Crimes Against Nature: 2 Million Whales, Wartime Britain and the Economy of Saving the Planet | australian pounds
In his book Capitalist realism, Mark Fisher diagnoses the dominance of a “commercial ontology”, a mentality which can conceive human activities only insofar as they are profitable.
For example, researchers associated with the International Monetary Fund recently noted that whales – especially large whales – capture tremendous amounts of carbon from the atmosphere, which they store in their enormous bodies and bring back to the ocean floor when they die. A single large whale can thus sequester 33 tonnes of carbon dioxide – a significant amount, given that a tree absorbs only 22 kg per year. Whales also feed phytoplankton populations with their waste, and globally this phytoplankton captures some 37 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide – four times the emissions sequestered by the Amazon jungles.
Whales, in other words, protect our climate. This makes their continued decline a threat to the planet – and a warning about how one industrial process (like whaling) can exacerbate the effects of another (the fossil fuel industry) in unexpected ways and disastrous.
But that’s not the IMF’s conclusion. For its researchers, the relationship between whales and carbon simply states that creatures must be commodified. Once the price is established – the IMF estimates that each whale is worth around $ 2 million – they can be enlisted in a market built to compensate countries, businesses and individuals otherwise invested financially in their extinction. Indeed, the IMF and the World Bank are, we are told, already “well placed to help governments integrate the macroeconomic benefits that whales bring in climate change mitigation, as well as the costs of measures to protect them. whales, in their macro-budget. executives ”.
The IMF document simply assumes that, without price signals, people will exterminate whales, with human behavior determined by rational profit maximization and nothing else. He treats markets as more natural than nature itself; he sees the ocean’s inability to change an adequate pricing measure a flaw that benevolent economists must carefully correct.
Such is the profound strangeness of our present moment, a strangeness that often escapes our recognition. If you or I encountered a whale stranded on the beach, we wouldn’t build a market to reward its potential savior. We would do our best to push him back into the sea.
Why don’t we take the same approach to the environment as a whole? Why not decide democratically and rationally on the measures necessary to save the planet, and then… implement them?
Why not, in other words, plan?
Every year the world spends over $ 1,917 billion on weapons, bombs and other military equipment. The comparable advertising figure is around $ 325 billion. These staggering numbers are only a fraction of what we could immediately spend on land, sea and air environmental programs. We could start systemic decarbonization, shut down coal-fired power plants, and replace fossil fuels with electricity from renewables such as solar, using the process to reduce rather than increase our energy needs. We could massively develop low-carbon public transport, so that efficient, easy-to-use and convenient electric trains and trams replace internal combustion engines. We could re-plan our towns and villages for human convenience rather than for the use of automobiles; we could establish recycling and reuse methods that actually reduced material throughput.
Even the wording of this list makes you cry in frustration. We know what is required and yet, all along the line, we are hampered by the imperatives of capital and the insistence on blind, mathematical and destructive growth. From where Naomi Klein’s anguished recognition that “a serious response to the climate threat is to reclaim an art that has been relentlessly vilified … planning.” Lots and lots of planning ”.
A planned economy offers an alternative: a fundamentally different way of responding to the environmental crisis.
What would that mean?
Consider Britain during World War II, a time when a war cabinet essentially took over the entire economy and led it to victory. Meanwhile, the government has not established a single comprehensive plan. Instead, it decided on general priorities and rough plans for different economic sectors, which were then constantly updated through a process of reconciliation and negotiation with those responsible for their implementation. If the economy was mainly oriented towards heavy industry, the resources reserved for civilian consumption were distributed, explains economist Pat Devine, “through consumer surveys and by observing the statistics of stocks and sales. […] with manufacturing […] then organized to meet demand ”.
The system worked, facilitating a remarkable – and remarkably rapid – transition from peacetime conditions to a war economy. By 1938, for example, Britain had allocated 7.4% of national spending on rearmament – and five years later that figure had risen to 55.3%. At the height of the conflict, about half of the workforce was engaged in the armed forces, munitions industries, or other areas critical to the war effort. As Austin Robinson noted, “the power to bring about rapid changes in the disposition of the nation’s resources was the greatest winning weapon of all wars.”
The unbridled authority then enjoyed by the British state led environmental scholar James Lovelock to propose, in his 2009 book Gaia’s fainted face, the temporary suspension of democratic government to allow for a WWII-type emergency climate response.
But Lovelock totally misunderstood what made wartime planning possible. The system worked despite and not because of authoritarianism. As Pat Devine argues, its success depended on two central factors: first, the active support of the population and, second, the provision of adequate information to planners. These were, of course, intimately linked. Despite the hardships of the war, the commitment of ordinary people to defeating the Nazis meant that, on the whole, they accepted the government’s priorities, and they spoke honestly about how and where the plans needed to be adjusted. The men and women in the workshop wanted the economy to succeed; they used their intimate knowledge of each factory to ascertain this.
A planned economy does not need military discipline. On the contrary, it is based on a new and much greater freedom.
In the midst of a crisis, we can easily forget the wonderful accomplishments that humans are capable of. We can send a rover to Mars; we can identify dinosaur DNA; we can grow artificial meat in laboratories.
Given these capabilities, it is absurd to conclude that as our environment crumbles around us, we must adjust nature to a failing economic system. We don’t need to commodify whales. Rather than demean ourselves before the markets, we urgently need to decide our own future, democratically and collectively.