By IAN LUNASEGNO
“So how long have we got?” asks Jeff Gibbs in his man-on-the-street opening bid to the climate-change documentary, “Planet of the Humans,” directed by Gibbs and produced by Michael Moore. After hearing unscripted responses ranging from optimistic, to pessimistic, to silly, we see Gibbs pensively cruising a twilit highway in the American heartland. “Have you ever wondered what would happen if a single species took over an entire planet?” he narrates, “Maybe they’re cute, maybe they’re clever, but lack a certain self-restraint. What if they go too far? … How will they know when it’s their time to go?”
The film’s title card appears: “Planet of the Humans.” It’s an allusion, in both phrase and font, to the classic sci-fi blockbuster “Planet of the Apes,” wherein a team of astronauts crash-land on a desolate planet and find, to their shock and horror, that the only intelligent life on the planet appears to be a society of cruel bipedal apes who speak English. There are indigenous humans on the planet, but they are mute and far less sophisticated than the apes, who mercilessly corral and study them. The introduction of the human astronauts, who can speak and demonstrate advanced intellect, greatly disturbs the social order of the apes.
At the film’s climax, it’s revealed to have been Earth this whole time; the astronauts evidently crashed into New York Harbor eons in the future, a forbidden truth known only among the ape heads of state. In the iconic final scene, the protagonist, portrayed by Charlton Heston, collapses on the beach before the Statue of Liberty—now half swallowed by the earth—and impotently hurls curses at what act of human destructiveness must have caused the apocalypse. And so, with just a few sentences of voiceover, Jeff Gibbs has managed to bury the lede deeper than Lady Liberty.
A false start
“Planet of the Humans” is constructed upon a flawed (though unfortunately common) premise that we humans have gone too far and now must reap what we have sown. By framing the issue of climate change in this way, he tramples all nuance. It implies a collective responsibility for a problem very few of us have much, or any, control over. While you may drive your car to work every day because you need to do this to afford food, and a historical trend of defunding public transit and subsidizing the auto industry has rendered this your easiest (if not your only) option, this documentary consistently frames such behavior as an “addiction to fossil fuel.” If he were interested in arriving at correct answers, Gibbs might have proceeded as such:
“Have you ever wondered what would happen if a single mode of production took over an entire planet? Maybe it’s dynamic for a time, maybe it’s clever, but lacks a certain self-restraint (because it demands infinite growth). What if its need to expand, extract, exploit, and consolidate goes too far, driving the planet and the bulk of its inhabitants toward abject misery and ruination? How will the increasingly few overlords of this system know when it’s their time to go? How might the working masses reorganize society for the better?”
This line of inquiry would have made “PotH” a vastly more sincere intellectual endeavor, but in his glibness, Jeff Gibbs redistributes the culpability for climate change downward: The carpenters endure blows meant for the architect.
But this flattening of who-did-what hides another truth in the sand, a historical pattern this time. Not only must we (laboring) humans all pay for the sins (of the bourgeois economy) against the planet, we—the current inhabitants, our children, and grandchildren yet to exist—are to pay the ever-compounding interest which some 200 years of industrial capitalism has levied upon the natural world. In other words, those who’ve caused the least damage shall bear the increasing fury of the storm.
Before further interrogating the faulty reasoning embedded in this documentary’s thesis, as well as the noxious geopolitical implications of such a message, it is useful to delve further into the content of the film, and the perspective of its director and producer. Following the film’s opening, Gibbs introduces the audience to the birth of the modern environmental movement—the mounting scientific evidence of anthropogenic climate change, the first Earth Day in 1970, etc. He then presents himself as a dyed-in-the-wool tree hugger, going so far as to sabotage construction equipment that was destroying the woods of his childhood. He shows us his log cabin with solar panels, and some highlights from his career as an activist, journalist, and naturalist, one seemingly held in high regard within the environmental movement.
Following this background is a critique of many of the real problems with the environmental movement—how it is, in no small part, propped up by public-private partnerships (more on these later) riddled with financial ties to the very same firms making billions from fossil fuels. He points to the hypocrisy of politicians, industrialists, bankers, who champion the cause of climate change with their hands stuck in the same jar of oil money. Gibbs delights in using Al Gore, now and always a leech, as a frequent punching bag, and frankly it is deserved.
