Global Warming and Capitalism

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global warming ice polar bear

Do you remember the 1950s? Those who are old enough to remember living back then can remember the booming business of new cars, appliances, fashion and entertainment; the industrial revolution really started taking off. Everyone in America seemed happy, complacent even. Surveys show that the 1950s was the last decade to which Americans voted as a majority reaching a consensus with more than 50% of the population on the federal census survey as declaring themselves generally happy with the state of their lives and the state of the country. People thought none the wiser about what the repercussions of releasing all the exhaust from burning fuels, release of chemicals into waterways, over harvesting of natural resources, the affect of these things on animals and other biodiversity and how it all affects Earth. Since then there has be a dramatic increase in information as new technologies have been developed over time.

The Internet has provided an information super highway where there are so many more resources of information out there, accessible by more people than ever before. Science has made incredible advances to help us see many different perspectives, several of which point toward the reality of global warming, possible causes, and the solutions.

Al Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth, directed by Davis Guggenheim, won 2 Oscars. The first Oscar was for best music, and the other was for best documentary in 2005. The film talks about the sensitive issue that is a buzz all over the globe, global warming. He begins with explaining how carbon emission are the biggest threat of the greenhouse gases, and how they create this effect by creating a barrier that hinders the heat from the sun from being able to leak back out into space. Instead the Earth absorbs that heat, thus increasing the temperature of the planet. Gore talks about the steady increase in temperature all over the world, especially in 2005. The increase in temperature also affects the ocean, causing more storms such as hurricanes, and flooding. He shares images of ice shelves in Antarctica that have melted, broken apart, and fallen into the ocean, much like various glaciers around the world including Mt. Kilimanjaro. He also talks about how the arctic ice cap is melting and has maintained steady depletion for 40 years now. As the ice melts, it stops acting as a mirror that reflects the suns scorching rays away from the Earth, and actually causes the planet to absorb more heat even still.

al gore

Polar bears are being found dead, and are drowning because there isn’t enough ice for them to rest upon when they swim out to find food, and then can’t swim back in time. The Polar Bears as an endangered species is an example of biodiversity loss as a result of global warming. Gore talks about how different animals fulfill certain ecological niches within their native ecosystem and as their numbers drop, cycles become weakened with the loss of their important function as a part of the whole. He shows pictures of houses that were built on permafrost that had melted; now the shifting Earth beneath them is destroying the houses. The permafrost melted due to rising temperatures. Gore adds that all this ice melting causes the ocean waters to rise. He states that if West Antarctica melted, or half of Greenland, the ocean worldwide would raise 20 feet. One day many coastal cities like San Francisco could be under water.

Population is a defining factor in climate change as well. The demand for food, water, and other natural resources is putting too much pressure on the Earth, and on each of us here on Earth. One of my favorite quotes, and a statement that surprised me coming from a politician is when Gore said

“I had such faith in our democratic system, our self-government. I actually thought and believed that the story would be compelling enough to cause change in the way congress reacted to the issue, I thought that they would be startled too, and they weren’t.” He also says “There are good people in politics in both parties who hold this at arms length because if they recognized it, then the moral imperative to make big change is inescapable.”

He talks about how we continue on with old habits but with newer technology. We fight the same wars, but with new technology, and that newer technology, such as nuclear weapons, offers us new powers. With that new power comes greater consequences if exercised in the wrong way. He says we take advantage of new technology like we take advantage of the resources of the Earth. I also like how he quotes Sir Winston Churchill saying,

“The era of procrastination, of half-measures, of soothing and baffling expedients, of delays, is coming to an end. In its place, we are entering a Period of Consequences.”

Al Gore touches down on some of the hot topics that we face in relation to climate change. He covers the causes, implications, and future possibilities we could face as a result. I feel like he really makes a clear and moving point, and yet he forgets to talk about how global warming is directly related to capitalism. I believe the main source that is causing global warming is the standard of living wealthier countries have become accustom to, driven by a capitalist economy. Capitalism is a like a planetary tapeworm. The way our economy is currently structured acts like a bottomless pit that thrives on an ever-expanding market. If the market is to sustain then an ample amount of resources are needed to maintain industrial production of goods. It is this mass produced and over industrialized market that causes a lot of fossil fuel emissions, chemical waste, and over harvesting of Earth’s resources. When that market disappears, so does the profit. As a result, corporations are always working to stay one step ahead of the game, creating a marketing scheme to make you want something you didn’t know you needed, to keep you hooked on buying things, so that our destructive capitalist economy can maintain itself. As a result, we continue degrading the planet, and depleting it’s resources. In order to change global warming, we need to change capitalism and create social reform.

