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Double, double toil and trouble

There are plans afoot in the United States to block the construction of new coal-fired plants – except for those that capture and store greenhouse gas emissions. China, meanwhile, wants to block new coal-fired installations near major cities to curb air pollution.

But do the expected announcements stack up in terms of halting runaway climate change? In the last 25 years, China’s annual consumption of coal quadrupled. It leapt from 1 billion tons in 1988 to 4 billion now. Despite the target of reducing coal’s 70% contribution to energy production to 65% by 2017,  the continuous pursuit of growth will see total consumption increase further.

Close to 40% of US electricity came from coal in the first half of 2013, so the Environmental Protection Agency proposal is certain to be legally challenged by the hugely profitable coal companies who are arguing that carbon capture technology is unproven.

The US proposal is made possible by two developments. Firstly, fracking for gas has reduced the domestic price of oil to about a quarter of the price of what it was when the world’s richest country was dependent on supplies from the Middle East. As a result, US coal companies have started exporting coal to Europe where consumption has been growing for the last three years.

The second, even less reliable, factor is this month’s test of a commercial-scale carbon capture coal plant in Kemper County, Mississippi.  Development of the plant has been long and difficult. Mississippi taxpayers are being obliged to stump up at least $2.4 billion of the final cost – subsidising the for-profit Southern Company.

But there’s disappointment for those hoping that the end of carbon emissions is in sight. The madness continues. The business model of the new plant depends on recovering part of the cost by pumping the captured carbon dioxide into a nearby oilfield, enabling more of the liquid black gold to be pushed to the surface. Doh! 

So these two announcements don’t add up to much when it comes to cutting carbon emissions. The scale that’s required to halt and reverse global warming requires a whole new set of production and social circumstances that are way beyond capitalism’s growth-driven system to deliver.

We can also draw on Shakespeare to help us break the eco-social logjam. According to the cultural blogger Wilsonian, Shakespeare dramatised the reversal of human nature in Macbeth as a tragedy of climate change. 

The character arc of Macbeth is a synecdoche [a figure of speech in which a part is made to represent the whole or vice versa] for humanity under capitalism. Macbeth's temptation toward power and sovereignty is the same temptation that lurks in the dark center of capitalism, and it is that temptation that desecrates the earth.

Ending the rule of capital is within our grasp. As the Wilsonian explains:

The irony of Macbeth is the irony of capitalism in that his rampant will to power sows his own ruin. Anticipating Marx' famous likening of the capitalist bourgeoisie to a ‘sorcerer, who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up’, Shakespeare dramatizes Macbeth's temptation, ascension, and eventual dissolution through the witches' demonic prophecy.

Shakespeare's witches further resonate with Marx' diagnosis of capitalism – ‘all that is solid melts into air’ – when they too ‘melt / as breath into the wind. 

We can’t promise a performance of Macbeth at our third “Communicating the Revolution” weekend event on November 16-17. But we can assure you that a presentation by an eminent astrophysicist on evolution and revolution in nature, and what it means in social terms, will be worth listening to. Join us to discuss the eco-social crisis, and what we need to do to turn it around.
Gerry Gold
Economics editor
18 September 2013

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