Gibbs and Moore, both themselves residents of Michigan, show a special disdain for the executives of General Motors, who soon after taking billions in bailout money introduced a line of electric cars. In this segment he standoffishly points his camera in the faces of the GM executives (circa 2010) and asks them if they know where electricity comes from, a favorite technique of Moore that Gibbs deploys throughout the documentary. The problem? Sixty-five percent of grid electricity is generated from fossil-fuel combustion. Why not take the opportunity to also ask them why, after taking almost $50 billion of federal stimulus money in total, they are still eliminating 10,000 jobs? Why not give an update that as of 2018 the company saw record profits, but was still trying to eliminate an additional 18,000 jobs?
The problem is that some of what he says is valid, which makes the parts that aren’t all the more treacherous. Yes, politicians are corrupt and inherently duplicitous. CEOs are snakes, fine, fine. Yes, non-governmental organizations are compromised in fundamental ways that make them incapable of generating the systemic change that is needed, but if nothing else they can be important points of nucleation for mass movements that can effect this change.
Gibbs pointedly makes environmentalist NGOs like Sierra Club and 350 look pretty bad by criticising their leaders, who have at various times aligned themselves with bourgeois political causes such as the notion of natural gas as a “bridge fuel” to get off of coal, and the viability of biofuels as renewables, respectively. However, Gibbs neglects to mention that the ranks of both organizations applied substantial pressure on the leadership to do a corrective about-face on these issues, lest they completely discredit themselves to both science and the activist base.
The film also points to how Barack Obama’s legacy demonstrated the hollowness of his commitment to stopping climate change, with the toothless Paris Climate Accord being signed as domestic fracking was reaching a dizzying pitch. While many specific criticisms leveled at figures of prominence in “PotH” are justified per se, the sloppiness and lack of penetrative analysis throughout the film makes them ultimately useless.
A substantial amount of time is devoted to discrediting the viability of renewables. The documentary goes to great lengths debunking biomass (trees, plants, etc.) burning as a large-scale green energy alternative, which is absolutely true: all plant life sequesters atmospheric carbon. Burning those plants rapidly releases that carbon back into the atmosphere, just as with coal and petrol, so while the carbon in plants may have been trapped there for a shorter period than that of fossil fuels, the effect is the same, and made worse by the fact that the sequestration capacity of the earth is continuously reduced if compensatory trees are not planted. Biofuels just substitute our current carbon sinks for the primordial.
Nonetheless, for what it gets right, it must be stated that “Planet of the Humans” is about 10 years out of step with both technology and shifts in the current movement. For instance, the efficiency (in terms of light energy converted to usable electrical current) of on-the-market solar panels has more than doubled since the figure offered by Gibbs, making his out-of-date figure seem like an intentional choice made to strengthen his argument against solar and wind energy. In actuality, at peak operation, solar panels are only a few percent shy of photosynthesis—not too shabby.
Yes, the raw materials for these renewables, as well as the ways they are sourced and refined, is a problem for long-term sustainability; however, that is an issue that could be addressed if material science research (for things other than advanced weaponry and profiteering) were properly funded. Even within the current technological paradigm, semiconductors (such as silicon) could be worked by other means than coalfire (such as induction). Even now, with their dirty production, a solar panel neutralizes its carbon footprint in a year (give or take), producing clean energy for the rest of its 30-year lifespan.
At some point, somebody in the documentary makes the claim that a wind turbine only lasts 20 years. The fact that this comment, made by an uncredited person off-camera, is incorporated into the film uncritically is remarkable. This borderline magical-thinking regards turbines as living beings that must one day die, rather than what they really are: machines like any other, able to be serviced or overhauled by the same forces that conceived of and constructed them, i.e., human labor.
This documentary also does a huge disservice to climate activists themselves, writing them off as hopelessly starry-eyed dupes (which is rich coming from a film with such out-of-date science that works in the favor of the fossil fuel industries). Any mass movement is going to attract people of all consciousness levels, including some kooks. But depicting the least-informed participants as representative of the entire movement is simply dishonest. If nothing else, the past few years have shown a large scale refutation of the neoliberal consensus that the solutions to humanity’s problems lay in the type of public-private partnerships criticized in “Planet of the Humans.”
