Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Capitalism: Markets, markets everywhere...

The next crucial decades in the battle to avert the worst catastrophes of climate change will be dominated by the response of governments and corporations crafted at the COP15 summit in Copenhagen this December.

The root cause of climate change should by now be clear: capitalism itself. For the last century capitalism (in which we roughly include the variety of totalitarian state-capitalism that branded itself as 'communism' or 'socialism', subverting our understandings of those terms) has expanded industry rapidly, primarily due to the massive amounts of cheap energy that carbon-emitting fossil fuels provide.

Skyrocketing carbon-emissions are the by-product of the over-industrialisation of commodity production and the ever-increasing flows of products on airplanes, trucks, and ships across the globe in response to created, ever-growing consumer demand. Meanwhile, the forests which are a key part of the earth's carbon-cycling capacity, massive 'carbon sinks' or 'lungs' that absorb and contain much of the carbon dioxide on the planet, are being destroyed by logging, mining and burning by corporations in their pursuit of profit.

None of this matters to capital. All that matters is that capital and human labour can transform natural resources into commodities, which are in turn sold on the market for a profit, which is then reinvested into the production of ever-more commodities, in the pursuit of ever-higher profits. In order to increase profits, factories are increasingly automated, natural resources are extracted by force and wages are pressured downwards in order to minimise costs. As the cycle reaches ever more frenzied heights, it naturally results in a crisis: a scarcity of jobs and wages so low that there is no one with enough money to buy the sheer over abundance of stuff. In short, capitalists are in constant search of markets to expand and create, in order to accumulate more profit. By doing so, they dispossess those who do not have the economic capacity to be part of the market, or those that the system needs to exclude for the sake of cheap prices.

Since the 1970s, in the search for profit capitalism has avoided crisis by creating a fantastically immaterial financial market of derivatives (see glossary at bottom) and debts, in order to let us keep buying stuff on our static or falling wages. The issuing of unsustainable levels of debt, and the accompanying derivatives which bet on who would repay these debts, created massive profits for banks and 'investors' – until 2008. Then with the collapse of the financial market, the faith in the future of capitalism itself was put into jeopardy. But despite the evident instability, witnessed by the collapse of imaginary 'derivatives' markets, the exact same ideas are the basis for the creation of yet another new market: a carbon market that puts a price tag on the very carbon in the air itself.

The main outcome of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (see glossary) for “solving” the climate crisis has been the creation of a global 'carbon market' in which companies and corporations can buy and sell 'credits' that symbolise the right to pollute. The official rhetoric to justify this is that charging companies to pollute will encourage them to reduce their emissions in order to reduce their costs. But looked at more closely it becomes apparent that the right to produce carbon emissions has just been privatised, meaning that those who can afford to pay are able to benefit from polluting practices, while those who cannot afford to pay are excluded from them.

By what act of black magic does anyone decide on the price of carbon emissions? Just as the bankers had to basically invent a price for complex financial derivatives, using mathematical equations so complex that even those running the trading floors confessed to having no understanding of how they were created, governments and markets are literally inventing a price for carbon. What follows is elementary: whenever there is a market for an immaterial commodity, whose price is basically an act of black magic, what is guaranteed to follow is a massive amount of speculation and fraud, leading to a giant bubble and then the inevitable burst.

Companies can even get more carbon credits through two clever and conveniently complicated market schemes called the 'Clean Development Mechanism' (CDM) and 'Joint Implementation' (JI). Within these 'flexible mechanisms' (see glossary) companies are allowed to buy credits by investing in a project in the Global South or Central and Eastern Europe that emits less carbon dioxide than a potential alternative project that might have otherwise been built. The system is infested with fraudulent practices. It has become a cash cow for industrial expansion across the global south, used to funnel money into industries such as chemicals factories and coal – because the 'otherwise' scenario is predicted by the company itself, who then decides how much carbon they have 'saved'. The credits they earn can be used to 'pay' for emissions from the company's current stock of industrial plants (meaning that they don't have to reduce them) or can be sold on the carbon market to create even more profits for investment.

The CDM and JI do nothing to reduce carbon emissions from their current levels. Instead they give companies a way to earn extra credits which permit them to continue polluting at current levels, while also earning money to invest in expanding their industries. Moreover, it has been widely documented that these projects (ie. monoculture plantations, construction of mega-dams, large scale windmill farms, among many others) are causing serious environmental, social and economic problems in the local communities where they are implemented. The schemes are also a convenient way to undermine a cap on carbon emissions – by creating new credits there is no longer a cap – and to legitimize the appropriation and extraction of natural resources in the Global South and Eastern Europe.

