As extreme weather intensifies, and we head closer and closer to environmental catastrophe, it is becoming increasingly apparent that this is due to unequal wealth and power distribution, and the capitalist system that we live under.
Just one example is the crisis of the Murray-Darling basin. After purchasing billions of litres of water in the basin to save inland rivers, the federal government then allowed the draining of this water for the cotton industry, essentially giving a free handout to an already booming industry. The clearing of water has created an artificial ‘drought’ in areas where there is ecological evidence to suggest that even in periods of low rainfall, water levels should remain high. This has caused a huge detriment to the surrounding wetlands, which support important and unique ecosystems, and has resulted in the deaths of around one million fish. In addition, it threatens to cut off water supplies to indigenous communities.
At a protest, Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young stated “This is not about drought. This is about corporate greed, cotton, corruption and, ultimately, climate change is making it all worse”. Under capitalism, the immediate profits of the rich are prioritised over what will actually benefit the whole of society, including the environment.
The vast majority of people have no say over what makes up their environmental footprint including the way industry, food, transport and housing are organised. The measures that most people can take, such as taking shorter showers or buying energy saving appliances, are about as effective as spitting in the Murray River to help replenish water levels.
The problem is that as consumers, people have very little power. The decisions that would actually have an impact on the environment come from the top of society. These are things like the development of new mines, fracking, deforestation, and the releasing and mismanagement of pollutants.
A report released by the Carbon Disclosure Project and the Climate Accountability Institute, found that from 1988 to today, more than 90% of the total greenhouse emissions have come from industry and 71% of the industrial emissions have come from just 100 companies. Oil corporations are even profiting from the melting of polar ice caps, as new sources of oil that were previously too risky to get to are now being revealed.
We’re led to believe that any solution to climate change is too complex to understand let alone to carry out. While it may seem this way, as the gas and coal industries are deeply intrenched into the global market, politics and even everyday life, we already have the solutions and the resources to enact change.
The Worldwide Fund for Nature stated in a report from 2011 that we could move towards 100% renewable energy at a global level by 2050, at a cost of US$4 trillion per year. While that seems like a lot of money, it could come out of the US$1.7 trillion of global annual military spending, or the US$21-32 trillion that the Tax Justice Network estimates is hidden in tax havens.
People first harnessed solar power in the 1800’s, but capitalism requires that short term profits be prioritised over people and the environment. Thus coal is the dominant energy form for much of the world, as it is quicker and easier to generate than investing in new technology. And being able to sell millions of cars in a city without a functioning transport system is a lot more profitable than developing public transport.
Far from finding solutions, the market exacerbates and creates environmental problems. Take for example the recycling crisis occurring now in Australia. One year after China stopped taking on Australia’s recycling, there is now over a million tonnes of recycling just sitting, about to be dumped in the general waste.
A system which claims that dumping recyclable products or sending them to China to be processed is more profitable than locally processing the recycling is totally illogical!
It makes sense that the rich and powerful would want to end climate change. They are not immune to its impacts, and any crisis it caused would pose a serious threat to any remaining stability in the social order. But under capitalism there is a constant drive to out compete one another and to accumulate more and more wealth. For capitalism to remain stable the market must continue to grow, meaning capitalists must sell an increasing amount of their commodity. That means that the fossil fuel industry must continue to extract oil and coal even though this will be disastrous in the ever-nearing future.
Companies claim they are just providing supply and demand, and politicians claim that action on climate change would be unappealing to voters. However, the majority of people believe that more should be done about the environment. A survey conducted by the Lowy institute in 2018 found that 59 percent of Australians agreed with the statement: “Climate change is a serious and pressing problem. We should begin taking steps now even if this involves significant costs”. In addition, 84 percent agreed with the statement: “The government should focus on renewables, even if this means we may need to invest more in infrastructure to make the system more reliable”.
Solving climate change would require challenging not just the 100 companies responsible for 71% of emissions, but the whole system, which profits off environmental destruction and making the rest of society’s lives harder.
We cannot look to politicians or some form of authority to save the environment – it is up to regular people, including students, to transform society into one that is run democratically and in the interest of the mass majority. As environmental destruction ramps up, it is crucial that we discuss and debate these ideas out now.
One opportunity to do so will be tomorrow Wednesday 27th February, here on campus at 1pm. Socialist Alternative’s Curtin club will be hosting ‘Profit vs the Planet’ – a discussion on the climate crisis, and the socialist solution to it. Event details can be found here.
Caitlin Egloff-Barr is a member of Socialist Alternative. Information on their club can be found here.