The climate movement of today is qualitatively different than that of a decade ago, as portrayed by Gibbs. Indigenous-led anti-pipeline demonstrations, rapid youth radicalization, an increase in rank-and-file labor militancy, and a renewed interest in ecosocialist ideas have greatly reinvigorated not only the climate movement, but activism on the whole. The creative demonstrations and spontaneous organizing happening around the COVID-19 crisis (not the rightwing astroturfed protests) are irrefutable evidence of this trend; people are realizing that global warming, militarism, mass-incarceration, racism, xenophobia, extractive industry, big agribusiness, violence against women and children, trans-and homophobia, the public health crisis, and economic crashes all share a common axis of struggle.
The dismal science
About 20 minutes into the documentary, the white whale teased in the film’s opening surfaces once more—while on a clandestine hike to a wind energy construction site in the mountains of Vermont, one of Gibbs’ companions remarks, “Not being judgmental or trying to play God, but we’ve got to deal with population growth and sustainable resources, we all gotta cut back,” a statement delivered with some consternation. This point of view is bolstered throughout the film with clips of (all white, mostly men) “experts” who inform us, with much gravitas, “Sorry, there’s just too many people, aw shucks.” What neither they, nor Gibbs, possess is the stomach to elucidate what a practical implementation of this solution would in fact look like. They’d rather not think about it.
Gibbs is careful not to get into specifics, but it’s not too difficult to deduce that there are exactly two possible ways to mechanically cause a reduction in the population in the timeframe being proposed: (1) extermination, or (2) sterilization programs. Historically, in America, one or both have been done to the Native Americans, Black people, LGBTQ+ people, Puerto Ricans, prison inmates, and the disabled.
The U.S. has a long history of eugenics, one extending to the modern day. In fact, their approach to curbing the population of certain “undesirables” provided a model for the Nazis, a detail curiously left out of most U.S. primary schools’ history curriculums. This is the political reality of the “solutions” being proposed by Jeff Gibbs and Michael Moore in this documentary. When enacted, these measures will always target the most marginalized.
Looking into the formal field of ecology, one will undoubtedly detect the thumbprints of Thomas Malthus. For example, influential 20th-century ecologist Garrett Hardin, founder of “Lifeboat Ethics,” has been labelled an ethnonationalist and white supremicist by the Southern Poverty Law Center for his pseudoscientific populationism. While victories in the Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and other struggles for liberation have made overt displays of racism slightly less tolerated than in the past, the neo-Malthusian “environmentalist” is merely a quieter bigot.
Take, for instance, the well-regarded and seemingly innocuous list of solutions to “draw down” our resource expenditure. From the section of Hardin’s tract entitled “Educating Girls”: “Education lays a foundation for vibrant lives for girls and women, their families, and their communities. It also is one of the most powerful levers available for avoiding emissions by curbing population growth. Women with more years of education have fewer and healthier children, and actively manage their reproductive health. Educated girls realize higher wages and greater upward mobility, contributing to economic growth” (my emphasis).
What a bunch of blatantly racialized paternalism! The same imperial structural relationship spanning back to the colonial era remains fully intact, now obscured by a smokescreen of progressive signaling; “who would dare criticize this, lest they appear to oppose educating girls and extending them reproductive care?” This is extremely cynical and insidious. This is the preferred solution of what PopDev refers to here as “Philanthrocapitalists,” such as Bill and Melinda Gates. Their “solution,” which features a smiling—presumably African—child in a classroom, belies the fact that the whole of Sub-Saharan Africa emits only about 1/4 the total CO2 as the European Union and less than 1/6 as much as the USA, despite having more people than both regions combined. When this data is drawn per capita the difference is even more striking: someone living in the United States emits roughly 20 times what an average Sub-Saharan African does.
This drawdown solution further contradicts its stated purpose by simultaneously calling for a reduction in population growth and an increase in “economic growth.” Where do they suppose emissions come from? The capitalist global economy since the advent of the steam engine has been animated by fossil fuels; emissions are intrinsically coupled to growth. The leap in emissions by China (who after 2005 surpassed America for the lead in total CO2 output, though the level is still less than half the U.S. per capita CO2) is a direct result of its rapid economic growth since the 1990s, especially in the manufacturing exports market. Other developed nations have not so much cut their productive emissions as outsourced them, specifically to places where labor is more exploitable. Above all, a docile and dependent post-colony of pharmaceutical test subjects is the real objective of the philanthrocapitalists, who disguise population control as humanitarian aid in the global South.
