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Climate Change: The second great denial

We need to face the truth—right now—that capitalism and a healthy planet are incompatible.

My father died at the age of 89. A year or two before he passed away, I went with him to see his cardiologist. The doctor didn’t mince words. He said that my father was very sick, and would likely die soon from a cardiac episode; he had been having these with increasing frequency. I was heartsick as I heard the words, imagining what my dad must be feeling. As we left the office, I put my arm around his shoulder and asked how he felt. To my shock, he said he was fine. “But what about what the doctor said?” I asked. “Oh, he doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” he replied. And to emphasize the point, he thrust the back of his hand in the air as if brushing away a fly.

My father’s reaction was one of complete denial. Today, we, as a society, are doing the very same thing with climate change, and for a second time. But this version is quite different from the original one.

The first time, the very existence of climate change was questioned; a great many people refused to believe the earth was warming. But thanks to the work of thousands of scientists around the globe there has been a significant change. Today, according to various polls and studies, about two-thirds of American adults believe in climate change.

We can consider this progress, because the first step in dealing with any problem is to acknowledge its existence.

But while most Americans now accept global warming, people have found a new way to hide from the truth. This time it has to do with the root cause of the problem. The standard account, which we hear from almost every commentator on the subject, whether scientist, writer, or journalist, is that climate change is the outgrowth of our industrial civilization. The problem, so the explanation goes, began in the nineteenth century in England and parts of Europe, when great industrial factories came into being for the first time. These enterprises needed large amounts of coal in order to operate. As industrial society grew and spread throughout the world, it required other sources of energy, namely oil and gas. Over the course of nearly two centuries, the extraction of these fossil fuels led to a massive buildup of carbon dioxide and other gases in the atmosphere that have heated up the earth to unprecedented levels. While the accumulation started many years ago, it has skyrocketed since the end of World War II.

This account of the history of climate change is accurate; the warming of the earth did begin two centuries ago. But as an explanation of the root cause it is wrong. This is because the industrialization of society was itself the product of a prior development, the birth and rise of capitalism. Capitalism, based on private property, wage labor, and relentless growth and accumulation, was the progenitor of industrial civilization, not the other way around. And it continues to drive industrialization and climate change today.

With scant exceptions, capitalism created the modern world. Its accomplishments have been extraordinary, far exceeding those of all previous civilizations combined. Just look around you and you will see evidence everywhere—in the car you drive, in the computer you turn on, in the TV you watch. And so on.

But all the material progress that capitalism has provided us with has come at a monstrous cost to the planet. In its relentless pursuit of profit, capitalism has ransacked the earth of its resources and in so doing, has turned nature, our best friend, into our worst enemy. In the beginning the plundering was more limited, but once capitalism unleashed consumerism on the world it saw no bounds.

This is the reality staring us in the face. But, like my father years ago, we choose to deny it.

According to almost every scientist, we are quickly running out of time in our battle against climate change. We need to face the truth—right now—that capitalism and a healthy planet are incompatible. Their needs and metabolisms are diametrically opposite. The one demands unbridled growth; the other requires moderation and careful nurturing. We need to choose between them. We cannot have both!


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