The extinction curve

Authors of The Extinction Curve: Growth and Globalisation in the Climate Endgame, John van der Velden and Rob White argue that the climate crisis is happening now and they are proposing a radical solution to alter the global warming trajectory: democratic nationalisation. How has green capitalism failed and what does this alternative provide? Is it really too late to stop global warming?

Speaker profiles

John van der Velden is an independent socialist writer living in Canberra, Australia. He was a national convenor, on behalf of the Non-Aligned Caucus, in the initial multi-party Socialist Alliance. He writes on matters of political economy, class structure and the climate emergency.

Rob White is Distinguished Professor of Criminology at the University of Tasmania, Australia. Considered a pioneer in the field of green criminology, he has particular interest in transnational environmental crime and eco-justice. His published books include Crimes Against Nature (2008), Transnational Environmental Crime (2011), Environmental Harm (2013) and Climate Change Criminology (2018).

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In this episode

  • What does the science tell us about the rate of global warming?
  • What are the key features of capitalism that make it a key cause of global heating?
  • What is democratic nationalisation and why is this essential to dealing with climate change?

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The extinction curve

Daniel Ridge: Multiple studies published in peer reviewed scientific journals show that 97% or more of climate scientists agree that human caused climate change is happening now. In the new book The Extinction Curve: Growth and Globalisation in the Climate Endgame, authors John Van Der Velden and Rob White argue that we are now at a crossroads if we are to slow or reverse global warming. They argue that the 50-year attempt by the mainstream environmental movement to create a greener capitalism has failed and it's time for more drastic measures. Their book charts a path for a democratic, social, economic and sustainable ecological transformation in the interest of the global majority and demonstrates how this can be achieved. In this episode we'll be speaking with John and Rob about their book, the arguments they put forth, and look at the solutions they provide.

All right, well thank you so much for joining me today.

John Van der Velden: Thank you, Daniel. Good to be here.

Rob White: Yeah, right.

DR: You know, I have a lot of questions about your book, it is really fascinating, but first of all I'm interested in what got you involved in this and what really prompted you to write this book?

JV: Well, Rob and I go back quite a long way, so over 40 years, we have occasionally worked together on say more academic kind of articles, but both of us have been quite concerned about the alarming increase in both greenhouse gas emissions and ecological catastrophe in general. And that has merged much more directly now than it did say 40 or 50 years ago when I started becoming an activist. So, Rob, through academia has literally come to the same perplexing question is, you know, where are we at. It's not going well. What we do now.

RW: John and I both have basically an internationalist kind of view, and we tend to look at the world in global terms, and that's partly a reflection of our own biography. John was born in the Netherlands, and I was born in Germany. We both grew up in Canada, and we've spent most of our lives in Australia. So when we look at the world we do tend to look at things from a global perspective, not from any particular country or national perspective, as such. That was reflected in my academic work, which was in an area called Green Criminology that deals with issues of environmental harm, but increasingly environmental harm can only be understood in global terms. So we've referred to concepts such as eco side - eco side used to refer to environmental harm in a territory or a localized area, but now with climate change we're seeing eco side on a global level. And so, coming from my criminological background, looking through an internationalist type of lens, it just made sense that John and I would join together to write an activist academic synthesis and try and understand and explain what's happening in the world today.

DR: Could you tell me about the title The Extinction Curve?

JV: So, obviously the extinction curve itself primarily refers to the correlation between the rise in greenhouse gases, and the rise in temperature, globally, as well as regional, but it also refers to a wider trajectory that the climate change, that's reflected in that correlation, is also part of a wider ecological catastrophe that's been unfolding for many, many decades, and that's also impacting beyond just the level of climate.

DR: Is the extinction curve a model that you guys developed?

JV: No.

RW: The extinction curve is basically a metaphor. But, in a nutshell, it says, as the planet heats up, we will die. And as the heat increases so too will a number of deaths of all species, including humans. So, it’s basically similar to the pandemic curve - the idea is that as the rates go up then you can expect more deaths. The extinction part of it means that basically just last year alone, it was predicted that there are 1 million species currently threatened with extinction. And we unfortunately due to climate change and global heating are one of the species that now is starting to be directly threatened by the same kind of process.

DR: Well what does the science tell us about global warming - is it going in fits and starts or is it a steady rise?

