Wednesday, 30 July 2008

Sudanese Communist Party on ICC's request to indict Sudan President Omar Hassan al-Bashir

From LINKS International Journal of Socialist Renewal

Statement of the Sudanese Communist Party

Khartoum, July 20, 2008 -- The inclusion of the name of the President of the Republic of the Sudan among those wanted for justice by the International Criminal Court increases the complications engulfing the crisis prevailing in the Sudan. Despite the fact that such procedures were already in place and expected since the establishment of the Court, and this last step of naming the President of the Sudan was preceded by a similar step indicting two prominent figures in the government in February 2007, the Government of the Sudan was ill-prepared both legally and politically to react to either attempts.

It is well known, generally accepted and cannot be hidden that what is going on in Darfur is a real tragedy and the human catastrophe. We, the Sudanese Communist Party, reiterate what we have already declared that the Sudanese Government bears full responsibility for it is happening in Darfur, since its own policies have led to the aggravation of the tragedy. We continue to demand together with others the investigation into the crimes committed in Darfur, and to bring those responsible to justice regardless of their position in the state hierarchy...

We consider that the only way out of this crisis is the implementation of a comprehensive, series of measures including:

First, doubling efforts to reach a comprehensive and just solution to the problem of Darfur. A solution that responds to the demands of the people and paves the way for dealing with the consequences of the problem and its tragic results. This includes the provision of justice to deal with ALL CRIMES committed against the people in Darfur, any serious confrontation to solve this problem must be based on the participation of ALL armed movements of Darfur without exception. Other Darfurien organisations, leaders, representatives of local administrations and representatives of civil organisations should be allowed to participate on equal footing. In addition, all national parties, especially, those of the opposition, should participate on equal footing. This initiative should come as a result of collective efforts through a national mechanism that will be responsible for the preparation as well as the holding of the national event. It will be entrusted with full responsibility including to contact the Darfurien movements and neighbouring countries.

Second, to accelerate and speed up the implementation of the details related to the democratic transformation of the country without delay. Also to fully implement all agreements reached between the government and other parties. This should be done under the supervision of a national mechanism with the participation of all interested organisations and parties on an equal footing. The credibility and the seriousness with which these issues will be tackled will help to facilitate to unify of the internal front and can be used to convince the international public opinion of the seriousness and readiness of the Sudanese people to solve their own problems.

Third, the solution of this crisis cannot be achieved by escalating confrontation with the international community, through the organisation of demonstrations and processions to denounce the ICC and its main prosecutors, but rather through national, rational and calm approach based on legal response to the demands, and cooperation with the ICC as well as utilisation of multifaceted relations with the international community to reach understanding with them which will pave the way for achieving an acceptable just solution which will strengthen peace, security and stability in Darfur and the country at large.

Secretariat of the CC of the Sudanese Communist Party

Khartoum, July 20, 2008

Wales after Britain?

Over at the Socialist Unity blog, they've reproduced Leanne Woods' piece from the latest Scottish Left Review, entitled Wales after Britain? In light of the ongoing process of devolution, it posits the important question of whether the UK can survive, and for how long? Discussion is already going on at Socialist Unity.

Wales After Britain?


Politics in Wales has changed dramatically in the last decade. From winning the yes vote in the referendum to set up the Assembly in 1997 by just 6,721 votes, it’s difficult to imagine now how devolution could be rolled back.

Tom Nairn has been arguing for more than 30 years that the break-up of Britain is inevitable. More recently he points to the devolution referendums in the two and a half of the four countries which make up the British Isles to show that he was right. He argues that devolution will gather its own momentum, and that the future of Britain is over. The unanswerable question is how long has it got left?

In response, Gordon Brown and his New Labour mates are playing the “Rule Brittania” card in a desperate attempt to shore up a British identity which is on its way out. “British Jobs for British People”, wrapping himself up in the Union Jack, suggestions of a British day and a British motto runs alongside anti-immigrant and asylum rhetoric and demands that everyone speaks English. In a country where more than 20 per cent and growing of the people speak Welsh, and our citizens who were born or who have relatives in other countries speak a wide variety of languages form all over the world, this sort of talk doesn’t go down too well. I’d guess it’s irrelevant, if not offensive to many people in all four countries.

Meanwhile, there are a group of “progressive English patriots” who agree with Nairn’s break-up theory. They see Scotland and Wales wanting to free themselves form Westminster rule, perhaps also eventually a free and united Ireland. They want to make sure that England is not confused with Britain, and that their nation isn’t left behind. At the same time they are acutely aware of the need to couple their patriotism/nationalism with an anti racist stance and they are keen to distance themselves from the New Labour response to devolution as well as the fascist parties. It’s an interesting development which deserves attention and support from Welsh, Scots and Irish left nationalists. If the call for an English Parliament grows, the progress towards independence for the nations of Britain will accelerate.

So what are we doing in Wales? A year ago, Plaid Cymru entered into government for the first time in our history as part of a centre-left coalition with Labour. A key plank of that agreement was a commitment from Labour to deliver and campaign for a successful outcome in a referendum for a law making parliament within this Assembly term. If we get that yes vote, we’ll still have only a fraction of the powers currently enjoyed by the Scottish Parliament. We will be able to legislate freely on matters currently devolved, which would be an improvement on the current situation where Westminster can veto Welsh laws. But we’d still have no powers over criminal justice or any real macro-economic muscle. We’ll also still have no means to raise our own revenue.

Wales is at the bottom of the UK’s economic performance table. While the city of London continues to skew its economic policy to benefit the areas its immediate vicinity, the periphery loses out. With a history of significant industrial production, Wales should now be rich. But the areas which produced the wealth for Britain are today among some of the most economically disadvantaged in the whole of the European Union. These are the areas which were targeted by Thatcher in her obsession to crush union power, then forgotten. And these are the areas that now face further decline from New Labour’s regional pay plans and sickness benefits purge. It doesn’t have to be this way. An autonomous government responsible for two and a quarter million people could do a much better job of gearing macro -economic policy to meet the needs of people in the former industrial areas of Wales. It’s clear those needs have not been considered by successive Westminster governments.

If scientists are right about peak oil, and we can now be confident of a united scientific position on climate change, then the way economies work will have to change. Energy, food and water will become increasingly important and the economy is bound to reflect that. If oil prices continue to rise as they have of late, we’ll be forced to rethink how we use and obtain our energy. When Cuba’s energy supply was cut off at the end of the USSR, Cuban’s lost 30 per cent of their body weight in a year. Can we afford not to plan for a dramatic reduction in the availability of energy and potential implications?

Wales is in a fantastic position to become energy self sufficient. We have a large coastline with opportunities to harness the tides. We have lots of wind, rain, peat bogs and open countryside. A long-term plan to expand research and development, invest in new skills and training and government support for small Welsh businesses to produce microgenerators could put the infrastructure in place. This could be coupled with a national awareness raising programme, incentives for reducing consumption and growing and buying local food. Food and energy self-sufficiency could provide the key to self-government. According to the WWF, Cuba is the only sustainable country in the world. We could learn a lot from the Cubans.

While there may not be a consensus among political parties for Welsh self-government, there is for more devolution. There is also a growing awareness and consensus around climate change. Oil prices are forcing people to think about alternatives, while there is a strong anti-nuclear tendency in the Welsh government. To put the building blocks in place for food and energy self-sufficiency, there has to be more devolution. These challenges have reminded some of us in Plaid that we need to argue the case for self-government more clearly than ever before. Support for the idea won’t build until the debate takes place.