There has been some controversy on whether the scientific information in Gore’s film, and the way that he presents his data is factually accurate or not. Katherine Mieszkowski writes a well balanced article titled, Did Al Get The Science Right?, in which she compares the arguments of scientists who support and endorse Gore’s data with those that struggle with some of the points Gore made and the way in which those points were delivered. She explores the origins of a video clip using ad hominem accusations of Gore’s alleged hypocrisy, like using airplanes to get around the world teaching people about global warming while producing more carbon dioxide in the process. Mieszkowski mentions that Competitive Enterprise Institute, who is ironically partly funded by Exxon-Mobil, spearheaded the production of the ad campaign. Groups funded by corporations like Exxon-Mobil, are largely responsible for the distribution of Greenhouse Gas causing production tactics and goods. So it makes no sense for those organizations to be creating anti-global warming anti-Gore propaganda, feeding consumers hard facts to swallow. Patterns such as this come up often in the pursuit to disprove the existence of global warming.

Organizations that benefit from environmentally degrading practices through business or other means try to sway the minds of consumers out of fear of losing money; these are typically the ones that take the minority of misrepresented data that Gore provided in his film, and blow it up to make it look like supersized false information. As a result, they end up exaggerating how much weight it really holds in their arguments against global warming.

Mieszkowski shares the perspective of Robert C. Balling, Jr., professor of climatology, who claims that the melting snow on Mt. Kilimanjaro is attributed to declining atmospheric moisture, which has been going on for more than 100 years, and not global warming. Keep in mind that Balling has received over $400,000 in funding from the coal and oil industry. Judd Legum, research director at the Center For American Progress points out that the Kilimanjaro glacier recently survived a 300-yr drought, and shrank even more significantly in the last few decades. In addition, it is not just the glacier of Mt. Kilimanjaro that is melting; the issue includes many glaciers around the world.

Mieszkowski says that climate scientists who have seen Gore’s film praise him for his work and say that overall the data is well represented, as well as the possibility of what could happen if humanity remains on the same course that it is headed presently. Mieszkowski quotes Dr. Kevin Schmidt , a climate modeler for NASA saying,

“Where there was solid science, he presented it solidly without going into the nuts and bolts, and where there were issues that are still a matter of some debate, he was careful not to go down definitively on one side or the other.”

She also quotes Professor Lonnie Thompson, a professor at Ohio State University saying,

“As scientists, we publish our papers in Science and Nature, but very few people read those. Here’s another way to get the message out. To me, it’s an excellent overview for an introductory class at a university. What are the issues and what are the possible consequences of not doing anything about those changes? To me it has tremendous value. It will reach people science will never reach.”

Mieszkowski also goes into examples of Hurricane Katrina where she compares experts who say that Hurricanes do occur more often with heightened ocean temperatures, to others who say that Hurricane Katrina itself cannot be used as a defining piece of evidence to prove global warming. She also clarified a technical error Gore made in the scene where he talks about using ice core samples from Antarctica as a way to be able to isolate when the Clean Air Act was put in into place by noticing changes in more recent layers of ice in the core sample. These cores are used to measure the temperature and climate conditions of the past. Mieszkowski points out how Gore implies:

“Human actions, notably political legislation, can have a quick, measurable impact, even in the ice at the ends of the Earth.” “If we act decisively, Gore suggests, we could do the same to stem greenhouse gases.”

I believe his point was still well put though. I appreciate where he was trying to go with that statement, encouraging people to feel like there are measurable differences that can be made. I know many people who feel like this challenge we face as a one Earth tribe to battle climate change, environmental degradation and biodiversity loss seems to large, and too daunting for any one person to face or begin to solve. I feel like Gore was trying to paint a more hopeful picture of success and show that solutions are available.

Mieszkowski also notes the scene where Gore rides a mechanical man lift that sits beside a large graph illustrating the correlation between the measurement of CO2 and the temperature on Earth over time. The graph compares the similarities and differences in the pattern of how they rise or fall together. She says that scientists believe the temperature will rise with the rise of CO2 in the air, but not quite as dramatically as Gore sets the tone for.

“While the temperature in the film does not jump that high, the audience is left to assume — with horror — that it will follow.”

When in actuality, scientists say that the rise in temperatures will be serious, but more modest than the graph implies.

I think regardless of any mild deviations Gore may have made, it’s still a noble cause to bring this awareness to the forefront of American minds. We are the wealthiest capitalist society in the world. We produce, sell, and consume more than anyone else, meaning we devour, use, and destroy the most resources on the planet. If anyone should be thinking about our impact on Earth, or worrying about making a difference, it is America.

In the book, “What Every Environmentalist Needs to Know About Capitalism”, written by Fred Magdoff and John Bellamy Foster, the authors talk about how climate change is clearly dependent on a change in social systems. If we want to see a change in the direction that globally warming is going in, we need to change how we interact with each other and how we structure our economy. The 2 men point out that humans have caused environmental damage for millennia through deforestation, soil erosion, and the salinization of soil. Magdoff and Foster add that it is also humans that bring about the greenhouse gases that cause global warming. Deforestation is responsible for 25% of the CO2 emissions from humans. Nine critical boundaries/thresholds of the Earth system have been designated in relation to:

  • climate change
  • ocean acidification
  • stratospheric ozone depletion
  • the biochemical flow boundary (nitrogen & phosphorous cycles)
  • global freshwater use
  • change in land use
  • biodiversity loss
  • atmospheric aerosol loading
  • chemical pollution.

