Ecological collapse and capitalism

So delving more into the issue of the threat posed by climate change and related issues it became obvious that the answer to the questions posed in my previous blog have been well and truly answered by experts in the field.

In November 2017 over 15,000 scientists issued a “Warning to Humanity: A Second Notice” outlining the imminent danger of ecological collapse and resulting end of human civilisation as we know it. This was written as the 25th anniversary update of an earlier 1992 “Warning to Humanity” signed by over 1,700 scientists.

This “Second Notice” gives a starkly negative assessment of the world’s response to that initial warning 25 years ago:

Since 1992, with the exception of stabilizing the stratospheric ozone layer, humanity has failed to make sufficient progress in generally solving these foreseen environmental challenges, and alarmingly, most of them are getting far worse. Especially troubling is the current trajectory of potentially catastrophic climate change due to rising GHGs from burning fossil fuels, deforestation, and agricultural production—particularly from farming ruminants for meat consumption. Moreover, we have unleashed a mass extinction event, the sixth in roughly 540 million years, wherein many current life forms could be annihilated or at least committed to extinction by the end of this century.


To prevent widespread misery and catastrophic biodiversity loss, humanity must practice a more environmentally sustainable alternative to business as usual. This prescription was well articulated by the world’s leading scientists 25 years ago, but in most respects, we have not heeded their warning. Soon it will be too late to shift course away from our failing trajectory, and time is running out. We must recognize, in our day-to-day lives and in our governing institutions, that Earth with all its life is our only home.

I have a vague recollection of hearing about this more recent “Warning” at the end of last year. But as an article on the blog of the Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere (MAHB), “What Will It Really Take to Avoid Collapse?”, explains it is not surprising that it does not stand larger in my memory (there is US bias in their comments but the general points hold true internationally as I understand it).

For a moment, the most important news in the entire world flashed across the media like a shooting star in the night sky. Then it was gone.

Along with their warning, the scientists list a dozen or so examples of the kind of actions that could turn humanity’s trajectory around. These include indisputably necessary strategies such as halting the conversion of native habitats into farmland; restoring and rewilding ecologies; phasing out fossil fuel subsidies; and promoting dietary shifts toward plant-based foods. With the future of humanity at stake, why aren’t we already doing these things? What will it really take for our civilization to change course and save itself from destruction?

Ignoring climate breakdown

We can begin to answer that simply by looking at the media’s reception to this warning. With fifteen thousand scientists—including Jane Goodall, E. O. Wilson, and James Hansen—declaring a potential catastrophe at hand, you might think this would make headlines everywhere. Think again. While it led to a few short articles in select publications around the world, with the one commendable exception of CNN, it was virtually ignored by American mainstream media.

This should hardly come as a surprise. In fact, global climate breakdown—perhaps the greatest existential threat faced by our civilization—is barely considered newsworthy on American television. In 2016, the hottest year on record, when the Paris agreement was signed and presidential candidates held widely differing opinions on climate change, the entire year’s climate coverage by all network news services in the U.S. amounted to less than an hour: a paltry 50 minutes, representing a 66% drop from the previous year.

How could that be? One reason is that, as a result of decades of massive industry consolidation, the U.S. media is controlled by a few large corporations. Like all shareholder-owned companies, their overriding concern is making profits, in this case from advertising dollars. The news services, once considered a hallowed responsibility administered for the public good, have been reduced to just another profit center—and it was decided that climate change news isn’t good for advertising revenue, especially since a big chunk of that comes from the fossil fuel and agribusiness companies responsible for much of the problem.

Like passengers moving deckchairs on the Titanic, much of the world’s population has been hypnotized by a daily onslaught of celebrity spats and political feuds—anything to avoid the realization that we are all heading for collapse in order to keep the affluent in luxury. It is a testament to their success so far that, in the words of Slavoj Žižek, it is “easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.”

I also discovered an article by Paul R. Ehrlich and Anne H. Ehrlich – “Can a collapse of global civilization be avoided?” – which outlines in greater detail the immediacy and depth of the crisis facing humanity, the complexity and inter-relatedness of that crisis, and what will be required to avert it. I would highly recommend that all readers of this blog take the time to read and digest the content of this article.