Left-wing Plaid MP Adam Price has recently called for a new “movement within a movement” to reaffirm the party’s long-term goals. He correctly claims that the younger members, those under 45, are strong believers in independence. It’s encouraging to note that we have a healthy-sized and growing youth membership and activist base. For a quarter of a century our opponents in the unionist parties have been allowed to define what Welsh independence means, which has resulted in smaller levels of support than we would like.

Vision is what is missing in politics today. A vision of a Wales without fossil fuels and nuclear is one which shouldn’t be difficult to sell. Armed with the arguments for self-government, Plaid Cymru offers a vision of a different, more equal, sustainable Wales, one that can inspire a younger generation. With the independence debate raging ahead in Scotland, Plaid cannot allow Wales to be left behind. The thinking and the campaigning for a better Wales after Britain has to start now.

Leanne Wood was elected to the National Assembly in 2003 to represent the South Wales Central region. She is now Plaid Cymru’s spokesperson for Sustainability and the Environment.

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Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Can Markets Stop Climate Change?

by Renfrey Clarke

Internationally as in Australia, governments that have had to promise climate change action have generally expressed a preference for market-based carbon abatement schemes, mostly of the "cap and trade" variety. But the question remains: can market mechanisms deal with a problem of such scale and urgency? Can we hope to trade our way out of our climate difficulties, in more or less painless, hands-off fashion?

Perhaps the best way to start is by reflecting on the things that markets do well. Markets historically have proven very good at mediating exchange in settings where large numbers of sellers, operating on something like an equal basis, need to strike deals with large numbers of buyers. In these circumstances, supply and demand tend to respond quickly to one another, with prices shifting to maintain a rough equilibrium.

Does this have any relevance to a market in carbon emissions? In the Rudd government's scheme, about a thousand Australian firms, responsible for about three-quarters of emissions, will be required to square their carbon accounts.

A thousand purchasers of carbon credits might seem like a large number. But in practice, the demand for carbon credits will be concentrated heavily in the hands of a tiny number of large emitters, especially electricity generators burning fossil fuels.

In theory, these consumers could embrace the system letter and spirit, purchasing the credits they need when they need them and at a fair price. There are, however, enormous inducements for the big buyers to do otherwise.

For a start, they can put extraordinary pressure on the government to simply give them credits for nothing. When the European Union first established its emissions trading system, large numbers of carbon credits were handed out free of charge to established emitters. When potential purchasers of credits eventually twigged to the oversupply, the market collapsed. Emitters were able to satisfy their legal obligations with credits bought, essentially, with money from the petty cash box. All incentive to invest in cutting emissions vanished.

In Australia, free-market economist and government advisor Ross Garnaut has argued that coal-fired power generators should have to buy all their credits at auction. But with its Green Paper, the government has dodged this fight. Electricity generators and "trade-exposed" polluters are to receive major assistance, with the latter being given as many as 90 per cent of their permits gratis. Other sectors such as the liquefied natural gas industry are now wielding the stick, trying to extract pledges of equal treatment.

The big emitters, meanwhile, are not petty stallholders on a crowded, muddy village square. They are corporations of world scale whose size gives them a dominance that no-one enjoys in the classical marketplace of the textbooks. They will face heavy penalties if found to be colluding in order to force down the prices of the credits they need, but in the wink-wink, nudge-nudge world of the carbon exchanges, such collusion will be almost impossible to prove. In any case, the very largest polluters will be able to influence prices quite independently. The mere planting of a rumour that a big power company is out of the market for a large block of credits will, at times, be enough to send prices tumbling.

Theoretically, monopoly practices and attempts at price manipulation should be less of a problem on the supply side, with large numbers of solar panel installers, forestry operators and small renewable energy companies having carbon credits to sell. But this field, too, has plenty of rotting stumps to tangle the machinery of the market.

For a start, what does a carbon credit represent? Supposedly, one tonne of avoided or sequestered emissions of carbon dioxide equivalent. But what if the sequestering is done in a forest, and the forest burns? What if the sharp-minded owner of a tract of old-growth forest decides to cut down the old timber and use the land for plantation forestry, which absorbs carbon and earns credits at an accelerated rate?

If markets are to be used to provide incentives for desirable abatement practices, while maintaining due protection for the environment, they have to be accompanied by burdensome regulation. This is because of a fundamental limitation of markets: they fit poorly with non-quantifiable criteria, such as the sustainability of a complex environment, that can be reduced to calculations of economic profit and loss only through the most bizarre mental contortions, and often in quite arbitrary fashion.

When the generating of carbon credits requires a mountain of regulation, a key theoretical advantage of markets - their relative spontaneity, efficiency, and freedom from bureaucratism - ceases to operate.

The arbitrariness introduces an especially potent danger - corruption. When government officials have to make decisions according to complex and sometimes contradictory criteria, accusations of favouritism are near-inevitable. Some officials will decide that if they are going to be accused of it, they may as well practise it - and for reward.

In Australia public officials are generally conscientious, and in any case are closely policed, but this is not true world-wide. Critiques of the nascent international carbon trading system set up under the Kyoto Protocol include hair-raising accounts of carbon scams in developing countries. The credits claimed as a result have been sold as good coin to emitters in the European Union. In Australia, the Rudd government plans to plug its carbon trading scheme into the world system as the latter assumes a more definitive shape.

The supply side of the carbon credit system, meanwhile, will not be as proof against market-rigging as might at first appear. In large part, carbon credits will not be bought directly by emitters from the firms that create them. Instead, specialised institutions will buy up the credits and resell them. In a letter to the Australian Financial Review, quoted in the July 17 Australian, former AFR editor Vic Carroll warns that financial institutions are "strong supporters of an emissions trading scheme because they [stand] to gain from trading permits and creating complex derivative markets."

The phrase "complex derivative markets" should ring alarm bells. In a parallel to the Nasdaq and sub-prime mortgage booms, vast quantities of surplus capital that race electronically across the world's time-zones looking for areas of high-profit speculative investment can be expected to alight in the new carbon credit market. Sharp practitioners will quickly devise ways to push prices in the direction they want. But as with the sub-prime crisis, the derivative markets will in time become so extraordinarily complex that no-one any longer understands just what they are or how they will respond to stimuli. A crash at some point will be an effective certainty.

If the effect of all this were simply that speculators lost their shirts, none of the rest of us would mourn. But the rationale behind carbon trading is, after all, to tilt the financial playing field so as to encourage investment in green technologies. If the price of carbon credits gyrates wildly - as can be anticipated in a speculative environment - investors will be loath to put up large sums for long-term development in areas such as renewable energy infrastructure. A Nasdaq-style crash could see carbon credits rendered near-worthless. Without the protection carbon credits afford, the renewables sector would become uncompetitive, and could expect to be wiped out.

It can, of course, be argued that if one is not too doctrinaire about free markets, regulations can be built into the system to try to ensure that its more vicious propensities are restrained. Criticising the Rudd government's ambition to launch its carbon trading scheme in 2010, Matthew Warren noted in the Australian on July 21:

"The European Union spent five years just designing its scheme and it's in the middle of seven years of phased transitions to iron out structural problems. They don't actually switch to unconditional trading of permits until 2020."

Since when, however, did humanity have until 2020 to take decisive action against climate change?

When market mechanisms are unsuited in principle to the tasks involved in combatting climate change, and when the effect of markets is to introduce high levels of additional risk and delay, why are markets set to become the backbone of world action against global warming?

The decision to rely on market mechanisms, it is fair to say, is essentially faith-based. The belief that the unfettered play of market forces reliably has better results than attempts by governments to regulate economies has a long history in capitalism. It regained ascendancy in the 1980s, after the recession and turmoil of the 1970s had discredited the earlier Keynesian orthodoxies. Most professional economists remain skeptical of the ideas of the more extreme, "neoliberal" free-marketeers. But the rationale these ideas provide for a general hostility to government regulation means that they are popular among corporate executives, especially in times of expansion. Accordingly, the more literal-minded free market economists tend to enjoy prestige and influence. And among governments which - like that of Kevin Rudd - rule with their ears trained to the sentiment in the corporate boardrooms, the recommendations of neoliberal gurus take on something of the force of holy writ.

