The ecological crisis of capitalism

Chris Williams, chair of the science department at the Packer Collegiate Institute and an adjunct professor at Pace University in the Department of Chemistry and Physical Science, is the author of Ecology and Socialism: Solutions to the Capitalist Ecological Crisis (Haymarket Books, 2011). He was interviewed by economics professor and author Richard Wolff for his radio show Economic Update. Richard Wolff is a professor in the Graduate Program for International Affairs at the New School for Social Research in New York City, and is the author of many books, including the recently published Democracy at Work: A Cure for Capitalism (Haymarket Books, 2012). His articles can be found at his website,

LET’S GET right into it and open up with the basic question that’s on everyone’s mind. We read about ecological and environmental dangers, disasters, from the Fukushima disaster to all that has happened in the Gulf of Mexico, to countless others. How do you explain the basic causes of the threat of environmental breakdown that we seem to be facing today? Given that you study this, let me push you to help our audience think about the basic causes.

THE MOST basic cause I would say is the nature of this economic system, because we have two systems that are in fundamental conflict at the moment. One is the climate system, and the other is the capitalist system. We are finding out the limits of what the climate, our biosphere, can absorb in terms of the punishment it’s getting, with the onset of global climate change and the breakdown of ecosystems. There has been a radical change from the stable climate system of the last 12,000 years or so, and a completely new system, a new state that began with the dawn of industrial capitalism a few hundred years ago. Even the World Bank has recently released a report arguing that we are set to go past the safety level at which we can go and still maintain control of our future, 2 degrees Celsius on average warmer than the preindustrial era. We are on track not only to surpass that, but to double it to 4 degrees Celsius, according to the latest World Bank Report. So, we have reached a limit of the kind of punishment that we can mete out to the climate system and our biosphere, and the fundamental cause of that is the expansion of capitalism over the last 200 or so years.

COULD YOU tell our audience what some of the implications are of this rising temperature of the oceans and so on that you just pointed to? What does that mean for us?

WE CAN see it most recently with Hurricane Sandy right here in New York City. For example, we had very good measurements at Battery Park of sea level, and we know for a fact that it has risen 12 inches over the last 100 years. We also have very accurate temperature records for the last 100 years here, and we know for a fact that average temperatures in New York City have gone up 2.5 degrees Fahrenheit over the same time period. So, any kind of storm surge or any major storm is now immediately worse. The number of days above 90 degrees in the city is going to increase each year, and we are only at the very beginning of the process. If we go anywhere above 2 degrees Celsius over the next 50 or so years and head toward what the World Bank is predicting and many scientists too, then we are in danger of rapidly spreading deserts, unprecedented drought—most of the country is still in a drought, actually. The Mississippi River is unprecedentedly low; they are having to reduce cargo loads, which is affecting shipping and economic development. There is also a massive dislocation of coastal areas, with unpredictable droughts or flash floods and the melting of arctic ice, leading to higher sea levels as the oceans expand. With extra heat in them, there’s more energy in the atmosphere for more powerful storms, hurricanes, and so on. We’re heading into an extremely unpredictable and dangerous world, which we must do everything we can in my opinion to avoid.

DO YOU believe that these changes and the damage that they have caused and the greater damage that they risk causing are accelerating and getting worse, or is it simply continuing? Is this a long-term process that continues, or is it something that more recently has been boosted up. We’ve become more conscious of it recently, that’s clear, ever since Rachel Carson’s book (Silent Spring), and all the awareness of that. But is it in fact getting worse objectively, out there in the world, in your judgment?

ABSOLUTELY IT’S getting worse. We know that last year was a record for carbon dioxide production in the world, which is one of the primary drivers of climate change. We also know that CO2 emissions have gone up by 50 percent since the Kyoto Protocol, which was supposed to decrease CO2 emissions by an average of 8 percent or so in the developed countries. We are heading in exactly the wrong direction, which is starting to accelerate the melting of ice, so that 90 percent of Greenland’s ice cap over the summer was melting at various points, and this year was the lowest extent of sea ice in the arctic, at least since we have known about climate. So it is absolutely clear that things are not only getting worse, they are getting worse at an accelerating rate.

YOU MENTIONED the Kyoto Protocol, which the United States does not participate in and refused to—one of the few countries in the world to take that position.  Given what the rest of the world has done, as well as what the United States has done or not done, tell us a little bit about what is happening to try to deal with all of this. Since at least some countries, some authorities, and some political movements and people’s movements are trying to do something about it, can you give us a sense of what is being done and how effective the steps are that are being taken around the world?

