Decisions made this decade will largely determine whether world leaders can limit global warming to 1.5 or two degrees Celsius of warming below pre-industrial levels and avoid the increasingly more drastic impacts of the climate crisis.
That’s one key takeaway from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Synthesis Report of the findings gathered in its Sixth Assessment Cycle. The Summary for Policymakers, released Monday, found that all economic sectors would need to launch “rapid and deep and, in most cases, immediate” cuts in greenhouse gas emissions before 2030 in order to have a more than 50 percent chance of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius or a more than 67 percent chance of limiting it to two degrees Celsius of warming. However, the IPCC emphasized that it is entirely possible to improve the global outlook if world leaders act urgently.
“Mainstreaming effective and equitable climate action will not only reduce losses and damages for nature and people, it will also provide wider benefits,” IPCC Chair Hoesung Lee said in a press release. “This Synthesis Report underscores the urgency of taking more ambitious action and shows that, if we act now, we can still secure a liveable sustainable future for all.”
The report states “unequivocally” that human activity, in particular the releasing of greenhouse gas emissions, has already warmed the planet by 1.1 degrees Celsius above the average for 1850 to 1900, and this has already led to “widespread and rapid changes” in the air, ocean and on land. What’s more, the World Resources Institute pointed out, these changes are more severe than expected, with flooding and other extreme storms displacing more than 20 million people from their homes annually since 2008 while, at the same time, around half of the world’s population deals with severe water scarcity at least one month out of every year. Each degree of warming will only make matters worse, and the report authors noted that many of the risks assessed in the report were higher than assumed by the Fifth Assessment Report.
“What the new SYR shows is the gravity of the problem,” report core author and senior lecturer in climate science at Grantham Institute – Climate Change and the Environment, Imperial College London, Dr. Friederike Otto said in a statement shared by the Science Media Centre. “The very first figure shows all the human and natural systems that are already adversely affected. In other words, many more people have lost their lives and livelihoods than originally thought. The climate changes as much as we’ve expected for decades, but we humans and our societies are more fragile than we thought before.”
At the same time, these impacts have not been suffered equally, something the report authors were keen to point out.
“Climate justice is crucial because those who have contributed least to climate change are being disproportionately affected,” report author Dr. Aditi Mukherji said in the IPCC release. “Almost half of the world’s population lives in regions that are highly vulnerable to climate change. In the last decade, deaths from floods, droughts and storms were 15 times higher in highly vulnerable regions.”
Governments, companies and individuals have begun to act in response to the climate crisis, and, if they had not, it is likely that yearly emissions would be several gigatons of carbon dioxide higher. That said, current policies remain drastically insufficient. Policies implemented to date still put the world on track for 3.2 degrees of warming by 2100.
“The existing policy trajectory represents a profound failure of our governments, and of our international political system,” Jason Hickel of the Institute of Environmental Science and Technology at the Autonomous University of Barcelona wrote on Twitter. “We need much more aggressive mitigation and much stronger international cooperation.”
However, it is still possible to limit global warming to 1.5 or two degrees Celsius by the end of the century if emissions are nearly halved this decade and reach net zero by either the early 2050s for 1.5 degrees or the early 2070s for two degrees. Achieving this will require major reduction to the development and extraction of fossil fuels: current fossil fuel infrastructure would emit enough on its own to overshoot the 1.5 degree temperature target, the report authors found, while both current and planned developments devour the remaining carbon budget for two degrees of warming.
The news comes the week after President Joe Biden approved ConocoPhillips’s controversial Willow oil drilling project in Alaska, despite promises to halve U.S. emissions by 2030.
“Reading the UN’s latest dire climate warnings just days after Biden approved massive new Arctic oil drilling is utterly infuriating,” Shaye Wolf, climate science director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement emailed to EcoWatch. “The fossil-fueled path to more climate disasters, mass displacements and wildlife extinctions is bleak, but it’s not inevitable. Chief among world leaders, Biden has the tools to not only ratchet up renewables but move us decisively off fossil fuels. Scientists have mapped the way to a livable planet, but we need the political will to get us there.”
Beyond putting an end to fossil fuel use, the report offered many solutions to both reduce emissions and help vulnerable communities adapt to the inevitable impacts of climate change, including expanding access to renewable energy, improving transportation through enabling more walking, cycling and public transit options and preserving 30 to 50 percent of Earth’s land and ocean area. Many of these solutions would also address other health, environmental or equity problems. For example, the air pollution reductions from decarbonizing electricity and transit would lead to public health benefits that would counterbalance the cost of cutting emissions.
“The threats are huge, but so are the opportunities for change. This is our moment to rise up, scale up and be bold. Governments must stop doing just a little better and start doing enough,” Greenpeace Nordic senior policy advisor Kaisa Kosonen said in a statement emailed to EcoWatch. “Thanks to brave scientists, communities and progressive leaders around the world, who’ve persistently advanced climate solutions like solar and wind energy for years and decades, we now have everything needed to solve this mess. It’s time to up our game, deliver on climate justice and push fossil fuel interests out of the way. There’s a role for everyone to play.”
Olivia Rosane is a freelance reporter for EcoWatch, a leading online environmental news company.
We are very pleased to republish this important article by Efe Can Gürcan, Associate Professor at Türkiye’s Istinye University, which originally appeared in Volume 3 Issue 3 of the BRIQ (Belt & Road Initiative Quarterly).
The author argues that China has already developed a firm understanding of its environmental problems and their severity to the extent that it now frames them as a “matter of survival” and has brought these issues to the center of its revised national security strategy. China’s strategy is predicated on an alternative proposal for “ecological civilization”, which may potentially lead to the reversal of “ecological imperialism”. China is in the early stages of building an ecological civilization and requires a lot of work to reach a high level of ecological development.
China’s key achievements on the path towards ecological civilization involve a series of three unfolding and mutually conditioning revolutionary processes that also lead the way in international environmental cooperation. They include a clean energy revolution, a sustainable agricultural revolution, and a green urban revolution.
China has already become a global leader in green finance. It leads the eco-city movement, with over 43 percent of the world’s eco-cities being Chinese, and is the second leader in sustainable architecture, next to Canada. Many Chinese cities have dropped down or out of the list of the most polluted cities, leaving India and Pakistan at the top. China’s cities have also joined the ranks of those with the strongest sewage treatment capacity in the world. In addition, China has the most electric vehicles, bikes, and efficient public transportation. China is considered to be not only the world’s centre of electric bus production and consumption but also as having cities with the world’s longest subway systems.
From 2013 onwards, the share of coal in China’s total energy consumption has seen a noticeable decline, accompanied by the increasing share of renewable resources in total energy consumption as a result of conscious efforts at a clean energy revolution.
Key to this revolution in the making is China’s strong reputation as the world’s top investor in clean energy. As such, it has succeeded in creating the world’s largest wind, solar, and hydroelectric systems for power generation.
Finally, concerning China’s unfolding revolution in sustainable agriculture, one should acknowledge, not only its adoption of green food standards and the expansion of its agricultural area under certified organic farming, but especially the fact that, as a world leader in green agriculture, it now ranks third in the list of countries with the largest agricultural area under organic farming.
China is the world’s largest country by population size and fourth largest by surface area. Combined with its excessive demographic and geographic size is the continued legacy of Western imperialism in China as a former semi-colony, whose negative effects are amplified by current Western efforts in geopolitical and geo-economic containment. This adds to China’s resource scarcity which acts as another structural adversity constraining its development potential. China possesses only 7% of the world’s arable land and freshwater resources and 8% of the world’s natural resources, even though its population represents 22% of the world’s population. Furthermore, only 19% of its surface area is suitable for human habitation and 65% of its surface area is rugged, which severely cripples China’s farming capabilities and facilitates ethnic heterogeneity as a potential impediment to political cohesion (Morton, 2006; Naughton, 2018).
Despite such adversities, China has come to develop an exemplary model of economic development that inspires much of the developing world. The 1979-2018 period testified to an average growth rate of 9.4% in the lead of the Communist Party of China (CPC), which made China the world’s second-largest economy, top producer, and the leading exporter of technological goods (Hu, 2020). By 2015, China came to assume the global production of 40% of washing machines, 50% of textiles, 60% of buttons, 70% of shoes, 80% of televisions, and 90% of toys. Recently, China has made significant progress in the production of added higher-value products in computer, aviation, and medical technology sectors, among others. Besides its historic success in economic growth, industrial production and technological development, the Chinese economic miracle is credited for 70% of global poverty eradication between 1990 and 2015 (Gardner, 2018).
The huge ecological cost of such a fast-paced and dramatic development —unprecedented in the history of human civilization— is nothing but expected. According to 2009 estimates, the annual economic cost of environmental pollution amounts to 3.8% of China’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) (Zhang, 2014:32-48). Over 80% of China’s underground and river water resources are no longer fit for human use due to pollution (Jie, 2016). Land pollution and soil erosion are also part of China’s major environmental problems. It is common knowledge that excessive use of pesticides and industrial pollution constitute a major source of land pollution, prompting the loss of organic matter and soil erosion. 2013 estimates suggest that close to 20% of China’s cultivated farmland suffers from contamination and 38% of the soil is subjected to erosion-related loss of nutrients and organic matter (Scott et al., 2018:26; Gardner, 2018:9). Indeed, the contraction of arable land is a natural result of soil contamination and erosion. This also explains China’s over 4% loss of arable land between 1990 and 2018, from 124,481,000 to 119,488,700 hectares (FAO, 2021; Figure 1).
China being the world’s largest pesticide producer and consumer exacerbates this tendency. In the 1990- 2018 period alone, China’s pesticide use rose by 129% (FAO, 2021; see Figure 2). Furthermore, 70% of the world’s electronic waste is recycled in China at the expense of environmental and public health. Industrial pollution, environmentally detrimental recycling practices, and industrial agriculture combined to create China’s “cancer villages” (Gardner, 2018). Map 1 provides a more detailed outline of China’s major environmental problems (Sanjuan, 2018).
Global environmental indicators provide a general picture of the environmental question’s severity in China. To elaborate, the Environmental Performance Index (EPI) is a popular indicator to assess the impact of national policies on the environment. EPI is made up of two major components: environmental health and ecosystem vitality. Environmental health looks at the negative impact of environmental pollution on human health as well as air and water quality and sanitation. In turn, ecosystem vitality focuses on variables such as carbon intensity, biodiversity, fish stocks, forest cover, wastewater treatment, and nitrogen balance (Environmental Performance Index, 2020a).
China’s EPI can be compared to other BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) countries, representative of the leading developing countries, and the United States (US), as the hegemonic leader of the capitalist-imperialist system. A comparison for the period 2010-2020 shows that China has achieved the second-largest increase in EPI scores (8.4 EPI points) after South Africa (8.5 EPI points), which testifies to China’s successful efforts at improving its environmental standing (Table 1). In the same 10-year period, India has recorded no visible improvements, while the increase in EPI scores for Brazil, Russia, and the U.S. are 4.9, 3.9 and 2.9, respectively. In the meantime, one should note that China’s 2020 standing is 120 out of all the 180 countries included in EPI. China’s 2020 score is 37.3, which outranks India with an EPI score of 27.6. However, China is outranked by Brazil, Russia, South Africa, and the U.S., whose annual scores are 51.2, 50.5, 43.1, and 69.3, respectively (Table 1). Overall, this comparison reveals that China has exhibited a strong environmental will and achieved policy success between 2010 and 2020, even though it continues to struggle with severe environmental problems (Environmental Performance Index, 2020b).
Ecological footprint is another global environmental indicator. It is popularly used to assess the human impact on an environment by reference to changing natural resource demands for countries across the world. With ecological footprint, the use of ecological resources is compared with the size of biologically productive land and sea area to estimate the earth’s capacity to renew the natural resources and absorb waste (Robbins, 2007:509-10). Not surprisingly, the ecological footprint of China —as a rapidly developing country— has known a constant increase, particularly in the 2000s (Figure 3).
Air pollution stands out, perhaps, as the most visible environmental strain in China, which is why it is worth supplementing our analysis of EPI and ecological footprint with what is popularly known as fine particles, or particulate matter 2.5 (PM2.5). Available data allow us to comparatively assess the performance of the BRICS countries and the U.S. concerning the percentage of the national population exposed to PM2.5 levels exceeding the World Health Organization (WHO) guideline value. One striking fact that emerges from this comparison is the successful performance of the U.S. and Brazil, unlike China and other countries in our sample. The U.S. and Brazil’s PM2.5 performance in the period 2011-2017 declined from 46.69% and 91.93% to 3.34% and 68.14%, respectively (World Bank, 2021, Figure 4). Even though China failed to exhibit a successful performance by 2017, its post-2017 performance offers promising prospects. Recently, for example, Chinese cities used to occupy the forefront of the list of the world’s most polluted cities. Looking at the 2020 list of the fifteen most polluted cities, however, it is now being occupied by Indian and Pakistani cities. The only Chinese city that is ranked among the top fifteen polluted cities is Hotan (Earth.Org, 2021, IQAir, 2021; Zhang, 2014).