If market mechanisms cannot serve as the key tool for stopping global warming, what should be substituted? There is no single, straightforward answer, but a carefully devised carbon tax would be useful in many settings. The list of economists - and even some business figures - who have pointed this out is growing. On July 15 noted US economist Jeffrey Sachs - ironically, one of the designers of the neoliberal "shock therapy" policies applied in Eastern Europe in the 1990s - told the ABC's 7.30 Report that he viewed an emissions tax as a simpler, cheaper alternative to carbon trading:

"It's much easier simply to tax the few places upstream - the oil, the gas, the coal, that puts on the price on carbon, then works through the economy - rather than a more complicated scheme where you monitor what thousands or even tens of thousands of individual enterprises are doing."

Taxes, however, are mostly unpopular, and governments that introduce new ones often pay heavily in political terms. Price hikes and slumps in the marketplace, by contrast, can be represented as random and impersonal. As the AFR's Vic Carroll observed in his earlier-quoted letter, "Governments prefer to hide behind markets, with all their costly excesses."

Carbon taxes are not for governments that lack political courage, or that refuse to be honest with the public about the dangers posed by climate change. Nevertheless, such taxes are much easier to bring into quick operation than emissions markets, and would be an important element in any effective greenhouse gas mitigation scheme.

Imposing a tax, however, is not the same thing as ending emissions; it merely sends a price signal that may be heeded or may not. The need to combat global warming is now too urgent for anything except highly focused action, at least in the case of the really big polluters. Indirect instruments such as taxes and market incentives are too slow, and their effects too unpredictable and diffuse, for them to be entrusted with the job.

A quite different set of measures is needed. Public ownership and concerted planning are essential in areas such as electricity generation, metals smelting, vehicle production and long-distance transport. Indispensable steps will then become possible whether corporate executives smell profits or not. The bureaucratism, delay and waste implicit in efforts to redirect market impulses using regulations and taxes will be avoided.

None of this is good news for the capitalist system. But then, global warming is not exactly good news either.

You've read the book. Here's the musical.

The Market

Let no-one think to question,

Still less to overrule

The clear calm voice of reason

From the Chicago school:

There's no way known to science

To provide for human need

Except through raids and sell-offs,

Through panic, and through greed.

The market, the market,

Its hand is sure and true;

To every teenage dope-fiend

It supplies his airplane glue.

It keeps the flint-eyed landlord

Stacking banknotes in his safe,

And gives virtuous incentives

To the widow and the waif.

Though planner preach the powers of

The human intellect,

The government that governs best

Is resolute neglect;

It lets the profit engine

Drop its clutch and charge on through

In a drag race to abundance,

Belching smoke and CO2.

The market, the market,

Its logic's there to see -

Each intricate connection

Made with such felicity!

It plies you with McTonnage

Triple fries and suchlike dross,

Then signs you up with Jenny Craig

To get the ballast off.

No charity, no mercy,

Can ease despair and pain,

So well as harnessing the drive

Of each to private gain.

With pure, health-giving snake-oil

The market treats your ills,

And while we're at it, won't you try

A bottle of these pills?

The market, the market,

The wonder-working drug -

Liabilities and deficits

Deleted with a shrug!

It cures you of distemper,

Halitosis, smelly socks,

Of botulism, bolshevism,

Rabies, and the pox.

And never let this principle

Slip lamely from your sights:

Defending market freedoms

You're defending human rights!

What point is there in liberty

Except to feed the itch

To get yourself obscenely

Individually rich?

The market, the market

Lets your talents fly the coop,

Sets you free to seize your fortune

In one delicious swoop!

Are you hitman, are you loanshark,

Is your calling hawking crack?

The market spreads before you -

Who's the piker would turn back?

The market, the market,

The perfect regimen!

So what if it feels blue

And gets depressive now and then?

Let it bloom through booms and crashes

For eons yet to come,

Through wars and through recessions,

Till equilibrium.

Renfrey Clarke 2006

Climate Change, Limits to Growth, and the Imperative for Socialism

From Monthly Review

Minqi Li

The 2007 assessment report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) confirms that it is virtually certain that human activities (mainly through the use of fossil fuels and land development) have been responsible for the global warming that has taken place since the industrial revolution. Under current economic and social trends, the world is on a path to unprecedented ecological catastrophes.1 As the IPCC report was being released, new evidence emerged suggesting that climate change is taking place at a much faster pace and the potential consequences are likely to be far more dreadful than is suggested by the IPCC report.

The current evidence suggests that the Arctic Ocean could become ice free in summertime possibly as soon as 2013, about one century ahead of what is predicted by the IPCC models. With the complete melting of the Arctic summer sea ice, the disintegration of the Greenland ice sheets may become unavoidable, threatening to raise the sea level by five meters or more within this century. About half of the world’s fifty largest cities are at risk and hundreds of millions of people will become environmental refugees.2

The world is currently about 0.8˚C warmer than in pre-industrial times and is within one degree of the highest average global temperature over the past one million years. The world is warming at a rate of 0.2˚C per decade and given the greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere, there will be a further long-term warming of 0.6˚C. Moreover, now with the likely loss of Arctic summer sea ice, the Arctic Ocean will absorb rather than reflect back solar radiation, which may lead to an additional warming of 0.3˚C. Taking into account these developments, the world may be already almost committed to a 2˚C warming relative to pre-industrial times, widely considered to be a critical threshold in climate change.3

A 2˚C warming is likely to result in widespread drought and desertification in Africa, Australia, southern Europe, and the western United States; major glacial losses in Asia and South America; large-scale polar ice sheet disintegration; and the extinction of 15–40 percent of plant and animal species. Worse, with 2˚C warming, substantial climate feedbacks, such as dangerous ocean acidification, significant tundra loss and methane release, and disruption of soil and ocean carbon cycles, will be initiated, taking the course of climate change beyond human control.

According to James Lovelock, one of the world’s leading earth system scientists, if the global average temperature rise approaches 3˚C (relative to pre-industrial times) and the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) rises above 500 parts per million (ppm), both the world’s oceans and the rainforests will turn into net emitters of greenhouse gases. In that event, the global average temperature could rise further by up to 6˚C, making the greater part of the earth uninhabitable for human beings, raising the sea level by at least 25 meters, and causing the extinction of 90 percent of species and a possible reduction of the world population by 80 percent.4

James Hansen, the director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies and one of the world’s leading climate scientists, argued that to avoid a devastating rise in sea levels associated with the irreversible ice sheet loss in Greenland and Antarctica, as well as massive species extinction, the world should aim to limit further global warming to no more than 1˚C (or 1.8˚F) relative to 2000. According to the existing IPCC models, this implies an atmospheric concentration of CO2 no more than 450 ppm. However, in a recent study, Hansen argued that the IPCC models failed to take into account various potential climate feedbacks. Paleoclimate evidence suggests that “if humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization has developed and to which life on earth is adapted,” atmospheric concentration of CO2 must be reduced to about 350 ppm. The world’s current CO2 concentration is 387 ppm and growing at a rate of 2 ppm a year.5

It is quite obvious that the very survival of humanity and human civilization is at stake. Given the gravity of the situation, many people (including some who claim to have the socialist political perspective) put their hope on an ecological reform of the global capitalist system, insisting that such a reform is within the technological and institutional feasibilities of the existing social system. The urgent and unavoidable political questions are: is it at all possible for the existing social system—the system of global capitalism, in all of its conceivable forms—effectively to address the crisis of global climate change and avoid the most catastrophic consequences? If not, what would be the minimum requirements for an alternative social system that will have the institutional capacity to prevent the crisis or, if the crisis cannot be prevented, to help human civilization to survive the crisis? These are the questions that anyone who is seriously concerned with the global ecological crisis will have to confront one way or the other.