“Drawdown,” “Planet of the Humans,” and other populationist environmentalists are missing the role of political economy in environmental destruction. Unsustainability is not a simple product of population—that much is clear from an honest assessment of readily available data on emissions. Far more consequential are the underlying relations of production and consumption. Karl Marx understood this when he emphatically debunked the father of the “dismal science” of eugenics himself, Thomas Robert Malthus:
“ … he [Malthus] regards overpopulation as being of the same kind in all the different historic phases of economic development; does not understand their specific difference, and hence stupidly reduces these very complicated and varying relations to a single relation, two equations, in which the natural reproduction of humanity appears on the one side, and the natural reproduction of edible plants (or means of subsistence) on the other, as two natural series, the former geometric [e.g., 2, 6, 18, 54, etc…] and the latter arithmetic [e.g., 2, 4, 6, 8, etc…] in progression. In this way he transforms the historically distinct relations into an abstract numerical relation, which he has fished purely out of thin air, and which rests neither on natural nor on historical laws …
“He would find in history that population proceeds in very different relations, and that overpopulation is likewise a historically determined relation, in no way determined by abstract numbers … but by limits posited rather by specific conditions of production …
“How small do the numbers which meant overpopulation for the Athenians appear to us! … An overpopulation of free Athenians who become transformed into colonists is significantly different from an overpopulation of workers who become transformed into workhouse inmates. Similarly the begging overpopulation which consumes the surplus produce of a monastery is different from that which forms in a factory … Malthusian man, abstracted from historically determined man, exists only in his brain …” (“Grundrisse,” Ch. 12).
To summarize, the first fact of the graphs Malthus based his bunk theories on is that they are completely untethered from the real parameters of consumption and production, which are in constant flux historically and not definable by a few fabrications of linear algebra. Secondly, Marx—in his typical brash eloquence—identifies the crux of the population debate with regard to the material dynamics of colonialism. That is, a population of plundering colonists is qualitatively distinct from the colonized, so for the former to impose population limits on the latter is to give “brutal expression to the brutal viewpoint of capital” (ibid). The pseudoscientific theories of Malthus and his acolytes were used by Britain and other developed nations to codify the violent logic of the market into a (false) expression of natural law, legitimating colonial subjugation, white male supremacy, and class rule. We must vigorously divest the environmental movement of its dark enlightenment, which, if left unchallenged, may fool the well-meaning activist into carrying water for the ecofascist.
Out of his depth
The sad and funny thing is that “Planet of the Humans” does at its core contain a rejection of capitalism, but Jeff Gibbs’ grasp of the matter is so facile that he draws incorrect and dangerous conclusions. Roughly an hour and 10 minutes into the film, he does some reflecting:
“It was long past time for me to come to grips with the other elephant in the living room: the profit motive. The only reason we’ve been force fed the story, ‘climate change + renewables = we’re saved’, is because billionaires, bankers, and corporations profit from it and the only reason we’re not talking about over-population, consumption, and the suicide of economic growth is that it would be bad for business and the cancerous form of capitalism that rules the world.”
He’s almost there, but makes two fatal errors. First, he misidentifies population as a major contributing factor. I would hope that he’s intellectually honest enough to reassess the evidence, which is abundantly available. Secondly, it is altogether incorrect to draw distinctions between one “form” of capitalism and another. The owners of capital extract surplus value from the working class realized as profits through the exchange of commodities: this is the essence of any “form” of capitalism. Whether abstracted through the smoke and mirrors of high finance, or a farmworker picking tomatoes for pennies on the dollar, the lifeblood of the system is exploited human labor. Under capitalism that labor serves primarily to furnish profits for capital accumulation; this is the sole “motive.” Meeting human needs is auxiliary, only necessary so far as the system depends on labor-power reproducing itself.
Once we begin to think of property relations in this light the very notion that a tiny, but privileged segment of humanity can claim exclusive rights to the mineral produce of mother Earth, which have been generated through millions of years of natural processes, is rendered absurd. Likewise for our rainforests, oceans, and wetlands.
In the director’s mind, the subsumption of the environmental movement into the capitalist superstructure is a world-historic defeat, so we are resigned to choosing our dystopia, be it authoritarian population-culling, or the continual failure of our systems as we descend into damnation. Having done his individual part by living in a solar hut and driving an efficient car, man is resigned to his fate. But Gibbs’ fatalism is the only logical conclusion that can result from believing that individual consumer choice is a viable solution and that the fossil economy can be pushed out of the market by competition, legislation, or even reasoned with.