China has been undergoing a sustainable urban revolution, which extends beyond the fight against air pollution. It is striking to notice how China’s daily capacity for urban sewage treatment rose from 125 million tons to 182 million tons in the period 2010-2015. This elevates China to be among the world’s strongest capacity for urban sewage treatment (China-ASEAN Environmental Cooperation, 2018). Moreover, China has greatly improved its performance in urban sustainability by prioritising green architecture and transportation. According to the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system prepared by the U.S. Green Building Council, China is the world’s second leader in sustainable architecture after Canada (Long, 2015). China’s strong leadership in sustainable urbanisation can also be observed in its emergence as the world’s largest market for electric vehicles and bikes (Statista 2021; INSG 2014). As far as public transportation is concerned, China is the world’s largest producer and consumer of electric buses (Technavio, 2019; Sustainable Bus, 2020; MarketsandMarkets, 2021). Furthermore, China has turned itself into the world leader in green transportation, with Beijing and Shanghai having developed the world’s longest subway systems (Nedopil Wang, 2019).
Evidently, China’s world-leading environmental achievements go unnoticed due to the prevailing discourse of “ecological imperialism” in environmental politics. Ecological imperialism describes the shift of axis in global labour and natural resource exploitation to the developing world at the expense of grave human and ecological suffering. The economic and ecological burden of this axis shift is placed on the shoulders of the developing world by Western metropoles, which essentially seek to externalise the cost of production and resource extraction (Gürcan, Kahraman, & Yanmaz, 2021). Indeed, this phenomenon has been a defining feature in the entire history of capitalism. However, the dominance of neoliberalism as a global policy paradigm since the 1970s gave a new impetus to ecological imperialism, where China emerged as the main target. This being said, China has refused to be victimised by such policies and actively took advantage of the changing policy environment without fully abandoning its socialist system, albeit at grave ecological and socioeconomic costs in the medium term. In this period, China relied on the state’s strong guidance on reform and opening-up to build the “Chinese dream” of socialist welfare through gradual technology transfers and joint ventures in the longer term.
It is common knowledge that Western capitalism globalised through exploration and colonisation at the expense of grave human and ecological costs. These globalising efforts were amplified by the Industrial Revolutions, which eventually evolved into imperialist rivalries for spheres of influence and world wars. A subsequent wave of globalisation began in the 1970s as the world’s axis of production shifted to Asia, based on neoliberal policies that sought to take advantage of Asia’s cheap labour supply and other resources in the absence of strict political and environmental regulations. For some time, Western metropoles remained content with China’s accommodating policies, only until it succeeded in using the “privilege of backwardness” to consolidate its national economy rather than become a mere U.S. colony governed by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Upon China’s historic economic success and the continuation of the rule of the Communist Party of China (CPC), it seems that Western metropoles ended up developing a false sense of threat against their global hegemony, which prompted them to launch a global campaign of imperialist propaganda framing China as an environmentally irresponsible villain versus the West as the virtuous watchdog of environmental values.
This article seeks to transcend Western-centric ecological-imperialist biases toward China’s environmental policies and provide a more balanced perspective. What environmental issues occupy China’s main development agenda? How does China address these crucial issues? In what direction are China’s environmental policies evolving? The present article uses process tracing to answer these questions and argue that China has already developed a firm understanding of its environmental problems and their severity to the extent that it now frames them as a “matter of survival” and has brought these issues to the centre of its revised national security strategy, particularly under the Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping administrations. China’s strategy is predicated on an alternative proposal for “ecological civilization” (shengtai wenming, 生态文明), which may lead to the reversal of “ecological imperialism”. Particularly noticeable in this regard is China’s ongoing clean energy revolution as well as its strong leadership in green agriculture, urbanisation, and multilateral environmental cooperation. Accordingly, the present article is structured into three sections. The first focuses on the political and ideological background of China’s “ecological civilization” project and the second sheds light on China’s clean energy revolution. The article concludes with the third section on China’s achievements in green agriculture and ecological urbanisation, explaining how they are reflected in multilateral environmental cooperation.
The Political and Ideological Background of Ecological Civilization
The first uses of the term “ecological civilization” can be found in the Soviet Union in the early 1980s. This term was later adopted by Qianji Ye, a Chinese agricultural economist, and brought into official use by the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA). In China, ecological civilization gained popularity thanks to the efforts of the Hu Jintao administration (2003-2013) (Greene, n.d.; Pan, 2016:35). In his report to the 17th National Congress of the CPC, Hu put forth the notion of “harmonious society” by reference to China’s traditional philosophical conception of harmony between humans and nature (天人合一思想) (Hu, 2007; Kitagawa, 2016a; Pan, 2016).
Hu’s (2007) conceptualisation of “harmonious society” goes beyond social equality and justice to embrace the “balance between urban and rural development, development among regions, economic and social development, relations between man and nature, and domestic development and opening to the outside world”. Worthy of note is the degree to which this notion resonates with Mao Zedong’s ideas of “balanced development” and “socialism with Chinese characteristics”, as were described in his speech “On Ten Great Relationships” (Mao, 1974).
Hu (2007) proposed a “Scientific Outlook on Development”, where harmonious society can be achieved with a sustainable development model that puts people and the environment first by mobilising science, technology, and education. According to Hu, energy conservation and sustainable development are central to improving the Chinese population’s quality of life. In this framework, Hu developed a “five-in-one” strategy (五位一体) that combines the task of economic, political, cultural, and social construction with that of ecological civilization. This strategy emphasises how ecological sustainability and other tasks complement each other. To elaborate, ecological sustainability is an essential requisite for long-term economic growth for, without it, the higher goals of social welfare and life quality cannot be attained (Kitagawa, 2016b; Pan, 2016).
Xi Jinping’s ascendancy to power furthered the strength of Hu’s emphasis on harmonious society and ecological civilization (Xi, 2018:233). In Xi’s thought, the task of building an ecological civilization constitutes the building block of the Chinese dream, i.e. “a dream of building China into a well-off society in an all-round way and… a dream to show the world China’s commitment to making a greater contribution to the peace and development of mankind” (Xi, 2018:179). As such, the CPC adopted the task of building an ecological civilization as a priority task in 2012, added it to the CPC constitution, and imported it into the Chinese constitution in 2018 (Goron, 2018:39).
Xi Jinping’s rise led to the creation of the first CCP organ specialised in sustainability: the “Task Force for the Promotion of Economic Development and Ecological Civilization”. In 2015, the CPC Politburo adopted the “Central Opinion Document on Ecological Civilization Construction” in March 2015. As part of China’s new centralised environmental inspections, over 29,000 companies were penalised with fines totalling 1.43 billion RMB (US$216 million), 1,527 individuals were detained, and 18,199 officials were subjected to disciplinary action (Goron, 2018:41). Ultimately, the 19th National Congress of the CPC held in 2017 set the goal of greening and beautifying China based on the principles of green development and ecological-civilization building (China Daily, 2017; Yang, 2018).
China started to frame the environmental question as a matter of “state survival” in the Xi Jinping era, which explains why this question occupies such a strategic place in China’s revised national security strategy. In his speech during the first meeting of the Central National Security Commission of the CPC in 2013, Xi Jinping announced China’s new “Holistic National Security Outlook”, which constitutes the backbone of China’s current national security and identifies 11 areas of priority in national security. This sustainability included: political security, homeland security, military security, economic security, cultural security, societal security, science and technology security, information security, ecological security, resource security, and nuclear security. Subsequently, China published its “Blue Book on National Security” in 2014, designated as the country’s first blue book on national security. A landmark feature of this book is how it extends the scope of national security to include environmental issues as a defining theme (Corff, 2018; Raik et al., 2018).
“Made in China 2025”, China’s new techno-industrial strategy announced in 2015, is shaped by Xi’s holistic conceptualisation of national security and identifies nine areas of priority for economic development. These include enforcing green manufacturing, improving manufacturing innovation, integration between information technology and industry, strengthening the industrial base, fostering Chinese brands, advancing restructuring of the manufacturing sector, promoting service-oriented manufacturing and manufacturing-related service industries, and internationalising manufacturing. According to the Made in China 2025 strategy, the key to success in these tasks is in strategic sectors such as “new information technology, numerical control tools and robotics, aerospace equipment, ocean engineering equipment and high-tech ships, railway equipment, energy-saving and new energy vehicles, power equipment, new materials, biological medicine and medical devices, and agricultural machinery” (Ma, et al., 2018; U.S. Department of Defense, 2020).
China’s Clean Energy Revolution in the Making
In 2009, China outranked the U.S. as the world’s largest energy consumer (Guo & Marinova 2014). Chinese energy consumption greatly contributes to environmental degradation and climate change. In fact, 2016 estimates suggest that China exhibits a better performance in constraining per capita carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in comparison with the U.S., Russia, and South Africa (World Bank, 2021; Figure 5). This being said, China recorded the highest rise in per capita CO2 emissions (around 380%) in our sample for the 1980-2016 period. The U.S. and Russia are the only countries that recorded a successful decrease in per capita CO2 emissions (Figure 5). Moreover, China’s 2018 performance reveals that coal consumption accounts for the greatest share of its CO2 emissions (79.44%) as compared to the 43.7% share of coal consumption in the world’s total CO2 emissions (EIA, 2021). The second-largest share of China’s CO2 goes to oil and other liquid fuels (EIA, 2021). The remaining share concerns natural gas.
Energy intensity is an indicator that reflects per capita energy consumption. One could observe that China’s energy intensity has been rapidly increasing, particularly since 1997. The 1997-2018 period alone testified to an over 250% rise (EIA, 2021; Figure 6). Indeed, coal represents the main source of China’s energy consumption, though China’s coal production and consumption have been visibly decreasing since 2013. Between 2013-2019, China’s coal production and consumption have decreased from 4.4 and 4.7 billion short tonnes to 4.1 and 4.3 billion short tonnes, respectively. This corresponds to a 7% decline in coal production and an 8.5% decline in coal consumption (EIA, 2021; Figure 7). However, China’s oil consumption has been rising since 2013. The 2013-2019 period alone recorded a 29.5% increase (EIA, 2021; Figure 8). According to 2019 estimates, coal consumption makes up 58% of China’s energy consumption and remains its largest source. In China’s electricity production, the share of coal consumption is more than 65.3%. Oil and other liquids account for the second-largest share of China’s total energy consumption with a share of 20%. Finally, the share of hydroelectric energy and other sustainable sources of energy has reached 13% (EIA, 2021; Figure 9).
2015 estimates for the BRICS countries and the U.S. suggest that Brazil, India, and South Africa led the share of sustainable energy consumption in overall national energy consumption. Since 2011, China has increased the share of sustainable energy consumption from 11.7% to 12.4% (World Bank, 2021; Figure 10). Importantly, China is going through a clean energy revolution since adopting the 2005 Sustainable Energy Law as well as the 12th and 13th Five-Year Plans covering the period 2011-2020 (Gardner 2018; Guo & Marinova, 2014; Mathews & Tan, 2015; Su & Thom- son, 2016). In as early as 2009, China became the world’s leading investor in sustainable energy technology (Guo & Marinova, 2014). In 2013, China was the top investor in clean energy with a total investment of 61.3 billion (Campbell, 2014). 2015 marked the rise of China to the status of the world’s largest producer of solar, wind, and hydroelectric power (Gardner, 2018). In the 2008-2018 period, furthermore, China’s wind and solar energy consumption rose from 3 and 0 Mtoe to 83 and 40 Mtoe, respectively. Therefore, one could deduce that the share of China’s wind and solar power in national energy consumption rose from 0.1% in 2008 to 3.7% in 2018 (BP, 2019).
China’s Green Agriculture, Eco-Cities, and Multilateral Environmental Cooperation: An Unfolding Revolution
As mentioned in the introduction, agricultural pollution constitutes a major environmental problem in contemporary China. The country suffers from a scarcity of arable land being the world’s largest pesticide producer and consumer (China-ASEAN Environmental Cooperation 2018:158; Scott et. al. 2018:26). With this in mind, China is currently increasing its focus on green agriculture to fight against agricultural pollution and other environmental strains. China’s agriculture area under organic agriculture rose by over 36% in the 2005-2018 period, from 2,301,300 to 3,135,000 hectares. China’s 2018 performance has even surpassed that of the other BRICS countries and the U.S. in this area (FAO, 2021; Figure 11). That being said, China has a long way to go given that its agriculture area under organic agriculture accounts for only 2.31% of its total agriculture area (FAO, 2021). However, it is worth noting that China possesses the world’s largest agriculture area under organic farming after Australia and Argentina. It is possible to argue that China has also set an example for other countries in the expansion of its certified organic agricultural land use. China’s agriculture area under certified organic agriculture soared from 10 hectares to 2,558,100 hectares from 2004-2018. Due to this, China has become the world’s largest consumer of organic food (FAO 2021; Willer, Lernoud, & Kemper, 2018).