Stabilizing the Climate: Technical Options

To prevent or alleviate further global warming, greenhouse gas emissions from human activities (especially the CO2 emissions resulting from the burning of fossil fuels) will have to be greatly reduced. The emissions of CO2 in turn depend on the emissions intensity of energy consumption (“Emissions Per Unit of Energy Consumption”), the energy intensity of economic output (“energy consumption per unit of output”), and the level of economic output (typically measured as GDP.) Thus, CO2 emissions = economic output ´ energy consumption per unit of output ´ emissions per unit of energy consumption.

Capitalism is an economic system based on the pursuit of profit and capital accumulation. Individual capitalists, corporations, and nation-states engage in constant and intense competition against one another in the capitalist world market. To survive and prevail in the competition, and driven by the desire for greater profits (or more rapid economic growth), individual capitalists, corporations, and nation-states are all pressured and motivated to expand production and accumulate capital on increasingly larger scales. Thus, under capitalism, economic output normally tends to grow, except in periods of economic crisis.

On paper, if energy intensity falls rapidly to offset economic growth, then the level of energy consumption does not have to grow. However, all economic activities inevitably involve certain physical or chemical transformations and must consume some energy (this is true not only for the material production sectors but also for the so-called services sectors). There is a physical limit to how much energy intensity can fall given any economic activity.

Given the way that capitalist markets operate, any decline of energy intensity tends to make energy products cheaper, as short-term demand for energy falls relative to supply. Cheaper energy products, however, encourage people to consume more energy in the long run. Thus, falling energy intensity (i.e., rising energy efficiency) is simply translated into more rapid capital accumulation (economic growth) and rarely leads to absolute declines in energy consumption.6

In reality, capitalist economic growth is usually accompanied by rising energy consumption. Since 1973, despite relatively sluggish world economic growth, world energy consumption has been growing at 2 percent a year. At this rate, world energy consumption will increase by 130 percent between now and 2050. Given these trends, the emissions intensity of world energy consumption will have to be cut drastically or the scale of economic output will have to decline markedly if there is to be any hope of reducing CO2 emissions to an appropriate level.

Fossil fuels account for about three-quarters of the primary energy consumed in electricity generation. To reduce CO2 emissions from electricity generation, there are three technical possibilities: carbon capture and storage; nuclear electricity; and electricity generation from renewables (such as geothermal, wind, solar, tides, waves, and ocean currents).

Emissions from power plants using fossil fuels can be reduced if the carbon emitted in the process of electricity generation can be captured and then stored underground without being released into the atmosphere. Carbon capture and storage is likely substantially to increase the capital cost of electricity generation and reduce energy efficiency (as the process of capturing and storing carbon requires energy). There may not be enough good, leak-proof sites to store very large amounts of carbon. The technology remains unproven, and cannot be applied to existing power stations. This means that, at best, it will take decades before carbon capture and storage is applied to a substantial portion of the world’s power plants.7

Nuclear electricity has very serious environmental and safety problems. It produces massive amounts of radioactive wastes. It uses uranium, which is a nonrenewable mineral resource. The German Energy Watch Group points out that the world’s proven and possible reserves of uranium would be able to support the current level of demand for uranium for at most seventy years and the world could face uranium supply shortages after about 2020. Moreover, given the long lead time to plan and construct nuclear reactors, it will be difficult to replace the half of existing nuclear power plants that will retire in the coming one to two decades.8

Electricity generation from renewables is not an environmental panacea. The equipment and buildings required for “renewable” electricity need to be built by the industrial sector using fossil fuels and nonrenewable mineral resources. Relative to conventional electricity, electricity generated from renewables remains expensive. Wind and solar—the two most important renewable energy sources—are variable and intermittent, and, therefore, cannot serve as the “base-load” electricity, requiring substantial conventional electricity capacity as backup.9

With the exception of biomass, renewables can only be used to generate electricity.10 Electricity generation accounts for less than 40 percent of the world’s total primary energy supply and only 20 percent of the total final consumption. About one-third of the primary consumption of fossil fuels is used for electricity consumption, but two-thirds are used as liquid, gaseous, and solid fuels in transport, industrial, agricultural, services, and residential sectors.

Out of the total final consumption of fossil fuels, about 40 percent is used in the transport sector, 24 percent in the industrial sector, 23 percent in the agricultural, services, and residential sectors, and 13 percent is used as raw materials for chemical industries. Electricity obviously cannot replace fossil fuels as chemical industrial inputs. In addition, it would be very difficult or impossible for electricity to replace fossil fuels in their uses in sea and air transportation, freight transportation on roads, high-temperature industrial processes, and the powering of heavy equipment in industrial, construction, and agricultural sectors. While it might be technically feasible to replace the gasoline-fueled passenger cars with electric cars (and passenger cars might be the crux of modern capitalist consumer culture), the technology remains immature and it could take decades before the electric car dominates the market.

Moreover, as currently about three-quarters of the primary energy used in electricity generation derives from fossil fuels and about three units of coal are required to generate one unit of electricity, an electrification of transport, industry, and other sectors would tend to increase rather than decrease CO2 emissions. For the purpose of climate stabilization, electrification of these sectors would not make much sense unless the bulk of the electricity generation has been “de-carbonized” (that is, the conventional fossil-fuels generated electricity replaced with carbon-captured, nuclear, and renewable electricity).

Even if all of the economic and technical difficulties discussed above were to be overcome, it is likely to take decades before the world’s electricity generation is largely transformed, and it could take several more decades to electrify much of the world’s industrial and transportation infrastructure. By then global ecological catastrophes would be all but inevitable.

Biomass is the only renewable energy source that can be used to make liquid and gaseous fuels.11 However, limited by the available productive land and fresh water, biomass cannot provide more than a small fraction of the world’s demand for liquid and gaseous fuels. Worse, recent studies reveal that taking into account emissions in land development and soil erosion, fuels made from biomass actually emit more greenhouse gases than conventional petroleum.12

Climate Change and the Limits to Growth

According to the IPCC report, to limit global warming to 2–2.4˚C (relative to the pre-industrial temperature), it is necessary to stabilize the carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e)—taking into account the total effects of CO2 and other greenhouse gases—in the atmosphere at 445–490 ppm. This would in turn require that global CO2 emissions peak between 2000 and 2015, and fall by 50–85 percent from the 2000 levels by 2050.
Global CO2 emissions have been growing at about 3 percent a year since 2000. If the current trend continues, by 2010 global emissions would be 34 percent greater than the 2000 levels. It follows that to stabilize the CO2e at 445–490 ppm, global emissions need to fall by 63–89 percent from the 2010 levels.

Can these emissions reduction targets be accomplished under the system of global capitalism, with its constant tendency towards accumulation of capital and economic growth? Table 1 presents several alternative scenarios of emissions reduction and economic growth that are consistent with a 63 percent reduction of emissions (which would allow for stabilizing CO2e in the atmosphere at 490 ppm), assuming global emissions peak in 2010 and decline thereafter. In other words, the intent is to point to some possible combinations of changes in energy intensity, emissions intensity, and economic growth that would meet the target of stabilizing CO2e levels at 490 ppm. These scenarios, while hypothetical and based on optimistic assumptions, highlight the dramatic changes necessary to stabilize CO2 levels. They help to illustrate that no sensible goals of climate stabilization can be accomplished under conditions of endless economic growth and capital accumulation.