The following are some key quotes from the article:

… today, for the first time, humanity’s global civilization—the worldwide, increasingly interconnected, highly technological society in which we all are to one degree or another, embedded—is threatened with collapse by an array of environmental problems. Humankind finds itself engaged in what Prince Charles described as ‘an act of suicide on a grand scale’, facing what the UK’s Chief Scientific Advisor John Beddington called a ‘perfect storm’ of environmental problems. The most serious of these problems show signs of rapidly escalating severity, especially climate disruption. But other elements could potentially also contribute to a collapse: an accelerating extinction of animal and plant populations and species, which could lead to a loss of ecosystem services essential for human survival; land degradation and land-use change; a pole-to-pole spread of toxic compounds; ocean acidification and eutrophication (dead zones); worsening of some aspects of the epidemiological environment (factors that make human populations susceptible to infectious diseases); depletion of increasingly scarce resources, including especially groundwater, which is being overexploited in many key agricultural areas; and resource wars. These are not separate problems; rather they interact in two gigantic complex adaptive systems: the biosphere system and the human socio-economic system. The negative manifestations of these interactions are often referred to as ‘the human predicament’, and determining how to prevent it from generating a global collapse is perhaps the foremost challenge confronting humanity.

The Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that increasing food production by some 70 per cent would be required to feed a 35 per cent bigger and still growing human population adequately by 2050. What are the prospects that H. sapiens can produce and distribute sufficient food? To do so, it probably will be necessary to accomplish many or all of the following tasks: severely limit climate disruption; restrict expansion of land area for agriculture (to preserve ecosystem services); raise yields where possible; put much more effort into soil conservation; increase efficiency in the use of fertilizers, water and energy; become more vegetarian; grow more food for people (not fuel for vehicles); reduce food wastage; stop degradation of the oceans and better regulate aquaculture; significantly increase investment in sustainable agricultural and aquacultural research; and move increasing equity and feeding everyone to the very top of the policy agenda.

The threat from climate disruption to food production alone means that humanity’s entire system for mobilizing energy needs to be rapidly transformed. Warming must be held well below a potential 5°C rise in global average temperature, a level that could well bring down civilization. The best estimate today may be that, failing rapid concerted action, the world is already committed to a 2.4°C increase in global average temperature. This is significantly above the 2°C estimated a decade ago by climate scientists to be a ‘safe’ limit, but now considered by some analysts to be too dangerous, a credible assessment, given the effects seen already before reaching a one degree rise. There is evidence, moreover, that present models underestimate future temperature increase by overestimating the extent that growth of vegetation can serve as a carbon sink and underestimating positive feedbacks.

While recognising the increasing concentration of capital and domination of the world by a very small number of multi-national corporations and the families who stand behind them the pathway’s proposed for bringing about the actions needed display a naive confidence in the democratic processes of international capitalist states.

As most political leaders respond to pressure, scientists, media influencers, and lay citizens must insist that their governments take immediate action as a moral imperative to current and future generations of human and other life. With a groundswell of organized grassroots efforts, dogged opposition can be overcome and political leaders compelled to do the right thing. It is also time to re-examine and change our individual behaviors, including limiting our own reproduction (ideally to replacement level at most) and drastically diminishing our per capita ­consumption of fossil fuels, meat, and other resources.
(“Warning to Humanity: Second Notice”)

Without significant pressure from the public demanding action, we fear there is little chance of changing course fast enough to forestall disaster.

The needed pressure, however, might be generated by a popular movement based in academia and civil society to help guide humanity towards developing a new multiple intelligence, ‘foresight intelligence’ to provide the long-term analysis and planning that markets cannot supply. Foresight intelligence could not only systematically look ahead but also guide cultural changes towards desirable outcomes such as increased socio-economic resilience. Helping develop such a movement and foresight intelligence are major challenges facing scientists today, a cutting edge for research that must slice fast if the chances of averting a collapse are to be improved.

If foresight intelligence became established, many more scientists and policy planners (and society) might, for example, understand the demographic contributions to the predicament, stop treating population growth as a ‘given’ and consider the nutritional, health and social benefits of humanely ending growth well below nine billion and starting a slow decline. This would be a monumental task, considering the momentum of population growth. Monumental, but not impossible if the political will could be generated globally to give full rights, education and opportunities to women, and provide all sexually active human beings with modern contraception and backup abortion. The degree to which those steps would reduce fertility rates is controversial, but they are a likely win-win for societies.
(“Can a collapse of global civilization be avoided?”)

Oxfam’s 2016 “An Economy for the 1%” report detailed the incredible concentration of wealth in today’s world.

The gap between rich and poor is reaching new extremes. Credit Suisse recently revealed that the richest 1% have now accumulated more wealth than the rest of the world put together.

Oxfam has calculated that:

• In 2015, just 62 individuals had the same wealth as 3.6 billion people – the bottom half of humanity. This figure is down from 388 individuals as recently as 2010.

• The wealth of the richest 62 people has risen by 45% in the five years since 2010 – that’s an increase of more than half a trillion dollars ($542bn), to $1.76 trillion.

• Meanwhile, the wealth of the bottom half fell by just over a trillion dollars in the same period – a drop of 38%.

• Since the turn of the century, the poorest half of the world’s population has received just 1% of the total increase in global wealth, while half of that increase has gone to the top 1%.