China’s green revolution in agriculture owes much to the efforts of central and local governments at prioritising green agriculture in their overall development strategy (Scott et al., 2018:46). This also accounts for the rise of the eco-village movement in China since the late 1980s. By 1990, China created a total of 1200 “pilot eco-villages” (Liu et al., 2021; Scott et al., 2018:38-39). This number rose to 2000 by the year 2011 (Liu & Wang, 2010:107). The eco-village movement was complemented by strong policy efforts emphasising the widespread adoption of green labelling standards such as green food (lüse shipin), pollution-free food (wugonghai shipin) and organic food (youji shipin) throughout the 1990s. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Agriculture launched a green food programme in 1990 and the China Green Food Development Centre in 1992, which assumed the task of providing the necessary technical support and quality control services to further this process (Scott et al., 2018:39-41).
By 2011, China had created 42 certification offices, 38 quality control terminals, and 71 environmental monitoring centres. Moreover, China’s green food programme was complemented by the Risk-Free Food Action Plan in 2001, which sought to fight chemical pollution, improve food security, and accelerate organic certification (Scott et al., 2018:39-41). Ultimately, the National Sustainable Agriculture Development Plan (2015-2030) provided a more systematic and holistic blueprint for China’s efforts in green agriculture. In 2017, No. 1 Central Document, an annual policy document issued by the Central Committee of the CPC and the State Council, elevated green and sustainable development to the status of the second major development goal (Scott et al., 2018:39-41).
China’s efforts in improving green agriculture and building eco-villages go hand in hand with its strategy of sustainable urbanisation (Hu, Liu, & Sun, 2017). The eco-city movement (生态城市) was launched in 2003 on the initiative of the Ministry of Environmental Protection. This initiative sought to create a model of a low-carbon and circular economy, expand green and protected zones, encourage recycling and energy conservation, promote sustainable architecture, prevent air and noise pollution, and improve social welfare and harmony in urban areas (Wang, 2018; Zhou, He, & Williams, 2012). According to research from 2009 conducted by the International Eco-Cities Initiative (IEI), only 6 out of the world’s 79 eco-cities originated from China. In the 2011 IEI survey, the number of China’s eco-cities rose to 25. Research from 2015 conducted by China identified 658 major eco-cities across the world, 284 of which originated from China. This means that more than 43% of the world’s eco-cities are currently based in China (Williams, 2017:4).
The eco-city movement also contributed to China’s efforts in improving multilateral environmental cooperation. Indicative of Chinese leadership in the global eco-city movement are the Tianjin China-Singapore Eco-City, the Sino-Dutch Shenzhen Low-Carbon City, and the Sino-French Wuhan Ecological Demonstration City. Particularly, the construction of eco-industrial parks represents central instances of environmental cooperation among developing countries in the eco-city movement. The China-Singapore Suzhou Industrial Park contains green areas and lakes, whereas the Sino-Singapore Tianjin eco-city possesses systems for energy efficiency, green transportation, green architecture, sewage treatment, and recycling (China-ASEAN Environmental Cooperation, 2018:161; Liu & Lo, 2021:12).
As a locomotive of multilateral environmental cooperation, China has extended its leading role to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). In 2009, China and ASEAN signed the Strategy on Environmental Cooperation, which later contributed to the creation of the China-ASEAN Environmental Cooperation Centre. This was followed by the China-ASEAN Environmental Cooperation Action Plans for 2011-2013 and 2014-2015 as well as the 2016-2020 Strategy on Environmental Cooperation. These strategies and action plans sought to improve regional efforts in research & development and eco-city construction. Also included in such efforts is the Green Silk Road Envoys Program, which sought to develop staff training, scientific exchange, and political dialogue on matters of sustainability, green innovation and entrepreneurship, biodiversity, and ecological protection (China-ASEAN Environmental Cooperation, 2018:viii).
China has recently accelerated its multilateral environmental cooperation through the channel of the Belt & Road Initiative (BRI). The 2015 “One Belt, One Road” document pledged for the BRI to assume greater responsibility in environmental protection, biodiversity, and climate change. The BRI developed a more systematic approach to sustainability upon Xi Jinping’s 2016 call for the construction of a “green, healthy, intelligent, and peaceful” Silk Road, which led to the publication of the “Guidance on Promoting Green Belt and Road” and the implementation of the Green Action Plan and the Maritime Cooperation Vision driven by the principle of maritime protection (Simonov, 2018). As a result, the Second BRI Forum held in 2019 formulated green investment principles (Cheung & Hong, 2021).
The BRI devotes special attention to ensuring it does not impose policies on its participants and undermine their national sovereignty. The adoption of BRI’s principles on ecological civilization is left to the initiative of participant states (Ikenberry & Lim, 2017). In the Second BRI forum, BRI members were invited to join environmental initiatives such as the International Green Development Coalition, the Sustainable Cities Alliance, the South-South Cooperation Initiative on Climate Change, the Environmental Technology Exchange and Transfer Center, the Environmental Big Data Platform, and the Green Investment Fund (Garey & Ladislaw, 2019; Iken- berry & Lim, 2017). These initiatives gained momentum in response to rising criticism on the part of civil society groups against the majority of BRI investments being transferred to carbon-driven sectors and large-scale infrastructure development at the expense of local environments (Harlan, 2021).
Coupled with BRI’s forum initiatives is green finance, which includes financial practices involving bonds that fund sustainable projects, credits that support sustainable investments, and insurance schemes for protection against environmental disasters. Chinese green investment has supported environmental initiatives such as low-carbon transportation, high-speed trains, clean energy projects, projects against environmental pollution, and clean coal investments. As such, China has risen to the status of the world’s top leader in green bonds and credits by outperforming the U.S. in 2019 (Green Belt and Road Initiative Center, 2019b, Chinadaily 2020b; Harlan 2021; Rooney 2019).
The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) —as Asia’s first bank to be independent from Western hegemony and the world’s fourth-largest multilateral development bank— constitutes an important financial vehicle for BRI (Gürcan, 2020; Fahamu, n.d.; Koop, 2018). It started to operate in 2016 under China’s initiative as “the world’s first multilateral development bank (MDB) dedicated to infrastructure” (Wilson, 2017). The declared intention of the bank is to fill the “gap between supply and demand for infrastructure spending in Asia”, which was estimated at “as high as $8 trillion by 2020” (Cai, 2018). The bank’s approved projects mostly focus on the energy, water, and transportation sectors (Chen, 2019). Almost half of these projects are co-financed with other financial institutions such as the Asian Development Bank, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the Islamic Development Bank, and the World Bank (Rana, 2019; Bustillo & Andoni, 2018). In the period 2016—2017, the AIIB approved nearly $5 billion in loans, and 35 infrastructure projects with an estimated value of $28.3 billion (Cai, 2018; Chen, 2019). Unlike the World Bank, the AIIB does not impose political conditionality and does respect the sovereignty of claimant nations (Gürcan, 2020).
China’s initiative has led the AIIB to adopt a strong stand on ecological civilization. In 2016, the AIIB adopted the Environmental and Social Framework (ESF), which encourages financed development projects to target social and environmental sustainability in tandem, including green economy, gender equality, and labor rights. As regards environmental sustainability, the ESF places a strong emphasis on balanced development, decreasing fossil fuel consumption, environmental resilience, energy conservation, and biodiversity (Gabusi, 2019). In its second annual meeting held in South Korea in 2016, the AIIB adopted the Sustainable Energy for Asia Strategy and approved its first loan for a project that seeks to reduce coal use in China. The AIIB’s fourth meeting was held in Luxembourg in 2019, where the bank reiterated its commitment to supporting green economy (Altay & Zeynepcan, 2020). The AIIB’s new funds that target social and environmental sustainability include “the $75 million Tata Cleantech Sustainable Infrastructure On-Lending Facility (India), US$75 million Asia Investment Fund (Asia-wide), US$100 million L&T Green Infrastructure On-Lending Facility to finance wind and solar energy projects (India), US$200 million TSKB Sustainable Energy and Infrastructure On-Lending Facility (Turkey), and US$150 million to the India Infrastructure Fund to finance infrastructure projects including renewable energy (India)… [as well as] a US$500 million AIIB Asia ESG Enhanced Credit Managed Portfolio (Asia-wide) with Aberdeen Standard Investments, to partner on developing debt capital markets for infrastructure… [and the] US$ 500 million fund, the Asia Climate Bond Portfolio, to accelerate climate action in the Bank’s members, and spur the development of the climate bond market.” (Vazquez & Chin, 2019: 598) Besides energy and infrastructure, the AIIB’s green framework extends to sustainable urbanization, green transportation, and rural sustainability. These efforts are clearly exemplified in a US$329 million loan for India’s Gujarat Rural Roads Project, a US$335 million loan for India’s Metro Line Project, a US$140 million loan for India’s Madhya Pradesh Rural Connectivity Project, a US$445 million loan for India’s Andhra Pradesh Rural Roads Project, a US$40 million loan for Laos’ National Road 13 Improvement and Maintenance Project, a US$216.5 million loan for Indonesia’s National Slum Upgrading Project, a US$270.6 million loan for the Philippines’ Metro Manila Flood Management Project, a US$400 million loan for India’s Andhra Pradesh Urban Water Supply and Septage Management Improvement Project, a US$200 million loan for Sri Lanka’s Colombo Urban Regeneration Project, and a US$100 million loan for Bangladesh’s Municipal Water Supply and Sanitation Project (Vazquez & Chin, 2019).
Finally, a word of caution: it is too early to estimate the future of the AIIB and BRI’s contributions to ecological civilization, given that the Green Silk Road project was only put into action in 2019, whilst the AIIB started to operate in 2016. However, there is room for optimism considering that China has already become a leading country in multilateral environmental cooperation. The AIIB’s strategy on social and environmental sustainability has already been put into practice through green funds implemented in several Asian countries. Furthermore, China’s green investments as part of the BRI have gained momentum since 2016. Cases include China’s increasing investments in Vietnam’s solar panels, its leading role in establishing the Quaid e-Azam Solar Park and the Jhimpir Wind Farm in Pakistan, the Aisha Wind Farm and Wolayita Sodo Power Transmission Line in Ethiopia, and other similar projects in countries such as Thailand and Malaysia (Chernysheva et al., 2019).
Review and Discussion
As a strong expression of ecological imperialism, prompted by neoliberal globalisation and the Third Industrial Revolution, Western metropoles initiated the shift in axis for global production to Asia. This enabled Western metropoles to take advantage of cheap labour supplies and access natural resources in the absence of strict environmental regulations (Gürcan, Kahraman & Yanmaz, 2021). China was the main target of these pillaging efforts. However, it managed to benefit from these neoliberal assaults by utilising public-driven policies, which, despite a number of liberal compromises, served to protect itself from becoming a neo-colony. Public-driven policies also served to build a strong economy driven by national interests, thus generating grave concerns for Western metropoles whose global hegemony was challenged. As a result, Western metropoles now resort to an ecological-imperialist campaign that blames environmental degradation on developing countries, particularly China, whose leading environmental efforts —as the locomotive of global welfare and the greatest enemy of global poverty— are often undermined by this Western-centric campaign.
China has developed a firm awareness of its environmental problems, which are realised in its revised national security strategy that incorporates the concept of “ecological civilization”. China is in the early stages of building an ecological civilization and still has a long way to go before it reaches a high level of ecological development. Perhaps the most immediate threat to ecological civilization stems from the growing aggression of U.S. imperialism in the form of geopolitical containment strategies, techno-economic wars against China, and other factors related to the COVID-19 pandemic such as Western-fueled Sinophobia and pandemic-related economic strains (Gürcan, 2019; Gürcan, Kahraman & Yanmaz, 2021). Nevertheless, China’s key achievements on the path towards ecological civilization involve a series of three unfolding and mutually conditioning revolutionary processes that also lead the way in international environmental cooperation, as embodied in China’s role in ASEAN, the AIIB, and the Green Silk Road. They include a clean energy revolution, a sustainable agricultural revolution, and a green urban revolution.
