Anthropocene Capitalism: “green” into barbarism

This is the third part of the series 'Ecosocialist Strategies in the Anthropocene' by Christian Zeller.

 

The abrupt changes in the Earth system are the result of the capitalist constraint to accumulate and the expression of a new Earth-historical epoch: the Anthropocene. The characteristics of Anthropocene capitalism challenge any project of social change, limiting our ability to identify the scope for alternative paths of development. In part 3 of this series of articles on Ecosocialist Strategies in the Anthropocene, I argue that Anthropocene capitalism offers neither material nor economic foundations for social-ecological transformation. Rather, a revolutionary ecosocialist strategy is an appropriate approach to the permanent economic instability and fractures in the Earth system. I establish this in the subsequent part 4 of the series.

Anthropocene

The capitalist mode of production established itself on the basis of fossil fuels. Further development was also based on the extraction of coal, oil and gas.[i] The link between capitalist accumulation and fossil fuels has not loosened since. The reduction in greenhouse gas emissions required to limit global heating would inevitably lead to the rapid devaluation of vast amounts of capital associated with fossil fuels. For energy companies, their reserves of coal, oil, and gas represent capital that they want to expropriate and valorise profitably. They will not voluntarily give up this capital. That is why the most important sectors of capital are resisting this devaluation with all their might. Because fossil fuels are woven into all aspects of our daily lives, the necessary defossilisation needed to avert catastrophe is a comprehensive societal challenge. Because of the deep interweaving of the capitalist mode of production with fossil fuels, it makes sense to look a little more fundamentally at society’s metabolism with nature.

The capitalist mode of production practices a social metabolism with nature that disrespects planetary boundaries.[ii] The ‘treadmill’ of accumulation leads to a planetary overload and to “the overall break in the human relation to nature arising from an alienated system of capital without end.”[iii] This ecological rift is the result of a social rift: the domination of humans over humans.[iv] Ecological destruction threatens the physical survival of millions of people and challenges the reproduction of entire societies. Since finance capital increasingly took command of the processes of capital accumulation – thus the production and provision of infrastructure, and, through private debt, even consumption – from the late 1970s onward, the exploitation of labour and the plundering of nature have progressed even more unrestrained worldwide. [v] Analysing society’s metabolism with nature offers the key to understanding the challenge of planetary boundaries.[vi] The disasters that accompany destruction threaten the physical survival of millions of people.[vii] This metabolism also expresses ecological imperialism, which shifts the destruction of the environment to dominated and dependent countries through the extraction of ‘resources’ and expropriation of ‘sinks’.[viii] In addition to global warming, biodiversity loss, ocean acidification, land-use change through deforestation, and nitrogen and phosphorus inputs into the biosphere and atmosphere have reached or even exceeded carrying capacity limits. [ix]

The social metabolism with nature practised by capitalist industrialisation has changed the Earth system so much that, since the great acceleration of all social processes after World War II, the Earth has entered a new Earth-historical epoch, the Anthropocene.[x] The stable phase of the Holocene, which began after the last ice age and lasted about 11,700 years, has passed. But it was precisely the life-friendly climate configuration of the Holocene that enabled the development of human civilisation as we know it today. The transition to the new Earth-historical epoch of the Anthropocene, which itself continues to change in unpredictable and dangerous ways, presents human society with an immeasurable challenge, the scope of which can hardly yet be assessed. The abundance of changes in the Earth system triggered by capitalist accumulation dynamics caused a qualitative rupture. That is why the Anthropocene is not only a biophysical phenomenon but also a socio-ecological challenge.

In the second article of this series entitled “Running out of time” I already explained that global warming and the dynamics of the Earth system are non-linear processes. Social developments are also not continuous and linear. Rather, phases that seem stable for a long time can abruptly give way to new constellations. These are the moments when major social changes take hold. The defossilisation of the economy can be such a comprehensive social change, but only if the constraints of capital accumulation can be overcome.

Finance-dominated accumulation

The comprehensive ecological crisis is an expression of the contradiction between the planetary boundaries to growth and the endless accumulation dynamics of capital.[xi] Since finance capital increasingly took command of the processes of capital accumulation – that is, of the production and provision of infrastructure and, through private debt, even consumption – from the late 1970s onwards, the exploitation of labour and the plundering of nature have progressed even more unrestrained worldwide. [xii] The digitalisation of the economy does not go hand in hand with defossilisation, because it requires an energetic basis. Greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise.

