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A Radical Approach to the Climate Crisis

For related articles and more information, please visit OCA's Politics and Democracy page, Organic Transitions page and our Environment and Climate Resource Center page.

Several strands of green thinking maintain that capitalism is incapable of a sustainable relationship with non-human nature because, as an economic system, capitalism has a growth imperative while the earth is finite. One finds versions of this argument in the literature of eco-socialism, deep ecology, eco-anarchism, and even among many mainstream greens who, though typically declining to actually name the economic system, are fixated on the dangers of "growth."

All this may be true. Capitalism, a system in which privately owned firms must continuously out-produce and out-sell their competitors, may be incapable of accommodating itself to the limits of the natural world. However, that is not the same question as whether capitalism can solve the more immediate climate crisis.

Because of its magnitude, the climate crisis can appear as the sum total of all environmental problems-deforestation, over-fishing, freshwater depletion, soil erosion, loss of biodiversity, chemical contamination. But halting greenhouse gas emissions is a much more specific problem, the most pressing subset of the larger apocalyptic panorama.

And the very bad news is, time has run out. As I write this, news arrives of an ice-free arctic summer by 2050. Scientists once assumed that would not happen for hundreds of years.

Dealing with climate change by first achieving radical social transformation-be it a socialist or anarchist or deep-ecological/neo-primitive revolution, or a nostalgia-based localista conversion back to a mythical small-town capitalism-would be a very long and drawn-out, maybe even multigenerational, struggle. It would be marked by years of mass education and organizing of a scale and intensity not seen in most core capitalist states since the 1960s or even the 1930s.

Nor is there any guarantee that the new system would not also degrade the soil, lay waste to the forests, despoil bodies of water, and find itself still addicted to coal and oil. Look at the history of "actually existing socialism" before its collapse in 1991. To put it mildly, the economy was not at peace with nature. Or consider the vexing complexities facing the left social democracies of Latin America. Bolivia, and Ecuador, states run by socialists who are beholden to very powerful, autonomous grassroots movements, are still very dependent on petroleum revenue.

A more radical approach to the crisis of climate change begins not with a long-term vision of an alternate society but with an honest engagement with the very compressed timeframe that current climate science implies. In the age of climate change, these are the real parameters of politics.   


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