China has already become a global leader in green finance. It leads the eco-city movement with over 43% of the world’s eco-cities being Chinese and is the second leader in sustainable architecture, next to Canada. Many Chinese cities have dropped down or out of the list of the most polluted cities, leaving India and Pakistan at the top. China’s cities have also joined the ranks of those with the strongest sewage treatment capacity in the world. Another point worth mentioning is that China has the most electric vehicles, bikes, and efficient public transportation. China is considered, not only as the world’s centre of electric bus production and consumption but also as having cities with the world’s longest subway systems. From 2013 onwards, the share of coal in China’s total energy consumption has seen a noticeable decline, accompanied by the increasing share of renewable resources in total energy consumption as a result of conscious efforts at a clean energy revolution. Key to this revolution in the making is China’s strong reputation as the world’s top investor in clean energy. As such, it has succeeded in creating the world’s largest wind, solar, and hydroelectric systems for power generation. Finally, concerning China’s unfolding revolution in sustainable agriculture, one should acknowledge its adoption of green food standards, the expansion of its agricultural area under certified organic farming, and especially the fact that, as a world leader in green agriculture, it now has the third-largest agricultural area under organic farming. Ultimately, the continuation and amplification of all these achievements are predicated on the future determination of the Xi Jinping administration (and its successors) to build ecological civilization while facing imperialist aggression.
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House District 81 Democratic candidate Daniel Sipe. | From Sipe’s Facebook page
Origninally published in the Beacon on November 24, 2022
Political newcomer Daniel Sipe came within 392 votes of unseating a conservative stalwart in a rural district in western Maine. He did it by talking to residents about their most immediate concerns: jobs, healthcare, housing, energy costs and the environment.
“I really think that people are closer together on how they want the country to move forward than we are told by the media,” said Sipe, a resident of Norway and a first-time political candidate.
Sipe, a Democrat, lost to incumbent Republican Rep. Sawin Millett by nine percentage points in House District 81, which includes Norway, Waterford, Greenwood and Stoneham. Millett, who has been in the legislature off and on since 1969 and served in the administrations of four governors, is an influential member of the legislature’s powerful budget-making committee.
Sipe was able to keep the race relatively close, considering his opponent’s name recognition and the perception that his district leans conservative. However, after knocking on over a thousand doors and having countless conversations, he’s begun to question that characterization.
Sipe found that while voters may consume different media and identify with different candidates or parties, if he kept the conversation on the issues that impact them most, there is a surprising degree of commonality.
“The first thing is meeting people where they’re at and listening to the problems they face,” Sipe said. “When you get them talking, you see that people want good jobs and they want their neighbors to have good jobs. They don’t want to be saddled with medical debt. And they don’t want their neighbors to be saddled with medical debt either.”
People want real solutions, not tweaks
Sipe entered Maine politics as a canvasser with the Maine People’s Alliance (of which Beacon is a project), working on referendum campaigns to increase the minimum wage, expand Medicaid eligibility and increase funding for public education through taxes on the wealthy. He moved to Norway in 2020 when he co-founded a non-profit consulting company where he works closely with local artists and craftspeople in the community.
He said the issue that voters in his district were most concerned about this election season is the lack of good-paying jobs in the community. The biggest employers in the district are the school system, Stephens Memorial Hospital, and the New Balance shoe factory in Norway. There are no chain stores in the entire district.
“People feel forgotten about out here in western Maine,” Sipe said. “We have massive infrastructure problems. Our roads are quite bad. A lot of folks don’t have access to good internet. No one is going to move their business here if we don’t have good roads and internet.”
People are also worried about the high cost of goods and energy, he said. The price for a gallon of heating oil has hit a record high. Electricity bills for many customers of Central Maine Power and Versant will increase by as much as 49% at the beginning of next year. This follows rate hikes made earlier this year with more likely to come next summer.
“It’s scary to think about the winter that’s coming,” Sipe said. “I think that it’s one of those things as a state legislator, unfortunately, there’s not much that we can do about high prices, but we can work to provide heating assistance to low-income families.”
On a complex issue like healthcare, Sipe found that rural voters are not afraid of confronting difficult and persistence problems at their root.
“People talk about getting rid of insurance companies and providing healthcare for everyone. That is not as radical an idea as it seems,” he said.
While Maine’s larger towns and cities often get the headlines, Sipe said the housing crisis hits all corners of the state. Across Maine, rents are soaring. Home prices have climbed dramatically in many areas. Average long-term mortgage interest rates have risen above 7% for the first time in decades. As a result, people are taking on more debt to buy a house.
Residents want the state to take urgent action, Sipe said.
“People feel that housing is a huge problem here. It’s a huge problem everywhere,” he said. “We need to invest at the state level in housing.”
And, as Europe had its most severe drought in 500 years last summer, residents in western Maine were also concerned about the lack of rain. It was the third consecutive year that large parts of the state experienced drought.
“People have started experiencing drought that they’d never experienced before. People’s wells are running dry,” Sipe said.
He added, “They’re worried about large corporations taking advantage of our landscape. They’re worried about CMP, for instance, not just the rising electricity costs, but the fact that they are not really going to benefit from a corridor that is just owned by an out-of-country corporation,” referring to CMP and Hydro-Quebec’s 145-mile transmission corridor that was rejected by voters in 2021.
Hitting the right target
There has been some debate in Maine politics about what Democrats need to do to win in rural districts. Rifts in the party emerged after former Democratic legislator Chloe Maxmin of Nobleboro co-authored a book, “Dirt Road Revival,” claiming that the party has lost touch with rural voters.
Despite losing his race on Nov. 8, Sipe believes that Democrats can steadily win voters in rural districts if they consistently prove themselves to be loyal to working-class Mainers. That has not always been the case, he said, and that failing has given Republicans an opening to present themselves as the party of “family values and workers.”
“I think Democrats need to stop kowtowing to large corporations and go to work for the people that live here. We need to focus on the things that make people’s lives a little bit easier,” he said.
Sipe said progressive policy arguments will win, even in rural areas, if the correct sources of problems are consistently articulated to voters. Otherwise, right-wing narratives and scapegoating will win the day.
“Oftentimes people focus on who they see as taking advantage of the system. But I think when you have a real conversation about who’s taking advantage of the system, you can change their lens,” he said. “It’s not your neighbor who might be getting assistance to pay for food or who has a disability and can’t work who is the source of the problem. It’s the corporation that is not paying any taxes and is raising the cost of goods and making it really hard to survive.”
Sipe continued, “We need to be constantly pivoting away from blaming the folks who have it hard and putting the focus on the folks that are taking advantage of us. I think most people instinctively know what the actual problem is. It’s just not always what they go to first.”
Dan Neumann studied journalism at Colorado State University before beginning his career as a community newspaper reporter in Denver. He reported on the Global North’s interventions in Africa, including documentaries on climate change, international asylum policy and U.S. militarization on the continent before returning to his home state of Illinois to teach community journalism on Chicago’s West Side. He now lives in Portland. Dan can be reached at email@example.com.
Kohei Saito’s book Capital in the Anthropocene has become an unlikely hit among young people and is about to be translated into English.
The climate crisis will spiral out of control unless the world applies “emergency brakes” to capitalism and devises a “new way of living,” according to a Japanese academic whose book on Marxism and the environment has become a surprise bestseller.
The message from Kohei Saito, an associate professor at Tokyo University, is simple: capitalism’s demand for unlimited profits is destroying the planet and only “degrowth” can repair the damage by slowing down social production and sharing wealth.
In practical terms, that means an end to mass production and the mass consumption of wasteful goods, such as fast fashion. In Capital in the Anthropocene, Saito also advocates decarbonization through shorter working hours and prioritizing essential “labour-intensive” work, such as caregiving.
‘I was as surprised as everyone else’ Few would have expected Saito’s Japanese-language solution to the climate crisis to have much appeal outside left-wing academia and politics. Instead, the book — which was inspired by Karl Marx’s writings on the environment — has become an unlikely hit, selling more than half a million copies since it was published in September 2020.
As the world confronts more evidence of the effects of climate change — from floods in Pakistan to heat waves in Britain — rampant inflation and the energy crisis, Saito’s vision of a more sustainable, post-capitalist world will appear in an academic text to be published next year by Cambridge University Press, with an English translation of his bestseller to follow.
“It is broadly about what’s going on in the world … about the climate crisis and what we should do about it,” Saito said in an interview with The Guardian. “I advocate for degrowth and going beyond capitalism.”
The mere mention of the word “degrowth” conjures negative images of wealthy societies plunged into a dark age of shrinking economies and declining living standards. Saito admits that he thought a book that draws on strands of Marxism as a solution to modern-day ills would be a tough sell in Japan, where the same conservative party has dominated politics for the best part of 70 years.
“People accuse me of wanting to go back to the [feudal] Edo period [1603-1868] … and I think the same sort of image persists in the U.K. and the U.S.,” he said. “Against that background, for the book to sell over 500,000 copies is astonishing. I was as surprised as everyone else.”
The 35-year-old needn’t have worried about using the language of radical change; as the world emerges from the pandemic and confronts the existential threat posed by global heating, disillusionment with the economic status quo has given him a receptive audience.
The pandemic has magnified inequalities in advanced economies, and between the Global North and South — and the book struck a nerve with younger Japanese.
“Saito is telling a story that is easy to understand,” says Jun Shiota, a 31-year-old researcher who bought Capital in the Anthropocene soon after it was published. “He doesn’t say there are good and bad things about capitalism, or that it is possible to reform it … he just says we have to get rid of the entire system.
“Young people were badly affected by the pandemic and face other big issues, such as environmental destruction and the cost of living crises, so that simple message resonates with them.”
Saito agrees that growing inequality has given his writing more immediacy. “Many people lost their jobs and homes and are relying on things like food banks, even in Japan. I find that shocking. And you have essential workers who are forced to work long hours in low-paid jobs. The marginalization of essential workers is becoming a serious issue.”
The response to COVID-19 had shown that rapid change is not only desirable but possible, he says.
“One thing that we have learned during the pandemic is that we can dramatically change our way of life overnight — look at the way we started working from home, bought fewer things, flew and ate out less. We proved that working less was friendlier to the environment and gave people a better life. But now capitalism is trying to bring us back to a ‘normal’ way of life.”
‘Marx was interested in sustainability’
Saito is deeply skeptical of some widely accepted strategies for tackling the climate emergency. “In my book, I start a sentence by describing sustainable development goals [SDGs] as the new opium of the masses,” he said in reference to Marx’s view of religion.
“Buying eco bags and bottles without changing anything about the economic system … SDGs mask the systemic problem and reduce everything to the responsibility of the individual while obscuring the responsibility of corporations and politicians.”
“I discovered how Marx was interested in sustainability and how non-capitalist and pre-capitalist societies are sustainable because they are realizing the stationary economy, they are not growth-driven,” Saito said.
Since the book was released, Saito has made Japan noticeably less squeamish about the German philosopher’s ideas.
The conservative public broadcaster NHK gave him four 25-minute segments to explain his ideas for its Masterpiece in 100 Minutes series, while bookshop chains cleared space for special displays of revivalist Marxist literature.
Now he hopes his message will appeal to an English-language readership.
“We face a very difficult situation: the pandemic, poverty, climate change, the war in Ukraine, inflation … it is impossible to imagine a future in which we can grow the economy and at the same time live in a sustainable manner without fundamentally changing anything about our way of life.
“If economic policies have been failing for 30 years, then why don’t we invent a new way of life? The desire for that is suddenly there.”
Justin McCurry is the Guardian’s Tokyo correspondent
Kohei Saito received his Ph.D. from Humboldt University in Berlin. He is currently associate professor of political economy at Osaka City University. He has published articles and reviews on Marx’s ecology, including “The Emergence of Marx’s Critique of Modern Agriculture,” and “Marx’s Ecological Notebooks,” both in Monthly Review. He is working on editing the complete works of Marx and Engels, Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe (MEGA) Volume IV/18, which includes a number of Marx’s natural scientific notebooks.
Maine Conservation Voters on Tuesday released its legislative scorecard for 2022, calling this year’s session “a banner year for Maine’s environment, climate and democracy” but acknowledging that “in the same moment, much of what we value is at risk.”
The group also scored a bill meant to increase accountability standards for utilities and facilitate grid planning, a measure to ban the application of PFAS-contaminated sludge in order to protect Maine farmlands, legislation to upgrade water quality standards for Maine rivers and streams, a bill to increase opportunities for climate education in schools, and legislation to ensure Maine elections are transparent and secure.
Each of those bills passed the legislature and became law with support from Gov. Janet Mills. The path to getting the measures approved wasn’t always smooth, though. Mills originally expressed opposition to the Passamaquoddy water rights bill before eventually negotiating a deal and signing the legislation. On the utility accountability measure, public power proponents had concerns that the legislation didn’t do enough to hold Central Maine Power and Versant accountable but ultimately reached an agreement that included further performance standards for the utility companies.
“Together with Governor Janet Mills, the Maine Legislature passed significant policies that equitably tackle climate change, invest in healthy communities, protect our environment and democracy, and advance environmental justice,” Maine Conservation Voters wrote as part of the scorecard.
