Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Capitalism Against the Planet


With the Cancun summit on climate change only a few weeks away, the planet’s ecological future was the subject of a debate at this year’s Fête de l’Humanité on Friday, September 11. Is finance capitalism solely to blame for the environmental crisis or is capitalism itself to blame? What new mode of development is to be promoted and how can it be implemented?

André Chassaigne, deputy for the Puy de Dôme (PCF), Yannick Jadot, deputy (Europe Écologie [1]), Corinne Lepage, European deputy (Cap 21 [2]), Danielle Mitterrand (Fondation France Libertés), and Elizabeth Peredo, Committee for an international court for climatic justice (Bolivia), were interviewed by l’Humanité.

HUMA: Bolivia proposes setting up an international tribunal for climatic justice. What exactly do you have in mind?

PEREDO: The present crisis does not affect the environment only, but civilization at large, and the cause is capitalism. Capitalism inevitably brings destruction. It is based on the notion of infinite growth and on the misguided belief that the planet’s resources are likewise infinite. Capitalism has turned everything into saleable and purchasable commodities, from human labour to the planet itself. Global warming is one of the most obvious symptoms of this process. But Southern countries are the worst hit. 80% of the planet’s poorest inhabitants suffer from it even though they only marginally contributed to it. Bolivia is accountable for only 0.03% of the emissions, whereas the US is accountable for 25%. To this inequality must be added unequal economic and technological resources to deal with the consequences of global warming. Southern countries are very vulnerable indeed…

We support the notion of an international court for climatic justice because all that took place this summer in Pakistan or in Russia is a crime. The culprits are the hundred or so multinationals and their bulimia for profit that change the climate - and the World Bank and its pro-market policies. Our proposal in favour of an international climatic tribunal emerged during the Cochabamba conference last April. We want those at the top of the system to be summoned before this court because they continue to behave like criminals even though there is substantial scientific evidence that if they do, the ecological system is sure be destroyed. Setting up such a tribunal would not simply make it possible to pass symbolical sentences, it would also be an instrument in the hands of the peoples to dispense climatic justice. Cochabamba symbolizes our determination to save the planet and to save it from capitalism.

HUMA (to André Chassaigne): In your book entitled Plea for a Common Earth, you plead for an indictment of productivism. Why is that?

CHASSAIGNE: This book marks a decisive stage in my growing awareness of these problems, which, like many communists, I long under-estimated. Our reflection on the mode of development must integrate the question of the planet’s future. Some notions like “productivism” should no longer be taboo. Productivism is part of our heritage. Our culture and mode of thinking have been influenced by the idea that scientific and technological progress is bound to generate human progress. We are right to denounce capitalism and to propose transcending it. But we must also freely question and determine the nature of the mode of production that we want to set up. One can be a communist and an anti-productivist, or raise the question of de-growth. I think some productions should decrease and others should increase.

Economic development is necessary but it cannot go on without our assessing its impact and especially without investigating the advantage of keeping up such or such an activity. Addiction to profit is capitalism’s characteristic. This addiction generates disastrous consequences for people, territories and the planet. Issues like biodiversity or the management of natural resources must be re-considered on the basis of the long cycles of natural regeneration. Capitalism knows only the short cycles of profitability. But needless to say, having granted as much, we must still face serious examinations. Considerable damage was done to the environment in the former socialist countries.

In my book I consistently deconstruct “green capitalism”. The moral discourse on individual responsibility for the environment must be demystified: not that everybody should be encouraged to behave irresponsibly. But the point is to show that responsibility for the damage to the environment does not fall equally on all. The discourse on individual responsibility is meant to conceal the responsibility of the system.

HUMA (to Danielle Mitterrand): Would you personally say that acknowledging a universal right to water entails transcending the system?

Danielle MITTERRAND: Access to water is a question that cannot be solved without bringing about changes. Politics should be considered differently. The vocation of Fondation France Libertés is to defend human rights and the rights of peoples. No water means no life; and no life means no human rights, no rights for the peoples. Obviously, the status of water is a global issue. We are under the domination and rule of a single global doctrine that actually, in real fact, constitutes an economic dictatorship. This doctrine considers water, which is essential to life, as a commodity. Water must be considered instead as a common good for living beings. Once that principle is laid down, then life and respect for life replace monetary wealth as the foundations of politics.

HUMA: UNO has just decreed access to water to be a human right, as Bolivia proposed. Can this contribute to advances towards a more equal sharing of that resource?

Danielle MITTERRAND: We are glad ONU took this step. We had been pressing for that for years. Our objective now is to have this right effectively ensured. It will be a long road before we get there. We propose setting up a high authority for water with a global vision. I often start a speech by saying that water is universally free. Water is a problem that everybody tackles locally. But we must all be aware that it is a universal problem.

HUMA: You insist a lot on the need for a democratic management of water.

Danielle MITTERRAND: Our leaders should be inspired and guided by the awareness of their responsibility as citizens. Water is everybody’s responsibility. But in order to act, one must be informed. And our task is to inform citizens so that they can petition their leaders in order that their leaders implement a different policy and human beings no longer die for want of access to water. Which kills 34,000 people (5,000 children among them) every day.

HUMA (to Yannick Jadot): What does your movement, Europe Écologie, say about that question, the necessity to transcend capitalism?

JADOT: Capitalism defiles nature, women and men. This being said, what remains to be defined is a sustainable economy. To Europe Écologie, building a sustainable economy involves calling consumerism and productivism into question. We must leave behind us the present society where people exist in proportion as they consume. What we need is “more relations, less consumption” for to consume more means to produce more, and so to make more profits. Society must come first, before the economy. The economy’s top objective must be to satisfy the needs of every individual, wherever she or he lives. The economy we need must be sparing of natural resources.

