature’s wrath to build the equivalent of Noah’s ark?

That will depend on whether and when enough people come to realize that the oncoming climate catastrophe is being caused primarily by the ravagement of Earth’s air, water and soil by the world’s big corporations. Specifically, by the dominant cancerous capitalist economic system that they have inflicted on the planet.

Regrettably, this pernicious corporate cancer will not be “cured” before the ICCP’s 12-year deadline elapses in 2020. But it’s not inconceivable that it will be detected and the first essential survival measures taken by that time. 

It depends on how long it will take for the planetary vandalism  of unfettered capitalism to become so glaringly obvious that the exposure of its colossal carnage will spark a worldwide revolution and the overthrow of global plutocracy. Capitalism would then be replaced by some form of progressive democracy dedicated to saving as many people as possible from the devastation of an overheated planet.

The world's most brilliant thinkers and scientists would then be assigned the imperative mission of devising ways and means of preventing humankind’s extinction.

Even such a tardy endeavour would almost certainly succeed in saving millions of people -- many more than the wealthy few thousand hunkered in their underground bunkers. Certainly enough of them with the knowledge and dedication to undertake the monumental task of restoring some semblance of civilization for the survivors.

This optimistic prospect of humanity’s rescue from oblivion may seem as unlikely as the pessimistic outlook of the prominent skeptics quoted above. It will all depend on how much longer the corporate oligarchs and their political lackeys are permitted to keep poisoning and despoiling the planet. On how long, in effect, corrosive and unchecked capitalism is allowed to keep dragging us toward the abyss.

That nightmare looks like it will continue for at least another decade, until after the climatologists’ tipping-point deadline has passed. We can only hope, therefore, that humankind’s extinction will ultimately be forestalled by the too-long-delayed extinction of capitalism.

Photo: Tim J Keegan/Flickr

Ed Finn grew up in Corner Brook, Newfoundland, where he became worked as a printer’s apprentice, reporter, columnist, and editor of that city’s daily newspaper, the Western Star. His career as a journalist included 14 years as a labour relations columnist for the Toronto Star. He was part of the world of politics between 1959 and 1962, serving as the first provincial leader of the NDP in Newfoundland. He worked closely with Tommy Douglas for some years and helped defend and promote medicare legislation in Saskatchewan.

 

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