In total, 84 lawmakers received a 100% score from the group, meaning they supported each of the bills Maine Conservation Voters pushed for. No Republicans received a perfect score from the organization. The highest mark for a GOP legislator was given to Sen. Rick Bennett (R-Oxford), who received a score of 86%. The only priority bill that Bennett opposed was the climate education measure.
Dozens of Democratic lawmakers received perfect marks, including Senate President Troy Jackson (D-Aroostook), Majority Leader Eloise Vitelli (D-Sagadahoc), and Assistant Majority Leader Mattie Daughtry (D-Cumberland). The party’s House leadership team — Speaker Ryan Fecteau (D-Biddeford), Majority Leader Michelle Dunphy (D-Old Town) and Assistant Majority Leader Rachel Talbot Ross (D-Portland) — also received 100% scores.
Five Republican lawmakers were given a score of zero, meaning they didn’t vote for any of Maine Conservation Voters’ priority bills. Those legislators were Richard Cebra (R-Naples), Josanne Dolloff (R-Milton Township), David Haggan (R-Hampden), Frances Head (R-Bethel) and Dwayne Prescott (R-Waterboro). These scores combined anti-environmental votes with absences, which the scorecard weighed the same as a vote against a priority bill.
Rep. Braden Sharpe (D-Durham) and Rep. Chad Grignon (R-Athens) also received scores of zero on account of being absent for each of the votes on the environmental measures included in the scorecard.
While the Maine Conservation Voters’ scorecard shows that environmental advocates got many of their priorities over the finish line in the 2022 session, some activists were disappointed by what they felt were missed opportunities to combat climate change and protect the state’s ecosystem during the first session of the 130th Legislature in 2021.
One area of frustration was Mills’ veto of a bill to replace CMP and Versant with a consumer-owned utility — a measure proponents argued would help spur Maine’s transition to clean electricity. Environmental advocates have also criticized the governor’s veto of a bill to ban aerial spraying of hazardous herbicides such as glyphosate and Mills’ opposition to a measure that would reinforce the sovereignty of the Wabanaki and affirm the tribes’ right to regulate natural resources and land use on their territory.
But while activists and green groups have had their disagreements with Mills — a Democrat — Maine Conservation Voters Action Fund warned that the progress made in the last couple of years would be put at risk if her Republican opponent, former governor Paul LePage, is elected this November.
Criticizing LePage’s anti-environment legacy when he was governor, the group recently endorsed Mills for reelection.
Evan Popp studied journalism at Ithaca College and interned at the Progressive magazine, ThinkProgress and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. He then worked for the Santa Fe New Mexican newspaper before joining Beacon. Evan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
As Myanmar experiences more extreme weather events, a roadmap that lays the context, analysis, and options on how to tackle climate change is highly essential. (Photo: IRRI)
Originally published: The Lancet on July 20, 2022
The challenge of climate mitigation is made more difficult by high rates of energy use in wealthy countries, mostly in the Global North, which far exceed what is required to meet human needs. In contrast, more than 3 billion people in poorer countries live in energy poverty. A just transition requires energy convergence—reducing energy use in wealthy countries to achieve rapid emissions reductions, and ensuring sufficient energy for development in the rest of the world. However, existing climate mitigation scenarios reviewed by The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change do not explore such a transition. On average, existing scenarios maintain the Global North’s energy privilege at a per capita level 2·3 times higher than in the Global South. Even the more equitable scenarios perpetuate large energy inequalities for the rest of the century. To reconcile the Global North’s high energy use with the Paris Agreement targets, most scenarios rely heavily on bioenergy-based negative emissions technologies. This approach is risky, but it is also unjust. These scenarios tend to appropriate land in the Global South to maintain, and further increase, the Global North’s energy privilege. There is an urgent need to develop scenarios that represent convergence to levels of energy that are sufficient for human wellbeing and compatible with rapid decarbonisation.
Dr. Jason Hickel is an anthropologist, author, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. He has taught at the London School of Economics, the University of Virginia, and Goldsmiths, University of London, where he convenes the MA in Anthropology and Cultural Politics. He serves on the Labour Party task force on international development, works as Policy Director for /The Rules collective, sits on the Executive Board of Academics Stand Against Poverty (ASAP) and recently joined the International Editorial Advisory Board of Third World Quarterly.
Aljoša Slameršak contributed to data collection, methodology, data analysis, writing, editing, and drawing up the figure.
Originally published: Midwestern Marx, July 18, 2022
During late April and early May, South Asia experienced the terrible impacts of global warming. Temperatures reached almost 50 degrees Celsius (122 Fahrenheit) in some cities in the region. These high temperatures came alongside dangerous flooding in Northeast India and in Bangladesh, as the rivers burst their banks, with flash floods taking place in places like Sunamganj in Sylhet, Bangladesh.
Saleemul Haq, the director of the International Center of Climate Change and Development, is from Bangladesh. He is a veteran of the UN climate change negotiations. When Haq read a tweet by Marianne Karlsen, the co-chair of the UN’s Adaptation Committee, which said that “[m]ore time is needed to reach an agreement,” while referring to the negotiations on loss and damage finance, he tweeted: “The one thing we have run out of is Time! Climate change impacts are already happening, and poor people are suffering losses and damages due to the emissions of the rich. Talk is no longer an acceptable substitute for action (money!)” Karlsen’s comment came in light of the treacle-slow process of agreement on the “loss and damage” agenda for the 27th Conference of Parties or COP27 meeting to be held in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, in November 2022.
In 2009, at COP15, developed countries of the world had agreed to a $100 billion annual adaptation assistance fund, which was supposed to be paid by 2020. This fund was intended to assist countries of the Global South to shift their reliance on carbon to renewal sources of energy and to adapt to the realities of the climate catastrophe. At the time of the Glasgow COP26 meeting in November 2021, however, developed countries were unable to meet this commitment. The $100 billion may seem like a modest fund, but is far less than the “Trillion Dollar Climate Finance Challenge,” that will be required to ensure comprehensive climate action.
The richer states—led by the West—have not only refused to seriously fund adaptation but they have also reneged on the original agreements, such as the Kyoto Protocol (1997); the U.S. Congress has refused to ratify this important step toward mitigating the climate crisis. The United States has shifted the goalposts for reducing its methane emissions and has refused to account for the massive output of carbon emissions by the U.S. military.
Germany’s Money Goes to War Not Climate
Germany hosts the secretariat of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. In June, as a prelude to COP27, the UN held a conference in Bonn on climate change. The talks ended in acrimony over finance for what is known as “loss and damage.” The European Union consistently blocked all discussions on compensation. Eddy Pérez of the Climate Action Network, Canada, said, “Consumed by their narrow interests, rich nations and in particular countries in the European Union, came to the Bonn Climate Conference to block, delay and undermine efforts from people and communities on the frontlines addressing the losses and damage caused by fossil fuels.”
On the table is the hypocrisy of countries such as Germany, which claims to lead on these issues, but instead has been sourcing fossil fuels overseas and has been spending increasing funds on their military. At the same time, these countries have denied support to developing countries facing devastation from climate-induced superstorms and rising seas.
After the recent German elections, hopes were raised that the new coalition of the Social Democrats with the Green Party would lift up the green agenda. However, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has promised €100 billion for the military, “the biggest increase in the country’s military expenditure since the end of the Cold War.” He has also committed to “[spending] more than 2 percent of the country’s gross domestic product on the military.” This means more money for the military and less money for climate mitigation and green transformation.
The Military and Climate Catastrophe
The money that is being swallowed into the Western military establishments does not only drift away from any climate spending but also promotes greater climate catastrophe. The U.S. military is the largest institutional polluter on the planet. The maintenance of its more than 800 military bases around the world, for instance, means that the U.S. military consumes 395,000 gallons of oil daily. In 2021, the world’s governments spent $2 trillion on weapons, with the leading countries being those who are the richest (as well as the most sanctimonious on the climate debate). Money is available for war but not to deal with the climate catastrophe.
The way weapons have poured into the Ukraine conflict gives many of us pause. The prolongation of that war has placed 49 million more people at risk of famine in 46 countries, according to the “Hunger Hotspots” report by the United Nations agencies, as a result of the extreme weather conditions and due to conflicts. Conflict and organized violence were the main sources of food insecurity in Africa and the Middle East, specifically in northern Nigeria, central Sahel, eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Somalia, South Sudan, Yemen and Syria. The war in Ukraine has exacerbated the food crisis by driving up the price of agricultural commodities. Russia and Ukraine together account for around 30 percent of the global wheat trade. So, the longer the Ukraine war continues, the more “hunger hotspots” will grow, taking food insecurity beyond just Africa and the Middle East.
While one COP meeting has already taken place on the African continent, another will take place later this year. First, Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, hosted the UN Convention to Combat Desertification in May and then Sharm el-Sheikh will host the UN Climate Change Conference. These are major forums for African states to put on the table the great damage done to parts of the continent due to the climate catastrophe.
When the representatives of the countries of the world gather at Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, in November 2022 for COP27, they will hear Western representatives talk about climate change, make pledges, and then do everything possible to continue to exacerbate the catastrophe. What we saw in Bonn is a prelude to what will be a fiasco in Sharm el-Sheikh.
Murad Qureshi is a former member of the London Assembly and a former chair of the Stop the War Coalition.
John Bellamy Foster explains the ‘solution’ master-minded by global finance to resolve the imminent environmental crisis: create a multi-quadrillion dollars’ worth of assets on the back of everything nature does and expropriate it from the global commons to make a profit. Worse still: it is already happening.
LYNN FRIES: Hello and welcome. I’m Lynn Fries producer of Global Political Economy or GPEnewsdocs. Today’s guest is John Bellamy Foster.
He’ll be talking about the financialization of the earth as a new ecological regime. A regime where the rapid financialization of natureis promoting a Great Expropriation of the global commons and the dispossession of humanity on a scale that exceeds all previous human history. And which is accelerating the destruction of planetary ecosystems and of the earth as a safe home for humanity. All in the name of saving nature by turning it into a market.
Our guest’s Monthly Review articles: The Defense of Nature: Resisting the Financialization of the Earth and Nature as a Mode of Accumulation: Capitalism and the Financialization of the Earth detail this argument.
Joining us from Oregon, John Bellamy Foster is Professor of Sociology at the University of Oregon and Editor of Monthly Review. He has written widely on political economy and is a major scholar on environmental issues. He is author of numerous books including Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature, The Great Financial Crisis: Causes and Consequences, The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth. A forthcoming book, Capitalism in the Anthropocene: Ecological Ruin or Ecological Revolution, is coming soon from Monthly Review Press. Welcome, John.
JOHN BELLAMY FOSTER: Glad to be here.
FRIES: We will be talking about your thoughts on how the financialization of nature is capitalism’s most catastrophic regime to date, a new ecological regime. And I take it; you think this was at the heart of what came out of the 2021 UN Climate Change Conference negotiations in Glasgow.
FOSTER: Yeah. Ironically, during COP 26 in Glasgow everybody was watching that to sort of see, well, would governments and the powers that be take action to protect the earth. And the main thing that came out of Glasgow was actually these plans for the financial takeover of the earth, in the name of saving nature. The entire conservation sector globally has now bought into these policies of financialization.
This was really the main product of the Glasgow meetings all being done by capital with support of governments. But there is no public discussion anywhere of this. There is no country where this has been subjected to democratic processes or even conversations. There’s no dialogue on this.
Capital is just proceeding to buy up ecosystems services. To create structured financial vehicles where they’ll be able to control natural capital to accumulate on the basis of it. And to run natural services on this basis with the idea of accumulating wealth.
FRIES: Connect the dots from capital’s need for a new asset class around 2009, around the peak of the Great Financial Crisis, to the current trajectory of the financialization of nature as a new ecological regime.
FOSTER: The world went through a global financial crisis in 2007 to 2010. One of the problems in terms of financial instability, obviously, is that there are not enough underlying assets to support the financial expansion of the system, which is going on at extreme levels. So we’re piling up debt in relation to the world economy. But the debt doesn’t really have sufficient material foundations, revenue streams underlying it.
So capital is searching for new revenue streams. And after the 2007 to 2010 financial crisis, they started looking increasingly at ecosystem services (what we could call nature and nature’s services) as a basis, as a material basis for financialization.
So there’s this very rapid ongoing financialization of nature that is now occurring. Where natural services, ecosystem services, are being turned into forms of exchange value that can be the basis of financialization. All in the name of saving the global environment.
There was a big change that occurred in the fall of 2021, between September and November in the context of the UN climate negotiations, where three new initiatives were introduced or brought to the forefront.
One is the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero, which brings together all the big financial corporations. All the big banks and hedge funds and so on all came together combining let’s say $130 trillion in assets. These are all basically the Western banks and hedge funds. And they claimed that they were going to organize, to financialize nature in order to produce a net zero carbon economy globally.
