‘Climate Change and Capitalism in Australia: An Eco-Socialist Vision for the Future’ by Hans A. Baer reviewed by Thomas Klikauer, Meg Young

Reviewed by Thomas Klikauer and Meg Young

About the reviewer

Thomas Klikauer (MAs, Boston and Bremen University and PhD Warwick University, UK) teaches MBAs and …

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About the reviewer

Meg Young (GCA and GCPA, University of New England at Armidale) is a Sydney Financial Accountant …

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Anthropologist Hans A. Baer is a well-established writer on global warming and capitalism. In his latest book, Climate Change and Capitalism in Australia – An Eco-Socialist Vision for the Future, Baer not only tells us about the environmental pathologies of capitalism. But he also invites readers to imagine a future beyond the system that has caused global ecological misery: capitalism. Much of this builds on his earlier book, ‘Democratic Eco-Socialism as a Real Utopia: Transitioning to an Alternative World System’ (2018).

Baer’s book is divided into seven parts starting with the impact of global warming in Australia. This is followed up by ‘Australian capitalism as a driver of climate change.’ Chapter three examines politics and global warming while chapter four discusses environmental movements. Chapter five and six examine climate justice activism and eco-socialism. The final chapter illuminates the issue of eco-socialism in a global context.

The book starts with a clarifying statement, ‘solving the climate crisis and related crises requires a radical socio-ecological revolution that transcends capitalism and replaces it with an alternative system based upon social justice, deep democracy, environmental sustainability, and a safe climate, both worldwide and in specific countries, such as Australia’ (preface, p. xi). Today, many have accepted the fact that ‘global capitalism has had adverse impacts on large sections of humanity and a fragile ecosystem’ (1).

Australia’s fragile ecosystem has been under serious threats in recent years. For example, the hottest year in Australia was 2019. Worldwide, 20 of the 21 hottest years occurred in the 21st century. Worse, in late 2019 and early 2020, Australia experienced the most devastating bushfires on record. Roughly, 80% of all Australians were affected (2). In an almost classical calamity, Australia’s neoliberal prime minister, Scott Morrison, undertook a secret holiday to Hawaii during the bushfires until it was uncovered. It became known as the ‘Hawaiian shirt escape.’

Set against the impending ecocide (Whyte 2020), Baer suggests ‘democratic eco-socialism’ (2; cf. Lowy 2007). Baer outlines four ingredients for democratic eco-socialism. These are: an economy oriented towards meeting basic social and economic needs for everyone. Secondly, democratic eco-socialism should be based on a high degree of social and economic equality. Thirdly, it should include public ownership of the means of production. Interestingly, Baer suggests ‘public ownership’ (3). While this may imply the state (socialism), it also can very well mean community and collectives which would be rather indicative of anarchism. Lastly, environmental sustainability and a safe climate remain imperatives for democratic eco-socialism. For Baer, any socialist alternative must embody inspirational ideals. It must also offering down-to-earth proposals for dealing with the problems of contemporary capitalism (4). With this, Baer’s concept of democratic eco-socialism is not far off from what, for example, Michael Albert suggests in his book ‘No Bosses’ (Klikauer & Young 2021).

One of the reasons for Baer to reach his conclusion about removing the present economic and political system is found in the writing of Noam Chomsky. Chomsky once noted that the United States is run by a one party system. Chomsky calls this the Business Party. This party, however, has two factions: the Republicans and the Democrats. In Australia, we find something very similar, where there is also a Business Party. Its two factions are the Coalition and the Australian Labor Party (10). Beyond that and largely excluded from influencing environmental laws are, what Baer calls, the three climate movements in Australia: (i) the mainstream layer, e.g. the Climate Council; (ii) environmental NGOs such as, for example, Greenpeace; and (iii) grass-roots and action groups such as Rising Tide, Lock the Gate, Stop Adani, School Strike 4 Climate, and Extinction Rebels.

The author suggests to move from the environmental pathologies of contemporary capitalism – more ‘capitolocene’ than ‘anthropocene’ (14) – towards democratic eco-socialism. This suggestion is based on his decades of research on global warming and a conviction that Wallace-Wells was not too much off the mark when writing about, The Uninhabitable Earth (2019). Beyond that, Baer argues that global warming has ‘three interlinked dimensions’ (14): there is an undeniable link between global warming and capitalism; secondly, there is the Jevons Paradox (Alcott 2005) which states that ‘technological improvements in energy efficiency lead not to decreased but increased utilisation of natural resources, and thereby contribute to environmental degradations’ (14); finally, capitalism means the destruction of carbon sinks. A carbon sink is pretty much anything that absorbs more carbon from the atmosphere than it releases.

As a rather inconsequential precursor of that is going to come in decades ahead, can be seen in the recent impact of global warming in Australia. Recently, Australia suffered a so-called ‘Millennium Drought’ (16) between 1997 and 2009. In the year 2003 alone, it destroyed nearly two million hectares of nature. This was followed up by the Victorian bushfires (2009). It was the most devastating bushfires on record in Australia’s history (16). Of course, all this continued with the so-called Angry Summer (2012-2013) which included the ‘hottest day, week, month, and year’ (18).

It got worse with the 2019-2020 mega bushfire. At that time, Prime Minister Scott Morrison made a quick escape with a family for a holiday in Hawaii. It became his infamous Hawaiian Shirt Holiday. Scott Morrison remains a strong supporter of Australia’s powerful coal industry. This may well signify the fact that Australia is a client state of the coal industry run by international capital. Most of Australia’s resource industry is foreign-owned. This has resulted in four common features, these being: (i) extremely high levels of foreign corporations that operate in Australia; (ii) a substantial in- and outflow of capital; (iii) a strong import-export orientation in which Australia exports raw material and imports consumer goods resulting in the pilling up of empty containers, for example, in Sydney’s Botany Bay; and finally (iv) a resulting reliance on imports of industrial equipment.