RW: Actually, the climate scientist Michael Mann has a very neat analogy, or metaphor for what's happened. He calls it the hockey stick. And basically what we saw for thousands of years, is the hockey stick lying on its side. Then, in the last hundred to 400 years, we've seen the blade of the hockey stick going straight up. And that's what the rate of change has been, and the key issue with global warming has not been that it's occurring, the key issue is how quickly, and the hockey stick analogy gives us a picture, as it were, of something that's lying down and all of a sudden, the blade spikes straight up. And I think that it's the right that we have to be concerned with and that's the thing that really demands that we have urgent action today, this is something that we must act on immediately.

JV: That's been highlighted in the current COVID crisis, how much of an impact our every-day economic organization activity does impact on the environment, by virtue of the fact you can already see the effects in terms of pollution drop now that we've, you know, not ground to a halt, but seen at least a 50% drop in economic activity globally over the last eight months and probably for another year.

RW: And this partly gets to the nub of why we, in the book, are critical of particularly usages of the term Anthropocene. In a lot of the social science writing Anthropocene refers to the idea that somehow the climate crisis is solely human caused, and we say well hang on, it's not human caused as such, it's directly related to certain types or modes of production. Humans have lived on the planet for thousands and thousands of years - in Australia we have indigenous communities that have been continuous for 60,000 years. To say that they ruin the environment is a nonsense. So, there's specific modes of production, what we would call global capitalism, which is the direct cause of what's happening. So, it's not Anthropocene in the sense of human caused as a generic term, it's directly caused by the capitalist system of production.

DR: That's really fascinating. That's what I really took away from your book. You're talk about the capitalist Industrial Revolution beginning 1750 as sort of the beginning of this extinction curve, right. I'm curious about how the last 100 years have differed from the first 100 years of that revolution.

RW: So basically around the globe, for centuries, people are produced and consumed in a whole variety of different ways, including subsistence living, there was different kinds of feudal arrangements, there was communal living, particularly amongst indigenous peoples, and so on.  Capitalism has come to dominate on a global scale. And that's the vital crucial difference. It's, again, in essence, with the age of imperialism, at the turn of the 18th century and what we've seen since, has been the consolidation and further penetration and expansion of capitalism into every sphere of life. And they've commodified everything. We buy drinking water. We can actually buy canisters of fresh air. They've managed to commodify everything. And that's part of what we're trying to describe in the book.

JV: All economic activity is either producing for a capitalist market or has to react to the conditions of the dominant capitalist market for goods and services. And so, the growth in emissions that has been picked up by science since 1950 called the Great Acceleration, basically does reflect that actual globalization of capitalism that wasn't there in the initial period.

DR: So what is it about capitalism that is so harmful to the environment?

JV: Well, it's really what the core economic driver of capitalism is - its production for profit rather than for social needs. Obviously, we need at least a goodly portion of the commodities that are produced by a capitalist mode of production, but the motivation for producing is profit, it's not to meet that social need.  

RW: Let's take an example of during the COVID crisis, if you happen to live in a country where the healthcare system is basically private, and privatized, then health care is a commodity, that is, it’s something you buy. If you ain't got the money, you ain't got no health care, and fortunately in places like Australia, we have a national health care system which means regardless of income and background and employment, you have access to health care. Now during the pandemic, it's meant that anybody in Australia can go to a hospital or access a doctor. In societies where health care is only commodified and only sold for profit, then it excludes a whole bunch of people who simply can't afford to pay for basic health care needs.

DR: Is there something built into the capitalist system that is producing more carbon?

RW: Capitalism has an imperative and that imperative is growth. So, regardless of whether we rely upon fossil fuels or some other energy source, capitalism requires growth, that is the expansion of commodities and commodity production. So, there are no limits, theoretically, to capitalist growth because capitalism itself depends upon that growth. Historically, what we've seen is that that growth, in terms of private profit, has depended upon the exploitation of natural resources, that is nature, and the exploitation of humans, through the exploitation of their labor. And so, it's the exploitation of nature and humans, which central to the making of profit. The profit itself hinges upon continuous and expanding growth.

JV: For profit. It's not the expansion of satisfying social needs it's the expansion of delivering profit for the investment in the production itself. So capitalist growth is distinct from, say, growth in meeting social need.