As is discussed above, in many areas it is technically very difficult or impossible to replace direct consumption of fossil fuels with electricity. Nevertheless, in all scenarios, it is assumed that 50 percent of the fossil fuels final consumption will be electrified by 2050. Moreover, despite various limitations to carbon-captured, nuclear, and renewable electricity, in different scenarios, it is optimistically assumed that 50, 75, or 100 percent of the electricity generation currently using fossil fuels will be de-carbonized by 2050 (corresponding to average declines in emissions intensity of 1, 1.7, or 2.7 percent a year respectively). Energy intensity is assumed to fall by 33, 45, or 55 percent by 2050 (corresponding to average decline of 1, 1.5, and 2 percent a year respectively). With a 33 percent reduction of energy intensity, the world average would approach the average level of “energy efficiency” seen in “advanced” capitalist countries today. With a 45 or 55 percent reduction, the world average would be comparable to the “energy efficiency” levels of Western European countries today.13

The observed levels of “energy efficiency” in the advanced capitalist countries result not only from some advanced technologies, but also from the massive relocation of energy-intensive industries to the global periphery. This raises the question whether these “efficiency” levels can ever be accomplished by peripheral countries, making the assumptions of global improvements in efficiency of this magnitude highly optimistic. It is also important to recognize that the three factors assessed in these scenarios—emissions intensity, energy intensity, and economic growth—are not necessarily independent of one another. Certain changes in the types of fuel used to alter emissions intensity, for example, may adversely affect the potential to improve energy intensity or economic growth, and vice versa. However, in the presented scenarios, these problems are optimistically ignored.

Given the assumed declines in emissions intensity and energy intensity, one can then calculate the maximum economic growth rate that is consistent with the emissions reduction objective. For example, in scenario 1, assume that 50 percent of electricity generation currently using fossil fuels will be de-carbonized by 2050 (implying that emissions intensity declines at an average annual rate of 1 percent) and that energy intensity falls at an average annual rate of 1 percent. Then to reduce emissions by 63 percent from 2010 to 2050, the average annual economic growth rate from 2010 to 2050 must not exceed –0.4 percent, that is, the economy must contract. Similarly, in scenario 9, assume that 100 percent of electricity generation currently using fossil fuels will be de-carbonized by 2050 (implying that emissions intensity declines at an average annual rate of 2.7 percent) and energy intensity falls at an average annual rate of 2 percent, then the average annual economic growth rate from 2010 to 2050 must not exceed 2.3 percent.

It is clear from table 1 that the assumed declines in emissions intensity and energy intensity are much more dramatic than the historical performance of the global capitalist economy (what the IPCC refers to as “business as usual”) and the assumptions for all scenarios are, therefore, very optimistic. Nevertheless, in most of the scenarios, the world economy would have virtually to stagnate and in one scenario, the world economy actually needs to contract absolutely. And this is even assuming declines in emissions and energy intensity that exceed historical averages, and dramatically so in the case of emissions intensity, where the scenarios are based on a rate of improvement of at least more than three-fold and up to nine-fold the historical rates. Considering that the world population growth rate is about 1 percent a year, only the most optimistic scenarios would result in positive growth of per capita GDP.

Table 1. Stabilizing CO2e in atmosphere at 490 ppm, 2010-50: scenarios relying on various declines in emissions intensity of energy and energy intensity of the economy and the rates of economic growth they allow (annual rates of change).

Table 1: Stabilizing C02e in atmosphere...

Source: Historical data for world economic growth, energy consumption, and emissions are from World Bank, World Development Indicators Online,2008.

And even with these highly optimistic scenarios on atmospheric carbon stabilization, according to the IPCC estimate, the world would still warm by 2.4˚C (relative to pre-industrial times). Indeed, the IPCC projections fail to take into account many of the latest developments. The Arctic summer sea ice is now likely to disappear and the Arctic Ocean will, therefore, absorb more heat. An atmospheric concentration of CO2e of 490 ppm will probably lead to a global warming of 2.7˚C (rather than the 2.4˚C suggested by the IPCC report), taking the world dangerously close to the 3˚C threshold, which according to James Lovelock would amount to a global collective suicide by humanity.

If the goal is to stabilize atmospheric concentration of CO2e at 445 ppm, instead of 490 ppm, then the global emissions need to fall by 89 percent, not just 63 percent. At 445 ppm, global temperature would still rise by 2˚C (relative to pre-industrial times). Some major ecological catastrophes would be unavoidable and dangerous climate feedback cycles could be initiated. Far more drastic cuts in global emissions would be required if the goal is truly to stabilize the climate and create a sufficiently large safety margin.

Table 2. Scenarios of emissions reduction and world economic growth (stabilizing CO2e in atmosphere at 445 ppm, 2010-50, annual rate of change).

Table 2: Scenarios of emissions reduction and world economic growth

Source: Historical data for world economic growth, energy consumption, and emissions are from World Bank, World Development Indicators Online,2008.

Table 2 presents the alternative scenarios of emissions reduction and economic growth that are consistent with an 89 percent reduction of emissions. The rest of the assumptions are the same as table 1. It turns out that the world economy would have to contract in all scenarios. For scenarios 1 to 3 (where the assumed declines in emissions intensity and energy intensity are clearly optimistic in comparison with the historical performance of global capitalism), the world economy would have to fall by two-thirds to three-quarters after 2010 to accomplish the objective of emissions reduction.

The results presented in tables 1 and 2 suggest that under no plausible circumstances could the objective of climate stabilization be compatible with the endless expansion of the global capitalist economy. However, the capitalist economic system is inherently incapable of operating with a non-growing (not to say contracting) economy.

The Politics of Climate Change and the Imperative for Socialism

Could this author be too pessimistic? Is the “ingenuity,” “innovativeness,” “adaptability,” and “resilience” of capitalism underestimated? The spokespersons of the mainstream environmental movement, such as Lester R. Brown (author of Plan B and director of Earth Policy Institute) and Amory Lovins (coauthor with Paul Hawken and L. Hunter Lovins of Natural Capitalism), try to convince us that magical technologies will come to the rescue. Solar panel costs will fall to the floor, as energy efficiency will surge ten-fold. Greenhouse gases emissions and other pollution can be reduced drastically, while gross domestic product will keep growing explosively. For them, there is no inherent conflict between production for profit and capital accumulation on the one hand and ecological sustainability on the other.

Their typical line of argument is that “the technology is already available” and “all that is needed is political will.” By “political will,” they are of course not referring to anything like fundamental social transformation. Instead, they are talking about some legislative reforms and international agreements within the basic capitalist framework. At most, they would demand some limited changes in personal consumer behavior.

The mainstream environmental movement, as far as its social composition is concerned, mainly consists of people who belong to the upper middle class in a capitalist society. They include the university professors, engineers, technicians, managers, financial analysts, and other professionals. Although they typically do not own significant amounts of the means of production, they play important managerial and technical functions for the capitalists and enjoy substantial material privileges relative to the working class.

In periods of revolutionary upsurge, such as in the 1960s, some of them could be rapidly radicalized and become various “ultra-leftists.” In periods of counter revolution, they could become the most important ally of the ruling class in the offensive against the working people. In the 1980s and ’90s, the upper middle class was an important social base for neoliberalism in many countries and they played a crucial role in the restoration of capitalism in the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, and China.

As the global ecological crisis deepens, some among the upper middle class recognize or sense that the existing capitalist “life style” is in serious trouble and cannot be sustained indefinitely. Yet, they are unable or unwilling to imagine anything beyond the capitalist system, on which their relatively privileged material life depends. They are not yet ready to give up their implicit political support for the capitalist class. Their living conditions and experiences are very much detached from those of the working class. It is therefore difficult for them to see that only with a massive mobilization and organization of the working class could there be any hope for the social transformation required for ecological sustainability to be accomplished. The upper-middle-class environmentalists, as a result, have to put their desperate hope (or faith) in technological miracles on the one hand and the power of moral persuasion on the other hand (which they hope would convince the capitalist class to behave morally and rationally).

