Stopping Climate Change Will Never Be “Good Business”
By Paul Fleckenstein <>

Climate activist and writer Bill McKibben's new book is an excellent
account of how urgent the climate crisis in front of us is. But it stumbles
in trying to prescribe green capitalist solutions to a problem that
requires systematic change.

Bill McKibben accepts the EMA Lifetime Achievement Award onstage during the
23rd Annual Environmental Media Awards at Warner Bros. Studios on October
19, 2013 in Burbank, California. (Michael Buckner / Getty Images)

Review of *Falter* <> by Bill
McKibben (Henry Holt and Co., 2019).

Bill McKibben, climate justice activist and founder of, professor
of environmental studies, best-selling author, and journalist, needs little
introduction. He has made enormous contributions to the public awareness of
the need to prevent climate emergency. And he continues to promote
important developments in the struggle, including Extinction Rebellion
<> and
the global September 20 climate strike

In the thirty years between his widely read The End of Nature and the
launch of his new book Falter, this year, the planet’s ecological fate has
veered toward the worst-case scenario. Faced with climate emergency
now, we urgently need books that convey our dire environmental
circumstances and contribute to a political understanding that serves as a
guide to action. McKibben’s Falter lives up to the first criteria, but
fails badly on the second.
Ecological Breakdown

Falter excels in its account of ecological collapse
<>. It is rooted in climate
science, and powerfully recounts the multiple ways that greenhouse gases
are forever altering
and destabilizing the planet.

Rising extreme temperatures will place 1.5 billion people in areas at high
risk of temperature and humidity combinations that humans can’t survive for
more than a few hours. Rapidly changing climate conditions threaten to
radically disrupt the plant, insect, and soil ecologies that make
agriculture possible. Ninety-three percent of the heat is collecting in the
water, and ocean acidity has already increased by 30 percent due to CO2
emissions. Further increases risk the total collapse of ocean ecosystems.
The International Organization for Migration estimates there will be up to
two-hundred million climate refugees by 2050, or maybe even up to the high
estimate of one billion.

In what McKibben calls the human game, the board is rapidly shrinking.
Ecological destruction restricts the space humans have to maneuver. Whole
realms of the human experience of nature are disappearing as well. McKibben
presents a nuanced and compelling account of this catastrophe. There is a
lot to fight for.
Roots of Catastrophe

How we analyze a problem determines how we are able to address it. So it’s
worth digging into what McKibben says about the roots of climate emergency.

Throughout the book, McKibben lists the villains contributing to ecological
disaster: oil companies
the Koch brothers, climate denial, our expectations of more and better,
system of growth, hyper-individualism, the psychological consequences of
participating in a consumer paradise, zeitgeist, and wealth inequality
While he sometimes references powerful actors, he mostly points to
attitudes and beliefs.

Consistent with the emphasis on ideas driving ecological destruction, the
key historical moment for McKibben, where “America may have decided the
planet’s geological and technological future,” was the turn to neoliberalism
in the 1970s. McKibben argues that the United States entered a more
predatory era of deregulation, privatization, individualistic greed, and
wealth inequality foreclosing capitalism’s ability to respond to global
warming. He attributes the new capitalist norms to Ayn Rand. Rand is the
widely read (among bosses) author of the capitalist manifestos Atlas
Shrugged and The Fountainhead. For McKibben, Rand’s celebration of
selfishness and individualism deformed the thinking of US rulers and eroded
social-democratic values, which in turn closed off possibilities of staving
off climate emergency.

This narrative shows how McKibben mistakenly believes that the problems of
climate destruction stem from bad ideas and policies, rather than systemic
issues. The 1970s turn toward neoliberalism in fact originated with a
general crisis in capitalist profitability, not with Ayn Rand’s ideas.

The post–World War II boom ended in the 1973 recession. The subsequent
period of economic stagnation was due to over-investment in production and
reduced rates of profit. Capitalists and their governments everywhere, from
Houston to Sweden, began carrying out reforms to reduce the costs of
production by slashing wages, regulations, and taxes. Destroying unions,
austerity, and cutting government programs — except the military — helped
buoy profits and return US capitalism to profitability. Capitalism still
followed the same growth and profit imperatives (more on this below), but
it required a new set of norms.

If you as a capitalist adopt Ayn Rand’s individualistic business ideology,
then this will help you be more successful, to more easily dismiss the
damage done to workers, communities, and the environment. But her ideology
was an aftereffect, not a cause of the neoliberal shift.

Failing to understand the systemic character of capitalism and its relation
to climate change also leads to the two technologies of change McKibben
advocates: the entrepreneurial potential of solar power to remake
capitalism’s energy system, and the politics of nonviolent protest, not as
a way to take power from rulers but as a way to change their minds.

Falter leads us toward hoped-for green, capitalist solutions. Highlighting
that this is “good business,” McKibben forefronts the work of a Harvard
graduate and entrepreneur trying to sell investors on small scale solar
(with marginal profit margins) in rural Africa: “I’m not a socialist . . .
I don’t think humans are wired that way. But I also think extractive
capitalism has run its course.” Solar panels produce usable power directly
from the sun, and the technology is getting cheaper and more widely
available, and, in the market, can out-compete fossil fuel produced

Such green-capitalist type proposals strike one as utopian, given that they
depend on unwilling and hostile agents, capitalists, changing their
behavior and the functioning of the entire system. Marx explained (and
Goldman Sachs would agree) that capitalism is a system of perpetual
expansion, not because of the ideas of capitalists, but because owners must
invest capital, exploit workers for a profit, accumulate more capital than
originally invested, and again and again, or they will be outcompeted and
eliminated by other capitalists who are able to generate more profits.
National and international competition between capitalists imposes a growth
imperative on all. It is a system where “grow or die” determines the
trajectory of all major economic institutions.

