by Brendan Cooney
Should I Turn Down the Thermostat or Overthrow the Capitalist Mode of Production?: Further Thoughts on Marxist-Humanist Initiative’s Perspective on the Ecological Crisis
Future generations, in writing about this historical moment, may endlessly debate how humanity managed to stare imminent ecological crisis in the face yet do nothing to forestall it. The mystery behind our current inaction will seem even more puzzling given the widespread acceptance of climate science and the widespread concern about climate change. Explanations that appeal merely to bad actors or disinformation will likely not be entirely convincing to future historians given that the failure of inaction is not limited to just some countries in certain years, but rather is a state of inaction that can be claimed by most all political parties of most all countries, extending back in time for decades. Explanations that evoke the mass moral failing of an irresponsible cult of consumerism will also likely fall short given the fact that there is no reliable way for consumers to make informed consumption choices that would noticeably reduce their carbon footprint.
This article advances the argument that the inaction of states, politicians, companies, consumers, etc. can only be understood within the context of the parameters of capitalist production, where competition for profit determines the range of actions available to states, firms, consumers, etc. Because the laws of capitalist production compel growth for its own sake, it is likely impossible to achieve any sort of ecologically sustainable system of production within the capitalist mode of production.
Furthermore, this article argues against the common tendency to regard all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions as the result of production for household consumption, an assumption that tends to focus blame for climate change on the moral failings of individuals. In reality, consumer choices are not the driving factor in the growth of GHG emissions, GHG emissions are not reducible to the carbon footprint of consumption goods, and proposed solutions to climate change that focus on changes to household consumption habits can have little effect on the overall growth of GHG emissions. In the end, this flawed way of thinking is merely a form of victim-blaming, in which individuals are made to feel guilty for massively destructive social forces far beyond the control of individual decision-making, all in order to take the focus away from any substantive social movement aimed at replacing the capitalist mode of production with a more sustainable and rational society.
Lastly, this article criticizes voluntarist conceptions of climate action, which uncritically assume that substantive progress can be made on these issues merely by changing leaders. The critique employs the same framework that was used earlier in the article to criticize notions of consumer-driven climate change.
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The notion that climate change is the product of irresponsible consumer behavior is pervasive. It is so pervasive, permeating so many different aspects of everyday thinking, that even those on the left of the ecological movement often adopt positions and make statements that tacitly accept the idea.
Examples abound within mainstream environmentalism. Take, for instance, a 2020 article in State of the Planet, an online publication by the Columbia Climate School, entitled “How Buying Stuff Drives Climate Change.” In the article, author Renee Cho argues that, “In fact, our consumer habits are actually driving climate change.” Cho also argues that, “After basic needs are met, consumers begin buying items for social status; as people try to acquire more and more status, more and more expensive status products are needed.” It is this decadent behavior, focused on the cult of materialism, that is the problem. The solution, for Cho, is for people to become more conscientious consumers.
Such a perspective, which views the existential threat of climate change as a result of the moral decadence of humans as consumers, cannot help but induce apathy and depression. How are we to change behaviors fast enough to save future generations from climate chaos? How can we justify our daily actions, as consuming humans, if every act of consumption is seen as a moral failing that dooms future generations to suffering? Indeed, a whole new field of therapy is being pioneered to help people deal with the guilt they have around climate change. In a 2021 study of climate anxiety in young people, researchers surveyed attitudes of 10,000 young people from 10 countries. They noted that over half of the respondents listed “guilt” as one of the emotions they feel when thinking about climate change.
Many have adopted the term “Anthropocene” to refer to the current geologic period, because human-driven changes to the environment are modifying the planet on a geologic level. But the term “Anthropocene” makes it sound as if there is something inherent about human behavior itself which is so destructive to the planet. Humans have been on earth for more than 200,000 years. It is only since the industrial revolution that we have begun to have such a dramatic effect on the planet! This has led others to suggest the term “Capitalocene” as a replacement.
