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Book review: Weston, Del.  The Political Economy of Global Warming: The terminal crisis.  London and New York: Routledge, 2014.  Print.
(Del Weston (1950-2012) was a climate change activist living in Tasmania.)
"Humanity is not a bunch of lemmings marching unstoppably toward a cliff. There is such a thing as free will…." -- James Hansen
If I were to write a book with the wonderful and provocative title "Political Economy of Global Warming," here's what I'd do.  First, I'd define "capitalism," and suggest an alternative to capitalist social life.  Next, I'd work steadily, as a boa constrictor does when devouring a mouse, to deprive the mass public of excuses for why capitalism will not help them if they really want to see even a partial remedy for the coming disaster that global warming promises planet Earth's ecosystems.  Here's how I would do that: I would list all of the excuses and rebut, as firmly as I could but without omitting any contrary evidence, each of them one after the other.  

In working this strategy, I would be trying to do two things: 1) showing my audience that climate change is really going to be all that bad, and 2) proving that the current society is incapable of effectively mitigating the problem, and that a postcapitalist society will be necessary at some point.

I would explain why none of the standard remedies for global warming are going to accomplish anything because they all "leave capitalism as it is," and doing that would be fatal.  Cap-and-trade is no good because it's fundamentally an excuse for speculators to make some more money.  (Perhaps it is appropriate that Weston chooses to highlight cap-and-trade, given its place as the public relations strategy of choice for the world-system's elites.)  Carbon taxes, on the other hand, are the linchpin of James Hansen's proposed strategy for mitigating global warming, and Hansen is a climate scientist with an exemplary understanding of climate change feedback effects.  But this strategy, as John Bellamy Foster suggests, is "mostly a top-down, elite-based strategy of implementing a carbon tax with the hope that this will spur the introduction of necessary technological changes by corporations."  If we implement a carbon tax, maybe the corporations will save us through technological change.  Or maybe they will just go out on the open market and buy some politicians so they can get around the carbon taxes.  I presume the corporations will act according to which strategy merits the most immediately profitable cost-benefit analysis.

Lastly, I'd suggest things they could do.

(And, hopefully, I would be able to put out such a book in a way such that it didn't cost more than $100 to own.  If you want Weston's book you will probably have to visit your local college library.)

Here is what Del Weston did.  Del Weston's posthumously-published volume The Political Economy of Global Warming is of course not the book I dream of writing myself, though there are a lot of the elements of my ideal book in her real one.  She shared with me a marxist emphasis upon an explanation for why more capitalism is not going to solve the global warming problem.  Two main differences appear: 1) Weston's focus upon capitalist pseudo-solutions is weighted toward a critique of cap-and-trade, which is valid but it isn't the whole argument.  In her book there is a short mention of Australia's carbon tax, though we are then told that Australia's carbon tax was a preparatory measure for a cap-and-trade scheme, and not a thing in itself.   So she didn't address the James Hansen proposed remedy for global warming.  2) Her book was structured around problem-solution lines -- though both her framing of the problem and of the solution were agreeable, I would want to win a debate (and so would be focused on rebutting opposing perspectives).  I feel a debate about capitalism and global warming is urgent if for no other reason than that people don't usually choose "global warming" as their reason for becoming post- or anti-capitalists.

At the beginning of her book Weston presented a summary of the marxist critique of capitalism and of a general critique of cap-and-trade schemes from an anticapitalist perspective.  Then she discussed "critical theory" as originating in Marx, and explains Gramsci's theory of "hegemony," the "metabolic rift," the role of the state in guaranteeing the regime of corporate domination and capitalist social relations, and of corporate power.  There are sections describing global warming, and the reality of 4 degrees Celsius increase in average global temperatures Weston thought was likely.

