Green Or Gone

No, Capitalism Is Not To Blame For Climate Change

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.

Is it too late to save the planet ?
Is it too late to save the planet ?
Nikolaus Piper

-OpEd-

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.

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Society

What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel

-Essay-

BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.


Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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