The MAHB article notes:

Which leads us to some of the underlying structural changes that need to occur if human civilization is to avoid collapse. The fundamental problem is brutally simple: our world system is based on the premise of perpetual growth in consumption, which puts it on a collision course with the natural world. Either the global system has to be restructured, or we are headed for a catastrophe of immense proportions that has never been experienced in human history.  However, the transnational corporations largely responsible for driving this trajectory are structurally designed to prevent the global changes that need to take place.

However they do not draw the obvious, at least to me, revolutionary Marxist conclusion that the anti-human internal dynamics of the capitalist socioeconomic system mean it is not capable of providing an answer to save us.

Much has been made of the 2015 Paris Climate Accord (see for instance the fairly optimistic end to the documentary The Flood). Yet virtually every signatory to that Accord is failing to meet the requirements of the agreement. As per the following image from the Climate Action Tracker website


The Paris Climate Accord  was effectively the last throw of the dice for those expecting international capitalism to start implementing solutions to prevent global ecological collapse. There have been a succession of such agreements going back to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change adopted  in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 (see the Environmental and Energy Study Institute). The 154 signatories to the UNFCCC agreed to stabilize “greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous interference with the climate system.”

And yet this is the result of all those agreements:


It is time to start looking beyond the in-built limitations of capitalism if we want to stave off ecological collapse.

One of the best known Marxist’s focusing on the environment is John Bellamy Foster. Foster was interviewed in late August this year for the new website Rebel (part of the re-branding of the Socialist Worker organisation in Ireland) where he pointed out that:

We have ample means of making such cuts in emissions, while improving the lives of most people and protecting the environment. But this cannot be achieved without a sharp departure from business as usual, which means going against the logic of capital, and particularly the fossil-fuel complex. It would require an ecological and social revolution. Those who pronounce that it is already “too late” are thus not referring to whether the change is humanly possible at this point—it definitely is. Rather, they are acceding to the prevailing logic of capital and the attendant political structure, as defining the limits of what is feasible.

Foster described the People Before Profit/Solidarity sponsored Climate Emergency Measures Bill that is currently in the Dáil committee stage as being “immensely important” and “a clear attempt break with the logic of capital accumulation”.

However the Bill, while supportable as a minimal reform, does nothing of the sort. It explicitly poses itself in the context of meeting the targets of the Paris Accord – an agreement between capitalist states that is clearly compatible with the continuation of capitalism.

Foster also referred positively to the Our Children’s Trust lawsuit in the USA because it (and the Irish Bill) “challenge the system in fundamental ways, and represent radical, grassroots initiatives.”

Once again that is simply not true. The “Pathway to Climate Recovery” section on the Our Children’s Trust website presents implementing perspective as merely a matter of US capitalism making different policy choices.

No doubt this will involve many supportable reforms but it is very far away from what Foster argued early in the same interview.

The only thing that could alter this dire situation, all over the world, is the rise of another power in society. We need not millions but hundreds of millions of people, necessarily predominantly working class, in the street day in and day out. There has to be a shift in tactics towards active noncooperation. Mere mass demonstrations, as important as they are, will no longer do the job in this situation. Given the threat to capital accumulation that a serious climate change movement represents such protests are simply downplayed by the corporate media. Hence, rather than focusing on getting media attention, or concentrating on direct appeals to the government the strategic orientation of the movement has to be one of noncooperation with the political-economic hegemony. What is needed is an independent, revolutionary groundswell aimed at the reconstitution of production and consumption in the society, at least to the degree necessary to prevent society from reaching the point of no return with respect to climate change—though the ultimate aims would need to go beyond that. It will have to be internationalist, which means anti-imperialist in character, since global unity of the oppressed—encompassing the many forms of oppression is the sine qua non of the movement.

The key to understanding this apparent contradiction is Foster’s claim that:

Our best hope is to push against this logic producing in the short run a transitional society in which people and the planet come before profit. But that means that we will already be on the way to a new society of sustainable human development. This is at the core of the movement toward socialism in the Anthropocene.

This “transitional society” can only be a reformed social-democratic version of capitalism which will do just enough to prevent the world from reaching the point of no return with respect to climate change. A fantasy capitalism where people and the planet come before profit – but profit still exists. I presume that this latest version of a two-stage approach to social change will also involve political alliances with “progressive” green sections of the bourgeoisie.

History is littered with the failures resulting from this kind of approach. However unlike the nation specific calamities for the workers’ movement of the past this time the future of the whole of humanity is threatened.

What is needed is the building of a revolutionary wing within the wider environmental movement. A revolutionary movement that, as well as supporting immediate reforms within capitalism, openly fights to end capitalism and replace it with a new communal social system based on meeting human needs and wants in harmony with nature. This is the only way that ecological collapse can be averted.



