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Economic 'growth' a very dirty business

If anyone needed convincing about the direct link between the in-built growth drive of capitalist economy and climate change, they can thank the European Union’s energy chief for clearing up any confusion.

Who can forget the dramatic graph in Al Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth, which showed the upward curve in greenhouse gas emissions from about the mid-1980s. What Gore did not bring out was that this curve was matched by another showing the growth in commodity production during what became known as globalisation.

In other words, the reckless expansion of production regardless of fossil fuel burning and other carbon emissions, the ruthless exploitation of resources for profit, was too much for nature to cope with. Climate change kicked in. Yet another of capitalism’s unintended consequences, except this was one is deadly for all of humanity and every species.

As we know, climate change talks aimed at negotiating a new treaty to replace the half-hearted Kyoto agreement have collapsed, first at Copenhagen and then at Cancun. It’s every country and region for itself now.

That’s the context behind the statement by Günther Oettinger, the EU's energy commissioner, that increasing the notional target for cutting emissions from 20% to 30% by 2020 was not on because it would weaken fabled 'growth' prospects and force industries to move to Asia.

"If we go alone to 30%, you will only have a faster process of de-industrialisation in Europe," adding: "I think we need industry in Europe, we need industry in the UK, and industry means CO2 emissions." Europe could only adopt a tougher target if other major economies were also willing to do so, he said. "We are willing to go to 30% if big global partners will follow us, but if not we won't."

In other words, competition with countries like China for markets to sell more goods to people who can barely afford their utility bills as a result of the crisis, is the only way to go. And damn the consequences. Emissions have fallen during the recession, and a cynical Oettinger’s response was to say: “So do we need longer and deeper crises?" Look at our deficit – we need growth, and we need more industry."

In their increasingly desperate bid to kick-start economies deep in recession and weighed down by household, corporate and government debt, the capitalist class will drive down not only wages and working conditions but also environmental standards.

These are viewed as an additional cost of production and so will be ditched, circumvented, ignored or abandoned in an attempt to increase profit margins. That was clearly the case with the Gulf of Mexico disaster, where BP and others were indicted for cutting costs at the expense of safety considerations.

So even if there is a resumption of 'growth', it will be an extremely dirty business in every sense. That’s another good reason why society has to kick capitalism’s growth habit. As the call-out for our February 26 teach-in says:

Capitalism’s relentless, in-built drive for continuous expansion is destructive in every sense. It inevitably leads to its opposite – contraction – and with it the destruction of jobs, living standards, pensions and public services that we are seeing now.

And it’s destructive because profit-driven growth always comes before the sustainable use of resources. Insatiable growth has a direct connection to climate change and habitat loss. So how can we kick the growth habit? What’s the alternative to profit as an incentive? How can we create a natural relationship with nature?

Register for 'Kicking capitalism's growth habit - building a sustainable economy' and help work out the answers.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor
11 February 2011

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