The author put a long section in the middle of her book about South Africa.  She views South Africa as having the world's global warming problem "in microcosm."  She explained at the beginning that Africa is being looted, that it was becoming progressively poorer (103) and that the Western model of "development" left Africa in a desperate situation (111).  Africa's problem is clearly capitalism, but for a different reason than that it causes global warming.  Then Weston paid specific attention to South Africa, with a vastly inequitable economy.  South Africa's history of apartheid fits in snugly with the standard history of "enclosures" through which the capitalist system was introduced to the world's various nations.  The author then explored how post-apartheid neoliberal ANC policy strengthens "particular social relations of production" which will "continue to expand and deepen the rift between both classes and between humans and the environment."  In The Political Economy of Global Warming a connection is made between neoliberal political economy and the "coal-fired, high-carbon emission future" (142) South Africa has set out for itself.  If more capitalism is actually pushing toward South Africa's 4 degrees Celsius future (amidst massive inequality and corruption), why should we expect capitalist environmentalism to work?  Clearly the "there is no alternative" mentality needs to be broken -- if only we knew how.

The last portion of this book discusses "alternative futures," in which Weston spelled out a minimum requirement for necessary social change.  Recommendations given in this section are rather general: we are told, for instance, that "the key institution for the future will be the local and regional, critically conscientized community." (164)  In this section Weston quotes an author named Dasgupta for support.  Here Weston also cited the Chipko movement as supporting the postcapitalist world she wanted to see, as well as a number of other landmarks of ecological postcapitalism: the Transition Town movement, and the works of Ted Trainer.

With Weston's solutions, of course, if audience members don't buy into the seriousness of climate change, or if they make it less of a priority than the priorities the capitalist system has set out for them, they're likely to view her environmentalism as a matter of "choice" or "taste."  De gustibus non est disputandum.  We should hope against such a reaction.

A conclusion

As Tom Engelhardt says in Monday's column:

What makes climate change so challenging is that the carbon dioxide (and methane) being generated by the extraction, production, and burning of fossil fuels supports the most profitable corporations in history, as well as energy states like Saudi Arabia and Russia that are, in essence, national versions of such corporations.  The drive for profits has so far proven unstoppable.  Those who run the big oil companies, like the tobacco companies before them, undoubtedly know what potential harm they are doing to us.  They know what it will mean for humanity if resources (and profits) aren’t poured into alternative energy research and development.  And like those cigarette companies, they go right on.
We can't, then, expect the oil capitalists to show any moral restraint whatsoever.  Capitalist political economy privileges the productive apparatus, and productive consumption, over any role "conscious consumers" might play in deciding the fate of world society and planet Earth, because "conscious consumers" are at best a captive audience.  The oil companies are in charge, unless they can somehow be stopped.

So a critical question for political economy should be: can the government divest the capitalist economy from these toxic fossil-fuel corporations, or are these corporations so deeply entwined in everyday capitalist practice that divestment is impossible without a major shift away from capitalism?  Both Weston and I agree that the latter is true, and we have plenty of evidence on our side.

Originally posted to Postcapitalism on Tue Feb 04, 2014 at 11:45 AM PST.

Also republished by Progressive Friends of the Library Newsletter, Community Spotlight, and Readers and Book Lovers.

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Comment Preferences

  •  thanks for an excellent review (5+ / 0-)

    someone will hopefully subvert this with scribd

    (And, hopefully, I would be able to put out such a book in a way such that it didn't cost more than $100 to own.  If you want Weston's book you will probably have to visit your local college library.)

    Dasgupta's works seem quite appealing especially on non-convexity
    The Economics of Non-Convex Ecosystems (The Economics of Non-Market Goods and Resources)(2004) Economists often assume that ecosystem and population dynamics are subject to convex, even linear processes. But research by ecosystem and population ecologists suggests that such processes are very often non-convex, for example a possible flip of the Gulf Stream due to fresh water intrusion from melting glaciers. This has dramatic implications for environmental and resource economics, since mistakes in management could prove more costly than imagined.
    Human Well-Being and the Natural Environment by Partha Dasgupta (18 Mar 2004) The treatment of the welfare economics of imperfect economies has been developed using new findings, and the appendix has been expanded to include applications of the theory to a number of institutions and to develop approximate formulae for estimating the value of environmental natural resources.

    Warning - some snark may be above‽ (-9.50; -7.03)‽ eState4Column5©2013 "I’m not the strapping young Muslim socialist that I used to be" - Barack Obama 04/27/2013

    by annieli on Tue Feb 04, 2014 at 12:24:09 PM PST

  •  I don't think that things can be (3+ / 0-)

    turned around in time. We will change the way we live but it will be forced on us. I know that this is simplistic idea but we can force the change if we stop consuming and buy local as much as possible. It might cause a depression but that might be the price we have to pay to get rid of capitalism.

