Capitalism as Scheduled Disaster: Paul Street's newest
This is the picture of the capitalist system given us in Paul Street's most recent salvo, Capitalism: The Nightmare. I'd recommend a read before going further.
Capitalism was and is a catastrophic problem that was created intentionally so that the whole world could be organized toward the sacred goal of investor profit, so in this sense Street is correct, and one can see this in the history, as the ground-clearing for capitalism in the New World was the mass death of millions of native peoples for the sake of the Conquistadores' pursuit of gold (and, more prominently, silver). What's fun about this piece, though, are his examples, which are enjoyably up-to-date. Houston, for instance. Street characterizes Houston as a disaster waiting to happen, and part of this disaster has to do that Houston uniquely has no zoning laws:
W]ithout a zoning code, [Houston is] a case study in urban sprawl. Houston was built on a dry (read: low-lying) lakebed that’s laced with bayous. The bayous are lined with concrete, steel and sheet metal, which is functional when it rains a little, but a contender for the luge event when it rains a lot, even in posh neighborhoods like River Oaks. Doing what it takes to prevent flooding, widening bayou channels, managing growth, putting in green space, might impede the only truly important flow: money. Houston’s city fathers have resisted any effort to plan for climate change, because, well, it doesn’t exist. As if that weren’t enough, parts of Houston are sinking, some as much as 2.2 inches a year.
It’s an epitome of the deadly “free market” chaos favored by arch-capitalist political actors such as the right-wing billionaire Charles Koch and his friend, the “libertarian” Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz.
No wonder the situation in Houston is still so bad. Our capitalist disaster narrative shifts rapidly to Arizona, visited briefly by arch-neoliberal Milton Friedman:
We picked him up at the airport, and while we were driving to a suburb of Phoenix we went through what could only be described as suburban sprawl. Someone in the car with us, remarking on this landscape, said, ‘Man, it looks like there was no planning at all.’ Friedman just nodded his head and said, ‘Yes, isn’t it beautiful?’ … [I]t wasn’t government coercion that had brought it into being. It was the invisible hand of the free market.
Unfortunately when dealing with climate change Street's writing becomes a bit excessive. Here's what he says:
The warming is fueled by capital-captive humanity’s excessive release of carbon dioxide resulting from the profit system’s rapacious extraction and burning of fossil fuels and its reliance on animal agriculture. Carbon accumulates in the atmosphere, trapping heat and melting the world’s glaciers and permafrost, which holds vast reserves of carbon-rich methane. As the ice caps retreat, less sunlight gets reflected back into space and more of it heats the planet toward a point where it becomes uninhabitable.
Extreme weather is just the tip of the melting iceberg. If not reversed, global warming will destroy the human species through famine, dehydration, overheating, disease and resource wars. It has us on the path to hell.
Given the powerful presence of paid-off climate change deniers in the political landscape of 2010s America, it's important to be precise about what climate change will do. Mora et al. (2013) suggest a point of "climate change departure from recent variability" in which the seasons no longer matter because global climates enter a period of continual change.
At some future point in that process agriculture will become impossible over large stretches of the Earth, and the human population will consequently shrink to a point supportable by the agriculture which remains. Earth's human population is maybe about 7.5 billion at present -- imagine a world in which half of them die of starvation, while remembering that world human population has for most of human existence been far lower than it is now. Do you really want to live in the world where they die off, and human population "resets" to a more "manageable" level?
So no, we're all not going to die. There will be lots of gruesome death, however, billions of people, and that will be bad enough. The rest of Street's essay is in securing capitalism as the culprit for all of this, and in showing that capitalism is basically undemocratic, that the capitalists decide upon this great and even more forthcoming murder for us with our acquiescence but without our permission.
Street concludes with a reminder as regards the consequences of this acquiescence:
Can environmental catastrophe be averted under capitalism? Not likely. Shifting from fossil fuel reliance and other unsound environmental societal habits and practices—built-in obsolescence, mass consumerism and the endless pursuit of quantitative economic growth, accumulation and “cheap nature” resource appropriation—requires a level of coordinated social and public intervention so extreme that it is incompatible with continued capitalist control of the means of production, investment and distribution.
This set of practices needs to be sorted out of course, because Street represents it as a great jumble of words to describe what it is that needs to be phased out if the opportunities for survival are to be maximized. The fossil fuel companies must be phased out of business. Great human machines currently dedicated to investor profit must be reoriented to group survival on ecological terms. "Economies" must be reinvented upon cooperative grounds, to benefit all participants rather than mere classes of stockholders. Hierarchical organizations such as the US military must be obliged to abandon their paranoid ends.
Good luck everyone!