The month before, the New York Stock Exchange together with the Intrinsic Exchange Group introduced a new asset class on the New York Stock Exchange called Natural Capital Assets. That really had to do with this process of creating structured financial vehicles to create revenue streams from ecosystem services. That could then be financialized and debt built upon them and so on. All in the name of again, saving nature.
And finally in the climate negotiations itself, they basically agreed on a plan for a world carbon trading mechanism that had been introduced in 2015 Paris Agreement but all the details hadn’t been worked out. So this established at least the basis for a global carbon trading mechanism, which would again, financialize nature.
This has resulted in a huge expansion just in the last few months of attempts to financialize the earth. To turn ecosystem services, really basic ecosystem services like photosynthesis and the production of oxygen in the environment and things like that into monetary asset exchange value that capital can own. Or at least maybe nation states will own and capital will essentially manage and this can turn into financial assets.
Essentially, corporations would own what nature does, not just owning land. The governments would still probably own the land but capital would own the services that nature provides. And would manage it for enormous amounts of money. This is big accumulation as the Intrinsic Exchange Group (IEG) said, in their view: if discounted over the century, ecosystem services are worth four quadrillion (or $4,000 trillion) dollars all for the taking.
FRIES: And we should also note these initiatives target the Global South. As you say basically because financial gains from the expropriation of the earth in the name of management of natural capital and offsets are the greatest in the Global South.
Your articles detail ways this targeting is done. For example, the 2021 Glasgow Alliance for Net Zero initiative declared up front that carbon-mitigation financing to be made available for developing countries comes with strings attached. So financing will depend on a developing country willingness to fully open their economies to global capital.
In the case of the agreed plan for carbon trading and in the designs to promote a world market in offsets, the $100 billion developed countries promised to direct to the Global South is subject to debt leverage by multinational monopoly-finance capital
So John, just to clarify what we are talking about here with the financialization of nature and accumulation of nature are you saying that, in general, this involves the creation of financial claims so titles over natural assets and ecosystems, environmental services of various kinds that can then be traded and leveraged? Is that basically what you mean by the financialization and accumulation of nature?
FOSTER: Finance is really based on the promotion of debt. And from one perspective, money itself is a debt. But finance is based on the promotion of debt. And that means liens on the future revenue streams from underlying assets. What the debts represent or what the creditors get is revenue streams into the future.
So essentially, it means you’re selling whatever nature provides or revenue streams well into the future. In a lot of these proposals, it’s selling off what nature would produce or the revenue that it would generate if it’s reduced to exchange value over the next century or two.
And it is very dangerous. If you look back to 2007- 2010, the Great Financial Crisis, the whole financial system was really in danger of collapsing. And the structural changes that occurred at that time, and this is related to economic stagnation, are really still there.
The financialization, the growth of the debt economy, is in many ways at a much more extreme level then it was in 2007. And we’re looking at other financial crises that could occur, another conceivable Great Financial Crisis. This is because we create these debt bubbles, which expand the economy, but eventually the bubble bursts. The consequences are there.
Our economies are growing slowly but we are also expanding the debt bubble at the same time. So we’re in this sort of stagnation/financialization trap.
Well then if you try to financialize the whole of nature and try to run ecosystem services under capitalist principles regulated by structured investment vehicles, you’re basically bringing nature into this financial bubble.
But it’s absurd. Because the laws of nature (and we can talk about the laws of nature as the scientific world does meaning the biogeochemical processes of the Earth System) do not operate like capitalist markets. And actually attempts to monetize nature and treat it as a financial asset, as an economic asset, a stream of income in which we can impose debts and this will create revenue according to the innate power of capital and at the same time save nature, it’s really a fairy tale.
I mean, it’s worse than a fairy tale. It’s a complete fetish of capital and nature.
John Maynard Keynes once said that we’re in trouble when the underlying productive economy becomes a bubble on the financial system. But we’re now creating a situation where the earth itself is going to be turned into a bubble on the financial system which itself is a speculative enterprise.
There’s a famous statement by a 19th century chartist, Dunning, in his book on the trade unions that Marx quotes in Volume One of Capital. Where Dunning says: that capital we’ll do such and such for a 12% rate of return. And it’ll do even more; it will transgress laws for say a 50% rate of return. But for a 300% rate of return, it will lie and destroy and it’s willing to sell off humanity and the earth itself. And he points to the slave trade.
And I think that’s what we’re in the situation of. The returns are so great that capital is really mesmerized by this notion that ecosystem services discounted and projected over this whole century are worth four quadrillion dollars [$4000 trillion]. And then they can go in and have a piece of this. The fact that this is so destructive is ignored.
Also what they’re doing is taking ecosystem services not from the population of the earth as whole even, but more immediately they’re taking nature away from indigenous populations. In Africa, for example, it’s claimed that 90% of the land is essentially untitled, which capital can take over and reap the natural capital and ecosystem services.
The reason for this is it’s a legacy of colonialism. So that, after the colonial period and the post-colonial period, it was sort of recognized that indigenous communities had common rights to the land that they lived on throughout history. But they didn’t have any actual title. They just had sort of vague common rights.
While the governments were given, like every government was seen as actually having the final right to all of the land in a country. And what’s happening is that the indigenous claims to the land are being kind of removed. They are not treated as having the same basis as private property. And so these lands can be expropriated in land grabs.
A lot of this is now in order to gain hold of natural capital and ecosystem services. And it is ripe for corruption. My article starts out with a massive case of corruption in Malaysia’s state of Borneo, Sabah. So we’re seeing struggles of indigenous people over this financialization of the earth as well.
FRIES: John, I’ll quickly round off for viewers on points you just made about the struggle of indigenous peoples and the innate power of capital. First, on the fairy tale of the innate power of capital and so liens on the future production of the economy, as the ecological economist Herman Daly has put it to cite a few lines from your Defense of Nature article : “…the capitalist growth economy, while continuing to profit in the course of its creative destruction, is ultimately faced with physical limits of an Earth System, which does not, like compound interest, increase exponentially. Real physical wealth emanating from nature and ultimately derived from solar energy is subject to the entropy law and cannot generate endless rapid growth as in the case of ‘symbolic monetary debt!’The conflict between finance-based economic expansion and the ecological basis of society is thus inevitable.”
In the context of struggles of indigenous peoples to cite the same article : “This struggle is occurring on all three continents of the Global South and in regions of the Global North an indication of how close the ties are between neocolonialism and the natural capital juggernaut.”
As you say in these articles, the financialization of the earth is promoting a Great Expropriation of the global commons and the dispossession of humanity on an unprecedented scale. Give us now some big picture context and also historical context on your ecological critique of how financialization is also an expropriation.
FOSTER: Well, Karl Marx once said and this is a paraphrase but it’s very close to what he said. He said: Nobody owns the earth. Not even all the people on the planet, own the earth. We hold it in trust as good heads of the household for future generations, for the entire chain of human generations. You know, in terms of humanity, if anyone has a right to the earth, to the planet, it’s all of us together. Or certainly, we hold it in trust for the future. To sell it off to private services is another matter altogether.
Karl Polanyi, the great economic anthropologist, once said that: converting nature into real estate was the most extreme invention of our ancestors. But now we’re going a step further. It’s not about ownership of land, but it’s the selling off and integration into the financial world of all that nature does, all of its ecosystem services across the planet. And parceled out and turned into debts and derivatives and revenue streams which will be owned by capital.
Things that were previously considered the free gifts of nature will now be owned by financial interests and private financial interests. That means a few will own ecosystem services and the rest of the population of the earth will be dispossessed.
FRIES: Speaking now in the context of a system of production, explain more about the term expropriate. So, what exactly does that mean?
FOSTER: Expropriate basically means taking without return. We have to take from nature in our production. And there’s nothing wrong with the free appropriation of nature on behalf of humanity as a whole. There is a problem when nature is treated as a free gift to capital as nothing but a means to capital accumulation.
There’s a problem when the appropriation of nature doesn’t occur in a sustainable way. That is, there’s no reciprocity. There’s no giving back in any way. So that it becomes a form of robbery. You’re taking without replacing and that always results in destruction. And our system basically, does that.
Now, there are resources that are irreplaceable. That can’t be replaced. Herman Daly set out how we can use all resources sustainably. And we have to conform to those rules or we’re really destroying the ecological basis of our own existence.
Ecologists talk about the tap and the sink. The tap refers to what we extract from nature. We also have the problem of the sink. That is where do we dispose of the waste from production. And carbon dioxide emissions are basically a waste from production.
Which on a small scale wouldn’t really be very important there. I mean carbon dioxide is part of our own respiratory system. But on the scale in which emissions are occurring today and concentrating carbon in the atmosphere, we’re producing climate change, which is threatening civilization and the very systems of humanity.
When we think about production, we have to think about not only the tap that is the extraction; we also have to think about the sink where the wastes go. And there are rules in terms of sustainability and how we can live on the planet with these limitations. But capitalism is not geared to anything like that. It has one goal and that’s the profit motive or accumulation of capital or the increase in stockholders’ equity however you want to look at it.
That’s what drives capital. It really doesn’t see anything else. And in the process of growing, even as our economy grows, we’re destroying the natural system around us which the very basis of our existence.
FRIES: You point out that in Marx’s view it was necessary in any critique of capitalism to understand not only the enormous productive forces generated by capital but also the negative destructive side of capitalism’s interaction with the environment. And for this, Marx placed an emphasis on natural science.
This emphasis can be seen in his treatment of capitalist agriculture where Marx was the first major economist, as you say, to incorporate concepts like metabolism and the science of thermodynamics into the analysis of production.
Your argument being ecological thought has deep roots in the 19th century and the influence of Karl Marx. Talk about those deep roots of present day ecological thinking.
FOSTER: In the beginning of 19th century around 1815, I think, the natural scientists working mainly in physiology started to develop analyses of cell metabolism. And so this was very important in the development of biology, physiology and so on. And Marx had a friend, Roland Daniels, who was a physician, physician scientist.
Many of the scientists in those days came out of being physicians. And Daniels wrote a book called the Mikrokosmos which had only one reader and that was Karl Marx. It wasn’t actually published until the 1980s in Germany, I think, but Marx read it.
Daniels had used the concept of metabolism in a broader ecological sense to look at the systemic relations between plants and animals and the earth. So he was using metabolism as a systems ecology concept; beginning to do that.
At the same time, the concept of metabolism was also being used in the development of thermodynamics. Especially the first law of thermodynamics on the conservation of energy. So metabolism was being used in that sense.
Justus von Liebig, who was the leading German chemist and very influential agricultural chemist, introduced the notion of metabolism in looking at the disruptions that were occurring in agriculture at the time, as a result of industrialized agriculture.
At any rate in the 1850s, really under the influence of Daniels, Marx began to use the concept of metabolism as a systemic concept. And he introduced the notion of social metabolism. And he developed this analysis in his Critique of Political Economy and in Capital. So he was the one who introduced the notion of social metabolism.
Social metabolism was really related to the labor and production process. So that in engaging in the labor process and in production, human beings were transforming their relation to the earth. They were taking what nature provided and transforming it. And in the production, of course, transforming themselves and society.
But Marx made this powerful socio-ecological connection unlike any other thinker in his time or maybe even in our own. Where the understanding of production with his whole class analysis and so on, his whole social analysis was unified with ecological analysis through the concept of social metabolism.
And not only that, he introduced the concept called the universal metabolism of nature. Marx didn’t talk just about nature. He talked about natural processes in terms of metabolism. And he talked about the universal metabolism of nature. Basically, what we would call earth system processes today.
Under capitalism, he argued that the social metabolism was alienated. So we had a destructive relation to nature. The social metabolism came in conflict with the universal metabolism of nature. And in those cases, what happened was a rift between human beings and nature.
Marx wrote of the irreparable rift in the interdependent social metabolism between humanity and nature. And we call this the metabolic rift. And his theory of ecological crisis, which was very pronounced and connected to his whole critique of the social system, is really defined by this analysis of the metabolic rift.
Marx’s usage of metabolism actually influenced other thinkers in his time and afterwards. For example, the leading British natural scientist, the leading British biologist really a zoologist E. Ray Lancaster (Darwin and Huxley’s protégé) was also a close friend of Marx. Lancaster was the leading developer of an ecological crisis analysis in the late 19th and early 20th century.
This same ecological systems approach, which was rooted in metabolism, gave rise to the concept ofecosystems, which is our main ecological concept. And that was developed by Lancaster’s student, the botanist, Arthur Tansley. And working in conjunction with systems theory developed by the Marxist mathematician, Hyman Levy, but building on this conception of metabolism.
This all goes forward from there. So that we now speak of the earth system metabolism. So Marx’s approach is completely integrated with science. Ecological science down to the present day operates with these same conceptions.