In truth, the modern nation-state was devised whole-cloth to administer the rule of capital. Here is perhaps the only truth of “American Exceptionalism.” Whereas the enterprising middle classes of Europe had to upend entrenched aristocracies of the feudal order for capitalism to dominate, practitioners of the most advanced Enlightenment philosophies and production relations of 17th-century England were able to transplant themselves to the American colonies, gaining independence and then drafting a constitution in their own image by 1787. The age of bourgeois revolutions gave way to the age of modern inter-imperialist conflict, wherein the international ruling classes have constantly vied to consolidate their grip on the planet and its resources (labor being one of them). Capital pervades every facet of life. In order to legislate a meaningful solution to climate change, the capitalist state would ultimately have to fully invert the conceptions of property and enterprise at its nucleus, a negation of its very essence—a feat akin to eating your own head.
Green capitalism’s testing ground
But does that mean that a certain degree of progress can’t be made within the advanced capitalist nation-state? Certainly not—a number of economies in the European Union have made what might appear to be strides in the correct direction with large-scale investment in public-private partnerships (PPP). These have taken a multitude of forms, some of which create legal frameworks for localized public ownership of wind and solar farms, which then can sell their excess power (when local supply exceeds local demand) to utility companies. But great as this may sound, it has not resulted in cheaper energy for the consumer or democratic control over energy systems, even though renewables do in fact produce cheaper energy on average than fossil fuels.
Why is this, though? This experiment, which peaked in the 2000s and has been declining in the era of post-2008 austerity, is failing precisely because of the market structure these initiatives have been subject to, at the behest of the huge financial interests that shape economic policy, such as the IMF and World Bank. When the wind is blowing and the sun is beaming, the abundance of “free” energy available to the grid puts a huge downward pressure on costs per kilowatt hour, as detailed in these comprehensive research papers compiled by Trade Unionists for Energy Democracy. Utilities capitalists do not like this, so as a result, the character of renewable projects has shifted increasingly towards an auction system for contract-bidding and long-term “Power Purchasing Agreements” (PPAs), which lock in revenue streams and force consumers to stabilize the intermittency-induced market fluctuations by paying out-of-pocket. This quickly disempowers the local small-scale wind and solar collectives by throwing them into wholesale markets with the wolves.
Think of this in relation to the petro-market: the recent 2020 production war between OPEC and Russia caused oil prices to drop off of a cliff for a time—wreaking absolute havoc on profitability—especially upon the U.S fracking industry, wherein fixed costs are so high that the profit margin is razor-thin or nonexistent if oil drops below $50 per barrel. Investors, fossil and renewable alike, simply hate the thought of an abundant supply that they cannot switch off or intimidate with political pressure, as is the case with the weather. The fact that wind turbines and solar arrays require a steep fixed capital investment, but function at near-zero variable costs (i.e., few workers’ wages to squeeze) for 20-30 years means that they have a built-in low margin, which in turn makes them a high-risk/low-yield investment.
This is one reason why investment in renewables has fallen across the board since the aughts. In the first quarter of 2020, Germany reported that a whopping 52% of its electricity came from renewables, a seven percent increase from the previous year, and ostensibly on track with emissions goals set in the 1990s. However, with investment in new projects slowing to a crawl, and much of this infrastructure approaching the end of its operational lifespan, it is highly questionable whether they can reach the proposed 95% renewability by 2050, unless they take a far more radical approach that defies the market altogether. It also must be noted that despite a 10-fold increase in net renewable energy since 1990, the per capita emissions of Germany have only fallen by about a quarter, indicating the need to look beyond the grid for answers. The environmental movement in the U.S. would do well to study these lessons from the EU.
If these economics make your head hurt, that’s okay. The public-private partnership model will always bring forth these baffling contradictions. This is one reason socialists criticize the PPPs at the heart of the “Green New Deal.” The capitalists demand assured return on their investments, otherwise what is the point? The relative inexpensiveness and abundance of generated power once the initial money has been spent means that they can’t extract sufficient profits from selling the renewable energy itself, especially at times of peak output, so there is only one other source to recoup their capital from: the working class. Whether this takes the form of PPAs or tariffs (as in the case of the EU), municipal bonds, or some other subsidy from the government, the result is the same in that the taxpayers ultimately make the rich get richer.