However, the laws of motion of capitalism will keep operating so long as the capitalist system remains intact, independent of the individual wills and against the best wishes of the upper-middle-class environmentalists. Sooner or later, those truly conscientious environmentalists will have to choose between the commitment to ecological sustainability and the commitment to an exploitative and oppressive social system. Furthermore, with the deepening of the global ecological crisis and the crisis of global capitalism in general, it may soon become increasingly difficult for the capitalist system to accommodate the material privileges of the upper middle class while simultaneously meeting the requirements of production for profit and accumulation.

As I discussed earlier, there are many technical obstacles to the de-carbonization of the world’s energy system. Brown and Lovins have greatly exaggerated the potentials of technical change. But even if many of the proposed highly efficient energy technologies using renewables become available right away, their application will be delayed by the inherent obstacles to technological diffusion in the capitalist system. In an economic system based on production for profit, a new technology is “intellectual property.” People or countries that cannot afford to pay are denied access. Even today hundreds of millions of people in the world have no access to electricity. How many decades would it take before they start to have access to solar-powered electric cars?

Moreover, unlike consumer novelties such as cell phones or lap tops, which can be readily manufactured by the existing industrial system, the de-carbonization of the world’s energy system requires fundamental transformation of the world’s economic infrastructure. This basically means that the pace of de-carbonization, even under the most ideal conditions, cannot really be faster than the rate of depreciation of long-lasting fixed assets. Considering that many buildings and other long-lasting structures will stand for half a century or even longer, the assumed rates of de-carbonization presented in tables 1 and 2 must be seen as extremely optimistic.

From a purely technical point of view, the most simple and straightforward solution to the crisis of climate change is immediately to stop all economic growth and start to downsize world material consumption in an orderly manner until the greenhouse gases emissions fall to reasonable levels. This can obviously be accomplished with the existing technology. If all the current and potentially available de-carbonization technologies are introduced to all parts of the world as rapidly as possible, the world should still have the material production capacity to meet the basic needs of the entire world’s population even with a much smaller world economy (scenarios 1 to 3 in table 2 would roughly correspond to a return to the 1960s material living standards).

However, under a capitalist system, so long as the means of production and surplus value are owned by the capitalists, there are both incentives and pressures for the capitalists to use a substantial portion of the surplus value for capital accumulation. Unless surplus value is placed under social control, there is no way for capital accumulation (and therefore economic growth) not to take place. Moreover, given the enormous inequality in income and wealth distribution under capitalism, how could a global capitalist economy manage an orderly downsizing while meeting the basic needs of billions of people? Economic growth is indispensable for capitalism to alleviate its inherent social contradictions.

The Kyoto protocol requires that the advanced capitalist countries reduce their CO2 emissions by 5 percent from 1990 to 2012. Figure 1 presents the CO2 emissions of the world’s largest economies from 1990 to 2005.14 The United States refused to sign the protocol and U.S. emissions grew by 22 percent from 1990 to 2005. Among the signatories of the Kyoto protocol, Japan’s emissions grew by 16 percent and the Euro-zone emissions tended to grow since the mid-1990s. UK emissions (due mainly to its massive shift from coal to North Sea gas) have been on a flat trend.

Ironically, Russia is the only large economy that has reduced emissions substantially since 1990, during a period in which its economic output and population declined. Russia’s emissions fell by one-third from 1990 to 2005, with an annual rate of reduction of 2.7 percent. If the world economy were to repeat the Russian experience three times, that is, toexperience the kind of economic collapse that Russia experienced in the 1990s three times with a comparable reduction of emissions, then by 2050 the world emissions would fall by two-thirds. This would only allow the atmospheric concentration of CO2 equivalent to stabilize at about 490 ppm. As is discussed above, this would still fall short of what is necessary.

Chart 1. CO2 emissions, selected countries (millions of tons)

Chart 1: CO2 emissions, selected countries

Source: World Bank, World Development Indicators Online,

Since 1990, China’s emissions and India’s emissions have more than doubled, and China has now overtaken the United States to become the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases. At the current rate, China’s emissions will double in ten years and India’s will double in less than fifteen years. The European Union is currently committed to a reduction of emissions by 20 percent (from the 1990 levels) by 2020. All of this reduction would be offset by just one year of China’s economic growth. With the great Chinese capitalist boom, China now builds two coal-fired power plants every week. This means that every four years China will build as many coal-fired power plants as currently exist in the United States. What hope is there for climate stabilization with this kind of fanatical drive for accumulation? What magical technology can make this kind of capitalism sustainable?

It should be pointed out that the Chinese workers and peasants have not at all benefited from this relentless search for capitalist profit. It is the transnational corporations (who use China as the world’s “workshop”) and the Chinese capitalist elites that have reaped enormous profits from this. To a lesser extent, the upper middle classes in the advanced capitalist countries have also benefited from the cheap consumer goods and “services” produced by the workers in China, India, and other parts of the periphery.

On June 14, 2007, Financial Times published a quite bizarre article (“What is at risk is not the climate but freedom”) by Vaclav Klaus, the president of the Czech Republic and the former leader of the anticommunist “velvet revolution”:

We are living in strange times. One exceptionally warm winter is enough...for environmentalists and their followers to suggest radical measures to do something about the weather…Rational and freedom-loving people have to respond. The dictates of political correctness are strict and only one permitted truth, not for the first time in human history, is imposed on us…

[Global] warming hysteria has become a prime example of the truth versus propaganda problem. It requires courage to oppose the “established truth”…As someone who lived under communism for most of his life, I feel obliged to say that I see the biggest threat to freedom, democracy, the market economy and prosperity now in ambitious environmentalism, not communism. This ideology wants to replace the free and spontaneous evolution of mankind by a sort of central (now global) planning.

The freedom-loving President Klaus (who is apparently a good student of Friedrich Hayek) then demanded that scientists “have an obligation to declare their political and value assumptions and how much they have affected their selection and interpretation of scientific evidence.” Klaus then assured us that “advances in technology” and “increases in disposable wealth” will continue and “will solve any potential consequences of mild climate changes.”

One has to admit that it does take some courage for Klaus to defend “freedom” at a time when an important political consensus is being formed among the international bourgeoisie that the issue of climate change cannot be ignored any more. Given my own political experience and background in China (a former socialist state like Czechoslovakia), I do feel some strange familiarity with Klaus’s position.

Frankly, only an extremely reactionary politician who has deep-in-the-heart hatred of the working class and socialism could have made such outlandish comments. In one respect, however, Klaus is closer to the truth than all the mainstream environmentalists. It does take global “central” planning for humanity to overcome the crisis of climate change, if by “central” one is talking about self-conscious, rational coordination by democratic institutions.

The technical requirements for climate stabilization are clear. The global energy infrastructure needs to be fundamentally transformed to be based on renewables. Much of the world’s economic infrastructure will have to be changed accordingly. Agriculture will need to be reorganized to follow sustainable principles and to be freed from dependence on fossil fuels for fertilizers and machineries. The entire transportation system will have to be re-built, with railways and public transportation operated by renewable electricity playing prominent roles. The scale of the world economy will need to be reduced in accordance with the emissions reduction objectives. All of these need to be accomplished without undermining the basic needs of the world’s population.

It is clear that capitalism cannot accomplish these objectives. If we do not want to undermine the ecological conditions that support civilization, what else can accomplish these goals other than socialism with public ownership of the means of production and democratic planning?

