Destroy what destroys the planet: Steering creative destruction in the dual crisis.

Author:Holgersen, Stale


The severity of ongoing climate change and other environmental problems should be apparent for all who want to see. Just to state the obvious: To refrain from 'beyond-the-dangerous' effects of climate change, the global emissions of greenhouse gases must be drastically reduced as soon as possible. In order to have a reasonable chance at reaching the widely acknowledged 2[degrees]C target and simultaneously give space for Southern development, the already industrialized countries must probably reduce emissions by 90% by 2030 (Anderson 2012). This requires firm action, and further procrastination will be devastating (Anderson 2012; Hansen et al. 2013; Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 2014).

Almost in parallel with an increased public concern over the state of the earth, in 2007-2008 the world was thrown into a severe economic crisis. Shortly after the crash, it became obvious that this crisis was more serious than just another real estate bubble; it was the largest crisis in the capitalist system for almost a century--extraordinary in its scope and depth. And even today, some 8 years later, the global North is still struggling to regain earlier growth rates (Eurostat 2015).

This article stresses that the economic (crisis) policies should not be considered without considering environmental, mainly climate, effects and the understanding that the climate crisis cannot be handled without acknowledging some fundamental facts about capitalism. And although some more critical works on the dual crisis have begun to appear (see Foster et al. 2010; Klein 2014), the dominant views and major policy recommendations are still within established paradigms. Concerning the environment, hegemonic views tend to hold different forms of ecological modernization--the optimistic believe that growth and environmental sustainability are compatible and constitute a win-win situation (McLaughlin 2012; York et al. 2010). Concerning the economy, two major attempts have been mobilized to solve the crisis, first the 'Keynesian episode of 2008-9' and thereafter the age of austerity (Callinicos 2012; Corsetti 2012).

This article has a different point of departure. We question both these alternatives, as they are likely to achieve neither a green transition nor a lasting growth cycle. We argue that capital destruction is a missing component of other attempts to solve both the economic and ecological crises. Measures like public investment programmes or cuts to public spending will not be sufficient for the economy, and neither neoliberal greening strategies nor Keynesian green new deals will save the environment. To 'solve' the economic crisis, capital has to be destroyed, and to solve the climate crisis, fossil fuel infrastructure needs to be demolished. The guiding question of the article is whether it is politically possible to destroy the 'right' capital--that is, the fossil capital--and thereby attack both the economic and the ecological crises.

However, suggesting destruction of fossil capital as strategy for both crises is not a quick fix. Rather, we would like to place the environmental crisis in heterodox economic theory, which tolerates complexities far beyond simple win-win situations. For example, the main driver behind climate change is probably endless economic growth--yet, we suggest a strategy for economic crisis management that will probably be beneficial for economic growth. Also, we criticize Keynesian green new deals for not being able to solve either of the two crises--but still, large investment programmes are definitely needed to build up new and fossil-free societies.

We do believe in the need to articulate suggestions for reforms that can work within the current system, rather than just wait for an all-encompassing 'revolution'. Simultaneously, we acknowledge that the main causes of both the economic and ecological crisis stem from contradictions and tendencies within this system. In this way, we find ourselves in a volatile and unsettled position. But importantly, in face of the threat of irreversible climate change, any reforms proposed must first and foremost be guided by what is humanly necessary, not by what is economically feasible. In that sense, we regard destruction of fossil capital as a non-reformist reform--a reform that is 'determined not in terms of what can be, but what should be' (Gorz 1968: 8). Such a reform might or might not spark a development leading beyond the existing mode of production. This depends on dynamics that are impossible to foresee and is of secondary importance for the argument here. Let us just conclude that if there is a contradiction between saving the climate and saving the capitalist economy, we rank the former a higher priority.

Through this article, we will focus on climate change, although capitalism is also tearing our planet apart on many other fronts: both ecologically, such as through the rapid losses of biodiversity, and socially through, that is, rising inequalities.