The capitalist engine of accumulation has been sputtering since the last great crisis of 2007-09. Productivity gains are significantly lower than they were during the glorious thirty years after World War II or the New Economy of the 1990s.[xiii] Since the late 1970s, in the course of the neoliberal turn, a configuration of capitalism has prevailed that is characterised by an enormous increase in the importance of finance capital. Ultimately, expectations of fictitious capital to pocket a share of surplus-value in the form of interest and rents determine the rhythm of accumulation.[xiv] Because the current, increased exploitation of labour does not satiate the extant hunger for surplus-value, capital has intensified its international expansion into new areas, above all China, to suck millions of additional workers into surplus-value production, and also increasingly implemented processes of accumulation by dispossession.[xv]

However, the partial rebound of profit rates in the 1990s and 2000s only lent to modest expansions of investment, serving to distribute wealth in the form of financial returns[xvi] and to establish a regime of rentiers. [xvii] It became apparent that investment activity was partially decoupled from profitability.[xviii]

In the course of the crisis of 2007-09, the ruling fractions of capital managed to avoid a devaluation of fictitious capital along with its claims. The costs of the crisis were passed on to the broad mass of workers with an intensified austerity policy, especially in the European periphery. Not surprisingly, also in climate policy capital that largely relied on market-based instruments such as emissions trading. This ultimately amounted to an expansion of the realm of financial yields, of rent and interest income.[xix]

The current crisis, which was foreshadowed some time ago and has now assumed immeasurable tenacity through the Covid 19 pandemic, shows the limits of accumulation dynamics. It has been characterised by a massive collapse in economic output at the global level and deep social crises. Once again, governments and corporate managements are reacting to the crisis by delaying and cushioning a capital devaluation that is imminent according to capitalist logic. Governments are once again supporting large corporations with capital injections and loans, driving up national debts. In this way, they contribute to increasing the financial assets of investment funds. States are borrowing money on a grand scale from those players from whom they should be taxing more heavily to keep debt in check. With the additional, hitherto unimaginable inflation of public debt, they are propping up corporations engaged in fossil fuel use, not least airlines, aircraft manufacturers and the automobile industry. In doing so, they are once again confirming that they regard climate warming as a secondary problem.

For a long time, central banks stuck to a model of expansionary monetary policy and low-interest rates in the hope of encouraging companies to borrow and invest. However, since profit rates and sales markets are not developing sufficiently in the face of the crisis, companies remain hesitant to invest. The hypothesis of a prolonged phase of stagnation is thus plausible. In the meantime, the spectre of stagflation, that is stagnation with simultaneous inflation, even beckons again. The central banks are now in a dilemma. Whatever they do is no answer to the deeper contradictions.

There is nothing to suggest that capitalist societies will return to a stable development in the next few years. Capital and its representatives are faced with the question of how to increase the profitability of capital again and at the same time open up new markets to such an extent that capital once again has sufficient incentive to greatly expand investment. Therefore, it is to be expected that capital will react with extensive industrial restructuring at the expense of workers, reproductive workers and intensify expropriation of nature to satisfy its endless hunger for surplus-value. As long as profits do not increase and new sales markets cannot be developed, investment will not reach the level required to initiate a new growth phase. [xx]

However great its own contradictions may be, the capitalist mode of production will not collapse as a result.[xxi] As long as the workers do not resist and enforce a credible social alternative, the capitalist mode of production and domination will adapt – although it will have to resort to ever more barbaric mechanisms of domination. The capitalist mode of production can only continue by depriving an increasingly large number of people of opportunities for self-realisation, worsening their living conditions or even putting their immediate physical existence into question, and ultimately driving the planet into a configuration hostile to life in the Anthropocene.

Fossil-Finance-State Complex

The current investment strategies of the financial sector as well as the continuing fossil-friendly policies of many states show that fossil fuels will continue to play a central role in the coming decades according to the plans of the ruling capital groups. Current reports by the IEA (International Energy Agency) and OPEC (Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) paint a clear picture: nothing points to rapid defossilisation.

Worldwide, coal, oil and gas currently account for slightly more than 80% of energy consumption. According to OPEC forecasts, the share of fossil fuels will still be 70% in 2045.[xxii] The fossil fuel industry accounted for about 70% of society’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2015.[xxiii] Coal, oil and gas companies are at the beginning of many value chains in most other industries.

