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Exponential Action Must Overcome the Hurdle of Capitalism

The proponents of a transformation that leaves the current economic system intact must demonstrate the compatibility of such action with the imperatives of capitalism.

The Exponential Roadmap 1.5 report, released in advance of the recently concluded UN Climate Action summit, calls for radical action to halve the world’s greenhouse-gas emissions by 2030. It presents a slew of solutions, which are underpinned by some impressive analysis. Yet, the report frames the transformation as “the biggest economic opportunity of this generation,” echoing a faith in capitalism that was recently underscored by The Economist: “Market economies are the wells that produce the response climate change requires.” There may well be a basis for this faith, but any action that does not threaten the inner logic of capitalism is arguably more “business as usual” than radical.

A growing body of work is questioning the notion that the same imperatives that led to the current situation can now nourish an about-turn. For example, some contest the focus on economic growth and call for degrowth or post-growth. Others, such as Naomi Klein, implicate capitalism directly and implore us to thoroughly modify the global economy and our political systems. Yet others, such as Anand Giridharadas, reveal elite attempts to retain “the economic system that has allowed the winners to win and fostered many of the problems they seek to solve.” The Exponential Roadmap 1.5 report does not really engage with such work, and it does not explore whether and how the imperatives of capitalism might inhibit exponential action. This does not rule out the feasibility of such action, but it does render it questionable.

Substantial lowering of energy demand by the middle of this century is key to the feasibility and success of many of the solutions outlined in the report. This Low Energy Demand (LED) scenario draws on such trends as increasing efficiency and changes in consumer preferences and behaviour. But other trends – some of which the report is aware of – forebode a rather different world. For example, Airbus recently forecasted a doubling of commercial aircraft in operation by 2038. Countries are on track to produce far more fossil fuels by 2030 than are consistent with the Paris Agreement. Last year, the first IKEA store in India was blessed with so many eager consumers that it had to dissuade shoppers from coming. Most would want the LED scenario to come true. But could this happen while the current economic system actively cultivates emerging markets?

Ultimately, as the architects of the LED scenario admit, the scenario’s “low energy demand outcomes depend on social and institutional changes.” But the Exponential Roadmap 1.5 report is fuzzy about the politics that would yield such changes. Policy as well as climate leadership and movements, which the report invokes as levers, surely have a role to play. In the end, though, politics at all levels will need to transform the undeniable energy of activism into action. There are some encouraging signs in that regard: for example, Labour for a Green New Deal is treating climate change as a class issue, calling for democratic ownership and universal basic services. In the USA, democratic socialist ideas are sweeping through sections of the Democratic Party. But this sort of politics entails changing the very system that many of the report’s solutions seem to rely on.

As with most mainstream plans to combat climate change, the report invests much hope in technology and innovation, especially on digitalization and renewables. However, this hope is tempered by at least two caveats. First, increased digitalization and replacing fossil fuels by solar or wind energy would require vastly increased amounts of minerals, adding to the already serious socio-ecological consequences of mining and the risk of green colonialism. Extraction is often, if not always, accompanied by repression and pollution (often in the global South). To its credit, the report does not ignore materials, offering a circular economy and the movement towards multifunctional devices as solutions. But it is hard to imagine the habits acquired over a couple of centuries vanishing in a decade, especially while leaving intact the imperatives of competitive production and profit maximization.

The second caveat has to do with a manifest-destiny-style thinking that assumes the inevitability of decarbonization once renewables become as cheap or cheaper than fossil fuels. Yet, as Andreas Malm reminds us in Fossil Capital, this is by no means inevitable. For example, last decade Shell explicitly cited the declining costs of panels for its decision to withdraw investments from solar: reaping profits proved to be too difficult. The circumstances might have changed today, with the public beginning to exert unprecedented pressure — indeed, Shell has now ventured back into solar — so things could work out differently in the next decade. But if recent history and the logic of capitalism provide any lessons, however imperfect, then there is reason to be cautious.

The solutions in the Exponential Roadmap 1.5 report are directed at some of the Sustainable Development Goals too, and the report is clearly in favour of a fair and just transition. But it does not articulate the prospects or process of achieving such a transition in a capitalist world. This despite the fact that this economic system is implicated in growing inequality and subversion of democracy. As Natasha Fernández-Silber wrote in The Detroit Socialist some months ago, “…the climate crisis, the crisis of income inequality, the housing crisis (and so many more) have all been caused by the same very powerful, very pernicious “ism.” It’s called capitalism…” Exponential action may well be possible, but it might come at a significant social cost if it remains faithful to the current economic system.

Some could point to capitalism’s malleability and claim that it would evolve to address the potential problems discussed above. Perhaps, some tweaks to the current economic system would suffice to stimulate exponential action. But if the so-called sustainable capitalism were so easily achievable, such a win-win proposition, so good for the bottom line, then why did we have almost two centuries of “unsustainable” capitalism? That history suggests that the efforts to distinguish between good and bad versions of capitalism, to portray short-termism as an anomaly might be well meaning but ultimately misunderstand the imperatives that drive the system.

That said, a global socialist or post-growth utopia is not going to be waiting for us in 2030, so we will have to confront and deal with the world as we find it. In that context, the report’s analysis and solutions are an invaluable resource, and the many examples and cases that it cites are a cause for optimism. The criticisms and caveats offered here (and elsewhere by others) are certainly not intended as a dampener. Instead, they are intended to forewarn about the possible limits and barriers to action. This can not only help us assess and enhance the long-term feasibility of the solutions, but also to ensure that we calibrate our expectations while pursuing the transformation we clearly need.

Ninad Bondre is the Managing Editor of Elevate Scientific, a science-communications consultancy based in Sweden. He was the Senior Science Editor and Advisor for the International Geopshere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP) from 2009 to 2015. The views expressed here are his own.