The article is primarily an analytical approach and reflects also upon the role of reforms under capitalism: the very important discussions on strategy--on how to achieve all that we are proposing--are, however, beyond the scope of this very article. With some exceptions towards the end of the article, we leave this to an already ongoing dialogue between politicians, activists and researchers.

The article proceeds through three sections. In the first, we present a brief background to the economic and the ecological crises, some possible relations between them and with which policies they have been met so far. We conclude that both crises are related to the capitalist system, but in different manners. While economic crises are a cyclical phenomena related to problems of profitability and realization, the ecological problem is a cumulative phenomena related to the 'normal workings' of the growing capitalist economy.

In the second section, we articulate two double hypotheses about the economy that have consequences for how we formulate policy recommendations for the ecological crisis: (1) capitalism is dependent upon endless growth, and growth creates environmental pressures; and (2) economic crises are endemic to capitalism, and crises are temporarily 'solved' through massive destruction of capital. If both claims of the first hypothesis are correct, we are trapped between what is necessary for the economy and what is necessary for the ecology. The second claim is, however, mainly empirical and it might be possible to escape the trap by a massive programme for substituting fossil structures with renewable technologies. Luckily, such a programme of fossil capital destruction can also, if the second hypothesis is correct, temporarily 'solve' the current economic crisis.

In the third and last section, we investigate possibilities of politically steering capital destruction flows, look at historical examples that might guide us and end with a brief discussion on how destruction of fossil capital can be formulated as a progressive reform package at the current conjunction.

Policy responses and the two crises

Although environmental problems are probably as old as human civilizations, the history of outspoken environmental policies started in the 1960s. Thus, originally formed and influenced by the post-War Fordist or Keynesian era, their form shifted during the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s towards post-Fordist, neoliberal policies (Klein 2014; Koch 2012).

After debates on 'the limits to growth' (Meadows 1972) and demands raised by the growing environmental movements of radically shifting away from the industrial paradigm, from the 1980s theories emphasizing non-conflictual policies through the use of markets--often referred to as ecological modernization theories--gradually took over. Simultaneously, policies have shifted from an emphasis on state regulations to environmental taxes and, further, to pollution trading. The latter had a major breakthrough in the Kyoto protocol of 1997, and its main manifestation is the European Union (EU) Emission Trading System, launched in 2005. This tendency influenced the broader concept of 'green economy', which was launched to a wider public in the Rio+20 summit of 2012. Whether these kind of measures produce any environmental benefits or not is a matter of discussion (cf. Lohmann 2006; Newell & Paterson 2010); the argument has been made that they are much less efficient--from an environmental perspective--than Fordist 'command and control' types of measures (Klein 2014; Koch 2012; Warlenius 2015). For example, the current main policy strategy to curb climate change--carbontrading systems--is burdened with large problems in the EU because of falling prices on carbon emissions (Gilbertson & Reyes 2009) and attempts to establish similar schemes in the United States and Australia have failed.

When the economic crisis became global in 2008, neoliberalism was still hegemonic both in the economic and environmental policy fields, but with the crisis it was challenged.

According to Corsetti (2012), the fiscal policy responses to the 2008 crisis have gone through two or three phases. In the first phase, focus was on avoiding another Great Depression, and the methods applied by governments led to the 'Keynesian episode of 2008-9' (Callinicos 2012: 74)--including fiscal stimuli and bank bailouts as well as various rescue packages, Keynesian investment programmes and fiscal regulations (Holgersen 2014). There was little or no concern about future deficit corrections; such ideas were considered irrelevant or counterproductive (Corsetti 2012). One consequence of the bailouts was, for example, a transfer of private debt into public, which increased state expenditures. (1) These interventions most certainly prevented the crisis from becoming even more severe, but did not manage to regain 'normal' economic growth rates (Brenner 2009; McNally 2011). Keynesian economists...

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