Imagine you are on a train that is about to derail. Your train is going really fast, and you know that you will die. Suddenly, another train appears parallel to you. As far as you can see, its rail is not damaged. Your only chance of survival is to jump to the other train, but you do not know if you can make the jump. The train that you are on is capitalism, and the train that has appeared near you is socialism (derailing is a metaphor for climate change). I don’t know about you, but I would try to make the jump. This is the analogy I use to counter the very common argument that changing to socialism is practically impossible at this point.
Let us first define what the terms capitalism and socialism mean. In a capitalist economy, the means of production is owned by private parties. The term ‘means of production’ refers to all processes involving the production, distribution and exchange of goods and services. In each industry, different companies compete against each other. The problem with this system is that it is profit-driven and ignores what we call externalities. When two parties make a transaction, they are not bothered about the well-being of any third party since it is an externality. The environmental crisis hits the poorest classes of society the worst, as the movie ‘Parasite’ has shown by using heavy rains as a representation of climate change. As far as the elite class which conducts business is concerned, this is an externality.
Socialism has been given a wide variety of meanings across history, from economic to sociological to philosophical perspectives. Here, I shall use the libertarian definition of socialism: a socialist economy is one in which the means of production are owned collectively by the people, and are managed democratically. The conception of an idea, research and development, production, and the ultimate destination of the product or service---no small group of people can own or control this process. According to this definition, the USSR or China would not qualify as socialist. They should be considered totalitarian regimes. While not perfect, Cuba and Vietnam have come much closer to this definition of socialism than China or the USSR.
So, how sure are we that this train is about to derail? The study ‘Future of the human climate niche’, published in the National Academy of Sciences, predicts that if humans continue business as usual, by 2070, 3.5 billion (30% of the expected human population by then) people will face unlivable temperatures. This is purely due to a rise in temperature, and does not consider other effects of climate change like rising ocean levels, natural disaster or pandemics. The study explains that, for most of human history, we have lived in places with mean annual temperatures around 11 to 25 degrees Celsius. They expect that the global mean annual temperature will increase by 3 degrees, and that every degree of increase will cause a billion people to lose their homes (and possibly die) due to extreme temperatures. Today, less than 1% of the landmass has mean annual temperatures over 29 degrees Celsius, and most of that is in the Sahara. If greenhouse gas emissions are not cut soon, that will reach 19% of land, home to 3.5 billion people.
So, how does capitalism cause this? Let us explore this using the example of industrial agriculture. Industrial agriculture accounts for a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions. Additionally, large scale single crop farming of genetically modified plants (GMO: Genetically Modified Organisms) destroys the biodiversity and ecological balance of an area. Further, rampant use of herbicides and pesticides has been shown to destroy useful pollinators. There are also studies indicating increased induction of pesticide-resistant insects. However, the scariest fact about industrial agriculture is that there is a very real possibility that it is the reason for COVID-19, and that it could cause more global pandemics that are potentially deadlier than this. Several biologists argue that such large monocultures of GMOs, which often encroach forest land, have destroyed ecological mechanisms which would have otherwise kept these pathogens in check. Apart from this, the statement issued by the Global Ecosocialist Network on COVID-19 cites, ‘prevalence of cruel and dangerous factory farming methods which concentrate immense numbers of animals in the smallest possible spaces’, and ‘increasingly globalized circuits of food distribution and trade which facilitate the rapid international spread of infection’ as being the reason behind the epidemic. This brings us back to our earlier statistic of a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions being from industrial agriculture. Of this quarter, more than half comes from animal products, and half of that half comes from beef and lamb.
Another problem with industrial agriculture and capitalism are the difficulties faced by farmers. Since private companies own the patents to GMOs, it is illegal to replant from the current crop. They must buy new sets of seeds every season. Small farmers who actually produce the food have to pay these companies most of their produce for seeds, herbicides and pesticides. It is one of the cruellest ironies of the world that the people who produce our food are the ones who die of hunger. Furthermore, in a capitalist system, land is a form of capital that can be owned by private parties. There is no central planning. A combination of conversion of farmland to factories and industries and loss of fertility due to industrial agricultural practices drive farmers closer to the forest. This causes a clash between man and the wild, which I have personally experienced living in Wayanad. The clash claims casualties on both sides. The most recent of these clashes, the killing of a pregnant elephant, is what prompted me to write this article.
