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Ash cloud shows the folly of capitalism

There is some faint irony that natural causes emptied skies over Europe for a week, triggering anguish in business circles over the likely impact of longer-term airspace closures on economic growth.

Yet decades of unsustainable growth, including the recent burgeoning of air transport, have brought the planet’s ecosystem to the limit of its ability to support life. Climate change activists and the rapidly growing global Transition Initiative have pointed this out for some time.

The Transition movement has been particularly vocal, warning that the activities of profit-seeking corporations have depleted many of the natural resources that we now depend upon. Globalised production and distribution can’t function without the oil which, they’ve argued, is passing the peak of production.

Those who’ve been warning of the catastrophic social, economic and political impacts of failing to plan for either the declining availability of oil, or to minimise the damage to the environment from continuing to burn it up in the engines of cars, planes, heating systems and factories, have got a surprising new ally.

The US military is warning that surplus oil production capacity could disappear within two years and there could be serious shortages by 2015 with a significant economic and political impact.

The energy crisis outlined in a Joint Operating Environment report from the US Joint Forces Command comes as the price of petrol in Britain reaches record levels, cutting into the pay of those who have to drive to get to work, and the cost of crude oil is predicted to pass $100 a barrel.

"By 2012, surplus oil production capacity could entirely disappear, and as early as 2015, the shortfall in output could reach nearly 10 million barrels per day," says the report. It adds:

While it is difficult to predict precisely what economic, political, and strategic effects such a shortfall might produce, it surely would reduce the prospects for growth in both the developing and developed worlds. Such an economic slowdown would exacerbate other unresolved tensions, push fragile and failing states further down the path toward collapse, and perhaps have serious economic impact on both China and India.

Despite repeated denials from the International Energy Agency and the oil companies which are intent on pumping and squeezing the last drop of profit from millions of years of fossilisation, there can be little doubt that demand is now passing supply. As oil runs out, it is certain to lead to increased tensions between the United States, China and oil-producing countries like Iran and Venezuela who do not share the political interests of the major capitalist economies.

What the volcano’s ash disruption to flights has demonstrated is that there is no future for a civilisation based on continued life-threatening, oil-burning economic growth.

The battle between airlines’ profits and passenger safety, and the likely political fallout from aircraft damaged by volcanic ash, has put most other news in the shade. But it cannot hide the fact that the British state is on the edge of insolvency, a consequence of the collapse of the credit-fuelled boom urged on by New Labour and the Tories.

Today’s figures on unemployment show the human price being paid for an unsustainable capitalist system. The number of people without a job in Britain rose by 43,000 to 2.502 million in the three months to February, the highest total since October-December 1994. That took the jobless rate up to 8.0%, the highest since 1996. All the major parties are planning huge cuts after the election, adding tens of thousands more to the dole queue. Whichever way you look at it, the case for revolutionary solutions to the crisis gets stronger every day.

Gerry Gold
Economics editor
21 April 2010

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