Public (funds into) Private Pockets is the real essence of the PPP. Therefore, the only just resolution would be the decommodification of the energy sector by placing utilities under the democratic control of the workers themselves. It is in the fight for transitional demands such as public ownership that the climate mass movement might find a path toward the reconciliation of the contradictions inherent to the capitalist system. Anything less will result in the same shortfalls and dead ends the European model is currently experiencing as briefly described above, and the shrinking window of time to avert a global ecological calamity of biblical proportions really ought to force this issue for everyone on the planet.
What it will take
So the question remains: if the market can’t deliver us, what can? There are no quick fixes to capitalism’s fossil-fuel dependency. As Andreas Malm describes in his excellent book, “Fossil Capital,” the “carbon lock-in” is the result of our entire social-political-economic history, a causal train of immense inertia bearing down upon us. Obviously, we can’t expect everything, the totality of the capitalist economy with its myriad intertwined systems, to just turn on a dime from burning coal and gas, even if every major capitalist power enacted binding legislation (or experienced a cascade of glorious revolutions) mandating an emergency transition to 100 percent renewable energy. Yet, to proceed with such urgency is the only rational course of action given an honest assessment of the present juncture. This would require a degree of planning, regulation, and inter-industry coordination anathema to the ideology of the free market.
The first step should be to place a moratorium on any new dirty energy infrastructure projects and deforestation campaigns. Pipelines, natural gas plants, new fracking sites, refineries—we cannot continue growing the fossil economy and simultaneously depleting our carbon-sinks. Each new dirty energy project that gets greenlighted paints us into a shrinking corner. Nationalizing the mining, oil, and utility industries would be the logical way to actually accomplish this transformation; a handful of industrial cartels should have no right to the matter and energy of the entire earth, right?
However, for an example of just how much the cabals of heavy industry loathe any disruption to their exclusive dominion, consider the modern historical record of what happens when semicolonial nations attempt to exert sovereignty over their resources. In 1953, the Anglo-Iranian Oil Co. conspired with British and American intelligence agencies to overthrow Mohammed Mossadegh, the democratically elected prime minister of Iran, shortly after the nationalization of Iran’s oil fields threatened their profits. That oil company still exists, though it goes by a different name now: British Petroleum.
This general story repeats itself many times with different countries and resources throughout the modern history of foreign policy. In America, the imperial heart of darkness, massive firms such as Halliburton, Exxon-Mobil, et al., and the big investment banks backing them enjoy immense influence over governmental policy and for years have succeeded in suppressing progressive legislation and knowledge about their own ecological culpability. This high degree of ruling-class collaboration has precluded the need for anything like a big business coup d’etat; one can clearly see from the history of organized labor in the U.S. how private industry and the state have worked hand in glove to quell perceived threats to class rule and the social order. The social movements that cannot be crushed outright are co-opted and defanged, as with organized labor’s subordination to the Democratic Party machine.
While the “New Deal” government of Franklin Delano Roosevelt was from one corner of its mouth oozing bromides about “the right to organize and strike,” it was from the other directing the rifles of the National Guard at over a 100,000 striking workers in Minneapolis, Toledo, and San Francisco. This is another reason socialists reject the very framing of the Green New Deal and the rose-tinted fog that shrouds the legacy of FDR, who was above all a shrewd politician and quasi-aristocrat. All of the gains made by the militant labor movement of the 1930s were fought for and won on the picket line, often at the cost of blood.
Only when the capitalist class is afraid it may lose everything will it grant meaningful reforms. There is no reason to expect the struggle for a livable planet against the petrobourgeoisie to be any different when it is fought to a final decision, and environmentalists must build the kind of movement capable of such system-threatening mobilizations.
Once we have reigned in the expansion of the fossil economy, we would next be tasked with converting our energy and transit systems to a renewable basis, a truly massive undertaking. To curb extraneous emissions during this period it would be necessary to prioritize only essential production. So just what is essential? Well, the COVID-19 pandemic has given us the answer to that. The workers providing us with food, health care, utilities, and other necessary goods and services are the backbone of society, even if they aren’t at all paid like it now. Human development is essential, though it isn’t seen as such currently.
The systemic overhaul is going to eliminate certain professions and require the creation of many new ones, so there will be a great demand for training in urban planning, agro-ecology, material science, precision manufacturing, and logistics, among others, all of which should be fully funded by the government. Our existing forests and wetlands are essential. They absorb up to 12% of atmospheric carbon dioxide, therefore people should be paid to plant billions of trees and rehabilitate damaged habitats.