Magdoff and Foster both say these nine things are essential to maintaining current environmental and climate conditions. Continuing on with “business as usual” is the path to global disaster, they add, and relate the continuing downfall to the increased standard of living more nations are trying to live up to, modeling themselves after wealthy capitalist states; if humanity continues in this direction, we’ll keep pumping out more pollutants than Earth can absorb, and we will liquidate all of our natural resources.

corporations - capitalism

Magdoff and Foster say that the question we should be asking ourselves is, “Why is this, the destruction of our natural world, happening?” They feel it is impossible to find lasting solutions until we can answer that question. According to the two men, the destruction is caused by capitalism and the way corporations make decisions on what products to produce, how much, and what their social “value” is. The two authors also say that in order for capitalism to survive it must continually expand, continually liquidating resources, and continually producing more pollutants.

“Capitalism is not just an economic system, it fashions a political, judicial, & social system to support the system of wealth and accumulation.”

Magdoff and Foster say we need more legislation in place for social welfare programs, environmental protection, affordable housing, a carbon tax where funds go back to the public encouraging conservation while placing the largest burden on those making the largest footprints, and have the most wealth. The 2 scientists also mention that larger forces exist that blocks these measurements from happening. These ideas echo the name Competitive Enterprise Institute in my head, the way they are partially funded by Exxon-Mobil, and the anti-climate change propaganda they produced. “It has been proven that maintaining a capitalist society is unsustainable in: 1) it’s quest for never ending accumulation of capital leading to production that must continually expand to provide profits 2) its agriculture and food system that pollutes the environment & does not allow universal access to a sufficient quality and quantity of food 3) its rampant destruction of the environment 4) its continually recreating and enhancing of the stratification of wealth within and between countries; and 5) its search for technological magic bullets as a way of avoiding the growing social and ecological problems arising from its own operations.” The transition to an ecological economy will be a steep mountain to climb and will not happen overnight, but it is completely possible. Magdoff and Foster point out we need a system that constantly asks, “What about the people?” instead of “How much money can I make?”

The industrial revolution really began in the 1950s, and since then over half of Americans have not been generally happy over all with the current state of the country. We have at least hundreds of resources available to us that show evidence of global warming and how it’s primarily caused by the excess production of CO2 in the atmosphere that humans create. There are several accounts listed in Al Gore’s film that lay out the facts of how CO2 causes global warming and how climate change affects the ecosystem on Earth as a whole. We have proof of a change in weather patterns that can be potentially attributed to climate change, as well as biodiversity loss, and loss of natural resources. Gore covers the impending need for renewable solutions and even expresses his disappointment in the inaction of congress to move to some kind of resolution.

Congress passively sits back while the water heats up around us cute little bobbing frogs in this American soup pot. Gore leaves out the fact that a huge cause of all this rapid consumption of natural resources and production of pollution from factories is capitalism. I think that in the book, “What Every Environmentalist Needs to Know About Capitalism”, written by Fred Magdoff and John Bellamy Foster, the authors touch down on some sensitive thoughts and ideas about what capitalism is and how it perpetuates climate change through it’s reckless abandon of any sort of sustainable practices. Regardless of the facts that Mieszkowski shares contradicting Gore’s choice of presentation of a few elements of his film, I still feel like he had the right idea, and it’s time that we all take into account what we can all do as an individual to make a difference. Capitalism starts with what you buy. Where do you put your dollar? Think of your dollar like an energetic investment. What do you think is right? Are you investing in that, or are you just feeding the capitalist tapeworm?

Photo Credit: Some rights reserved by Ian’s Shutter Habit, jurvetson, ssoosay via Flickr.

Ashlee Jennings
About Ashlee Jennings (4 Posts)

Ashlee Jennings is a full time student at Lane Community College in Eugene, OR. She is working on completing a Sustainability Coordinator certificate program as well as an Associate of Applied Science degree. From there she will continue on to the University of California Santa Cruz where she will pursue a B.A. in Environmental Studies and go on to work in Ecotourism. She recently completed an internship at a conservation center in Ecuador last summer that focused on protection of the Amazon Rainforest.

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One Comment on “Global Warming and Capitalism

  1. Very informative post and extremely well written.

    I just picked up a book, “Red Hot Lies” from the library, authored by Christopher C. Horner, a senior fellow at the Competitive Research Institute. The book rails against global warming “alarmists”, some of whom, according to the author, have gone to extremes to muffle dissent from even folks who have great knowledge of ecology and biology.

    Even if science can prove that global warming is caused more by natural cycles than man-made carbon dioxide emissions, the fact still remains that environmental degradation has only increased over the past two centuries and with a  rising world population and more consumption in every nation on earth, further destruction of our planet is inevitable. We as a species must pay heed to sustainability.

    When I think of all the industrial effluents in our water, the plastics piled up in landfills and the razing down of forests and entire species becoming extinct, I wonder how can we turn a blind eye?

    This blog is doing a great job. Keep it up!

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