FRIES: I’ll have another stab at some of your essential argument on how financialization is also an expropriation and relate it to the robbing of natureyou referred to earlier. So take us through the 19th century concept of robbing the soil into the present where as you write in the Defense of Nature article that : “The Original Expropriation has metamorphosed into a planetary juggernaut, a robbery system encompassing the entire earth, leading to a more universal dispossession and destruction.”
And with respect to the Original Expropriation to cite the Nature as a Mode of Accumulation article : “The expropriation of the commons, its simplification, division, violent seizure and transformation into private property constituted the fundamental precondition for the historical origin of capitalism. What Karl Marx referred to as the original expropriation of the commons in England and in much of the world (often involving the expropriation of laborers in various forms of slavery and forced labor) generated the concentrations of wealth and power that propelled the late 18th and early 19th century’s Industrial Revolution.”
So in a nutshell, from the Original Expropriation to the Great Expropriation, explain this reference to the robbery of nature.
FOSTER: In the book The Robbery of Nature that Brett Clark and I wrote together, we connected the issue of the rift, the metabolic rift to the issue of the robbery of nature. Going back to Marx and his discussions in Capital and elsewhere and to Justus von Liebig and others we argued that the rift, the metabolic rift, or the rift in the metabolism between human beings and nature was a product of the robbery of nature. Not addressing the need for reciprocity and sustainability in the relation to nature.
So, taking from nature and not giving back is a form of theft or robbery, expropriation in fact. So expropriation is a form of robbery, stealing. But not just nature, it is expropriation of human bodies in many cases. We look at slavery. We look at the oppression of women, problems of social reproduction.
These kinds of issues, the oppression of women, slavery, the super-exploitation of people in the Global South are all issues of robbery. And the seizure, of course, the financialization of nature, land grabs, these are all forms of expropriation that then create the basis of private property and capital accumulation.
Capitalism constantly seeks to expropriate people, resources, land, and nature in order to expand its system. So the robbery of nature is integral to the problem of the metabolic rift.
Metabolic rift Marx explained originally in terms of the soil crisis in England and elsewhere in the 19th century. Where industrial capitalist agriculture was intensively removing nutrients (such as nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium) from the soil in the food and fiber that was being exported to the urban center with a concentrated industrial population.
The nutrients, which were being, shipped hundreds, maybe thousands of miles to the cities did not return to the soil again. So they had to try and get bones from the Napoleonic battlefields and the catacombs of Europe to have natural fertilizer for the soil. And guano from Peru establishing the whole massive guano trade where they used Chinese labor, basically expropriating their bodies and killing them off very rapidly. In order to get the guano (the bird droppings) to fertilize the soil in England which was being depleted by industrial agriculture.
This kind of robbery of the soil is a model of how capitalism robs resources and land everywhere. Taking without putting back. Not following ecological principles, ignoring permaculture, building monocultures and basically destroying the earth.
So the robbery is the source of really the metabolic rift itself. And that rift between human beings and nature is how we can understand ecological crisis. It’s all rooted in the system of production, the capitalist system of production which has now been globalized and financialized and is really driving the world to the wall.
FRIES: The capitalist system of production, as we all know, is based on commodity production for exchange value and endless capital accumulation. So a treadmill of exchange, profit and accumulation.
Your Monthly Review articles clarify how the concept of natural capital originally arose as a defense against the capitalist system of production for exchange value. Briefly explain that then the related concept of the Lauderdale Paradox.
FOSTER: You have to go back really to the 19th century and the concept of natural capital was introduced by socialists and radicals in opposition to the expropriation of nature in their time, the turning of nature into exchange value. Which in our terms was at a fairly crude level. But land was being taken over and turned into exchange value, being turned into capital.
The concept of natural capital was opposed to the turning of all of nature (and in those days they were thinking simply of land and raw materials) into cash, into exchange value, into the cash nexus. They argued that we had a natural capital stock that we had to protect that. And they saw it in use value terms. That is natural material use value terms. We had to protect this stock of nature.
They argued that if nature which was the essential basis of human existence (material nature and the land and the resources and the forests and so on) were brought into the system of exchange value under capital (which they were seeing happening in their day and land turned into real estate markets and so on private real estate markets) that this would destroy the basis of a natural existence on which we depend.
You see figures like Ebenezer Jones in his famous book on the land in England. And figures like Karl Marx arguing for a conception of natural capital that’s based on use value and not exchange value. Marx later abandoned the notion of natural capital because he thought that it led to a notion of the naturalization of capitalism. And so he adopted a different vocabulary distinguishing between earth matter for nature and earth capital that is when capital takes over nature and turns it into exchange value.
And there’s a notion known as the Lauderdale Paradox named after the Earl of Lauderdale in the early 19th century. He developed this notion that capitalism, he didn’t use the term capitalism but it was implicit. I mean the term did not really exist at that time. He was talking about natural material use values constituting public wealth like the water, the forests, crops.
He argued that capitalism or the system of private exchange, since it depended on exchange it depended on scarcity. That things only really had value or could be marketed if they had a price. And price depended on scarcity.
So that water that was freely available and abundant did not have a price, had no exchange value. And the air had no exchange value because it was abundant, freely available. And you could apply this to other aspects of nature and they were actually kind of free gifts.
Capitalism came in and one of the things that it does in order to make an exchange value economy and profit off it is they want to make these resources scarce. And one way you make them scarce is just by creating private ownership and private monopolies, which then can restrict the access of others to the resources. If there are wells for water, if somebody comes in and takes it over and it becomes a private monopoly, they can charge money for water.
So the private economy works at destroying public wealth in various ways. And systematically works at that in order to create private markets. And Ebenezer Jones in The Land Monopoly talked about: what would happen if the air in the vicinity of London were turned into a private market? He was writing in the early 19th century, so this wasn’t really the case but we can understand it now.
All of these thinkers argued that nature had to be seen as a natural material use value, the basis of our existence. And it could not be reduced to exchange value, to the cash nexus of the market, without destroying the basis of our existence. And that was how the concept of natural capital arose. The emphasis was on natural. That this was a stock within nature and a permanent stock on which we depended.
FRIES: As you write in your Nature as a Mode of Accumulation article this concept of natural capital rooted in use value : “Was reintroduced into the economic discussion in the 1970s and 1980s beginning with Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful, to highlight the‘liquidation’of ‘natural capital’ stock as a failure of the first order of the modern economic system, representing the view of ecological economics.”
You also explain, in a thermodynamic based tradition, ecological economists initially inspired by Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen’s 1971 publication, The Entropy Law and the Economic Process also embraced this notion of natural capital. And wedded it, as you say, to the notion of “critical natural capital” in conformity with what’s known as the strong sustainability postulate.
An approach which established limits to growth and determined sustainability in biophysical, so use value terms. And critical to this were the three principles of sustainability introduced by Herman Daly, that you referred to earlier. The first principle was for renewable sources, the second for a non-renewable source and third for a pollutant.
You go on to write in this same article that : “The basic elements of Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen’s thermodynamic critique of neoclassical economics were accepted from the start by Marxists economists and viewed as consistent with Marxian tradition, though lacking a social critique.”
So talk now about the neoclassical response to all this and other approaches inspired by other prominent like-minded figures like Howard Odum, for example. In other words, talk now about the neoclassical response to an ecological economics tradition in which the concept of natural capital was rooted in use value terms.
FOSTER: Neoclassical economists worked on turning this into an exchange value concept. In the beginning of this century, neoclassical economics sort of took over ecological economics to a large extent, which had been a dissident tradition. And reduced the natural capital concept to a concept of exchange value that is to be measured as capital, in monetary terms, to be a monetized asset.
The notion of use value, of nature as constituting use value, really isn’t present at all in neoclassical economics, which doesn’t use the concept of use value. So basically, there was this switch.
Part of the switch was associated with the calculations they made of ecosystem services and of natural wealth. And once those calculations were made on largely bogus grounds, because they were turning into hypothetical markets things that weren’t markets at all, but once they put a price tag on it then capital started to see, well, how can we actually make these into markets that we can then capitalize on.
FRIES: Talk about how these calculations that put a price tag on nature were arrived at.
FOSTER: If you look at how this happened, there was actually a big debate about this in ecological economics. But those who wanted to reduce nature to exchange value or at least to calculate this won out. And the primary figure in this was Costanza who was also Editor of Ecological Economics.
In 1997, they came out with the first calculation of what the world ecosystem services we’re worth in monetary value. Now you have to understand that these are not actual markets. So they did all sorts of fancy maneuvering to convert what nature does into markets.
So they divided what nature does globally into 17 ecosystem services occurring all over the planet. And they came up with values for each of these ecosystem services based on methods like hedonic pricing, which is basically a way of just attributing a value to nature based on comparisons with current practices.
So they use these kinds of techniques and they use what they call contingent valuation where they draw up hypothetical markets and then survey consumers on what they’re willing to pay. They use these kinds of techniques to value some particular ecosystem. And then they extrapolate the studies to that ecosystem globally and come up with values. They did this for like 17 different ecosystem services globally and that becomes then the value of ecosystem services throughout the planet.
They ostensibly did this in order to put a value on nature so that that people would protect it. But the moment this started to happen, and it was predictable, capital began to see that these ecosystem services could be turned into markets. Valued and turned into markets and financed through debt, that ends up purchased and a basis for financial accumulation.
This same group under Costanza came out with another estimate of the world ecosystem services, which was even higher. And you had all of these massive meetings of corporations and the establishment of natural capital protocols and various ways of organizing and studying and figuring out how to create markets out of these ecosystem services that emerged in which all of the giant corporations were directly involved.
FRIES: Give us more of an idea of the ramifications of this switch in ecological economics.
FOSTER: In the 21st century, nature is now treated as capital, as exchange value, as a source of exchange value. And if you look at the concept of natural capital that is seen in this new kind of neoclassical…the dominant economic perspective, natural capital is used for the underlying natural asset, which is now seen as ecological capital.
But all of the estimates and projections and all the financialization is based on the concept of ecosystem services, which is seen as the revenue stream provided by nature. When nature does things like photosynthesis, it’s providing a service supposedly to the world economy.
Nature doesn’t know it’s doing that, as you know, we might say. But in their theory, nature is providing an ecosystem service to the world economy, which like any revenue stream can be capitalized on.
Basically once they figure that there is a revenue stream here from ecosystem services derived from the underlying asset of natural capital, they can then take that revenue stream and divide it by the discount rate and multiply it by a hundred percent to get an expected stream of revenue way into the future. Say into a century in the future and then they can impose debt on the basis of that revenue stream and financialize nature and make huge profits.
FRIES: Talk more specifically on how natural capital defined in exchange value terms came to stand for and represent the view of ecological economics.
FOSTER: If you look at Ecological Economics, the journal, which was associated with the International Association for Ecological Economics, they actually had a battle between Howard Odum, one of the chief developers of systems ecology in the world, and Robert Costanza over whether the journal was going to go the route of seeing nature as exchange value or whether ecological economics was going to have a deep conception of ecology based on use value.
Howard Odum and the other scientists that he was associated with that had been in part of the founding of Ecological Economics, the journal, were basically thrown out. That is sort of the beginning of ecological economics becoming something different, captured by or recaptured by neoclassical economics.
You have people like Robert Solow, the most prestigious neoclassical growth theorist said that if natural resources could be substituted for, then effectively they don’t matter and can be left out altogether.
That actually is what was done with the neoclassical production function. Labor and capital are the only factors of production and nature and land is excluded altogether. The whole notion of use value in nature is excluded altogether. Everything, absolutely everything is reduced to exchange value.
Then that provided the kind of theoretical basis for weak substitutability, which is the notion that nature doesn’t really matter. That markets can substitute for natural resources and whatever in nature does. And that connected up with the development of the estimates like Costanza’s and others of world ecosystem services.
Pretty soon we have these notions of the financialization of the earth. Not simply in an academic sense, now transferred from the academic world into the world of capital where corporations and governments began to put into plans the policies, calculations, methods, structures for actually turning ecosystem services everywhere on the planet into economic markets which capital can finance and accumulate on the basis of.
FRIES: So, John, we have been talking about the argument you put forward that this financialization of the earth as a new ecological regime is accelerating the destruction of planetary ecosystems and of the earth as a safe home for humanity. Talk for a moment about how even before this new ecological regime, you warned of an accelerating pace of devastation compared to earlier periods of capitalism.
Among examples of this, you write about how Darwin in his time had been struck by how European colonization turned the ecology of the island of Saint Helena into a desert in just three centuries. The island of Saint Helena having been made famous by the voyage of the Beagle. Yet in the current stage of capitalism, the biogeochemical processes of the entire Earth System were altered in just two generations.