IT SEEMS pretty clear that there is no real work being done by the political class, either nationally or internationally. As we speak, they’re wrapping up the latest round of negotiations in Doha, Qatar, which is a rather ironic place to be holding a set of international conversations on preventing climate change, seeing as it has the largest per-capita release of carbon dioxide of any country in the world, and it’s a country built on fossil-fuel production. But this conference ending today, first of all, is officially called COP-18—Conference of the Parties 18. The 18 stands for the number of years they have been negotiating, and it’s ending today almost certainly without any kind of meaningful agreement—quite possibly without any agreement at all. Despite almost two decades of negotiations, and despite the fact, as I mentioned earlier, it’s absolutely clear that things are getting much worse, there is no sense from the political elite of any country that we should take this thing seriously, particularly the countries that are producing the most carbon dioxide. Obviously the United States, producing 25 percent of the world’s CO2 emissions, and yet having only 4 percent of the world’s population, is a primary culprit in that.

So if we’re going look for answers, we can’t get them from the politicians. We have to look at how people organize on the ground against the insanity that is capitalism. To cite one further statistic, currently world oil consumption is 85 million barrels a day, which is quite a significant statistic itself, the fact that we dig out of the ground and burn 85 million barrels of oil every single day, and yet Citibank came out with a report predicting a rise by 2020 to 110 million barrels. That number should be going down, and rapidly, and yet it’s predicted to rise. Even those who are producing the reports, even the World Bank, are not doing anything serious. Because at the same time that the World Bank sounds this warning about how we need to do something, up until 2011, 20 percent of the World Bank’s energy funding, $3.1 billion, was for funding and building new coal-fired power plants. So there’s a huge contradiction between what they are saying and what they are doing. The system is rolling on as if it can. We are the ones that are going to have to put something in the gears of the system in order to slow it down and ultimately we need to be talking about a completely different system.

THE AUTOMOBILE is a major user of fossil fuels. It happens also to be a major polluter of the air and the soil, and it also happens to be the number one killer and injurer of human beings in terms of accidents. The use of fuel, the pollution of the air, and the killing of our fellow citizens all could be drastically reduced if we had a high quality, efficient public transportation system in the United States—trains, buses, boats, the whole apparatus. Other countries have gone some way in that direction, but here in the United States and in many other countries, the automobile seems to be something that is held on to. Could you tell us a little bit about why something as fairly clear as the advantages of public transportation over individual automobile transportation, why we can’t move on that front, why we can’t have some progress? That can then get us into a more general discussion about the obstacles and then what can be done.

I THINK that that’s a good example, because it highlights the priorities of the system. If you started off with your objective being: how could we produce the most amount of pollution and consume the largest amount of resources and make the most inefficient transportation system possible, then you would design cars. That’s because 95 percent of the time cars are not even in use. They’re parked somewhere, which means that you have to have oceans of concrete everywhere, which leads to all sorts of other ecological problems.

JUST TO Park them.

JUST TO park them. Right. They’re everywhere, even when they’re not in use; and when they are in use, they’re enormously polluting and dangerous, and often with a single occupant in them.

I NOTICE that there is a kind of sneaky admission even in our society here, of the absurdity of the car, when you have in the areas around big cities these special lanes of highways which you can only use—and they go quickly even during rush hour—if you have two or more persons in the car. So that you’re told “look, it is crazy the traffic mess we have, it is totally inefficient, as hundreds of millions of people lose hours of time, so we’re going to give a reward for those of you who travel in groups, you know, less cars per persons because there are more persons per car.” Of course, the logic of that would be to have buses, the logic is a nod in the direction of public transportation, but a refusal to go more than one modest step.

IT’S REALLY complete madness from an ecological perspective and from an efficiency perspective, even by it’s own logic. And when you think that this could be an amazing city if it was built for people. Unfortunately, we live in a city that is built for cars. And people come off second-best often times in very bad ways. We’re breathing the air, the ozone, and so on, and a large reason for the smog over the city is cars. What could an alternative city look like?  What would we do if we didn’t have cars? Imagine the space that would be opened up, imagine if you replaced parking lots with swimming pools and green space and so on. Imagine how many people could be put back to work.  In New York City half a million people could be put back to work rebuilding public infrastructure. New Yorkers pay $4 billion a year for buses and subways with our metro cards. into buses. That sounds like a lot of money, $4 billion a year; but that’s only ten percent of what Wall Street executives get in their Christmas bonuses—$36 billion. We could tax Wall Street at 10 percent and everybody could have free transport for the entire year in this city.

One of the reasons that Sandy was so catastrophic is because there have been so many cuts in social spending and public infrastructure maintenance. All of those things are linked by the operation of a system that values how much money are we going to make and how can we make more in a shorter period of time, over rational decisions, such as providing public transport. There used to be more public transportation in New York City with electric trams and so on, and yet they had to go in order to facilitate cars driven by internal combustion engines.