Even the term “carbon footprint,” which permeates so much of our discussions of climate change (this article included), takes for granted the idea that each of us has a personal carbon footprint and that the GHG emissions are the collective product of these individual footprints. It should not be a surprise that the popularization of the notion of a personal carbon footprint was a direct product of oil-industry propaganda. In the early 2000s, BP (British Petroleum) launched a “Beyond Petroleum” propaganda campaign, complete with a personal carbon footprint calculator on its website. The idea was, and still is, to get people to associate GHG emissions with their own personal choices as consumers. The campaign was a deliberate, and successful, effort to focus attention away from oil companies and onto the moral failings of individuals.
This campaign followed the highly successful campaign around plastic recycling that was launched by the oil and plastic industry in the 1990s. In response to public opinion, which was becoming increasingly critical of the problem of plastic waste, the plastic and oil industry launched an aggressive plastic recycling campaign. Though industry leaders knew that it was not economical or even practically feasible to recycle most plastics, they put recycling symbols on almost all disposable plastic and launched ad campaigns urging consumers to do their part to save the environment. In reality, only 10% of plastics get recycled. Yet many people regard the growing crisis of plastic in the environment as a result of the failure of people to recycle or properly dispose of their plastic. The industry’s PR campaign was wildly successful in creating a daily behavior that people execute religiously as part of their duty as good citizens and stewards of the planet, as well as a world-view that deems failure to recycle as a crass offense against society. The entire question of responsibility is devolved to the level of the individual.
Even climate activists embrace this way of thinking at times. Take, for instance, climate activist Greta Thunburg’s 2019 trans-Atlantic boat trip in a “zero-carbon yacht.” Thunburg is an inspiring and brilliant thinker in many ways, but this boat ride’s message seemed to be underpinned by the same notion that climate change is the product of the moral failings of individual consumers. The problem was not, as some had argued, that she was engaged in some symbolic individual act by refusing to fly by plane across the ocean. Symbolic acts can be powerful and effective at times. Rather, the problem was that the idea of shaming air travelers takes the whole focus of the discussion away from a sociopathic mode of production and instead puts the focus on the choices we make as consumers.
On its website, the radical ecological activist group Extinction Rebellion states, “Ultimately, the climate and ecological crisis is a crisis of human overconsumption.” What such statements fail to understand is that not all GHG emissions are ultimately reducible to household consumption! A rising share of global emissions are not the result of anyone’s personal consumption. But before getting to that, it is instructive to give some baseline figures about global GHG emissions by sector.
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How Much Carbon Emission comes from Household Consumption?
Some people think of their own personal activity as a microcosm of collective global carbon-emitting activity, as if adding all of the personal consumption of households would arrive at the total carbon footprint of society. Sometimes this way of thinking is supported by statistics that tend to lump together the practices of industry with those of personal consumption. This type of statistical analysis is unfortunate because it obscures the fact that the bulk of carbon emissions do not come from households but instead from industry.
Differentiating the carbon footprint of various sectors of the global economy is notoriously difficult to work out, due to the fact that some sectors serve as inputs to other sectors, production chains are fragmented across the globe, etc. The following figures reflect the best data available at the time of writing (see Figure 1). They are from “Emissions by Sector,” by Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser, published on the website Our World in Data. Unlike some other research on the topic, Ritchie and Roser’s work allows us to see the breakdown of carbon emissions between household consumption and industrial activity for most categories.
Source: Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser, “Emissions by Sector.”
Discussions of the carbon footprint of household consumption typically measure carbon-emitting household activity as the sum of emissions from three sources––home energy costs (electricity and heating), automobile use, and household waste (i.e., methane released from landfills). Looking at Figure 1, we can see that the first source (emissions associated with energy use in “residential buildings”) accounts for 10.9% of global carbon emissions.
Regarding the second source, automobile use, Figure 1 indicates that “road transport” accounts for 11.9% of global emissions. But road transport includes commercial transport as well as personal transport. Ritchie and Roser later explain that “[s]ixty percent of road transport emissions come from passenger travel (cars, motorcycles and buses); and the remaining forty percent from road freight (lorries and trucks).” This means that personal transportation merely accounts for around 7.1% of global emissions.
