Climate, China, Capital: The triple crisis of the twenty-first century

The world is undergoing a period of profound instability. At such a time it is easy to distract ourselves with frivolities. But underneath the froth of our moral malaise is a deep conflict of interests, along ecological, geopolitical, and economic lines. Let me explain.

Planet Earth: There is only one.

The first issue is climate change. Western civilisation is powered by fossil fuel-based energy reproduction. If we do not wean ourselves off fossil fuels, temperatures resulting from the greenhouse gas effect are likely to rise to 4-6 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. The effects are likely to be catastrophic: desertification, ocean acidification, and the largest mass extinction event since the dinosaurs died out, 66 million years ago. How do we know this? Because it has already started — for example, oceans are more acidic than they’ve been for, well, 66 million years …

The second issue might not be so catastrophic, but it could be, if mishandled. During the Cold War, there were often fears of a nuclear winter following a possible escalation of tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union. Today, China has the second highest GDP and military spending on Earth, second only to the United States. History suggests that such a proximity in power between a dominant country and a challenger country is a recipe for conflict. How this conflict is managed will determine the future of our current world order, as well as, potentially, human civilisation as a whole.

The third issue is economic, and seems less definitely dangerous than the first two. But just as China’s coal-fuelled rise is feeding the flames of climate change, so is capitalism fuelling both China’s destabilising rise and climate change itself. Based on a profit-driven mode of capital accumulation, the modern market favours those institutions which eliminate opposition to free trade and the monopolies and oligarchs which dominate the capitalist economy. Renewables will only surpass fossil fuels once their price is low enough to make abandoning oil and gas profitable for big corporations.

Meanwhile, nuclear energy is so expensive that, despite its low carbon footprint, capitalism is unlikely to favour its expansion without massive state intervention, which is as of yet not forthcoming (not least due to fears of nuclear energy arising from geopolitical conflict, on the one hand, and tectonic plates and tsunamis, on the other hand). Unless the state takes an active role in reorganising the economy democratically, geopolitically, and ecologically, we will remain prey to the fickle whims of the market, and climate change will consume people and profit, alike. You cannot eat money.

Furthermore, China’s acceptance into the World Trade Organisation in 2001 has been followed by its integration into the world financial architecture, gradually opening its capital account to free movement of foreign debt, while dumping its own debt on the US housing market (thereby catalysing the 2008 crash, and creating fears about financial stability in 2020 as coronavirus, which began in Chinese markets, unfurled). Capitalism also divides states internally, creating class cleavages which wound democratic equality and exacerbate social discord. For the United States, this is debilitating, and hampers attempts to contain the threats of climate change and the rise of China, rooted in the predatory dynamics of contemporary capitalism.

These three interlocking crises need to be contained if this century is to be any more peaceful than the last (which is to say very little, indeed, given last century was the most devastatingly destructive in our species’ geologically brief history). On the cusp of a new age of technology, will we allow ourselves to fall prey to traps unleashed by institutions designed centuries ago for centuries-old problems? Or will we contain the current crises and remake our political and economic systems to better fit the needs of the present? We, as a species, have already changed the Earth to suit our needs. Now we must change our own institutions if we are to adapt to the world we have created. Before it is too late.

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