So-called “market socialism” is not an option. Both theory and historical experience have demonstrated that “market socialism” inevitably leads to capitalism. Those who object to socialist planning might argue that the experience of historical socialisms suggested that socialist planning would be “inefficient.”

Leave aside the question that the future socialism would no doubt do better than the historical socialisms in democracy and economic efficiency, given the extreme gravity of the global ecological crisis, “efficiency” is simply not a relevant issue. The real question is: can socialism provide food, education, and health care to everyone on the earth? We know that historical socialisms were able to, and Cuba is still able to accomplish this with quite limited material resources.

Capitalism has always failed to provide food, education, and health care to at least hundreds of millions of people. If the global ecological crisis is not overcome, then capitalism will eventually fail the entirety of humanity. Is the choice not clear enough?

1. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, “Summary for Policymakers of the Synthesis Report of the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report,” November 2007,
2. David Spratt, “The Big Melt: Lessons from the Arctic Summer of 2007,” October 2007,
3. David Spratt and Philip Sutton, Climate Code Red (Friends of the Earth, 2008),
4. David Spratt and Philip Sutton, Climate Code Red; Jonathan Leake, “Fiddling with Figures while the Earth Burns,” Times Online, May 6 2007,; James Lovelock, The Revenge of Gaia (New York: Basic Books, 2006), 15–38.
5. James Hansen et al., “Target Atmostpheric CO2: Where Should Humanity Aim?” (abstract), April 2008, (accessed May 2008). Also see John Bellamy Foster, “The Ecology of Destruction,” Monthly Review 58, no. 8 (2007): 1–14.
6. This is known as the Jevons Paradox, named after the nineteenth-century British economist William Stanley Jevons who first took note of this perverse effect. See Brett Clark and John Bellamy Foster, “William Stanley Jevons and The Coal Question,” Organization & Environment 14, no. 1 (2001): 93–98; John Bellamy Foster, Ecology Against Capitalism (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2002), 94–95.
7. Ted Trainer, Renewable Energy Cannot Sustain A Consumer Society (Dordrecht, Netherlands: Springer, 2007), 110–11.
8. Energy Watch Group, “Uranium Resources and Nuclear Energy,” EWG-Series No.1/2006 (December),
9. Michael H. Heusemann, “The Limits of Technological Solutions to Sustainable Development,” Clean Technology and Environmental Policy 5 (2003): 21–34. A recent experiment sponsored by the Germany government intends to show that a network with 61 percent of electricity from wind, 14 percent from solar photovoltaics, and 25 percent from biomass, can meet up to 100 percent of electricity demand (“Renewed Energy,” The Guardian, February 26, 2008). But as discussed below, biomass is very problematic and could emit more greenhouse gases than fossil fuels. Thus, the experiment suggests a 75 percent limit to de-carbonization of electricity generation.
10. The energy statistics discussed here and in the following paragraph are from: International Energy Agency, Key World Energy Statistics 2007.
11. Although there has been much talk of developing a “hydrogen economy,” hydrogen itself is not a primary energy source (i.e., there are no natural stores of hydrogen to be exploited). Hydrogen fuel is produced from water, a process which requires energy input. Thus, hydrogen is simply an energy storage mechanism (much like a battery), and its environmental consequences depend on the source of energy that is used to produce it.
12. Joseph Fargione, et al., “Land Clearing and the Biofuel Carbon Debt,” Science 319, no. 5867 (2008): 1235–38; Timothy Searchinger, et al., “Use of U.S. Croplands for Biofuels Increases Greenhouse Gases Through Emissions from Land-Use Change,” Science 319, no. 5867 (2008): 1238–40.
13. According to Key World Energy Statistics (see footnote 9), in 2005, measured by 2000 U.S. dollars, the energy intensity of OECD countries was 37 percent below the world average, France 41 percent below world average, Germany 44 percent below world average, and UK 56 percent below world average.

If Socialism Fails: The Spectre of 21st Century Barbarism

From Socialist Voice

By Ian Angus.

From the first day it appeared online, Climate and Capitalism’s masthead has carried the slogan “Ecosocialism or Barbarism: there is no third way.” We’ve been quite clear that ecosocialism is not a new theory or brand of socialism — it is socialism with Marx’s important insights on ecology restored, socialism committed to the fight against ecological destruction. But why do we say that the alternative to ecosocialism is barbarism?

Marxists have used the word “barbarism” in various ways, but most often to describe actions or social conditions that are grossly inhumane, brutal, and violent. It is not a word we use lightly, because it implies not just bad behaviour but violations of the most important norms of human solidarity and civilized life. [1]

The slogan “Socialism or Barbarism” originated with the great German revolutionary socialist leader Rosa Luxemburg, who repeatedly raised it during World War I. It was a profound concept, one that has become ever more relevant as the years have passed.

Rosa Luxemburg spent her entire adult life organizing and educating the working class to fight for socialism. She was convinced that if socialism didn’t triumph, capitalism would become ever more barbaric, wiping out centuries of gains in civilization. In a major 1915 antiwar polemic, she referred to Friedrich Engels’ view that society must advance to socialism or revert to barbarism and then asked, “What does a ‘reversion to barbarism’ mean at the present stage of European civilization?”

She gave two related answers.

In the long run, she said, a continuation of capitalism would lead to the literal collapse of civilized society and the coming of a new Dark Age, similar to Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire: “The collapse of all civilization as in ancient Rome, depopulation, desolation, degeneration — a great cemetery.” (The Junius Pamphlet) [2]

By saying this, Rosa Luxemburg was reminding the revolutionary left that socialism is not inevitable, that if the socialist movement failed, capitalism might destroy modern civilization, leaving behind a much poorer and much harsher world. That wasn’t a new concept – it has been part of Marxist thought from its very beginning. In 1848, in The Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote:

“The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles. … that each time ended, either in the revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.”

In Luxemburg’s words: “Humanity is facing the alternative: Dissolution and downfall in capitalist anarchy, or regeneration through the social revolution.” (A Call to the Workers of the World)

Capitalism’s Two Faces

But Luxemburg, again following the example of Marx and Engels, also used the term “barbarism” another way, to contrast capitalism’s loudly proclaimed noble ideals with its actual practice of torture, starvation, murder and war.

Marx many times described the two-sided nature of capitalist “progress.” In 1853, writing about British rule in India, he described the “profound hypocrisy and inherent barbarism of bourgeois civilization [that] lies unveiled before our eyes, turning from its home, where it assumes respectable forms, to the colonies, where it goes naked.”

Capitalist progress, he said, resembled a “hideous, pagan idol, who would not drink the nectar but from the skulls of the slain.” (The Future Results of British Rule in India)

Similarly, in a speech to radical workers in London in 1856, he said:

“On the one hand, there have started into life industrial and scientific forces, which no epoch of the former human history had ever suspected. On the other hand, there exist symptoms of decay, far surpassing the horrors recorded of the latter times of the Roman Empire.” (Speech at the Anniversary of the People’s Paper)

Immense improvements to the human condition have been made under capitalism — in health, culture, philosophy, literature, music and more. But capitalism has also led to starvation, destitution, mass violence, torture and even genocide — all on an unprecedented scale. As capitalism has expanded and aged, the barbarous side of its nature has come ever more to the fore.