Regarding the third source, household waste, Figure 1 indicates that emissions associated with waste are 3.2% of all emissions. However, this number includes both industrial waste and household waste, and the authors provide no information that would enable us to apportion it. To be conservative, we will add the entire 3.2% to our total for household carbon footprint. Adding residential building use, transportation, and landfills together, we arrive at the result that 21.2% of global GHG emissions come from household activity.
Any accounting of GHG emissions by sector has to be taken as a rough estimate, because of the difficulties in measurement. Nonetheless, the numbers show a striking difference between the carbon footprint of households, which is just over one-fifth of global carbon emissions, and the carbon footprint of industrial activity, which accounts for nearly four-fifths of emissions.
Given the amount of attention that many individuals give to their own carbon-footprint reduction, especially through attempts to minimize car and air travel, these figures are quite striking. Consider how much we hear about “flying shame,” those that shame others for flying because of the ecological footprint of air travel. Crop burning has a higher carbon footprint (3.5%) than aviation (1.9)! Consider how much we hear about the importance of electric cars, driving less, etc. If all household driving were to cease, this would only shave 7.1% off total GHG emissions!
Still, some would counter that, although industrial activity accounts for almost 80% of carbon emissions, this activity is all directed toward the production of consumer goods that are purchased and consumed by households. Thus, they would claim that all of this industrial carbon footprint can ultimately be attributed to household consumption. Once again, one is reminded of the Extinction Rebellion statement that “Ultimately, the climate and ecological crisis is a crisis of human overconsumption.”
There are two problems with such a notion of consumption-driven production. First, the laws of capitalist production, which create the incentives that drive the acceleration of carbon emissions, are not laws driven by the demand of consumers, but rather laws of competition for profit which dictate production on an ever-expanding scale. Second, the final demand for all production is not exclusively personal consumption demand. There is a sizeable and growing part of production that is just production for its own sake, and this part of production has a carbon footprint that grows considerably faster than that of personal consumption.
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Why Does Capitalism Expand?
Capitalist production is production for profit. The act of investing money in order to make more money has no ultimate end. It can go on infinitely. And it must. Capitalist investment is compelled by competition to expand the size of production. The pressure of competition between capitals compels capitalists to constantly seek to accumulate more, expand production, capture more market share, revolutionize technology, decrease production time, and command more resources. Capitalists who stand still and ignore the compulsion to grow are eventually destroyed or consumed by the competition. As Marx put it:
The battle of competition is fought by the cheapening of commodities. The cheapness of commodities depends … on the scale of productivity of labor, and this depends on the scale of production. Therefore the larger capitals beat the smaller.
The larger capitals beat the smaller because of economies of scale. There is an inherent advantage to a larger scale of production in the battle of capitalist competition. A larger scale of production allows for a decrease in the production cost of a unit of output, allowing capitalists to sell below the price that competitors charge and to capture more market share.
Competition not only compels an expansion of the scale of production; it also compels a rising proportion of investment in machinery, fixed-capital, and raw materials. This is significant because these processes release GHG. A quarter of global GHG emissions come from the production of materials. (This is not just the result of energy consumed in production. The production of concrete, steel, plastics, etc. releases GHG.)
As productivity increases, more commodities can be produced in a working day and the unit prices of commodities fall, which allows a capitalist firm to compete more successfully with its rivals. Every increase in productivity means that more capital must be invested in raw materials as well as in new means of production capable of increasing productivity. Thus, as capital accumulation proceeds, a greater and greater proportion of investment is devoted to the non-labor inputs into the production process, which Marx called “constant capital,” relative to the labor inputs, which he called “variable capital.” This ratio of constant to variable capital is called the “organic composition of capital.” Empirical data confirms Marx’s suggestion that the organic composition of capital rises as accumulation proceeds.
The upshot of this rising organic composition is that, as accumulation proceeds, capitalist production tends to become more carbon-intensive. A greater share of investment goes toward constant capital, which means that the emissions associated with material production and energy use rise as well. This is a specifically capitalist type of growth that has a specific tendency to develop the productive forces in increasingly carbon-intensive ways.
