World View: Climate breakdown may pave way for ecosocialism

How compatible with human survival is growth based on capitalist economics?

The cascade of scientific reports on global climate breakdown is now joined by comprehensive evidence on accelerating worldwide species extinction, mainly as a result of capitalist agricultural expansion, pesticides and pollution.

The loss of species and habitats is as much of a threat to human life as climate breakdown, according to the United Nations-backed Intergovernmental Science Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES).

The two issues are directly linked, since agriculture is responsible for 25 per cent of greenhouse gas production and a heating planet will eliminate even more species. Crop and livestock operations currently use more than 33 per cent of the Earth’s land surface and 75 per cent of its freshwater resources. A lot of that is irrational, since livestock takes up nearly 80 per cent of global agricultural land yet produces less than 20 per cent of the world’s supply of calories.

Some 60 per cent of all mammals on Earth are livestock, mostly cattle and pigs, 36 per cent are human and just 4 per cent are wild animals. One hundred and fifty years ago, terrestrial areas were dominated by wild animals and forests. Wildlife populations in rivers has plunged by 83 per cent since 1970 due to dams, overuse of water and pollution.


Both climate breakdown and species extinction sharply pose two questions: how compatible with human survival is continued growth based on capitalist economics? And how can the real threats facing the planet best be publicised in the face of relative government inaction and public indifference?

A high proportion of the damage to species and climate has happened in the last two generations. An estimated 60 per cent of the world’s wildlife vertebrate population (including mammals, reptiles, amphibians, birds and fish) has been wiped out since 1970, while invertebrates have declined by 45 per cent over an even shorter period.

Destructive expansion

That destruction coincided with the great expansion of capitalist production in the most developed states since the 1980s, its acceleration after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, followed by the huge outreach of industrialism to China and southeast Asia in the last three or four decades. The system is now worldwide, having brought hundreds of millions into its markets and many out of poverty, even as inequalities soared in the richest states and the world’s population doubled to its current 7.9 billion.

Destruction coincided with the great expansion of capitalist production in the most developed states since the 1980s

Projecting that growth at current rates would see a doubling of world production within the next generation. On the basis of what was destroyed over the last 50 years, that would be utterly unsustainable. Alongside the dire warnings of looming irreversible climate breakdown, there now come these ones about the extermination of species, including our own.

Technological and managerial approaches to these threats supported by the OECD and World Bank affirm that continued economic expansion is or can be compatible with the planet’s ecology. That requires that capitalist production be decoupled from the planetary boundaries flagged by these authoritative scientific studies.

But there is little or no empirical evidence to show that is possible, according to a detailed study by Jason Hickel and George Kallis just published by the journal New Political Economy. They show that the decoupling which did occur in advanced western economies coincided with their outreach of production to China, which must be factored in. Historically, capitalism has expanded through successive dispossessions: of common lands, colonies, rural populations, natural habitats and other species, and now surveillance. Economists call these externalities but they must be included in the sum total of capital accumulation.

Radical language

These authors champion degrowth through a transformation of existing economic models, towards a form of ecosocialism based on completely different and more sustainable premises. The green new deal supported by younger left-wing activists in the US and UK goes along similar lines.

Movements  champion more radical and arresting language and actions to dramatise the ecological threats

Such movements also champion more radical and arresting language and actions to dramatise the ecological threats: climate breakdown not change; climate emergency or catastrophe; biodiversity collapse; extinction rebellion. They are inspired towards direct action by earlier rebellious generations – of suffragettes for women’s votes, by Gandhi’s pacifist resistance and Martin Luther King’s civil disobedience.

They are made much stronger by another dramatic generational change: the revolt by schoolgoers much more aware than their parents of how looming environmental risks threaten the very foundations of their future lives and those of humanity as a whole. A third force is represented by indigenous and vulnerable peoples in Brazil and elsewhere campaigning to protect their habitats against agricultural and climatic encroachment as custodians for all the Earth’s species.