Ideas & Debates
A Resistance Movement for the Planet
Climate change is out of control. It is already too late to avoid soaring temperatures, scarce water, and extreme weather. But the financial structure of capitalism is tied to fossil fuels. Market-based solutions are ineffectual. John Bellamy Foster, a professor of sociology at the University of Oregon and the editor of Monthly Review, speaks about the kind of program necessary to stop this catastrophe.
April 29, 2017
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LV: There is overwhelming evidence that demonstrates how anthropogenic climate change is out of control and will lead to global environmental catastrophe—without a major overhaul of energy production. In the February 2017 issue of the Monthly Review, you point out that although we have been presented with precise and indisputable estimations, science and social science institutions have failed to failed to come up with effective solutions. Why do you think this is the case?
JBF: We are in an emergency situation in the Anthropocene epoch in which the disruption of the Earth system, particularly the climate, is threatening the planet as a place of human habitation. However, our political-economic system, capitalism, is geared primarily to the accumulation of capital, which prevents us from addressing this enormous challenge and accelerates the destruction. Natural scientists have done an excellent and courageous job of sounding the alarm on the enormous dangers of the continuation of business as usual with respect to carbon emissions and other planetary boundaries. But mainstream social science as it exists today has almost completely internalized capitalist ideology; so much so that conventional social scientists are completely unable to address the problem on the scale and in the historical terms that are necessary. They are accustomed to the view that society long ago “conquered” nature and that social science concerns only people-people relations, never people-nature relations. This feeds a denialism where Earth system-scale problems are concerned. Those mainstream social scientists who do address environmental issues more often than not do so as if we are dealing with fairly normal conditions, and not a planetary emergency, not a no-analogue situation. There can be no gradualist, ecomodernist answer to the dire ecological problems we face, because when looking at the human effect on the planet there is nothing gradual about it; it is a Great Acceleration and a rift in the Earth system. The problem is rising exponentially, while worsening even faster than that would suggest, because we are in the process of crossing all sorts critical thresholds and facing a bewildering number of tipping points.
LV: If conversion to renewable energy could halt or reverse the march of environmental crisis, why aren’t we moving in that direction at the right pace?
JBF: The short answer is “profits.” The long answer goes something like this: There are two major barriers: (1) vested interests that are tied into the fossil-fuel financial complex, and (2) the higher rate of profitability in the economy to be obtained from the fossil-fuel economy. It is not just a question of energy return on energy investment. The fossil-fuel infrastructure already exists, giving fossil fuels a decisive advantage in terms of profitability and capital accumulation over alternative energy. Any alternative energy system requires that a whole new energy infrastructure be built up practically from scratch before it can really compete. There are also far greater subsidies for fossil fuels. And fossil fuels represent, in capitalist accounting, a kind of “free gift” of nature to capital, more so than even solar power. The financial structure, including the largest banks and Wall Street are very tightly connected to the fossil fuel economy. The below ground fossil fuel reserves represent trillions of dollars in assets that already have a real effect in today’s economy in the sense that they appear on the financial books of corporations—even if burning all of these reserves, which would break the climate budget 5 or 6 times over, would send us to climate hell. But these trillions of dollars in assets associated with fossil fuel reserves would simply vanish if fossil fuel burning were to cease. There is no equivalent with respect to solar or wind in terms of assets. My colleague, Richard York, one of the world’s leading environmental sociologists, has demonstrated empirically in an article Nature Climate Change that right now alternative energy is still treated as a supplement rather than a substitute for fossil fuels within the energy industry as presently constituted. The rapid growth of alternative energy should not therefore be seen as a radical break with the domination of fossil fuels. That still needs to occur.
SNEAK PEEK: This article can be found in full length in Left Voice Magazine.