Bigger factories, constant investment in machinery, increased capacity for output which fuels the need for more raw material inputs, increased demand for energy to fuel production processes––these are the hallmarks of a mode of production oriented to competition for profit. All of this activity is carbon intensive. And the forces of competition compel it to be increasingly carbon intensive. Household consumption doesn’t have an inherent tendency to increase its carbon footprint. People drive about the same amount, they keep their houses at the same temperature, etc., as they did in the past. But industry is constantly growing in absolute terms and intensifying its carbon footprint in relative terms, because it follows different laws of motion than those of personal consumption.
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The Final Demand for all Production is not Consumption
It is commonly argued, in some form or another, that the expansion of economic activity, the growth of capitalist production, happens in order to meet human needs. This claim can take the form of the argument that all of capitalist production is ultimately production for consumption, in one way or another. (It is this mistaken assumption that provides the unstable foundation for underconsumptionist theories of crisis.) It can also take the form of the proposition that irresponsible consumption is at fault for the negative ecological externalities of economic activity.
But capitalist production is not production for human need, the final demand for all production is not exclusively consumption demand, and human consumption is not the only driver of GHG emissions and other negative ecological phenomenon. It is important to identify the differentia specifica that sets the capitalist mode of production apart from all other modes of production, for the ecologically destructive nature of capitalism does not stem from the desires, consumption habits or the needs of people.
The argument that Marx makes against the claim that all capitalist production eventually resolves, in the final instance, into production for consumption is an important argument. It also has an interesting history. Marx developed the argument in volume 2 of Capital in order to critique the trickle-down economic theories of Adam Smith. Raya Dunayevskaya used Marx’s arguments from volume 2 to demonstrate that the Soviet Union was a state-capitalist society driven by the same imperative of production for production’s sake that drives all capitalist societies. And the critics of underconsumptionist theories of crisis (such as Andrew Kliman) have used Marx’s argument to demonstrate that underconsumptionists (Monthly Review, Rosa Luxemburg, etc.) fail to provide a cogent theory of capitalist crisis.
It may seem to be intuitively correct to say that all production is ultimately bound for consumption by people (either wage goods or luxury goods). After all, even though much of production doesn’t directly produce finished consumer goods, somewhere “downstream” of raw material and machinery production there are finished consumer goods being made. One would not be crazy to assume that all of that machinery and raw material production is ultimately aimed at the production of goods for human consumption.
Yet Marx’s reproduction schemes in volume 2 of Capital demonstrate that a portion of economic activity is devoted to the production of means of production for their own sake. Some producers in Department 1, the sector of the economy that produces constant capital, just sell a portion of their product to other producers in Department 1, who then employ this portion to make additional means of production that they again sell within Department I, and so forth––in an endless loop. This production for production’s sake doesn’t resolve itself to some downstream consumer good. It remains “trapped” in Department 1, as its firms produce for each other.
Imagine a steel factory that buys iron from a mining operation. It produces mining equipment made of steel and sells it to the mining company. The mine uses the steel to produce more iron to sell to the steel company, and so on. Of course, some of the steel produced does end up downstream, as steel for consumer use. So how do we know that a portion of the value tied up in this production remains in Department 1, never resolving itself to household consumption? The simplest way to demonstrate this is to observe that Department 1 grows more rapidly than Department 2. This unequal growth implies that not all production resolves, in the final instance, into production for consumption.
Marx’s discussion of this topic in volume 2 of Capital is much more nuanced and complex than this, far too involved for the purposes of this article. For one thing, he is able to show conceptually that this production for its own sake is present even in an economy which is not expanding. For more details of this argument, one should go directly to volume 2 of Capital.
Furthermore, Marx’s schemata of expanded reproduction demonstrate how capitalist growth relates to these two departments. In order for capitalism to expand, the productive capacity of society must grow. This means that more capital (physical as well as financial) must flow into the production of means of production. The only way to get the extra capital is to divert it from Department 2, the part of the economy that creates means of consumption. Thus, capitalism expands by sacrificing the production of consumption goods in order to produce more means of production.