I was in Japan, and at any given moment there were four or five different trains from which to choose from, depending on what you wanted to do, and it was an incredible experience to be in a country where public transportation has been valued to a greater extent. There are other countries that are changing, and certain cities in Germany are facilitating public transport at the expense of cars. These are some steps in the right direction, but clearly not nearly enough. And so we need a radical reorientation.

I THINK that it is worth pointing out that to use the automobile does make a lot of profits for the auto companies. But when you actually have a look at who gets the profits, the owners of the shares of GM, or Toyota, or Ford or any of the others, you’re talking about a very small percentage of the population gets the bulk of the profits. And all the rest of us have to live with all of the consequences of having an automobile-based transportation system, instead of one, as you put it, that would be more efficient and more ecologically sensitive. Tell us about what you think needs to be done. As a person who studies, is invested in, and is active in this area, what can you tell us you would like to see, or that you would imagine as a way to finally deal with these problems, as opposed to suffering through all of what we’ve been saying with a kind of resignation, as if it were unavoidable?

IT CAN be quite depressing reading about this stuff and the world, and obviously we live in fairly desperate times. However, I remain highly optimistic about the future, and part of the reason I’m an activist and engage so much is because we have very recent examples—the student struggles in Quebec and also in Chile, and more broadly in 2011 we saw uprisings all over the world. Clearly it’s ongoing in countries like Egypt and in countries like Greece. So we see that people are fighting back. If there is a thread that runs through humanity and all cultures it is a resistance to tyranny and oppression. We don’t like to be exploited and oppressed and we fight back. The only way we have been successful at that is when we get organized. The other side has all the money, they own the media, the own the education system, and they own all the weapons. Our side, on the other hand, has the numbers. We are the vast majority of the world’s population, and we need to take power back.

I would be depressed if we did not have the technological answers and solutions to this problem, but we know what the answers are; it’s purely a political and social problem. If we want to live in a world that is ecologically sound and socially just, then we need to operate on two tracks. One, in the immediate sense we need to connects the social movements with the union movement, the movement of rank and file workers, because our interests are identical. We need more jobs and we need more responsible and socially useful jobs. When the Obama administration essentially nationalized General Motors after the 2008 crisis, why not reemploy people to make train tracks and trains and wind turbines, and all the things we want, rather than just going back to wildly inefficient cars, for example.  We need a huge public works program. We need the scale of change of the 1930s and the union movements of the 1930s connected to the scale and radicalism of the social movements of the 1960s.

That’s beginning to happen around the world, and we got a taste of it here in Wisconsin last year, and of course with the Occupy Movement, which I’m still involved in. But we need to win some victories, and some real reforms, not false solutions; not things based on the market, or lifestyle changes, or just better technologies, but a fundamental shift in social power. We can do that under capitalism. We can win things, and we have to fight for those things, to buy some time, and to build up our organizations, and to gain some confidence. We’ve been losing for a long time, the last 30 years or so.

But ultimately, I would argue, as we have entered a new era of revolt and rebellion, we also need to start talking about revolution, and in a very serious way. We currently have a system, capitalism, that is essentially based on three things: Endless growth, growth in pursuit of profit, and competition.  The end result of that competition is a complete inability to plan over the longer term. The anarchy of the market will not function like that, and so we have this short-term thinking. We need the exact opposite of short-term thinking if we are going to solve our problems. I would like to see a society run not on the basis of competition, but cooperation; not on making things that make the most amount of money in the shortest amount of time, but rather making things that we actually need. A society that is based on real democracy, not this sham democracy that we currently have, where the rich essentially decide what happens.

I would wrap these four aspects of a totally different society—with the emphasis on long term planning and ecological sustainability—under the rubric of socialism. And that kind of society, where we work together to make the things that we need, and we’re the ones making all the decisions in society, could be not only socially just but could put us back in touch with nature. We are completely alienated, not only from ourselves, but from something that should be the most fulfilling thing that we do—our job, which is frequently the least fulfilling thing that we do—and put us back in touch with the natural world. That is ultimately what we depend on to stay alive. That fact is completely lost sight of under capitalism, which believes, as a philosophical way of thinking, that it can survive independently from the natural world in which it exists. It’s clearly nonsensical. But capitalists will set fire to the planet, and there’s no sense that capitalism has an off switch other than that delivered by the collective power of the people.

INTERESTING TO hear you talk beyond the specifics of the ecological issue, that you combine what might be called, to use the words of a remarkable thinking, Antonio Gramsci, a bit of pessimism in the analysis—facing the real problems—coupled with a tremendous optimism of the political will. Maybe that’s the best way. Thank you very much, Chris Williams, for sharing your interests, and your activism.


Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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