Environmental destruction is built into the core of capitalism. Capitalism
operates on wage labor. When owners expropriate the earth, nature is then a
mere resource that is combined with labor in production to generate
profits. This creates what Marx called a “metabolic rift.” In the early
capitalist separation of town and country, capitalist production was
fundamentally out of sync with the earth’s ecological requirements — in
this case, Marx noted the destruction of soil fertility while towns dumped
human waste into rivers. John Bellamy Foster in Marx’s Ecology elaborated
on Marx’s insight showing the fundamental incompatibility of capitalism
with the rest of nature.

Fossil fuels
played an essential role over the last almost two-hundred years in the
development of this system. McKibben importantly notes that “A barrel of
oil, currently about sixty dollars, provides the energy equivalent to about
twenty-three thousand hours of human labor.” But he takes it no further.
The fact, though, is crucial for understanding that capitalism developed
together with fossil fuels
<> because this
portable, compact energy source enormously increased business owners’ power
over labor, and thus worker productivity and profits. There is no
equivalent substitute in capitalism.

For those wanting to dig into this, read Fred Magdoff and Chris Williams’s
book, Creating an Ecological Society
Magdoff and Williams begin in a similar place as McKibben with the
principles and violations of the planet’s ecology. But they maintain a
scientific approach to analyzing the material causes of the environmental
destruction in capitalism and draw conclusions from that about politics and
strategies for transforming society.
Is There an Alternative?

Is there an alternative to capitalism? What about socialism? McKibben says
no to both. He agrees with Ayn Rand’s anticommunism, dismissing socialism
(which he confuses with Stalinism) as totalitarian. He also notes the
environmental destruction and social stagnation of Russia during the Cold

There is an important point here. If you believe that all working-class led
revolutions end in disaster, and that it is therefore necessary to
prioritize collaborating with the existing rulers of society (the
capitalists and their governmental representatives), then a radical
alternative to the status quo is not possible.

Fortunately, since the 1950s, historians have produced many critical,
sympathetic, and searching accounts of the short-lived Russian Revolution
<> that
seek to inform current generations on how to win an alternative to
capitalism. An excellent place to begin is the recently published, October:
The Story of the Russian Revolution
<>, by China Miéville.

Are, as McKibben argues, Sweden and social democracy the potential basis of
an alternative? Greta Thunberg says that only 2 percent of the Swedish
population are climate deniers, yet she launched her protest in front of
the Swedish parliament due to its inaction. What a state says it believes
has little impact on policies.

We all can agree with McKibben that there are aspects of Swedish society
like its education, health care, and retirement that are better than those
in the United States. But it is also the case that these gains were won by
working-class struggle after the First and Second World Wars in a region of
the world characterized by mass strikes, workers’ councils, mass
revolutionary socialist parties, and the world’s first and inspiring
working-class revolution in Russia. Social democratic gains are due to
this, not better ideas from the rulers. And since the 1970s in Sweden and
elsewhere, all those gains are under attack
in a world of neoliberal restructuring and austerity

It is also important to note that Sweden is a top arms exporter and that
Norway is a petrostate, leading oil and gas producer mining North Sea
reserves, and is still ramping up extraction infrastructure investment. In
terms of growth, more regulated capitalist economies also must engage in
competitive growth to avoid falling into an economic crisis.

Having ruled out revolution, McKibben recommends technologies of change
like village solar panels in a narrative where good technologies promoted
by enlightened capitalists can displace the bad over time. Given the
systematic character of the problem though, this is wishful thinking. Just
as it is wishful thinking that “extractive capitalism” has run its course.
Investment in extraction continues worldwide.

There are trillions of dollars in investments, not only in oil wells and
pipelines, but also in plastics, power plants, airlines, autos, shipping,
and other manufacturing that will have to be abandoned. Capitalist managers
have no incentives to abandon such lucrative investments, and serious risks
to profitability if they do.
Climate Justice and Anti-Capitalism

It’s unfortunate McKibben’s narrative throws cold water over the recent
period of rising class consciousness, teachers’ strikes
and victories, and deepening anticapitalist sentiment.

We need to win Green New Deal
reforms in the short term — redirection of state investment to new
transportation infrastructure, Medicare for All
and mass deployment of solar and wind electric power. Class struggle and
strikes, because of workers’ power to shut down and even run production,
are the most important leverage that the vast majority has over the few who
hold power.

The September 20 global climate strike (for workers and students) is an
important development, especially if understood not just as another global
protest, but as a step in a process of harnessing collective organizing in
the workplace to the climate struggle. This presents an alternative to just
lobbying and hoping that corporations will come to their senses. If the
system is the problem, then strikes are where we have the actual power to
win reforms.

But ultimately, if ecological destruction is built into capitalism, we also
need system change
The new socialist movement, the largest in the United States since the
1930s — one of the last times, incidentally, that social-democratic gains
were won in this country — has a lot to contribute to integrating class and
climate struggle.

Read this book, but discuss and debate. The existential threat that is
already affecting millions will reach us all. We need class-struggle
<>. We
need socialism, including a democratic economy that prioritizes human needs
and the needs of the rest of nature.
About the Author

Paul Fleckenstein is a socialist and environmental activist from
Burlington, Vermont.