Capitalism is to blame for climate change. There is no doubt about it for many workers. For example, for some young people who have come to Glasgow during the past two weeks to fight for radical climate change on the sidelines of the United Nations Climate Conference on the Alternative to the “People’s Climate Summit”. They performed under red, Scottish, Palestinian and other flags, and under slogans such as “Change the system, not climate change” or “Planet over profit”. Climate change, so the message can only be stopped if the “system” is already dismantled. Canadian journalist Naomi Klein had already made a whole book before this claim in 2014: “Decision. Capitalism vs. Climate”.
The debate about such principles would quickly end if one imagined for a moment that the wishes of the protestors would be met and capitalism would be abolished. The wealthy would have taken away their factories and villas, markets would no longer exist, and a revolutionary committee composed of groups such as the “Extinction Rebellion”, “International Socialist Alternative” or “Fridays for the Future” would decide who was still there. How much CO₂ can it emit?
Will it really protect the climate? The lessons of history are pretty straightforward. Even if everyone involved is goodwill—which would be a bold assumption—the elimination of markets inevitably leads to some sort of planned economy. And anyone who has been through the GDR knows how destructive a planned economy is to the environment. Even reporting on environmental problems was considered subversive under socialism.
It had already become clear that nature was a scarce resource.
On the other hand, it cannot be denied that from a historical point of view, climate change and capitalism have something to do with each other. The accumulation of CO₂ in Earth’s atmosphere began with the invention of the steam engine in the late 18th century and the Industrial Revolution in England, when people first burned coal in factories to replace the muscular power of workers and horses. This capitalism seems to transcend the limits of nature, bringing wealth and prosperity, even if this prosperity is unevenly distributed. They made it possible for the Earth’s population to grow dramatically. There were one billion people on Earth around 1800, three billion in 1970, when the first development limits were reported, and today the number is about eight billion. The capitalist era also brought inventions and innovations that dramatically improved the living conditions of mankind.
We know today that this progress has come at a high cost: change in world climate. But what follows from this? In this context it is instructive to realize that in the era of industrial revolution people were already thinking about the limits of development. Of course, then no one knew anything about climate change. But people were well aware that nature is a scarce resource. “Nature’s banquet table” did little to satisfy the people’s effort for development, as said by the English clergyman Thomas Robert Malthus, one of the classics of economics. In an essay in 1798 he established a “population law”, according to which people multiply faster than soil yields increase, which is why the poor plant vegetation on the verge of subsistence.
To this day, Malthus does not have a particularly good reputation among leftists, above all because Karl Marx ridiculed his essay as “student-like, superficial and transcendental plagiarism”. His pessimistic worldview fits the present and climate change. The soil that was useful for agriculture in 1798 is what is today Earth’s atmosphere and has a limited ability to absorb CO₂. With their radical demands, today’s climate activists have more to do with Malthus than with Marx, who dreamed of an empire of freedom without material restrictions.
There is no climate protection without innovations
Malthus was wrong about his central point. There is no such thing as a population law. There are eight times as many people on earth today as there were in his time, yet most of them do not suffer from poverty. Why Malthus was wrong has a lot to do with Adam Smith. His main work, “The Prosperity of Nations”, the most important of the classics of economics, showed that when men pursue their own interests, they automatically serve the interests of their fellow men as well. His theory was the moral argument for free markets, and it may explain the waves of innovation that made today’s standard of living possible in the first place.
Today it is a matter of reuniting Malthus and Smith. The gross deficiency of nature has to be accepted with all its consequences. At the same time, people’s self-interest is necessary to organize innovations to protect the climate. Climate protection will fail if the system that has given rise to great innovations in the past is dismantled.
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