The carbon market is the Emperor's new clothing for this capitalist system, with one crucial difference: this time, it is not just the profits of bankers and big corporations and our jobs which are at stake, but irreversible and catastrophic climate change that will leave our children inheriting a wasteland. Indeed, if the history of carbon markets like those of the European Emissions Trading Scheme is any guide, they only serve to increase carbon emissions. Carbon markets are ultimately dangerous because they provide a convenient lie that lets us sleep easily as land grabs, industrial expansion, rapid decrease of our finite natural resources and climate crunching carbon emissions continue unchecked; this while diverting attention away from the real solutions to climate change which involve a substantial transformative change to our systems of political and economic organisation.

Markets are always created by taking at gunpoint that which is free and held in common, and making it private property to serve profit. Around the world, local and indigenous communities have for millennia cultivated their land in common without regard for property titles, taxes, or boundaries; but wherever these communities have been unfortunate enough to live on top of fossil fuels or mineral resources, close to dammable rivers, extended lands for mega-project imlementations or in the rainforest, powerful corporations have conspired with governments to rob the people of their land in order give ownership rights to the companies for extraction and exploitation.

Under the United Nations agreement “Reducing Emissions from Deforestation in Developing Countries,” (REDD) currently being negotiated within the UNFCCC, this process is intensified: forested land is privatized and given to corporations, abolishing indigenous and local people's decision-making power or removing them from the land altogether, so that the corporation can 'preserve' the forest in order to make a tidy profit from the carbon credits earned. Ironically, 'saving the environment' will become the latest fashionable excuse of oppressive authorities. Indigenous and local communities in the Global South are being dragged kicking and screaming into this new form of green colonization, just as our European ancestors were dragged from their lands in the land grabs that accompanied the dawn of western industrial civilization.

It is not just carbon emissions that must be stopped in order to prevent climate change, but the capitalist form of production. Even if capitalism could reconfigure itself so that it could keep producing without carbon emissions, the crux of the problem is that the imposition of market relationships does permanent violence to ecosystems and the humans who live in them. Unlike mass-produced monoculture plantations, the naturally evolved rainforests that absorb our excess carbon cannot be easily replaced. Neither can the indigenous ways of living that may very well provide some of the few remaining clues of how humans can relate to the world without destroying it.

Instead of recognising climate change as the ultimate warning that our current systems of organisation, energy use, production and consumption are just not working, governments and corporations are hijacking climate change as an excuse to embark on yet another round of capital accumulation. The creation of new markets, that justify further global inequality and unjust practices, are the only solutions they have devised after almost two decades of talking.

Capitalism may have functioned well enough to provide a level of material comfort for a minority of people on this planet, but its assumptions that there would be never-ending natural resources (including atmospheric capacity) have now come to an end. And like anything that outlives the material conditions it evolved under, the reign of capitalist production must come to an end, to create the space necessary to learn from the already existing alternatives, common to many local experiences; different ways of life better suited for the present. Instead we must harness the incredible productive potential of humanity for the benefit of the planet. What is genuinely useful must be expropriated, and the rest must be destroyed. A new form of life that holds this world in common must be fashioned, and we must learn how to relate to each other not as commodities but as real living human beings.


Derivatives: A type of trade made on the financial markets whose price depends on the price of something else – e.g. a bet taken on the future exchange rate of Euros to Dollars – with the possibility to make huge profits if the bet wins.

UNFCCC: United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change - the international governmental agreement to do something about climate change, ratified in 1995. To achieve its goal, there is an annual UNFCCC 'Conference of the Parties' (COP) - where governments (parties to the convention) and their associated corporations sit around a big table and discuss how they can make money out of climate change and look “green” at the same time.

Flexible mechanisms: Emissions Trading, the Clean Development Mechanism and Joint Implementation. These are market-based mechanisms defined under the Kyoto Protocol (negotiated at the COP meeting in Kyoto in 1997) intended to lower the overall costs of achieving emissions targets. They are designed to allow rich Northern countries to trade credits among themselves or buy new ones in “poorer” or Southern countries instead of reducing their emissions in their own countries. In reality, they simply provide a way for rich countries and their corporations to make more money.