All of this points to the fact that the current system of agriculture is not very sustainable. Why then, do we continue to produce food in these same methods? Why don’t we invest more in studying the effects of GMOs, herbicides and pesticides, and use them scientifically? Why don’t we increase the variety of crops? Why don’t we produce less beef and more chicken or fish? Why don’t we stop mass-producing animals and raise them in smaller, more humane farms? Why don’t we see more PSAs asking us to eat healthy but to also keep the environment in mind despite there being significant scientific evidence on which diets are more eco-friendly?
The reason is very clear from the numbers. Just look at the GM seed industry, which is dominated by three companies: Monsanto, Dupont and Syngenta; they collectively own 61% of the industry. Similarly, every part of the food industry is in the hands of a few giants. This is typical of any industry in capitalism. These few have an immense amount of wealth and bargaining power. This monopoly hinders the democratic process. They spend millions of dollars lobbying by funding re-election campaigns of policymakers so that policies favour them. Apart from this, they have convinced the general public that this is the only way to produce enough food to feed the growing world population and end world hunger. However, this is not true. The main cause for hunger in the third world is not a lack of food, but trade policies and the lack of income to buy food, inputs such as fertilizer and water. Hunger is caused due to the inequality that capitalism has created. We must destroy this myth of overpopulation. All developed nations and most developing nations have accepted the two-child policy, bringing the median family size close to 4 except in Africa. We see that poorer families have more children. This might seem illogical as it is harder for them to support more children. But the truth is that the survival rate of children in poor families is lower, so they resort to having a larger number of children. But this ends up with families having more than two children. However, intervention in this matter has been effective. The population of Africa is currently 1.3 billion. It is expected to saturate at 4 billion and the world population is expected to saturate at 11 billion.
The world must stop obsessing over the Human Development Index (HDI) and GDP, and focus more on the Sustainable Development Index (SDI). It has been shown that certain factors considered in HDI are tied to environmental damage because they are tied to production. So the countries with the highest HDI such as those in North America and Europe do not have a sustainable model. SDI, on the other hand, looks at several human development criteria such as life expectancy and expected years of schooling, as well as environmental factors such as per-capita CO2 emissions and per-capita material footprint. We see that Cuba ranks first in the world by SDI while also maintaining a high HDI. Kerala has been given the 13th position in the SDI dashboard even though it is not a country. Kerala also has a high HDI. We have also seen how well Cuba, Vietnam and Kerala were able to handle COVID-19. When you have a planned economy and centralised management of resources, it is easier to mobilize them quickly in case of a crisis. So, even if systems like socialism are regarded by many as authoritarian or primitive, we must see this as an experiment and accept that socialism is a success.
Despite all the crises capitalists have caused, industry giants keep growing richer and stronger as no government holds them accountable for their actions. In fact, governments act in their favour. The solutions are science and socialism. Socialism is the truest form of democracy where all of us can influence how the resources of a country are utilised. We must make an economic shift towards this. We must also stop the mistrust of experts in society by educating people better than we do now so that they develop a scientific temper. We must provide better funding to publicly owned research institutes. The inconvenient truth is that environmentalism is much more political than we would like it to be. Watering plants while holding an umbrella as it rains on June the 5th just won’t do anymore. We will have to educate ourselves and the public until this is part of mainstream political debates.
Artwork done by Noora Naushad, batch ‘17
- Talks by Noam Chomsky (linguist, philosopher and political activist) and Hans Rosling (physician and epidemiologist).
- Climate change food calculator: What’s your diet’s carbon footprint?, BBC News
- 3.5 billion people may face ‘unlivable’ heat in 50 years, Climate and Capitalism
- Future of the human climate niche, PNAS
- Can we feed our world without Monsanto, United Nations University
- First meeting of Global Ecosocialist Network issues Covid-19 statement, Climate and Capitalism
- Capitalist agriculture and Covid-19: A deadly combination, Climate and Capitalism
- Does Big Ag dominate crop research and the global seed supply, controlling the world food market?, Genetic Literacy Project
- Sustainable Development Index