Climate Change – is it too late to save us?

I watched the film First Reformed the other night and was led to do some checking on the current state of affairs with the environment. After a little googling I discovered that it looks much worse that I had previously thought. There are many serious commentators who are concerned that we might have gone over the cliff and it is just a matter of when, not if, human life, at least in terms of anything like the way we currently understand it, becomes unsustainable on the planet.

So I’m going to be doing some more research and a series of blog posts laying out the facts as I find them.

This first one is about greenhouse gases.

Although the Trump administration is attacking the basis of the United States Environmental Protection Agency as any kind of independent scientific agency (see https://www.mlive.com/news/index.ssf/2018/01/gina_mccarthy_epa_flint_pfas_p.html) the EPA is still, for the time being, a useful authoritative site.

They have a page with graphs of the three main greenhouse gases showing the changes over the past 800 thousand years. The bulk of that data comes from study of ice cores with the data from the 1950s coming from direct measurement of the atmosphere – https://www.epa.gov/climate-indicators/climate-change-indicators-atmospheric-concentrations-greenhouse-gases

I reproduce the three key graphs below. They all show the same reality which completely destroys the climate change denier’s myth that what we are seeing now is just a natural cycle.




This represents an unprecedented level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere during the time Homo Sapiens have existed on the planet.

This is not a good start in terms of understanding the degree of immediacy and potentiality of ecological catastrophe.



2018 March for Choice


Because we still need abortion access, we will march.
Because we succeeded in repealing the 8th Amendment, we will march.
Because we want to show support to people in the North, we will march.
Because the new law needs to provide safe and free abortion for anyone who needs one, we will march.
Because abortion is still stigmatised and shamed, we will march.
Because we are the majority that will not be silenced any longer, we will march.
Because we need violence and harassment-free access to healthcare, we will march.
Because our work is not done, we will march.
In honour of those who lost their lives to the 8th Amendment, we will march.
In remembrance of the miles we walked while canvassing, we will march.
So that people with disabilities can have access to abortion care, we will march.
To end the shame and silence around our choices, we will march.
For a healthcare system that provides services to all, not just some, we will march.
Because we are proud to be pro-choice, we will march.
To make sure no one is left behind, we will march.

Join us to call for Free, Safe, Legal abortion access for all at 2pm on September 29th at the Garden of Remembrance, Dublin


All-island abortion access welcomed by the Abortion Rights Campaign

Press release from the Abortion Rights Campaign
7th August 2018

All-island abortion access welcomed by the Abortion Rights Campaign

The Abortion Rights Campaign welcome Minister Harris’s commitment to ensuring that people from Northern Ireland will be able to access abortion services in the Republic. Although this is a welcome step, this is not a solution to the lack of abortion access in the North. Women and pregnant people who travel for abortion care face practical and financial barriers; although these barriers will be lessened by travelling to Dublin rather than Liverpool, they still exist. Minister Harris’s commitment will provide another option for those who are able to travel for services, but many will be unable to travel and will be forced to continue a pregnancy against their will.

In addition to legal and practical barriers, pregnant people in Northern Ireland have often faced criminal sanctions for accessing abortion. The people of Northern Ireland deserve free, safe and legal abortion within their own jurisdiction, with local care and support. It is vital that abortion is fully decriminalised in Northern Ireland and that safe, accessible abortion care is introduced.

The Abortion Rights Campaign reminds Members of the Legislative Assembly that it is to the shame of successive members of the Oireachtas that people of this island have had to travel in their thousands, and continue to do so, for care that should have been accessible here. It is time that they, like their Dáil counterparts, recognise their failure and start to provide care to pregnant people in their own communities. We would also remind the Minister that this helping hand should not be restricted on the basis of residency status or nationality but provided to all who need it as a matter of urgency, after decades of failing women and pregnant people.

At the 7th Annual March for Choice on 29th September in Dublin, Emma Campbell and Kelly O’Dowd of Alliance for Choice will speak about #decrimNi and the all-island fight for access to free, safe and legal abortion.



Ryanair moaning about working class solidarity

Driving in to work this morning I couldn’t help but notice the comments by representatives of Ryanair complaining about “co-ordination” in today’s strikes by the different unions representing Ryanair pilots across Europe.

Why shouldn’t there be co-ordination between these nation-based unions in their industrial dispute with Ryanair?

They all face bosses who are necessarily “co-ordinating” their response to industrial relations within the framework of the trans-national company that is Ryanair.

This kind of pan-European solidarity within the workers’ movement should be welcomed and championed by any advocates of working class militancy. Hopefully other unions facing trans-national companies take note and apply similar tactics in their dealings with their own bosses.