According to the Climate Accountability Institute, the largest 20 fossil fuel corporations collectively produced 480 billion tonnes of CO2 and methane emissions from 1965 to 2017. This represents 35% of all global emissions from fossil fuels and cement production in this period or 1.35 trillion tonnes of CO2.[xxiv] OPEC and the oil companies expect oil consumption to continue to rise in the coming decades.

The Five Years Lost report reveals which banks and financial investors are backing those companies developing large, controversial coal, oil and gas expansion projects.[xxv] Together, twelve projects of major fossil fuel companies are expected to emit at least 175 gigatonnes of additional CO2 if they are expanded as the companies involved intend. That is 75% of the remaining carbon budget of 235 Gt to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees with a probability of 66%.

Since the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, globally installed coal-fired power capacity has increased by 157 gigawatts (GW) – equivalent to the current coal-fired fleet of Germany, Russia, Japan and Turkey combined. Numerous large coal companies are expanding and plan to continue doing so. The Global Coal Exit List report published by 40 civil society organisations comes to an alarming conclusion. Of the 1030 largest corporations in the world with 1800 subsidiaries along the coal value chain, that is coal power plant operators and coal producers, as many as 503 corporations are pushing ahead with extensive investment projects. Institutional investors still owned stocks and shares in the coal industry worth $1.03 trillion at the beginning of this year. In addition, banks have supported coal companies, providing them $1.12 trillion in loans and investment banking transactions over the past two years.[xxvi] These findings show how the fossil-finance-state complex continues to push the world into the abyss. Not only the corporations but also the states are responsible.

Indeed the governments of the early industrialised countries agreed at a summit meeting in 2009 to end subsidies for fossil fuels. However, they did not set a date. The owners of the capital invested and placed in the fossil sector are not thinking of writing off their assets. Quite the contrary. The G20 countries have subsidised fossil energy and infrastructure to the tune of around 3.3 trillion US dollars (2.5 trillion euros) in the period from 2015 to 2019. The research department of the financial and information company Bloomberg (owned by Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York) presented a comprehensive report on subsidies and climate policy with numerous country studies on 20 July.[xxvii] The study authors found that almost half of the total funds in 2019 went to state-owned corporations in the G20 countries. A total of 60% of subsidies went to producers and utilities; the rest went directly to consumers. But it was the wealthier consumers who benefited most from consumer-oriented subsidies. In 2015 and 2019, for example, the majority of subsidies were spent on the production of oil and gas, at 73 and 82% respectively.

Especially in China, South Africa and Japan, subsidies for coal have increased significantly in recent years. According to the authors, China has almost 250 coal-fired power plants in the planning stage, while India has 66 plants. Although the G20 countries have invested more than 360 billion euros in climate-friendly initiatives, they have also pumped four times as much money into carbon-intensive sectors such as the aviation industry or the construction industry. The findings and the proposals of the Bloomberg study show how inextricably intertwined the capitalist states have become with the financial sector and the fossil fuel sector for decades.

The fossil sector remains profitable. Accordingly, capital continues to flow into it. Renewables will not meet the demand for electricity. The Financial Times recently reported that rising electricity demand has made thermal coal the most lucrative asset class. Thus, coal will continue to fill the gap for a long time. As electricity demand continued to surge, thermal coal prices also rose. “Supply disruptions, a drought in China and rebounding electricity demand have fired up the market for thermal coal, making the world’s least liked commodity one of this year’s best-performing assets”[xxviii]

The resurgence of thermal coal, which is burned in power plants to generate electricity, highlights the difficulties governments face in switching to cleaner forms of energy. Although renewable energies such as wind and solar power are growing rapidly, they are not keeping pace with the increasing demand for electricity and energy. There is no sign of a real transformation of the energy system. Renewable energies have not substantially changed the global energy mix in recent decades. Between 1990 and 2015, the share of renewables in final energy consumption stagnated around 17-18%. For electricity, renewables had a share of 27% in 2019, a modest increase from 19% thirty years earlier.[xxix]

The world simply lacks the material prerequisites to satisfy the existing demand for energy without fossil fuels. Not even the automobile industry will be able to develop and technically process enough copper, cobalt, coltan and rare earth to convert the entire global fleets to electric vehicles. The raw materials are simply not available. Renewable energies are extremely resource-intensive and building the infrastructure for renewable energies will continue to consume huge amounts of fossil energy. To keep the prices of raw materials so low that the prices of renewable energies do not exceed those of fossil energy sources, an imperialist race for the control, expropriation and development of raw material deposits is already underway. “Green” capitalism can only be an imperialist one. [xxx]