For ordinary Australians this means that ‘taxes and royalties paid by all mining companies to all levels of government account for less than 5% of government revenue. Interestingly, Queensland’s government earns more from speeding fines and car registration than it does from the coal industry (28). Queensland is one of Australia’s prime mining states. In other words, foreign capital pays virtually no taxes while Australians foot the bill. This is the beauty of neoliberal capitalism and politics. Of course to keep the show on the road, capitalism needs two things: firstly, it needs the best politicians that money can buy and indeed one of the two business parties in Australia receives 2.6-times the money than the other (30). As a consequence of its overwhelming electoral power, most of the time the Liberal Party is in government. Secondly, one needs a propaganda machine telling Australians how wonderful it all is. This is the job assigned to Rupert Murdoch’s formidable media machine. Murdoch’s media operate with a media concentration second only to North Korea (Klikauer & Young 2021).

As a result of years of neoliberal rule, Australia has a failed infrastructure and transport policy. Perhaps, it is better to say, that it has no policy at all, as the neoliberal belief system demands to leave it up to the free market. As a consequence, ‘85% of transport emission comes from road transport and over 60% from automobiles and light commercial vehicles’ (41). Sydney, for example, is a car city. Sydney has no underground comparable to London, Paris, New York, Berlin, Tokyo, etc.

To make matters worse, ‘globally, Australia is distinct in that it has been the only country that adopted and then abandoned some form of carbon pricing’ (51) when Labor Party (2012) put it in and Australia’s Liberal Party eliminated it (2014). The latter is a party also ‘pushing strongly against the Kyoto Protocol’ (56). Eventually, Labor’s ‘Kevin Rudd ratified the Kyoto Protocol’ (58) in 2007 to the enduring annoyance of Australia’s Liberal Party. For most of the time, Australia is governed by the neoliberal Liberal Party which is greatly supported by Murdoch’s media empire which remains ‘the principal media conduit for dissemination of climate denialism to ordinary Australians’ (72). Murdoch’s most ideological flagship is a newspaper called ‘the Australian.’ Unsurprisingly, ‘an analysis of 880 articles between January 2004 and April 2011, found that some 700 of them opposed climate change action’ (72). A good example of how propaganda works remains global warming denier Lord Monkton’s visit to Australia at a time when NASA’s global warming expert, James Hansen, also came. Not only did Australia’s right-wing press gave Lord Monkton a high favourable platform, James Hansen remained largely ignored (Chubb & Nash 2012). In short, not only ‘coalmining companies have the government … wrapped around their finger’ (102), but so do Australia’s conservative corporate media.

Having outlined the political programme of democratic eco-socialism, Baer closes his book by ‘paraphrasing Rosa Luxemburg, eco-socialism or eco-dystopia’ (219) which, of course, dates back to Rosa Luxemburg’s ‘Sozialismus oder Barbarei’ – ‘Socialism or Barbarism’ (1916). In Rosa Luxemburg’s lifetime, it was a pressing issue until barbarity won the day (Haffner 1973) and Luxemburg was murdered in 1919. Barely a year later barbarity raised its ugly head again with the right-wing Kapp Putsch. This sort of barbarity continued until 1993 when barbarity completely won giving the world, a global war, concentration camps, Babi Yar and death camps like Auschwitz (Langbein 2004). Today, we again face a stark choice between global ecocide (Whyte 2020) – today’s barbarity and Baer’s democratic eco-socialism. The choice is ours to make.

9 November 2021

References

  • Alcott, Blake 2005 Jevons' paradox Ecological Economics, 54(1): 9-21.
  • Baer, Hans A. 2018 Democratic eco-socialism as a real utopia: transitioning to an alternative world system (New York: Berghahn Books).
  • Chubb, Philip and Nash, Chris 2012 The politics of reporting climate change at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Media International Australia, 144(1): 37-48.
  • Haffner, Sebastian 1973 Failure of a revolution: Germany 1918/19 [Verratene Revolution, transl. by Georg Rapp] (London, Deutsch Publishing).
  • Klikauer, Thomas and Young, Meg 2021 No Bosses Marx & Philosophy: Review of Books. https://marxandphilosophy.org.uk/reviews/19662_no-bosses-a-new-economy-for-a-better-world-by-michael-albert-reviewed-by-thomas-klikauer/, 27th September 2021, accessed: 5th October 2021.
  • Klikauer, Thomas and Young, Meg 2021 The Origins of Murdochracy ZNet. https://zcomm.org/znetarticle/the-origins-of-murdochracy/, 8th July 2021, accessed: 15th October 2021.
  • Langbein, H. 2004 People in Auschwitz (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press).
  • Lowy, Michael 2007 Eco-socialism and democratic planning Socialist Register, 43.
  • Luxemburg, Rosa 1916 Sozialismus oder Barbarei ? – Die Krise der Sozialdemokratie (Berlin). http://www.mlwerke.de/lu/luf_1.htm.
  • Smythe, Dallas W. 1977 Communications: Blindspot of Western Marxism Canadian Journal of Political and Society Theory, 1(3): 1–28.
  • Wallace-Wells, David 2019 The Uninhabitable Earth: life after warming (New York: Tim Duggan Books).
  • Whyte, David 2020 Ecocide: Kill the corporation before it kills us (Manchester: Manchester University Press).

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