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Climate & Capitalism: Hung for a Sheep as for a Lamb


Global warming and capitalist history

I don’t know if you caught Chomsky’s most recent column, as reproduced in the pixels over at Alternet: “U.S. Plunges the Cradle of Civilization into Disaster, While Its Oil-Based Empire Destroys the Earth’s Climate.” There’s some good stuff there, but Chomsky finds it hard to remain focused when he’s pouring on the dire warnings. After some dire warnings about Mideast politics, he proceeds to discuss the most recent IPCC draft report. Here’s some good news: the IPCC is now on the side of the “keep the grease in the ground” movement, the movement I suggested back in 2009. As the Democracy Now piece tells us:

If global warming is to be adequately contained, the report says, at least three-quarters of known fossil fuel reserves must remain in the ground.

Chomsky indeed mentions this too. (Remember, folks — my heterodox thinking will become mainstream in a few years!) At any rate, one of the main points of this piece is that “humanity is responsible,” which oversimplifies the idea of “humanity.” Here’s how Chomsky phrases it:

The era of civilization coincides closely with the geological epoch of the Holocene, beginning over 11,000 years ago. The previous Pleistocene epoch lasted 2.5 million years. Scientists now suggest that a new epoch began about 250 years ago, the Anthropocene, the period when human activity has had a dramatic impact on the physical world.

But the human race is not 250 years old. The human race is 200,000 years old. As for the “era of civilization,” perhaps the era of settled agricultural society, from 11,000 BCE to the present, “coincides closely with” the geological era marked from the end of the last ice age, but it isn’t agriculture that’s bringing about the imminent climate disaster we will be experiencing soon. It’s when we start thinking of the “anthropocene” that we become confused about the causes of the current crisis.

So what is it that’s 250 years old? I know! It’s capitalism! Thus Jason W. Moore proposed an alternative to the “anthropocene” — the “capitalocene.” Here’s the gist of Moore’s argument:

the Anthropocene argument obscures, and relegates to context, the actually existing relations through which women and men make history with the rest of nature: the relations of power, (re)production, and wealth in the web of life.

So it’s these relations, the relations of power, that developed over the last 250 or 300 years to create the global warming world in which we currently live. The global warming world isn’t the outcome of human nature, or even of history — but merely that of capitalist history. This is so because capitalist relations, the relations of people as workers and consumers to capital as a globally predatory force, relations of nation-states locked in struggle for planetary domination, and relations of “development” and “administration,” characterize our current predicament.

Violence and hegemonic power

So what distinguishes capitalist history from the rest of history? The “early” history of the human race indeed witnessed a profound transformation of ecological relations on planet Earth. But only recent history can claim to witness what we have now — the vast simplification of terrestrial ecosystems with the potential outcome of mass human death.

Chomsky’s piece mentions in several places the ongoing violence in world human relations. Here’s one:

Arundhati Roy suggests that the “most appropriate metaphor for the insanity of our times” is the Siachen Glacier, where Indian and Pakistani soldiers have killed each other on the highest battlefield in the world. The glacier is now melting and revealing “thousands of empty artillery shells, empty fuel drums, ice axes, old boots, tents and every other kind of waste that thousands of warring human beings generate” in meaningless conflict.

No explanation of human social relations would be complete without a discussion of what the Italian thinker Antonio Gramsci called “hegemony.” The idea behind “hegemony” is in fact simple: the institutions with which we deal every day, from the money we use to the places we work to the roads on which we drive our vehicles, reinforce a commonly-accepted picture of the world which grants some people inordinate power over others. That’s “hegemony.”

The violence of war illustrates a traditional method of maintaining hegemonic control: hegemonic rule at gunpoint. The battlefield at the Siachen Glacier illustrates two societies, both of which were able to convince and coerce its young people to kill each other in a struggle for control over a chunk of land. This is indeed the traditional version of hegemonic power: insist upon control in the name of X, whether X be India or Pakistan or the Roman Emperor or the King of England, and back up what you say with threats to kill anyone who disobeys.

The state, then, uses violence, and in this regard the capitalist states and the precapitalist states have something in common — fear as an element of hegemonic rule. The difference, perhaps, between the capitalist states and the precapitalist states is that the capitalist states rely upon violence to enforce a specifically capitalist hegemonic order — be a good citizen, worker, and consumer, or else. Respect the regimes of money and property, or be a stranger to both of them. George Carlin named it well:

Feudalism, by contrast, rested heavily upon the power of the nobility and the church to extract respect and free labor from the peasant masses. “Communism,” in its Soviet and Chinese incarnations, was a brief interlude in which the masses were offered promises of utopia and forced to work for the nation-state — such regimes fully deserved the name Tony Cliff gave them: “state capitalism.” Neither of these systems was as successful at using nature to domesticate nature than capitalism. Capitalism also offers its masses more in the way of consolation prizes than do previous systems of political economy. Capitalist domestication, however, can only go so far until it runs up against its own limitations — this is what Moore calls “peak appropriation.” Peak appropriation suggests a limit to the hegemonic power of the capitalist system, and thus its power over us, as I will discuss below.

“Might as well be hung for a sheep as for a lamb.”

Global warming is experienced by both nature and society (nature’s human component) as a form of violence. Discussions of the character of this violence are essential to defining the global warming reality, and so we can read of rising ocean levels, droughts, floods, acidifying oceans, the release of the methane clathrates from the permafrost and from the ocean floors, immense heatwaves, areas rendered unsuitable for agriculture, plagues, and so on. The problem for the capitalist world-system, and thus for nature-in-capitalism, is that this violence is not hegemonic violence. Droughts, floods, acidifying oceans and so on do not reinforce pre-existing national or economic regimes. We will thus reach a point when large portions of the socialized masses, having been raised to believe in the hegemonic order, will conclude that they have nothing to lose, because they are going to die anyway.

An old expression suggests that we “might as well be hung for a sheep as for a lamb.” The idea was that if you are going to die anyway, you might as well commit the greater offense against the system as opposed to the smaller offense. This expression, according to , arose before the 1820s in England, when “Under English law before the 1820s people were hanged for stealing anything worth more than a shilling. This included lambs and sheep. So why steal a lamb when you could steal a more valuable sheep and get the same punishment (death)?” Excessive hegemonic violence thus diminished respect for law.

Global warming may very well put large numbers of people in the same position, that they “might as well be hung for a sheep as for a lamb.” In short, it may play the same role in increasing the violence quotient that the residents of early capitalist England experienced in dealing with their laws. Today, the national security state will do nothing of importance about global warming, while at the same time militarized police forces are being supplied by a military industrial complex which is creating ever more enemies for America, this time in Africa.

This future, of increasing global warming, increasing militarization, and increasing economic crisis is being confronted, in DC and on Wall Street, with a regime of universal conservatism. As global warming spells increasingly probable doom for large numbers of people, what can we expect of general public respect for the rule of law, for property and money, for the hegemonic power of the rich, and so on? We might expect, then, that they “might as well be hung for a sheep as for a lamb.” The likelihood of transgression, and of disrespect for the hegemonic order, may at some point well increase. This has no doubt already caught the attention of the Pentagon.

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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