    •  I like to buy cheaply -- (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      occupystephanie, joegoldstein

      if for no other reason than that I earn close to diddly-squat under neoliberal capitalism.  What I really want to do is organize a version of the South Central Farmers in every neighborhood.

      "If you sing a song a day/ You will make a better way" -- Earth, Wind, and Fire

      by Cassiodorus on Tue Feb 04, 2014 at 12:39:00 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  If we had local food systems... (4+ / 0-)

        the price of good food would go down. Buying local really lowers the carbon footprint.

        My county is on the verge of establishing a food shed that they hope to extend from the Pacific to the Cascades.

        The UN report Wake Up Before its too Late. The consensus was that to stay alive during our climate change we will need local small scale organic farming. Our agricultural system is all corporate.

        The Cubans didn't transition; they got pitched off a cliff all of a sudden. Lived on sugar water for a few years but they now are the only nation to have what we need--a national small scale organic agriculture.

        We have it within our power to make the world over again ~ Thomas Paine

        by occupystephanie on Tue Feb 04, 2014 at 06:21:14 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

  •  interesting question... (5+ / 0-)
    So a critical question for political economy should be: can the government divest the capitalist economy from these toxic fossil-fuel corporations, or are these corporations so deeply entwined in everyday capitalist practice that divestment is impossible without a major shift away from capitalism?
    i agree that the latter is probably the better approach for effectiveness and speed, but the practical problems of, for example, feeding masses of people without those toxic petroleum products will likely require a more gradual approach.  it took cuba years to transition from petroleum-based agriculture to a more sustainable form.

    i'm part of the 99% - america's largest minority

    by joe shikspack on Tue Feb 04, 2014 at 12:36:51 PM PST

  •  Re: global warming: (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    occupystephanie, TomP, RiveroftheWest

    "If you sing a song a day/ You will make a better way" -- Earth, Wind, and Fire

    by Cassiodorus on Tue Feb 04, 2014 at 02:30:58 PM PST

  •  RIP, Delys Weston (4+ / 0-)

    The book is her first, based on her PhD dissertation. It's great that she was able to get a phd in her 50s. And so sad about her untimely demise.

    Tragically, she and her husband were killed by her 27-yo son (from a former relationship). The son seems to have had severe mental issues.

  •  An alternative future that could save us is (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Cassiodorus, tacet, RiveroftheWest

    global economic collapse. That's where I'm placing my hopes.

  •  Good review. So far, capitalism appears (3+ / 0-)

    incapable by it's very nature.  

    Join us on the Black Kos front porch to review news and views written from a black pov—everyone is welcome.

    by TomP on Tue Feb 04, 2014 at 08:23:29 PM PST

    •  First time I've seen you say that, Tom. (5+ / 0-)

      Capitalism, as we know it, is unable to stop itself from destroying the natural systems that support human life.

      I'm not a Marxist or hard core leftist. Scientific observation has led me to this conclusion.

      look for my eSci diary series Thursday evening.

      by FishOutofWater on Wed Feb 05, 2014 at 06:04:09 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  It's not a new view on my part. (3+ / 0-)

        The odds of overthrowing capitalism are extremely low.  So one can give up or work on multiple ways for reforms, even knowing that reforms are unlikely to be enough.  

        The constant accumulation principle of capitalism runs up against the finite amount of resources.  

        But I don't believe in inevitability.  People can change and transform systems, if they want to.

        Join us on the Black Kos front porch to review news and views written from a black pov—everyone is welcome.

        by TomP on Wed Feb 05, 2014 at 07:26:43 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  I think the tobacco case shows us a couple of (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          RiveroftheWest, TomP

          things, and I'm glad the diarist made the analogy.

          While overthrowing a so-called capitalist system is likely too tall an order (for it may be biologically based behavior, who knows?), kicking a leg out from under the capitalist stool is certainly doable. Tobacco is a great example. There was an industry that was quite large, quite discrete, and had no intentions of doing anything but grow its market in the face of science and common sense reasons to wind it down.