Capital systematically seeks to colonise nature. In response to the destruction of nature, there are increasing efforts to also consider nature or so-called “ecosystem services” of nature as capital. The prerequisite for this, however, is to cut up the “services” into comparable units to be able to measure and finally value them. The valuation is to be done by the market. The superficial reasoning for this is that what is not worth anything is not protected. This extended stage of colonisation of nature does not protect ecosystems but creates a new asset class. It offers financial capital – organised in banks, funds, pension funds, large corporations of all kinds and wealthy individuals – a new opportunity to earn returns in the form of interest and rents.

Fractures in the Earth System – Fractures in Society

Green capitalist modernisation will promote processes of barbarism and neo-colonial plunder. Responding to this with so-called left Green New Deals is not appropriate to the situation. For fundamentally, all variants of a Green New Deal assume that a socio-ecological configuration of the capitalist mode of production can be realised. The economic scope for this does not exist because productivity growth is too low and capital does not see its profit expectations satisfied with renewable energies. All proposals for Green New Deals are ecologically insufficient because they only want to moderate, not overcome, the nature-destroying accumulation of capital. Any orientation that relies on a social-ecological reform or transformation of capitalism is built on sand in Anthropocene capitalism and will lead to horrific defeats.

To limit global warming to 1.5°C compared to pre-industrial times, a worldwide, complete and rapid dismantling of the fossil sector is necessary. However, over 80% of the world’s energy needs are met by fossil fuels. In a sense, oil and coal flow like blood through the social organism. Therefore, global warming can only be slowed down if a historically unique social reorientation can be implemented on a global level in the shortest possible time.

  • Social-ecological reform alliances in the imperialist countries lack any material and economic basis. It is obvious that the imperialist countries, including China, have to completely transform their production apparatus, their transport and logistic systems as well as social reproduction. However, this industrial transformation is only possible if the large fossil fuel companies can be democratically appropriated and controlled by society.
  • Any ecosocialist perspective must start from the global context. The development of imperialist “green” capitalism must be stopped. “Net zero” is part of an imperialist climate policy. The climate movement should oppose this red herring.

In the fourth article of the series Ecosocialist Strategy in the Anthropocene, on the basis of the break-like changes in the Earth system and the irresolvable contradictions and regressive nature of Anthropocene capitalism, the author will explain the need to break with the capitalist mode of production and implement an ecosocialist transformation.


[i] Altvater 2010: 138f; Malm 2016: 11f, 16

[ii] Angus 2019

[iii] Foster, et al. 2010: 17f, 47

[iv] Marx 1894: 821

[v] Chesnais 2016

[vi] Foster, et al. 2010: 46

[vii] Chesnais und Serfati 2004

[viii] Foster, et al. 2010: 345ff, 370

[ix] Rockström, et al. 2009; Steffen, et al. 2015

[x] Various critical authors replace the term Anthropocene with Capitalocene. They argue that it is not humanity but the constraints of capital domination that have changed the Earth system so much. That is correct. Nevertheless, I explicitly stick to the term Anthropocene, following Ian Angus (Angus 2020). First, most Earth system scientists clearly recognise the role of the capitalist system. Second, it makes no sense to launch a new term for the capitalist mode of production. And third, Anthropocene conditions will persist for centuries and millennia, even after we have succeeded in fighting for an eco-socialist society.

[xi] Harvey 2014; Chesnais 2016; Mahnkopf 2020

[xii] Chesnais 2016

[xiii] Roberts 2021

[xiv] Chesnais 2016

[xv] Harvey 2003; Zeller 2004, 2011

[xvi] Husson 2009

[xvii] Zeller 2011

[xviii] Durand und Gueuder 2018

[xix] Zeller 2010

[xx] Husson 2021

[xxi] Harvey 2014

[xxii] OPEC 2021 : 58

[xxiii] Griffin 2017: 7

[xxiv] Heede 2019; vgl. auch Griffin 2017: 8

[xxv] urgewald 2020

[xxvi] urgewald 2021

[xxvii] BloombergNEF 2021

[xxviii] Hume 2021

[xxix] Jacobs, et al. 2020: 16

[xxx] Zeller 2010

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