Though Marx’s description of expanded reproduction is worked out in the abstract, it describes a real process that can be observed in developing economies. It was this sacrificing of the consumption of the workers for the sake of rapid industrialization that Dunayevskaya pointed to in her analysis of the USSR, to demonstrate that the USSR was indeed on the capitalist path to modernization. The real wages of Soviet workers fell as the means of production grew at explosive rates.
As Andrew Kliman points out in “Marx’s Reproduction Schemes as an Unbalanced Growth Model,” this trade-off between consumption and industrial expansion is a common theme in economic development literature. Kliman quotes a 1955 statement of Sir W. A. Lewis, a specialist in economic development:
The British, the Japanese and the Russian industrial revolutions all fit into [… the same] pattern. In each case the immediate result is that the benefits of rising productivity do not go to the classes who would increase their consumption––peasants, wage earners––but into private profits or public taxation, where the proceeds are used for further capital formation. More and more labour is taken into wage employment, but real wages are not allowed to rise as fast as productivity.
Kliman also notes that Lenin wrote about this phenomenon:
the main conclusion from Marx’s theory of realization is the following: … the increase in means of production outstrips the increase in articles of consumption. … the department of social production which makes the means of production must grow faster than the one which produces the means of consumption. Thus, for capitalism, the growth of the internal market is to a certain extent “independent” of the growth of individual consumption.
And because production of means of production tends to grow faster than production of consumption goods––which reflects the fact that the organic composition of capital is rising––it is likely that production of means of production, not production of consumption goods, is becoming a larger and larger source of capitalist production’s growing carbon footprint. Recent empirical data backs this up; between 1995 and 2015, the carbon footprint of consumption rose by 64%, but the carbon footprint of investment rose by 170%, more than two-and-a-half times as rapidly. In other words, the greenhouse gases created by capital formation are increasing much more rapidly than the greenhouse gases created by consumption and the production of consumption goods.
In a system in which there is a clear trade-off between workers’ consumption and the development of productivity, it is impossible to convincingly argue that all production resolves itself into consumption goods.
To summarize the above points: Capitalist production processes are carbon intensive and their expansion comes at a steep ecological cost. The ever-expanding scale of capitalist production means that these production practices grow absolutely (larger firms, larger markets, larger factories, larger scale of production) and grow intensively (more carbon footprint per unit). Developing economies have the most intensive carbon footprints. The expansion of production is not directly aimed at increasing the material well-being of consumers, nor do consumers bear responsibility for the growing carbon footprint of capital. The expansion of Department 1 is causing a corresponding increase in carbon emissions that is far more rapid than the increase in emissions from the production of consumer goods.
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“We Have the Answers. Now We Need to Stop Talking and Do It”
Despite the central role that capitalist accumulation plays in ecological crisis, it is uncommon to hear discussion of overthrowing the capitalist mode of production in discussions about the climate crisis. It is instead common to hear the argument that we already have the answers to the ecological crises at hand, that all that is needed is the will or political power to put these existing ideas in motion.
If environmental crisis were merely the result of bad ideas, or people with the wrong priorities in power, then the solution would be to replace those leaders and paradigms with enlightened leaders and green paradigms. This is the promise of green capitalism.
For the proponents of green capitalism, we can transform capitalist production into green capitalist production and promise rising wages and prosperity for all. There is no trade-off between economic expansion and real wages. Nor is there a trade-off between economic growth and GHG emissions. This miraculous overcoming of the economic laws of capitalist society is achieved by electing enlightened leaders and parties. Nothing changes about capitalism. Competition still propels the accumulation of capital for its own sake. The organic composition grows and the intensity of energy consumption rises with it. Versions of this fantasy permeate many corners of the political spectrum, including Green New Deal proponents.
But this just “solves” the problem by ignoring it. One of the biggest reasons it is so difficult to get any forward movement on climate policy is simply that there is no incentive within capitalism to change business as usual. Capitalists will ultimately make decisions in the interest of maximizing profit, to protect themselves from the vicissitudes of competition. And political leaders’ careers rest on the day-to-day economic well-being of the economy. They have to keep their industries competitive with rival nations, and stave-off recession, by making concessions to the economic interests of capital.
