COP15 and the utopianism of growth-based economics

Six months have passed since COP15 – yet another summit that proved that the conventional wisdom of the present political and economical system is incapable of responding to the environmental and climate-related crises that this system has itself created. COP15 ended with the so-called Copenhagen Accord, a non-binding and unclear document with no real targets.

What COP15 also proved was that the climate justice movement is gaining strength, although not at a rate befitting the urgency and importance of its message. Millions should have demonstrated in Copenhagen and elsewhere for the message to be heard loud and clear by the politicians inside the Bella Center on the 12th of December, and although 100.000 marched in Copenhagen many stayed at home elsewhere.The movement’s all-encompassing nature and message of “change the system, not the climate” is important, however, as it alludes to the interconnecting nature of climate change and the way we organise our societies and the world as a whole, including the fact that those who will be most adversely affected by climate change, the poor people of Africa and elsewhere, are those who have contributed least to global warming and climate change. This view is supported by the 2007/08 UNDP Human Development Report.

The point of systemic change is of vital importance, especially if we are not to fall into the trap of those the so-called “green capitalists” that see mainlytechnical solutions, such as nuclear power, biofuels and new inventions as the solution to the threat of climate change and global warming. The present system feeds on growth and unequal resource distribution, and this growth is to a large extent driven by energy-production that produces vast amounts of CO2, causing global warming and with it severe and irreversible disruptions to the global ecosystem. Trying to fix this present trajectory with half-hearted remedies that do not fundamentally change the wasteful logic of present economical system is less than useful – in fact it will do more harm than good, as it fools those who want to believe that we are not heading for disaster (i.e. basically all of us) into believing that something is being done, when in fact there is not.

But while denying, or proposing inadequate solutions to, climate change might be contradictory to scientific evidence, the problem is that the “logic” of economists – Keynsian, Marxist and Neo-liberal, it would seem – demands a planet with more or less infinite capacity to supply the growth-driven, and in many cases wasteful, progress that they advocate. And as I have discussed elsewhere, there is a whole consumerist machine in the rich world and beyond brain-washing us into believing that we must keep buying stuff we do not need. The problem is that the “end of history”-triumphalism of the present economical system that claims this consumerism to be healthy and necessary, and that everything but the present system and way of life is utopian, is itself revealed to be utopian. It is utopian because climatologists, and anyone with a bit of common sense, can see that the planet cannot bear the wastefulness of the present system much longer.

But perhaps the reason for us not believing the evidence of climate change, or not acting upon it, is more psychological than anything else. That the truth is so terrifying that instead of empowering us, it either makes us deny it, makes us defeatist, or makes us believe whatever reassuringly piecemeal changes that the proponents of the present economical logic present us with. But in doing so, we end up believing those who ludicrously see the economical system as being more important than the ecological, instead of those who call for a transformation that will benefit both the environment and the poor.


Natural flows in and out of the atmosphere have been almost exactly in balance for millennia. So it’s not relevant at all that these natural flows are larger than human emissions. The natural flows cancelled themselves out. So the natural flows, large though they were, left the concentration of CO2
in the atmosphere and ocean
constant, over the last few thousand years. Burning fossil fuels, in contrast, creates a new flow of carbon that, though small, is not cancelled” – David Mackay, Sustainable energy – without the hot air: 8

Atmospheric CO2 has increased from a pre-historical concentration of about 280ppmv [parts per million by volume] to nearly 380ppmv at present, which is an increase of 160 billion tonnes, representing an overall 30% increase. To put this increase into context, ice core evidence shows that the last 650,000 years the natural change in atmospheric carbon dioxide has been between 180 and 300ppmv … the level of pollution that we have already caused in one century is comparable to the natural variations which took thousands of years” – Mark Maslin, Global warming – a very short introduction: 8

The years in which more than two degrees of global warming could have been prevented have passed, the opportunities squandered by denial and delay. On current trajectories we’ll be lucky to get away with four degrees” – George Monbiot, “A self-fulfilling prophecy”, The Guardian, 16/3-09

Global warming is one of the few scientific theories that makes us examine the whole basis of modern society” – Mark Maslin, Global warming – a very short introduction: 173


‘Climate capitalism’ won at Cancun – everyone else loses, Patrick Bond, Amandla online

Cancun kan drukne Bangladesh, Arbejderen, 14 december 2010

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