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Book review: The Political Economy of Global Warming

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Book review: Weston, Del. The Political Economy of Global Warming: The terminal crisis. London and New York: Routledge, 2014. Print.

(Del Weston (1950-2012) was a climate change activist living in Tasmania.)

“Humanity is not a bunch of lemmings marching unstoppably toward a cliff. There is such a thing as free will….” — James Hansen

If I were to write a book with the wonderful and provocative title “Political Economy of Global Warming,” here’s what I’d do. First, I’d define “capitalism,” and suggest an alternative to capitalist social life. Next, I’d work steadily, as a boa constrictor does when devouring a mouse, to deprive the mass public of excuses for why capitalism will not help them if they really want to see even a partial remedy for the coming disaster that global warming promises planet Earth’s ecosystems. Here’s how I would do that: I would list all of the excuses and rebut, as firmly as I could but without omitting any contrary evidence, each of them one after the other.

In working this strategy, I would be trying to do two things: 1) showing my audience that climate change is really going to be all that bad, and 2) proving that the current society is incapable of effectively mitigating the problem, and that a postcapitalist society will be necessary at some point.

I would explain why none of the standard remedies for global warming are going to accomplish anything because they all “leave capitalism as it is,” and doing that would be fatal. Cap-and-trade is no good because it’s fundamentally an excuse for speculators to make some more money. (Perhaps it is appropriate that Weston chooses to highlight cap-and-trade, given its place as the public relations strategy of choice for the world-system’s elites.) Carbon taxes, on the other hand, are the linchpin of James Hansen’s proposed strategy for mitigating global warming, and Hansen is a climate scientist with an exemplary understanding of climate change feedback effects. But this strategy, as John Bellamy Foster suggests, is “mostly a top-down, elite-based strategy of implementing a carbon tax with the hope that this will spur the introduction of necessary technological changes by corporations.” If we implement a carbon tax, maybe the corporations will save us through technological change. Or maybe they will just go out on the open market and buy some politicians so they can get around the carbon taxes. I presume the corporations will act according to which strategy merits the most immediately profitable cost-benefit analysis.

Lastly, I’d suggest things they could do.

(And, hopefully, I would be able to put out such a book in a way such that it didn’t cost more than $100 to own. If you want Weston’s book you will probably have to visit your local college library.)

Here is what Del Weston did. Del Weston’s posthumously-published volume The Political Economy of Global Warming is of course not the book I dream of writing myself, though there are a lot of the elements of my ideal book in her real one. She shared with me a marxist emphasis upon an explanation for why more capitalism is not going to solve the global warming problem. Two main differences appear: 1) Weston’s focus upon capitalist pseudo-solutions is weighted toward a critique of cap-and-trade, which is valid but it isn’t the whole argument. In her book there is a short mention of Australia’s carbon tax, though we are then told that Australia’s carbon tax was a preparatory measure for a cap-and-trade scheme, and not a thing in itself. So she didn’t address the James Hansen proposed remedy for global warming. 2) Her book was structured around problem-solution lines — though both her framing of the problem and of the solution were agreeable, I would want to win a debate (and so would be focused on rebutting opposing perspectives). I feel a debate about capitalism and global warming is urgent if for no other reason than that people don’t usually choose “global warming” as their reason for becoming post- or anti-capitalists.

At the beginning of her book Weston presented a summary of the marxist critique of capitalism and of a general critique of cap-and-trade schemes from an anticapitalist perspective. Then she discussed “critical theory” as originating in Marx, and explains Gramsci’s theory of “hegemony,” the “metabolic rift,” the role of the state in guaranteeing the regime of corporate domination and capitalist social relations, and of corporate power. There are sections describing global warming, and the reality of 4 degrees Celsius increase in average global temperatures Weston thought was likely.

The author put a long section in the middle of her book about South Africa. She views South Africa as having the world’s global warming problem “in microcosm.” She explained at the beginning that Africa is being looted, that it was becoming progressively poorer (103) and that the Western model of “development” left Africa in a desperate situation (111). Africa’s problem is clearly capitalism, but for a different reason than that it causes global warming. Then Weston paid specific attention to South Africa, with a vastly inequitable economy. South Africa’s history of apartheid fits in snugly with the standard history of “enclosures” through which the capitalist system was introduced to the world’s various nations. The author then explored how post-apartheid neoliberal ANC policy strengthens “particular social relations of production” which will “continue to expand and deepen the rift between both classes and between humans and the environment.” In The Political Economy of Global Warming a connection is made between neoliberal political economy and the “coal-fired, high-carbon emission future” (142) South Africa has set out for itself. If more capitalism is actually pushing toward South Africa’s 4 degrees Celsius future (amidst massive inequality and corruption), why should we expect capitalist environmentalism to work? Clearly the “there is no alternative” mentality needs to be broken — if only we knew how.

The last portion of this book discusses “alternative futures,” in which Weston spelled out a minimum requirement for necessary social change. Recommendations given in this section are rather general: we are told, for instance, that “the key institution for the future will be the local and regional, critically conscientized community.” (164) In this section Weston quotes an author named Dasgupta for support. Here Weston also cited the Chipko movement as supporting the postcapitalist world she wanted to see, as well as a number of other landmarks of ecological postcapitalism: the Transition Town movement, and the works of Ted Trainer.

With Weston’s solutions, of course, if audience members don’t buy into the seriousness of climate change, or if they make it less of a priority than the priorities the capitalist system has set out for them, they’re likely to view her environmentalism as a matter of “choice” or “taste.” De gustibus non est disputandum. We should hope against such a reaction.

A conclusion

As Tom Engelhardt says in Monday’s column:

What makes climate change so challenging is that the carbon dioxide (and methane) being generated by the extraction, production, and burning of fossil fuels supports the most profitable corporations in history, as well as energy states like Saudi Arabia and Russia that are, in essence, national versions of such corporations. The drive for profits has so far proven unstoppable. Those who run the big oil companies, like the tobacco companies before them, undoubtedly know what potential harm they are doing to us. They know what it will mean for humanity if resources (and profits) aren’t poured into alternative energy research and development. And like those cigarette companies, they go right on.

We can’t, then, expect the oil capitalists to show any moral restraint whatsoever. Capitalist political economy privileges the productive apparatus, and productive consumption, over any role “conscious consumers” might play in deciding the fate of world society and planet Earth, because “conscious consumers” are at best a captive audience. The oil companies are in charge, unless they can somehow be stopped.

So a critical question for political economy should be: can the government divest the capitalist economy from these toxic fossil-fuel corporations, or are these corporations so deeply entwined in everyday capitalist practice that divestment is impossible without a major shift away from capitalism? Both Weston and I agree that the latter is true, and we have plenty of evidence on our side.

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Ph.D., Communication, The Ohio State University, 1998
M.A., English, Sonoma State University, 1992
B.A., Literature, University of California, Santa Cruz, 1984