Book Review: “Climate Change and the Crisis of Capitalism”

MCFly reader [who now prefers to be anonymous – I guess has never heard of google cache?] invites you to twist your brain inside out with a challenging book about climate change.

If you’re looking for a quiet read on a Sunday morning while you wait for the spring shower to abate as you contemplate getting back to those weeds, this isn’t the right book for you. On the other hand, if you enjoy having your brain twisted inside-out with the theoretical reasoning behind the combined economic and ecological crisis, then you’ve come to the right place!

With contributions from leading academics in the fields of environmental and economic policy, international development, human geography, International Relations, socio-ecological systems-theory and environmental sociology, you could say that the editors were a little over-zealous in their choice of contributors. There is, however, a method behind this particular pair of green-tinted spectacles, even if there are a number of lenses. For if you accept the logic of a ‘co-evolution’ thesis, which this book ultimately does, then a smorgasbord of academics is, frankly, the only way you’re going to make any sense of it, for it necessitates the addressing of a number of spheres of social activity and concurrent theoretical approaches. Not only that, but, in its addressing of the differences between the reformist and radical approaches to the combined economic and ecological crisis (one of the book’s main aims), it also calls for a ‘co-revolution’ within these spheres. That said, unless you’re versed in the Marxist conception of dialectics, you made find it difficult to get your head around such ideas, which are important to grasp if you stand any chance of understanding the underlying theoretical framework of the book and hence the prevailing arguments; but when you do, the fruits of knowledge to be digested are certainly worth the effort.

So, what is the co-revolution thesis? Essentially, it is a line of argument developed by none other than the demi-God of contemporary Marxist studies himself, David Harvey, as found in both his A Companion to Marx’s Capital (2009) and subsequent Enigma of Capital (2010). Transformational change, the argument goes, occurs in the interactive, or ‘dialectical’ (apologies to all Marxists for this gross simplification), relationship between seven fundamental spheres of social activity – “(1) technological and organizational forms of production, exchange and consumption; (2) relations to nature; (3) social relations between people; (4) mental conceptions of the world, embracing knowledges and cultural understandings and beliefs; (5) labour processes and production of specific goods, geographies, services, or affects; (6) institutional, legal and governmental arrangements, and (7) the conduct of daily life that underpins social reproduction” (p. 191). It is within each of these spheres, according to the editors, that there needs to be a transformational change, a ‘co-revolution’, if we are to address the combined economic and environmental crisis.

Still with me? Good! The underlying argument is, ultimately, that the social relations to be found in the capitalist mode of production create tensions, ‘contradictions’, within these spheres, causing crises in both economic and ecological terms. Take our relationship to nature (#2), for example, the book argues that the way we produce commodities and consume them creates tensions with the natural environment, such as in the over-production of resources, like trees in cases of deforestation. Therefore, it is argued that we need to not only change our relation to nature by reorganising production (#5), but that to sustain such a shift in behaviour will also require a ‘co-revolution’ in the other spheres, such as in mental conceptions (#4), in the need to convince others of the necessity for change, and subsequent regulatory institutionalisation of such changes (#6).

Having accepted this logic, you’re free to enjoy the rest of the book, which, in my view, is rich in insight and ways forward. For instance, Carson, in chapter five, builds the convincing argument that effective reform in liberal democracies is near on impossible due to the entrenched interests of capital and its lobbying power against any measures which may incur loss of profit for big business. Furthermore, Redclift, in an outstanding analysis of the global capitalist economy, argues that the socio-cultural phenomenon that is consumerism, and the debt mechanisms which underpin it, is unsustainable, not least in its tendency to alienate people from nature – a theoretical mainstay of the book which takes its inspiration from the Marxist concept of commodity fetishism. Added to these insights are Mitlin’s chapter on the role of grass roots movements in effecting decisive change; North and Scott Cato’s positive views of the potential of the Transition Towns model; and Hjerpe and Linner’s view of the role utopian outlooks have to play in convincing people of the necessity for radical change in our relationship with nature. I’d also recommend a read of Barry’s contribution on the need to limit economic growth, a fundamental drive of the capitalist economy in its search for an average of 3% compound growth year upon year; as echoed by Manuel Navarette in chapter ten.

As I said at the beginning, if you don’t like a brain strain on a Sunday morning then you’re probably best picking up Alan Titchmarsh, but, on the other hand, if you’re interested in getting to the bottom of why we are killing this beautiful planet of ours and finding out the ways in which we can fight this unfortunate tendency of our species, then, please, have a go, you might like it.

Climate Change and the Crisis of Capitalism: A Chance to Reclaim Self, Society and Nature, by Mark Pelling, David Manuel-Navarette and Michael Redclift, eds., 2012, London: Routledge, 224 pgs, ISBN 978-0415676946.

At the time of writing this review, [Mr Anonymous] was a member of the National Committees of both Socialist Resistance and the Campaign against Climate Change, as well as Transition Moss Side.
As of March 2013, he is no longer affiliated with Socialist Resistance, and is now International Coordinator for the Campaign against Climate Change.

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About manchesterclimatemonthly

Was print format from 2012 to 13. Now web only. All things climate and resilience in (Greater) Manchester.
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