One thing that is most definitely non-essential is the growth of the military-industrial complex. Our Department of Defense alone emits more greenhouse gases than many developed countries, is the single largest polluting institution on earth, and amounts to 54% of our 2020 national budget, about $600 billion. The substantial productive capacity and talents of the scientists, engineers, and machinists currently working for defense contractors could be making marvels of sustainability rather than instruments of death.
To put the figures in perspective, a full conversion to renewables is estimated at around $4.5 trillion, which is about a trillion dollars less than has been spent on the “War on Terror” since the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. In three weeks of the Iraq invasion, the U.S. military used more gasoline than the Allied forces combined in the entirety of the First World War. On top of that, the massive quantities of radioactive waste from depleted uranium rounds has caused further environmental destruction, birth defects, and chronic health issues. This war ultimately cost at least 600,000 (mostly Iraqi civilian) lives. It was about Iraq’s oil reserves, the world’s fifth largest, which prior to the invasion were nationalized and closed off to the West. Now they are under control of the same companies that spent millions financing the presidential campaign of fellow oilmen Bush and Cheney. Without dismantling the imperial war machine we will liberate neither humanity nor nature from the destructive impetus of capitalism.
Beyond this, all other productive capacity must be turned toward building the green energy and public transportation infrastructure that will replace our existing systems. Transportation accounts for 29% of greenhouse gases, and of that figure, 59% is attributed to light-duty vehicles. Buses and rails are just far more efficient modes of travel than cars, and in the sprawl of U.S. towns and cities this means a colossal overhaul and many new jobs. Even if electric car batteries weren’t too reliant on hazardous, costly, and rare elements to make them a feasible mass-transit alternative, they would still need power.
Electricity generation is the second most carboniferous sector at 27%, with two-thirds of this coming from burning coal alone. As mentioned earlier, the current procurement method for solar-grade silicon is also reliant upon coal. These are some of the maddening complexities presented by the “lock-in” factor: we need to use coal to get off of coal until either large quantities of silicon can be produced cleanly, recycled, or replaced altogether with new materials. The scope and scale of this phase-in/phase-out process across all sectors of the economy—from raw material to finished goods and everywhere in between—is one of the reasons central planning is an absolute necessity and incompatible with laissez-faire markets.
Must we have so many brands in competition making slight variations of the same consumer goods made from the same stuff, each with proprietary features and planned obsolescence? This waste is the ultimate expression of freedom to the capitalist class, but will they be sure to savor it as acidifying oceans devour more sea-ice, creeping ever inland? Furthermore, we could be recycling a much larger portion of these crucial materials from consumer electronics (lithium, cobalt, nickel, silicon, etc.) than we currently are; the main reason for which being that it is still more profitable for industrialists to extract new stuff from the earth than to rework what already has been dug.
This is the fact of the profit motive. That the capitalist system will deplete our mineral resources is the physical reality of a finite planet parsed down to commodities. That our governments not only allow, but subsidize this condemnation of the future is unforgivable.
There’s a brief moment early on in PotH, where Jeff Gibbs is musing about windmills, which I think encapsulates the level of thinker he is: “They were impressive machines, but is it possible for machines made by industrial civilization to save us from industrial civilization?”
This is the tautological merry-go-round of stoner logic. It also reminds one of insipid libertarian gotcha-arguments against socialism such as, “You claim to oppose capitalism, yet you use products of capitalism. Ha-ha!” seemingly ignorant of the fact that all revolutions in production were conditioned by what previously existed at the time. At some point, subsistence gatherers figured out that if they could deliberately cultivate plants and animals they wouldn’t have to hunt them down anymore. Each major development gave rise to new ways of organizing society, new divisions of labor, new classes, new conflict, none of which are eternal, and all of which displaced the anciens régimes of their day. The early capitalists took the artisanal trades and divided their processes so that a team of semi-skilled specialists could supplant the work of the lone master craftsman, and in doing so, out-produce him. The later capitalists sought to mechanize the operation of the semi-skilled workers, so they could be replaced by unskilled workers paid even less to produce even more, in turn allowing the capitalist to claim ownership of even more.
Just as the socialists aim to take the whole productive apparatus of capitalism and reconfigure it by annihilating the distinction between the classes—so that all might become worker-owners on an equal footing, who labor based on need and for the benefit of all, rather than the profit of a few—so too do the ecosocialists intend to raze capitalism’s boneyards of today and build a living tomorrow.
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