Lastly, the question of the ownership of capital needs to be raised. Today the system that drives the world economy sets the threshold for profitability at 10 to 15%. This system is absurd and unsustainable, for human beings and the environment alike. So we must set up an economy that is sparing of natural resources, places the individual at the heart of the productive system, and raises the question of capital ownership so that the labour force can re-appropriate the finality of their labour.

Whether the Left can achieve as much is far from being obvious. The alliance of Left-wing parties that were last in office from 1997 to 2002 distributed niches under the leadership of the Socialist Party, with the Communists in charge of transport, and the Greens in charge of biodiversity and national and regional development. This sharing out of niches did not work. To beat Nicolas Sarkozy in 2012 the parties that compose the left must give citizens an appetite for politics by proposing a real program each and addressing citizens and voters to show that despite their differences, ecologists, socialists and communists can strike fruitful compromises.

HUMA (to Corinne Lepage): Isn’t there a contradiction in your determination to bring together right-wing and left-wing ecologists?

LEPAGE: The present model of development is deadly. We are all confronted individually and collectively with contradictions that we cannot overcome. If we consider that it is capitalism that brought about the rule of “short-term-ism” and the dilapidation of goods that are not recognized today as public goods, then ecology is not compatible with capitalism. But the defilement of the environment is not due to capitalism alone. The failure of the Copenhagen summit itself is not simply due to the lobbying of multi-nationals. It is also the consequence of the strategies of States, notably of those whose economy is based on oil and who do not want that to change. If capitalism entails the turning of all goods into commodities, then indeed it has not got a case.

But if finance capitalism is not the future, we have a real need for entrepreneurial capitalism. I believe in the freedom of enterprise, whether it takes the form of a social and cooperative economy, or the form of entrepreneurial capitalism based on small and middle-sized companies. The challenge we must meet is to enlist their energies, their creative intelligence. We must get out of the categories in which we have locked one another up. We cannot do this by invoking the big words in “ism” we inherited from the past century. We need to invent a new model of development with new modes of production and consumption.

HUMA: What were the main points that emerged from the Peoples’ summit in Cochabamba?

PEREDO: We summoned this summit because the conclusions of the Copenhagen summit were not just negative, they were dangerous. Its organization flaunted UNO’s multi-lateral approach and was blatantly un-democratic. Its pseudo-commitments in terms of green-house gas reduction, far from reducing temperature, could actually lead to 4°C increases in some parts of the world. The financial commitments themselves were grossly inadequate and disproportionate in view of all the waste due to capitalism. Bolivia therefore summoned a conference of the peoples last April so as to pioneer a democratic process in order to confront the challenge. 142 countries (namely 35,000 persons) attended the conference.

Several proposals emerged, such as the setting up of a tribunal for climatic justice or the declaration of the rights of Pachamama, Mother-Earth. the latter being one of the most important. Indeed the only way to bring the present system to an end is to devise a new generation of rights in order to restore harmony with nature. Human beings are not at the very centre of the system, but are part of a system they must respect. We reached the conclusion that the planet and nature are not resources. They are our home. We therefore drew up a list of the rights of Mother Earth - notably the right to continue its vital cycles, or the right to water as a source of life. To this is linked another important concept: that of the right to a good life. We should not seek an infinite development, but the good life, which involves equity between the planet’s inhabitants.

LEPAGE: I myself militate in favour of a penal court for environmental issues, even as there is one for crimes against humanity. For criminal acts are committed in that sphere like those that led to the Bhopal or Abidjan disasters.

HUMA: What should we do, and how much can we do?

JADOT: During the two years that preceded the Copenhagen summit, a kind of euphoric unanimity and green-megalomania developed around the environmental issue. Everybody claimed they could save the planet. That was too much. What the Copenhagen summit showed was that many heads of State just do not believe that anything can be done against the various forms of climate change, and take no interest in the transitions required as concerns energy, agriculture or industry. And yet countries like Bolivia and Costa Rica are devising policies aimed at meeting the climatic challenge and ensuring access to the common goods. That is what we should be battling for.

HUMA: Small and middle-size firms often collect a sizable amount of profits for large companies. In what respect can entrepreneurial capitalism be considered as a solution?

LEPAGE: I believe that small and middle-size companies are more often than not the victims of pressure and constraints. What we can do precisely is to support one form of economy rather than another, in this particular case, small and middle-sized companies rather than large companies, the latter having outrageously benefited from fiscal, research, and development policies and generous subsidies.

HUMA: The various incitements or deterrents based on the principle of the “price signal” have proved signal failures…

CHASSAIGNE: What is manifest in the “price policy” is the determination to shift responsibility from the States and industries on individual customers. What the carbon tax or the bonus-malus coefficient mean is that customers must pay for the damages. The same logic prevails when it comes to meeting the costs of the treatment or re-cycling of household refuse or water. When the blame is put on those poverty-stricken bastards, the real culprits get away with it and one loses sight of the fact that the States and large financial and industrial groups do their utmost to guarantee high profits for a few privileged people to the detriment of the vast majority of people.

So what should we do? First, citizens should regain the power that is legitimately theirs, then a global program must be set up, for there is no other way we can solve the problem and water, air and energy can effectively be shared.

[1] a movement born in preparation for the last European election around the Green Party and well-known public figures that came out strongly in support of various causes

[2] a “centrist” splinter group from the right

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