We are currently witnessing a golden age of green washing in which all companies and nations are making all sorts of promises about carbon offsets and net-zero goals. Very few of these promises involve any real changes to production processes. Much of what is promised consists of carbon offsets (donating money to forests), carbon capture, creative accounting, and kicking the can down the road with promises about what will happen in the future. There is no reason to imagine that these evasive strategies won’t continue until the apocalypse.
It is also not true that we have all of the answers. “Having all the answers” often implies that we have all of the green technologies needed to transform production. But that is not the case. Progress has clearly been made toward green energy production, electric cars, home heating efficiency, and other technologies that effect consumer GHG emissions. But final consumption (consumption of consumer goods, i.e., gasoline and home heating) accounts for less than 20% of GHG emissions. We don’t have the answers, technologically, to transform a lot of capitalist production into more sustainable methods. There is currently no viable technology to replace the major sources of GHG emissions from heavy industry.
Take industrial heating as an example. By some estimates, 10% of global emissions come from industrial heat, the high-intensity heat needed to produce steel, cement and other materials. Those high temperatures come from burning fossil fuels, and we don’t currently have the means of replacing those fossil fuels with alternate green sources of high heat. In a 2020 Vox article, David Roberts contrasted the relative environmental impact of industrial heat to that of cars and airplanes:
To put that in perspective, industrial heat’s 10 percent is greater than the CO2 emissions of all the world’s cars (6 percent) and planes (2 percent) combined. Yet, consider how much you hear about electric vehicles. Consider how much you hear about flying shame. Now consider how much you hear about … industrial heat.
Environmentalists talk all the time about electric cars. But industrial heat, which is used to make steel for electric cars, is a bigger problem in terms of GHG emissions. In the above-quoted Vox article, David Roberts offered some interesting possible explanations for why we have made so much technological progress on electric cars and so little progress on greening industrial production. There is consumer demand for electric cars because many consumers want to do the right thing by the planet. But there are no economic incentives to research alternate sources of high-intensity industrial heat. Industrial materials are globally-traded commodities competing on razor-thin profit margins. National policies (carbon taxes, etc.) that would interfere with industrial production enough to compel movement away from fossil-fuel use, would quickly make domestic production uncompetitive in global markets. Capitalist states have a national security interest in keeping heavy industries within their borders. Furthermore, industrial heating technology is built into the design of fixed capital investments. Some of these facilities are meant to last 20-50 years. To end their lifetime prematurely would be financially disadvantageous.
This example of industrial heating is a perfect illustration of the problems with voluntarist conceptions of climate activism, which assume that just changing leaders will solve the problems we face. There is really no solution available, even to the most enlightened leader, to the issue of industrial heating within the framework of capitalist competition. Any attempt to regulate, raise a carbon tax, etc. on these industries would trigger the movement of those industries to other countries. There isn’t even an incentive to research and develop alternative ways of creating industrial heat.
In this one example, contrasting green transportation with industrial heating, we can see that the forces of global competition, including competition between capitalist states, make it difficult if not impossible to transform methods of production into ecologically sustainable ones. The reason we don’t “have all the answers,” even technologically, is because of these laws of capitalist production. There is no incentive to work out this problem.
When we look with sober senses at the crisis we are entering, and when we ask about the reason for inaction to counter the crisis, we are compelled to come to terms with the immense and insurmountable forces we face when we try to address the problem within the confines of capitalist competition. It is high time we fight against the false promises of green capitalism as well as the faulty logic that reduces this crisis to one of “human consumption.” Only by recognizing the real forces behind capital’s destructive growth can we start to imagine what form of society would be needed to escape this mad logic.
 See Figure 2 in Edgar G. Hertwich, “Increased Carbon Footprint of Materials Production Driven by Rise in Investments,” Nature Geoscience 14, 2021, pp. 151-155, and the accompanying spreadsheet, “Source Data Extended Data Fig. 2.”