Meeting the Ecological Crisis of Capitalism: Is Green Enough?



In "The Way Forward √ê Green New Deal: An Ecosocialist Perspective" in the current issue, David Schwartzman makes a persuasive case for both the urgency associated with the ecological crisis of capitalism and the necessity for socialism as the ultimate resolution of this crisis.  The Green New Deal, he argues, is precisely needed both to mobilize the working class to respond to the crisis and to provide a transitional program which will focus on limiting the most devastating consequences of that crisis by tying the struggle for state power intimately to the struggle for greening the economy.


Certainly the intersection of global climate change and peak oil will pose what may be the final contradiction of capitalism: environmental factors which impose the starkest possible constraints on the ability of capital to reproduce, while the survival of capitalism as a mode of production depends absolutely on that reproduction.  However, Schwartzman√ïs rejection of nuclear power as an option in the mix of post-fossil fuels √ê a position which is, admittedly, a commonplace on the left √ê calls into question whether a fully green solution will necessarily be a crisis resolving solution.


Where this problem most urgently asserts itself is maintenance of the national electrical grid in the absence of fossil fuels, for peak oil and the need to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions will surely curtail petroleum and coal use.  A transitional technology is needed, preferably one which is available off-the-shelf for immediate implementation, so that time and productive capacity are not significantly lost.  It is troubling that the two technologies most commonly mentioned to support that transition of the national electrical grid √ê solar and wind √ê may not be available off-the-shelf for implementation on the scale necessary to replace fossil fuels in the generation of electricity.  Furthermore, questions need to be resolved about the potential embodied-energy costs in solar cells and the likelihood that, if enough wind towers were erected in the U.S. to produce the requirements of the national electrical grid, most of the arable land would be covered in wind towers.  A consequence of peak oil and climate change is going to be that more arable land will be needed for farming in the U.S., not less.


One such of-the-shelf technology is nuclear power, but it is not a green technology.  It is possible to reduce the dangers of proliferation, meltdown, and spent-fuel disposal by fueling reactors with thorium, but thorium does not reduce the probability of these dangers to zero.  On the other hand, existing reactors can be retrofitted to use Thorium fuel at a cost much lower than implementation of either solar or wind technologies on a scale needed to power the national grid. 


Schwartzman rightly points out the way in which the military-industrial complex stands athwart efforts at green conversion.  The principal reason thorium reactors have not become a commonplace in American energy policy is the fact that they do not produce useful amounts of weapons-grade fissibles √ê on that ground alone the U.S. Department of Energy has prohibited them.


Fueling nuclear reactors with thorium for electricity production also offers, at least in part, an answer to coal miners who rightly suspect that green transition will transition them to the scrapheap of unemployment.  While the mining of thorium will require retraining and relocation (the principal deposits of thorium in the U.S. are in Utah, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida), and far less thorium will be needed than coal, the extraction technologies share enough similarities that real opportunities would exist for former coal miners.


This is not the place to make the full argument for a role for nuclear power in the resolution of the crisis of climate change and peak oil, and I do not propose to try to make that argument.  However, the question of whether a socialist greening of the economy will effectively resolve the ecological crisis of capitalism or whether nuclear power will have a role is an important one.


As Marxist-Leninists we must examine carefully the objective circumstances of our struggle and evaluate our strategy, tactics, and objectives in light of the needs of proletariat.  A full and open debate on the demands presented by climate change and peak oil in capitalism√ïs ecological crisis is vital if the left is to meet the challenge presented by history.  How we transition the national electric grid while reducing fossil fuel use is, perhaps, a good place to start.


Post your comment

Comments are moderated. See guidelines here.


  • I'm in general agreement with this. It is clear that 'green energy' is not ready for prime time though it can certainly be useful in many particular cases. Burning carbon to power our society must be greatly curtailed, looming climate change, the destruction of environment and water resources in the extractive process necessitate this. Hydro-power potential is limited and brings with it long and short term problems. I have for some time considered nuclear power as the only feasible stop gap, I'm not happy about that but cannot see any recourse. It is possible to run these plants in a reasonably safe manner, though not under capitalism. The waste problem is however intractable and thus this method of energy generation cannot be a long term solution. I am unfamiliar with the thorium technology above, if true it greatly mitigates the problems of nuclear power though it does not eliminate them nor make nuclear power a long term solution.

    Here again we have the old mistake of treating the symptom and not the disease. How much energy do we need, and who is 'we'? Capitalist society cannot help but expand economic activity and this has nothing to do with human need and everything to do with capitalist accumulation.While petrochemicals are certainly a finite resource, peak oil is primarily a problem of the capitalist economy. The automobile culture is a creature of capitalism, this hyper-individualistic, anarchic transportation system was thrust upon us as the most profitable for the capitalists. As is so much else in this society, which brings us back to the question, how much energy do we need? Capitalist society necessarily need more, more, more, or it falls apart. But what would a society centered upon meeting human need require? Pretty much unknowable at this time though it is a good guess that it would be less than the current regime. The waste of resources in capitalist society is truly mind boggling and this goes well beyond the obvious pollution generated by production for profit. The transportation of products around the globe, products which might be easily produced anywhere, for the purpose maximizing the exploitation of labor is unnecessarily wasteful. The products which go to waste in the normal action of capitalist competition, the proliferation and redundancy, symptoms of overproduction. Advertising and baroque packaging exists solely for the benefit of capitalist competition. And on and on.

    We cannot know what a society based the rational meeting of human need will look like but we can be assured that very different premises will produce very different results. In truth that knowledge must suffice and we must concentrate on making that society possible. While so many of the problems caused by the capitalist system are dire and scream for attention to concentrate on solving them piecemeal is largely futile and diffuses our energy. The sooner that capitalism is consigned to the dustbin of history the sooner the nascent society which will grow out of it's ruins might address the joyful challenge of building a society which meets human need.

    Posted by blindpig, 10/02/2012 8:46am (6 years ago)

RSS feed for comments on this page | RSS feed for all comments