Bourgeois society, which came to power promising equality, democracy, and human rights, has never had any compunction about throwing those ideals overboard to expand and protect its wealth and profits. That’s the view of barbarism that Rosa Luxemburg was primarily concerned about during World War I. She wrote:

“Shamed, dishonoured, wading in blood and dripping in filth, this capitalist society stands. Not as we usually see it, playing the roles of peace and righteousness, of order, of philosophy, of ethics — as a roaring beast, as an orgy of anarchy, as pestilential breath, devastating culture and humanity — so it appears in all its hideous nakedness …

“A look around us at this moment shows what the regression of bourgeois society into barbarism means. This world war is a regression into barbarism.” (The Junius Pamphlet)

For Luxemburg, barbarism wasn’t a future possibility. It was the present reality of imperialism, a reality that was destined to get much worse if socialism failed to stop it. Tragically, she was proven correct. The defeat of the German revolutions of 1917 to 1923, coupled with the isolation and degeneration of the Russian Revolution, opened the way to a century of genocide and constant war.

In 1933, Leon Trotsky described the rise of fascism as “capitalist society … puking up undigested barbarism.” (What is National Socialism?)

Later he wrote: “The delay of the socialist revolution engenders the indubitable phenomena of barbarism — chronic unemployment, pauperization of the petty bourgeoisie, fascism, finally wars of extermination which do not open up any new road.” (In Defense of Marxism)

More than 250 million people, most of them civilians, were killed in the wars of extermination and mass atrocities of the 20th Century. This century continues that record: in less than eight years over three million people have died in wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere in the Third World, and at least 700,000 have died in “natural” disasters.

As Luxemburg and Trotsky warned, barbarism is already upon us. Only mass action can stop barbarism from advancing, and only socialism can definitively defeat it. Their call to action is even more important today, when capitalism has added massive ecological destruction, primarily affecting the poor, to the wars and other horrors of the 20th Century.

21st Century Barbarism

That view has been expressed repeatedly and forcefully by Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez. Speaking in Vienna in May 2006, he referred explicitly to Luxemburg’s words:

“The choice before humanity is socialism or barbarism. … When Rosa Luxemburg made this statement, she was speaking of a relatively distant future. But now the situation of the world is so bad that the threat to the human race is not in the future, but now.” [3]

A few months earlier, in Caracas, he argued that capitalism’s destruction of the environment gives particular urgency to the fight against barbarism today:

“I was remembering Karl Marx and Rosa Luxemburg and the phrase that each one of them, in their particular time and context put forward; the dilemma ‘socialism or barbarism.’ …

“I believe it is time that we take up with courage and clarity a political, social, collective and ideological offensive across the world — a real offensive that permits us to move progressively, over the next years, the next decades, leaving behind the perverse, destructive, destroyer, capitalist model and go forward in constructing the socialist model to avoid barbarism and beyond that the annihilation of life on this planet.

“I believe this idea has a strong connection with reality. I don’t think we have much time. Fidel Castro said in one of his speeches I read not so long ago, “tomorrow could be too late, let’s do now what we need to do.” I don’t believe that this is an exaggeration. The environment is suffering damage that could be irreversible — global warming, the greenhouse effect, the melting of the polar ice caps, the rising sea level, hurricanes — with terrible social occurrences that will shake life on this planet.” [4]

Chavez and the revolutionary Bolivarian movement in Venezuela have proudly raised the banner of 21st Century Socialism to describe their goals. As these comments show, they are also raising a warning flag, that the alternative to socialism is 21st Century Barbarism — the barbarism of the previous century amplified and intensified by ecological crisis.

Climate Change and ‘Barbarization’

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has been studying and reporting on climate change for two decades. Recently the Vice-Chair of the IPCC, Professor Mohan Munasinghe, gave a lecture at Cambridge University that described “a dystopic possible future world in which social problems are made much worse by the environmental consequences of rising greenhouse gas emissions.”

He said: “Climate change is, or could be, the additional factor which will exacerbate the existing problems of poverty, environmental degradation, social polarisation and terrorism and it could lead to a very chaotic situation.”

“Barbarization,” Munasinghe said, is already underway. We face “a situation where the rich live in enclaves, protected, and the poor live outside in unsustainable conditions.” [5]

A common criticism of the IPCC is that its reports are too conservative, that they understate how fast climate change is occurring and how disastrous the effects may be. So when the Vice-Chair of the IPCC says that “barbarization” is already happening, no one should suggest that it’s an exaggeration.

The Present Reality of Barbarism

The idea of 21st Century Barbarism may seem farfetched. Even with food and fuel inflation, growing unemployment and housing crises, many working people in the advanced capitalist countries still enjoy a considerable degree of comfort and security.

But outside the protected enclaves of the global north, the reality of “barbarization” is all too evident.

  • 2.5 billion people, nearly half of the world’s population, survive on less than two dollars a day.
  • Over 850 million people are chronically undernourished and three times that many frequently go hungry.
  • Every hour of every day, 180 children die of hunger and 1200 die of preventable diseases.
  • Over half a million women die every year from complications of pregnancy and childbirth. 99% of them are in the global south.
  • Over a billion people live in vast urban slums, without sanitation, sufficient living space, or durable housing.
  • 1.3 billion people have no safe water. 3 million die of water-related diseases every year.

The United Nations Human Development Report 2007-2008 warns that unmitigated climate change will lock the world’s poorest countries and their poorest citizens in a downward spiral, leaving hundreds of millions facing malnutrition, water scarcity, ecological threats, and a loss of livelihoods. [6]

In UNDP Administrator Kemal Dervi’s words: “Ultimately, climate change is a threat to humanity as a whole. But it is the poor, a constituency with no responsibility for the ecological debt we are running up, who face the immediate and most severe human costs.” [7]

Among the 21st Century threats identified by the Human Development Report:

  • The breakdown of agricultural systems as a result of increased exposure to drought, rising temperatures, and more erratic rainfall, leaving up to 600 million more people facing malnutrition.
  • An additional 1.8 billion people facing water stress by 2080, with large areas of South Asia and northern China facing a grave ecological crisis as a result of glacial retreat and changed rainfall patterns.
  • Displacement through flooding and tropical storm activity of up to 332 million people in coastal and low-lying areas. Over 70 million Bangladeshis, 22 million Vietnamese, and six million Egyptians could be affected by global warming-related flooding.
  • Expanding health risks, including up to 400 million more people facing the risk of malaria.

To these we can add the certainty that at least 100 million people will be added to the ranks of the permanently hungry this year as a result of food price inflation.

In the UN report, former South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu echoes Munasinghe’s prediction of protected enclaves for the rich within a world of ecological destruction:

“While the citizens of the rich world are protected from harm, the poor, the vulnerable and the hungry are exposed to the harsh reality of climate change in their everyday lives…. We are drifting into a world of ‘adaptation apartheid’.”

As capitalism continues with business as usual, climate change is fast expanding the gap between rich and poor between and within nations, and imposing unparalleled suffering on those least able to protect themselves. That is the reality of 21st Century Barbarism.

No society that permits that to happen can be called civilized. No social order that causes it to happen deserves to survive.

* * * * * * * *

Ian Angus is Editor of the online journal Climate and Capitalism, and an Associate Editor of Socialist Voice.


[1] In “Empire of Barbarism” (Monthly Review, December 2004), John Bellamy Foster and Brett Clark provide an excellent account of the evolution of the word “barbarism” and its present-day implications.

The best discussion of Rosa Luxemburg’s use of the word is in Norman Geras, The Legacy of Rosa Luxemburg (NLB 1976), which unfortunately is out of print.

[2] The works of Marx, Engels, Luxemburg and Trotsky that are quoted in this article can be found online in the Marxists Internet Archive.

[3] Hands Off Venezuela, May 13, 2006

[4] Green Left Weekly, August 31, 2005

[5] “Expert warns climate change will lead to ‘barbarisation’” Guardian, May 15, 2008

[6] United Nations Development Program, Human Development Report 2007/2008

[7] “Climate change threatens unprecedented human development reversals.” UNDP News Release, Nov. 27, 2007