          So here we are on the 50th anniversary of the first Surgeon General's report, and the tobacco industry is in close to full retreat domestically. In some ways, it is remarkable it took the second largest consumer pharmacy in the country, CVS, all that time to stop selling tobacco products, but it happened today. That's just the latest in a decades-long string of defeats for industrial tobacco.

          The carbon extraction biz is in a similar kind of vessel, though we admittedly need energy more than we need a smoke. But just as we know tobacco consumption kills people prematurely, we know carbon emission is directly affecting our climate system dramatically and rapidly. Just as only stopping smoking would reduce smoking deaths, only stopping carbon emission will reduce climate warming and disruption. That means all levers of society should and must be engaged to prevent large carbon extraction projects like XL and redirect investment into renewable sources.

          In ten years max, we need to see our auto companies ceasing production of carbon emitting cars, just as one of largest pharmacies finally saw the stupidity of selling cigarettes alongside the drugs designed to fix the problems they cause.

          "And now we know that government by organized money is just as dangerous as government by organized mob." -- FDR

          by Mogolori on Wed Feb 05, 2014 at 03:09:01 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

          •  Well I don't think so. (3+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            Mogolori, RiveroftheWest, TomP
            While overthrowing a so-called capitalist system is likely too tall an order (for it may be biologically based behavior, who knows?
            Was feudalism "biologically based behavior"?

            Human nature is versatile, and environmentally directed.

            "If you sing a song a day/ You will make a better way" -- Earth, Wind, and Fire

            by Cassiodorus on Wed Feb 05, 2014 at 03:48:02 PM PST

            [ Parent ]

            •  Hence the "who knows?" (3+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:
              Cassiodorus, RiveroftheWest, TomP

              The question that occupies me is the under-remarked upon face-off between democratic and undemocratic capitalisms. It certainly seems the case that since the end of the Cold War capitalism has been eroding democratic governance faster than it has been eroding authoritarian governance. The wild card seems to be each political system's tolerance and management of corruption. Democracy theoretically provides a steam valve that should prevent wholesale losses of consent such as happened in 1989.

              "And now we know that government by organized money is just as dangerous as government by organized mob." -- FDR

              by Mogolori on Wed Feb 05, 2014 at 04:11:45 PM PST

              [ Parent ]

  •  Note that the massive removal of ... (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    ... capital accumulation in the form of chattel slaves turned out to be highly compatible with capitalism in the United States in the late 1800's, early 1900's, until proprietary capitalism collapsed under the Great Depression and had to be replaced by corporate capitalism.

    So we've got a precedent for stripping such a massive degree of real wealth from capitalists. It did in that case require a civil war with the largest American casualty count of any war we've engaged in, so that does frame the difficulty of the task.

    Support Lesbian Creative Works with Yuri anime and manga from ALC Publishing

    by BruceMcF on Wed Feb 05, 2014 at 11:56:44 AM PST

  •  Public Hearing on Power Plant Greenhouse Gas (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    RiveroftheWest, Cassiodorus

    emissions Tomorow...
    Julia P. Valentine

    February 5, 2014

    EPA to Hold Public Hearing on Carbon Pollution Standards for New Power Plants

    WASHINGTON – The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will hold a public hearing on Thursday, February 6, 2014 on the proposed carbon pollution standards for new power plants. The proposed standards, which only apply to power plants built in the future, are flexible and would help minimize carbon pollution through the deployment of the same types of modern technologies and steps that power companies are already taking to build the next generation of power plants. Currently, there are no uniform national limits on the amount of carbon pollution new power plants can emit.

    Public hearing on proposed carbon pollution standards for new power plants

    Thursday, February 6, 2014
    9:00 a.m. ET - 8:00 p.m. ET

    William Jefferson Clinton East Building
    Rooms 1152 and 1153
    1201 Constitution Avenue, NW
    Washington, DC 20004

    *Members of the news media should be prepared to present photo credentials and allow additional time to enter the building and go through security.*

    The public may register to speak in person on the day of the hearing and will be accommodated as time allows.

    EPA also will accept written comments on the proposed standards until March 10, 2014.

    More information on the hearings and instructions for submitting written comments:


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