It has become fashionable to blame the climate crisis on the economy, but it’s important to fight against this misconception, and the trivialization of the problem.
At the "Fridays for Future" climate demonstrations in Germany, the same sign kept cropping up among the protesters, its message written in felt tip: "Change the system, not the climate". Young people streamed through the streets of Aachen, carrying banners with the words "Burn capitalism, not coal." You can't help but wonder exactly what they mean by burning capitalism, and what system should take its place once it's burned away. The uncompromising words at the school strikes show how strongly anti-capitalist sentiment has gripped the younger generation. Given that so many people believe the climate crisis is a product of capitalism, it's worth taking a look back at the debate about the limits to growth that was sparked in 1972 by the "Limits to Growth" report from the Club of Rome. It's hard to imagine now, but at the time the report was not welcomed by anti-capitalists.
Criticism of growth was seen as a "reactionary, anti-progress attitude" and an "expression of the deep crisis in imperialist politics and ideology," said the 1973 Introduction to the Political Economy of Capitalism published by the Party Academy Karl Marx (an academy subordinate to the central committee of the East German Communist Party). "Because these countries have not achieved their economic goals, and the economic development in socialist countries is much faster than under capitalism, this slow pace of development, even stagnation, is being claimed as a desirable goal." Criticizing the system can sometimes lead to absurd results. Nowadays the Communist Party of Germany wouldn't stand behind such an argument.
Every time we produce a Cadillac, we do it at the cost of decreasing the number of human lives in the future.
When the growth debate kicked off in the 1970s, most of the public still didn't know anything about climate change. The Club of Rome researched resource consumption, overpopulation and pollution in a very broad sense. However, now that climate change has become an important political issue, we can learn a lot from that time. Most importantly, we must be careful to avoid trivializing the problem.
One of the great forgotten figures in this field is the Romanian-American economist and mathematician Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen (1906-1994). His relative obscurity nowadays may be due to his uncompromising and radical views on the limits to growth. In one of his characteristically gloomy quotes, he claimed, "Every baby born now means one human life less in the future. Every time we produce a Cadillac, we do it at the cost of decreasing the number of human lives in the future." A drastic way to warn of the dangers of resource consumption.
Climate change activists protesting in Aachen, Germany. Photo: David Young/ZUMA
Georgescu-Roegen studied mathematics in Bucharest and economics at Harvard, where he was strongly influenced by Joseph Schumpeter. After the fall of the Hitler-allied dictator Ion Antonescu in Romania in 1944, Georgescu-Roegen became general secretary of the Armistice Commission. In 1949 he fled the communist dictatorship and moved to the United States, where he taught at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.
Georgescu-Roegen wrote his most important works in the early 1970s. His central concern was exploring the economic consequences of two fundamental laws of physics: the first and second laws of thermodynamics. According to the first law, energy can be neither created nor destroyed. According to the second, energy does not disappear once it has been used — for example, to heat a house — but disperses and becomes useless, therefore polluting. Or, in the language of physics: entropy (a measure of randomness and disorder) sets in.
Turning our backs on capitalism is clearly not the answer either.
These are unchangeable rules, but according to Georgescu-Roegen, they shouldn't pose a problem for humans, as we live in an open system: the sun provides a constant stream of usable energy to the earth, which for human purposes is inexhaustible. The problem is that humans have learnt to overstep the limits of the sun's energy and use the energy that has been stored for millions of years in the earth's crust: coal, oil, natural gas. We have become too numerous and — at least a large proportion of us — too rich to live off the resources that are available to us. Therefore the atmosphere becomes polluted with carbon dioxide, which, as we now know, causes climate change.
Georgescu-Roegen didn't believe that the problem could simply be solved by the market, as a significant number of the stakeholders in the market — the future generations — have not yet been born or at least are not yet able to engage in the debate. Turning our backs on capitalism is clearly not the answer either, as the environmental damage in socialist countries has shown. Georgescu-Roegen wanted to impose a program of bio-economic measures on the world, which would mean restricting the number of people on earth so that they could be fed by organic agriculture. In the time since his most famous work The Entropy Law and the Economic Process was published in 1975, the global population has almost doubled. Who would implement such a program? A world dictator?
Perhaps that is the kind of uncompromising suggestion that stripped the brilliant economist of some of his influence. However, that only makes it more important that we face our problems head-on, just as he did.