DR: Well, we know that carbon emissions are the biggest driver of climate change, and that has been out there that information has been out there for decades, but there has been very little that we've really done to impact this in a huge way, you know, we make reductions and gas emissions from cars and a little by little, but we haven't taken any great big leaps in terms of stopping carbon emissions. Why do you think that's happening?

RW: Well actually it's in the recent United Nations and other reports. The scientists are the ones who are saying, hey, what's going on here, because the, the solution to global warming is very clear – stop carbon emissions. But what's happened is that, in fact, for example, subsidies for coal production and fossil fuel production by governments have increased in recent years, not decreased. So the government's, in fact, are still supporting the dirty industries. Now that gives you at least a clue as to why we're not having the profound changes that we need. And that is that there's a close link between the interests of governments and the interests of capital. Basically, we know what to do. We have the answers, the science tells us the nature of the problem. The science also tells us how to adjust the problem. So the key conundrum, in terms of climate politics, is how do we transform the political system? That's the key to addressing climate change.

DR: Well is green capitalism a solution?

RW: Well the motivation of green capitalism is to make a profit. And the key drivers of that are the billionaire entrepreneurs, and if you look at their track record in the United States for example, we've had people wanting to move their factories because they didn't want to adhere to lockdown rules relating to the virus or whatever so they didn't really care about the workers who are working to build the things that they were putting out there, they wanted to make the profit. Now we've got the same billionaires talking about doing industrial production in space, mainly because it's a way for them to make a profit, and they're the ones who benefit the most from catastrophe actually. It opens up new markets for them. But the key thing is it's them, this small group of people, making the decisions that affect millions and billions of people's lives. And part of argument is that we can't afford to let the few make decisions for the many because their track record is not very good. But also, it also operates within the context of exponential growth. The whole point of capitalism and profit making is that you need to keep selling products. You have to keep making stuff and it's not necessarily for social need now some of it obviously has use value. So, yes, I support the making of solar panels, but the making of solar panels for that use value can very quickly transform into something else, as we go to other forms of commodity production, basically to make a profit. So I think there's a several issues intertwined there but one of the key ones is who's making the decisions, who controls the kinds of decisions that are being made, and what do we get out of it at the end of the day.

JV: And this has been reflected very much now in the current debates because we are in a sense, in a green capitalist transition debate, at the moment, as a movement, as a global community. So for example here in Australia, we sell a lot of coal and oil, and we also sell a lot of gas. So as part of the green capitalist agenda here by our current government is to develop gas resources as a transition fuel to meet Paris 2050 targets. You have components of capital that want to pursue a nuclear power agenda and, and quite a few activists have called for nuclear power as an alternative to fossil fuels to provide baseload power. So, all these pockets of vested capital interests, if they succeed and become a leading component of developing a low emissions technology for capitalism to continue producing forever and ever and generating profit, they become the vested interests that you have to contest with when you want to move away from some of the technology investments that they might have provided, and the political control that flows from their dominance of a market sector just like with fossil fuels now that has historically developed over the last several hundred years.

RW: And to put this again into the wider framework let’s use the example of China. It's one of the most polluting countries in the world, but it's also one of the leading innovators, for clean, green technologies. So you can in fact be both. And that's part of the framework within which global capitalism itself works, and operates, you can actually do both, you can continue the fossil fuel destruction and simultaneously back your new technologies that are less degrading of the environment. What we want is a framework that says no, we don't want to do both. In fact, we're going to make decisions and be decisive, and that we don't want a simultaneous degradation of the environment, along with the innovation. We want to make decisions that meet social needs, and that are not tied to particular vested interests, but in fact will serve the public interest.

DR: So what does that look like? What does that look like in terms of a government, what does that look like in terms of an economy?

JV: In a nutshell, what we're arguing for and through the book is that we need to democratize social production and extend it. And to do that, we need to collectivise or socialize, or in the case of the argument of the book, to democratically nationalize the central means of the economy, owned by the Democratic majority.

DR: Can you tell me what that means, this democratic nationalization?