FOSTER: I wrote about this in my book The Vulnerable Planet in 1994 where I was explaining how we were crossing the thresholds of the biogeochemical processes of the planet and threatening the whole earth system. But what struck me, and what I wrote about then, is the speed with which it’s occurring. The speed was in terms of climate change.
We’ve seen massive geological changes in the history of the earth. But we haven’t seen anything that occurs with this speed. This is one of the reasons why we can point to the anthropogenic causes and the anthropogenic rift in the earth system, which is how we define the coming of the Anthropocene Epoch in earth system history. And it’s really the speed of the change.
The scientific reports although the IPCC have tried to keep up with this, but all of their reports I think all the way along have underestimated the speed with which we are transforming nature. And this is under the pressure of a system of capital accumulation geared to exponential growth.
At this point, we generate vast, vast amounts of economic and ecological waste. Things that people neither need nor really want. We have a marketing system, a massive multi-trillion dollar marketing system, geared to getting people to buy more and more. And our system is geared to the fastest growth possible. And in order to compound that even in periods of economic expansion, we draw more and more on extracting from natural systems.
This is a high-energy intensive system. It doesn’t take care of people’s needs. The wealth created is not going to the populations. And in the dominant ideology, they don’t even talk about trickle-down anymore, which they talked about in my youth, because everyone knows that that’s false.
So we are creating a system that doesn’t benefit the human population economically, while we’re actually destroying the entire earth. And the motor of this is a capital accumulation process. That is now highly financially and globalized and has become the enemy of humanity and the planet. We put profits before people and the planet in all cases in this society. You can’t solve things that way.
Capital wants to say: well, technology will solve the problem because they don’t want social transformation. They want to say: well, we can do it with technology. And the population falls for that because they have cell phones in their pockets and they think: oh, technology is absolutely wonderful.
But no matter how wonderful cell phones are that communication technology and other technologies we have do not allow us to transcend the laws of physics. And we’re right up against that today. And, it spells an unimaginable crisis really for the population of the earth.
FRIES: The Anthropocene Epoch you referred to is of course a reference to geological time. To cite the flyer from your forthcoming book the Anthropocene Epoch marks “a changed reality in which human activities are now the main geological force impacting the earth as a whole, generating at the same time an existential crisis for the world’s population.”
Talk more about the issue of the capitalist argument that technology can save humanity from ecological ruin. So things like geoengineering.
FOSTER: Well, it’s not just geoengineering but things like carbon sequestration methods and direct air capture. But it’s interesting in the Sixth Assessment Report, AR6 of the IPCC, the mitigation part of the report, Part III by Working Group Three was published in April of this year. But the actual scientific consensus report, the report as written by the scientists themselves, was completed in August 2021.
Governments in the IPCC process have the right to come in and rewrite the scientific report, the Summary for Policy Makers (SPM). They rewrote the science report entirely. Practically every line in the scientific consensus report was censored by governments. And in some places turned into the direct opposite.
We know this because Scientist Rebellion in August 2021 leaked the scientific consensus report on mitigation which we posted on the Monthly Review website. So you can compare what the scientists decided, to the published Summary for Policy Makers (SPM) from governments.
We find that in the scientific consensus report they said: these technologies are not available. Won’t work, cannot play a major role in keeping us below 1.5 degrees Celsius, or even below 2.0 degrees Celsius. And they said other things like coal-fired plants had to be eliminated globally this decade. And what we need is basically, low energy solutions, which can improve societies’ conditions. As that report said: improve the conditions of everybody on earth but also using less energy in the process.
FRIES: Back in 2019 in writing on how capitalism has failed and asking what’s next you argued that :“Once sustainable human development, rooted not in exchange values, but in use values and genuine human needs, comes to define historical advance, the future, which now seems closed, will open up in a myriad ways, allowing for entirely new, more qualitative, and collective forms of development.”
So, what’s coming across loud and clear in all this is how, the way you see it, the underlying structure of capital accumulation itself is what’s standing in the way of real solutions to the ecological crisis.
FOSTER: The irony is that capitalism has created this ecological crisis and is generating it. And the answer of capital (and this is typical of the system) is that we just need a more intensive, a more extreme form of capital accumulation. The answer to the ecological crisis created by capital is to turn all of the world ecology into capital. To make the entirety of nature conform to economic laws essentially. And the economists and the capitalists say this is the answer.
The reason why that sells, despite the illogical nature of it, is that for capital that’s always the answer. If there is a crisis, the crisis is because there’s too little capital, not too much. From capital’s standpoint, the answer to every crisis, let’s say an economic crisis is to redistribute income from the poor to the rich, that is increase the power of capital. If there’s a problem, an ecological crisis, the answer is to increase the power of capital markets and expand it into nature.
Paul Hawken argues and others with him in his book Natural Capitalism argues we don’t really have capitalism until all of nature is part of capital, is part of capitalism. But that’s absurd.
We live within a planet. Capitalism exists within the planet. Human society exists within the planet. Human beings live within the planet. We can’t turn the entire planet earth into some kind of attribute of the capitalist market system without destroying the world. But that’s exactly what we’re doing.
The solution to the ecological crisis that they’re advocating doesn’t involve taking energy efficiency and turning it into conservation like you see in Cuba. They take energy efficiency and turn it into a greater expansion of the economic system. And that doesn’t help. That’s what we call the Jevons Paradox. That the more efficient we are in the use of resources, the more resources we use. Because the object is not to conserve but it’s to expand the economy and the accumulation of capital. Well in such a system, you’re headed towards destruction.
Now the destruction is very close upon us. We’re very close now to the 1.5 degree increase in global average temperature. And the latest IPCC report (AR 6, the physical science basis) in their most optimistic scenario we will hit 1.5 degrees Celsius in 2040. That would require a kind of revolutionary scale social transformation to accomplish.
More likely we’re going to hit 1.5 degrees Celsius this decade, in this decade, in just a few years. We’re headed over the edge of the cliff in terms of the tipping point for the climate where we will reach irreversible climate change.
Even in the most optimistic scenario, we’re facing major catastrophes in the next few decades. But if we don’t take the action that prevents irreversible change, we will be threatening civilization itself in the broadest sense and the human species and billions of people on earth.
We have to have a different method. Sixty years we’ve known about climate change (accelerated climate change or accelerated global warming) and all we’ve done is promote capitalist solutions that have gotten us closer to the edge of the cliff. And we’re now on a runaway train. It’s time to pull the emergency brake.
FRIES: There is a lot more behind this and a lot more to come in your forthcoming book on Capitalism in the Anthropocene: Ecological Ruin or Ecological Revolution but for today we are going to have to leave it there. John Bellamy Foster, thank you.
FOSTER: Thank you.
FRIES: And from GPEnewsdocs in Geneva, Switzerland thank you for joining us.
John Bellamy Foster, is an American professor of sociology at the University of Oregon and editor of the Monthly Review. He writes about political economy of capitalism and economic crisis, ecology and ecological crisis, and Marxist theory.
The justices curtailed the authority of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) over emissions from coal-fired power plants in a case brought by 19 Republican-leaning states and fossil fuel interests led by West Virginia.
Following a decade-long battle, the court ruled that Congress had not granted the EPA broad authority to regulate the energy sector under the landmark 1970 Clean Air Act.
U.S. President Joe Biden described the ruling as “another devastating decision that aims to take our country backwards.
“While this decision risks damaging our nation’s ability to keep our air clean and combat climate change, I will not relent in using my lawful authorities to protect public health and tackle the climate crisis,” he said.
But Li Shuo, Senior Climate & Energy Policy Officer for Greenpeace East Asia, suggested that if the U.S. failed to keep its promises, Beijing would be unlikely to curb its own coal consumption agreed under the two countries’ climate agreements.
The U.S. tops the list of countries that have emitted the biggest amount of carbon dioxide in total since the industrial revolution.
China’s tally of emissions since then only comes to about half that of the U.S.
In 2019, a report released by Durham and Lancaster University found the U.S. military to be “one of the largest climate polluters in history, consuming more liquid fuels and emitting more CO2e (carbon-dioxide equivalent) than most countries.”
Morning Star is the socialist daily newspaper published in Great Britain.
Photo: Climate justice rally in Augusta. | Courtesy of 350 Maine
Maine climate activists condemned a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday that severely limits the power of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to combat climate change and has broader implications for federal authority.
“This case is really about coal companies’ radical agenda to try and save themselves,” said Ania Wright, an organizer with Sierra Club Maine. “Coal companies and far-right politicians want the Supreme Court to gut the Clean Air Act and return to the legal framework that we had before the 1970s.”
In the 6-3 decision on West Virginia v. Environmental Protection Agency, the conservative-majority Supreme Court sided with a block of states led by West Virginia that preemptively sought to block the Biden administration from setting standards that are likely to result in a shift away from coal plants and toward those powered by cleaner energy sources.
At the heart of the case was the Clean Power Plan, an Obama administration policy to force power plants to bring down carbon emissions that was first proposed by the EPA in 2014. But the CPP never actually went into effect. It was stopped by the courts and abandoned by the Trump administration and President Joe Biden never brought it back.
Coming on the heels of other far-right decisions by the court on abortion, guns and the separation of church and state, Thursday’s ruling was seen as particularly extreme as it has the potential to severely constrain the executive branch from responding to climate change and other problems.
“Instead of empowering the EPA to clean up deadly toxins, this radical Supreme Court has granted another giveaway to corporate polluters at the expense of human health and the preservation of our communities,” Maine Rep. Chellie Pingree said in a statement after the ruling. “Make no mistake: this decision will set us back years in the fight against climate change.”
Around the country, climate activists condemned the ruling and the court as illegitimate.
“A Supreme Court that sides with the fossil fuel industry over the health and safety of its people is anti-life and illegitimate,” the youth-led Sunrise Movement tweeted.
“Minority rule in the United States is a threat to life on earth,” tweeted Kate Aronoff, author of “A Planet to Win: Why We Need a Green New Deal”.
The opinion, authored by Chief Justice John Roberts, doesn’t go as far as outright banning the EPA from regulating greenhouse gases, but it does take a much narrower interpretation of what the EPA is authorized to do under the Clean Air Act. Previous courts found that greenhouse gases fit within the act’s definition of “air pollutants,” which the EPA is tasked with regulating. The act was passed in the 1970s before climate change had become a major policy concern, and the court previously found the act flexible enough for the EPA to regulate what lawmakers hadn’t specifically anticipated at the time.
The legal justification used to overturn the precedent was developed by Justice Brett Kavanaugh — who Sen. Susan Collins played a pivotal role in seating on the bench — during his 12 years on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.
In the lower court, Kavanaugh voted in a number of cases to limit the regulatory power of the EPA, citing the “major questions doctrine,” which he says prevents a federal agency from regulating something “major” unless it has specifically been ordered to by an act of Congress.
In her dissenting opinion, however, liberal Justice Elena Kagan noted that the “major questions doctrine” is made up. “The majority claims it is just following precedent, but that is not so,” she writes. “The Court has never even used the term ‘major questions doctrine’ before.”
On top of kneecapping the EPA, the decision has broader implications for curtailing the authority of the executive branch.
“Like many recently invented doctrines beloved by the court’s conservatives, the major-questions doctrine is infinitely flexible. Where’s the line between a major question and a minor question? Wherever the conservative majority wants to draw it,” Washington Post columnist Paul Waldman wrote. “In practice, the court’s conservatives can just forbid agencies from carrying out any regulatory activity they don’t like, on the grounds that it’s too ‘major.’”
The decision could also make it harder to pass sweeping legislation like the Affordable Care Care, which was laid out in broad strokes by Congress, leaving many of the technical details to the federal agencies in charge of implementing the health care reform.
Executive action has also been used by Democratic and Republican administrations as a way to bypass gridlock in Congress, where the Senate’s anti-democratic filibuster rule currently makes most meaningful legislation impossible.
Rather than feeling powerlessness to effect change at the federal level, Wright said the court’s decision will allow climate activists to see more clearly the vested interests that lie in the way of bold environmental policies.
“The Supreme Court has an incredible amount of power and influence in the U.S.,” she said. “But there’s other tools that we can use, including state policy. That’s where we’ve seen a lot of climate action in the last couple of years and some true leadership.”
Wright said law and policy is just one tool for creating change and explained that this moment calls for deeper movement building.
“This is also a call for solidarity and intersectionality as we move forward,” she said. “This isn’t just the EPA ruling. It’s the Roe ruling. It’s the gun legislation ruling. It’s so many things. I think we can’t allow our movements to be siloed into these single-issue areas. They’re all interconnected.”
Dan Neumann studied journalism at Colorado State University before beginning his career as a community newspaper reporter in Denver. He reported on the Global North’s interventions in Africa, including documentaries on climate change, international asylum policy and U.S. militarization on the continent before returning to his home state of Illinois to teach community journalism on Chicago’s West Side. He now lives in Portland. Dan can be reached at email@example.com.