RW: Yeah, to give an example of democratic nationalization let's contrast it with other types of state intervention, and here we can look at the global financial crisis, there's two key examples that I want to point to. One was in the United States, where the government stepped in to bail out the key financial sectors and all the big business buddies of those in the government and the federal government in the United States, that for us is not the way to go because basically you’re just bolstering and supporting the very system that led to the collapse of the economy in the first place. The second example was in the United Kingdom, where a Scottish bank was collapsing, the UK government stepped in to bail out and, in a sense, nationalized the bank. Then, after the bank had been bailed out and got back on its feet, it handed the bank back to the private owners, and we said, well, that's crazy, because what you've used our money, the people's money, our taxes, to bail out big business, when in fact what we want is a say in what's happening with those businesses. So, when we say nationalization, we mean things like banking, we mean things like the health system, we mean things like the food production system. Let's feed people, let’s house people let's make sure that they've got good health care, and let's make sure that there's that the financial control is not in the hands of the billionaires who have made zillions of the current coronavirus crisis and put very little back into meeting social need.

DR: Are there any governments that you look to that you think are doing a good job?

RW: Many people today, right around the world, including the pope, are critical of capitalism as a system for distorting and perverting the meeting of social needs. The problem is that critique is easy, but transformation is difficult. What we do in this book is try and provide a framework where we actually point in the direction of the transformations that we need - transformations that are post capitalist that we would argue should be eco socialist and by socialist we mean democratic. Fundamentally, we're talking about democracy and democratization of the means of production, we're talking about the meeting of social need, and we're talking about the public interest, not the interest of the select billionaires who currently run the global economy. That, in essence, is our argument. And basically, the means to at least the first step to achieve that end is to take the control out of their hands. So, we call for the democratic nationalization of the key sectors of the economy. And as we've mentioned that includes health, finance, the energy sector and so on.

DR: Well as an average citizen, what do you think average citizens should be doing?

JV: Average citizens should be demanding governments that have a trajectory for public ownership and public control and public accountability, and more importantly, public engagement, or to call a greater democratization of the collective productive enterprise that we're all ingrained in.

DR: Well, a lot of governments are proposing things like the Paris Climate Deal and the Green New Deal, particularly the Green New Deal. What are your thoughts about that initiative?

JV: Well the Green New Deal is not about transforming capitalism but trying to go back to a more regulatory capitalism that existed prior to the Reagan-Thatcher neoliberal revolution where small government and commercialization of public sector utilities and services, occurred. There's a lot of good in the Green New Deal, insofar as it's tied to a wider demand for public sector services such as in education and health care, it was fashioned in your country, Daniel, and it resonates less in other countries that already have more public sector health services still and public sector education, but fundamentally the Green New Deal is a tax and regulate social democratic structure, which is to co-exist with a capitalist system of private ownership and production. We don't think it goes far enough. I think it’s also, it doesn’t reflect either the structural conundrum that's confronting global capitalism at the moment.

RW: What we're seeing today are the limits to growth ecologically. And that is manifest in climate change and global warming, but also what we're seeing today are the limits to growth in terms of capitalism. Because capitalism requires consumers as well as the exploitation of labor. And what we're seeing is the demise of consumption across many different spheres, in part exacerbated by the coronavirus crisis, but also what we're seeing is the transformation of labor itself so that people aren't getting the income - as we put more robotics into production, as we have artificial intelligence guarding production processes, we're finding that fewer workers are actually needed. Those who are needed tend to be casualized and paid less, and so on. So the exploitation of labor ultimately rebounds back to capitalism in the form of under consumption. So we're seeing the limits of growth within capitalism, it's looming crisis, as well as the limits to growth ecologically.

DR: So what's the ultra-right wing movements going on particularly in the US, how do they affect the ecological movement?

RW: What we're seeing today is very similar to what we saw under 30 years of neoliberalism. Neoliberalism was premised upon the ideology of the free market, but the free market was never ever free. It was always a monopolized market. That is, the largest corporations ruled the roost and profited the most in the period of neoliberal, so called opening up of the world economy. So it led to the concentration of wealth and power in that 30-year period of neoliberalism. What we're seeing with the rise of the ultra-right is a similar with the fortress mentality and with this idea that somehow you can distance yourself from what else is happening in the rest of the world, but again it's a furphy, or it's misleading, it will never happen. The people who are most sucked in by the ideology are also those who tend to be most disadvantaged by that ideology when it's put into practice. And basically it's a false promise, but at the end of the day, the only jobs that will be created from an ultra-right perspective, ultimately will not be traditional factory jobs and agricultural jobs, there'll be the jobs of coercion, because the only way to hang that particular kind of state together is through coercion, and that's through the police and the army. And I think that this is the part of the, the great danger that we're facing today, is the dramatic shift, not only from authoritarian production systems, but towards authoritarian states, and the fusion of authoritarian production for private profit, with the authoritarian state, which is designed integrally to protect those private profits.

DR: So you believe that we're 15 years away from a tipping point, so this is a very urgent question. What's this mean, once we pass this tipping point?

JV: Well, to clarify the tipping point, it's just a broad reference tipping point. We are seeing the evolution of tipping points geologically already in terms of the increase in ice melts and so on. If we don't make those very dramatic moves now, and over the next 15 years to wind back, then we will effectively be at a point of, if not no return, we will be at a point where human intervention will have very minimal effect, and if we try to have a maximum effect, like through geoengineering the risk consequences of that rise exponentially, where we need to alter our own biosphere to try to maintain the conditions of existence, for an ever rapidly shrinking section of the world population. If you project in terms of science fantasy, for example, if you could put a bubble around your house or a bubble around your country - it's not a bubble around the world. And the people who are outside that bubble are going to suffer all the ravages of the geological feedback loops of drought, firestorm, floods, etc. They are not going to be sheltered like we are in the advanced economies and progressively as the crisis deepens, less and less of our own populations, can be buffered, you can rebuild New Orleans, but no one is going to rebuild Bangladesh.

RW: The climate emergency is now. We have a period of 10 to 15 years where the climate emergency will transform into something else, and to something else, worse. What we're seeing today is the melting of the glaciers, we're seeing the bushfire seasons and the forest fire seasons extending to become almost a permanent feature across the globe, what we're seeing is the continued pollution and the feedback loops are exacerbating the problem exponentially. So, this is not something that just happens gradually, it's exponential. So what we're seeing is the hockey stick in action and we're getting whacked, and basically time's running out. And time's running out for dramatic transformational action. This is not something that we can respond to slowly, this is not something that we can respond to with timid measures and piecemeal reform, what we need now is actually profound transformational change. And that, unfortunately, is the only way forward if we're gonna survive the extinction curve.

DR: Are you optimistic that this is possible?

RW: For me, our analysis, provides a framework, a pathway, whereby we could in fact do this. And part of the lessons of the COVID crisis in many countries, is that the state is central. And if the state is central and if it becomes our state, and we can have a democratic nationalization of the key sectors of our economies, then yes, there is hope. But if we don't do that, then the hope recedes very quickly.

JV: The gravity of the situation militates against having hope. And I think a lot of the movement that the book is addressed to lives in a state of relative despair over the fact that we're, we're out of time. I'm optimistic that the majority of people will act in their collective interests to overturn the vested interests. As a movement, we need to create the hope and create the agenda to galvanize those supported interests to find a collective democratic solution. So I'm optimistic that we can create that, but it's not going to be under conditions that we like and those conditions are getting worse, they're worse now than they were 10 years ago, and 10 years ago was worse than 30 years ago - the conditions are going to be worse 10 years from now. If we don't find a way to all row in the same direction, then those in power will be shaping the agenda for us. I'm hopeful that we can create those coalitions, I'm hopeful and optimistic that people will realize that if they don't take the matters into their own hands in that collective action that their overall interests will be threatened by the realities of climate change and economic collapse that follows from that, but the gravity of the situation, cannot be discounted, and the despair that does exist across wide sectors of the community that we are out of time and can't do that. The only answer to that, the only answer to that, is to join in and make those solutions happen, they're not going to be delivered to us. So, the message in the book is optimistic from that point of view, but the urgency of it cannot be emphasized enough.

DR: You’ve both given me a lot to think about today, I really appreciate you taking the time to come and talk to us.

RW: Thank you, Daniel.

JV: Thank you Daniel, it's been very nice talking to you.

DR: We'd like to thank you for listening to today's episode. For more information about The Extinction Curve: Growth and Globalisation in the Climate Endgame, please see our show notes on our website, along with the transcript and more information about John and Rob. I'd like to thank Hazel Goodes for her work on this episode, and Alex Jungius of This is Distorted

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