In his book Capitalist Realism, Mark Fisher diagnoses the dominance of a ‘business ontology’, a mentality that can only imagine human activities to the extent that they are profitable.
For example, researchers affiliated with the International Monetary Fund recently noted that whales – especially great whales – capture significant amounts of carbon from the atmosphere, which they store in their huge bodies and take down to the ocean floor when they die. A single great whale can thus bind 33 tonnes of carbon dioxide – a not insignificant amount, given that a tree only absorbs 22 kg annually. Whales also feed populations of phytoplankton with their waste, and globally, these phytoplankton capture about 37 billion tons of carbon dioxide, four times as many emissions as the jungle in the Amazon.
In other words, whales protect our climate. This makes their continued decline a threat to the planet – and a warning of how one industrial process (such as whaling) could exacerbate the effects of another (the fossil fuel industry) in unexpected and catastrophic ways.
But that is not the IMF’s conclusion. For its researchers, the relationship between whales and carbon simply states that the creatures need to be cared for. Once priced – the IMF estimates each whale is worth about $ 2 million – they can enter a market designed to compensate those countries, companies and individuals who have otherwise invested financially in their extinction. In fact, the IMF and the World Bank are, we are told, already “well placed to help governments integrate the macroeconomic benefits that whales provide to mitigate climate change, as well as the cost of measures to protect whales, into their macro-financial framework”.
The IMF paper simply assumes that without price signals, people will exterminate whales, with human behavior determined by rational profit maximization and nothing else. It treats markets as more natural than nature itself; it regards the inability of the sea to develop appropriate pricing as a shortcoming that benevolent economists must carefully change.
Such is the deep strangeness of our present moment, a strangeness that often escapes our realization. If you or I encountered a whale stranded on the beach, we would not build a market to reward its potential rescuer. We would do our best to push it back into the ocean.
Why do we not take the same approach to the environment as a whole? Why not democratically and rationally decide the necessary measures to save the planet, and then… do them?
Why not, in other words, plan?
Every year, the world spends $ 1.917 billion on weapons, bombs and other military equipment. The comparable figure for advertising is around 325 billion. USD. These staggering numbers represent just a fraction of what we could immediately direct to environmental programs on land, at sea and in the air. We could begin systemic decarbonization, shut down coal-fired power plants, and replace fossil fuels with electricity from renewable energy sources, such as solar energy, by using the process to reduce rather than increase our energy needs. We were able to massively expand the low-carbon public transport, so efficient, user-friendly and convenient electric trains and trams replaced internal combustion engines. We could redesign our cities and towns for human convenience rather than for the use of cars; we were able to establish methods of recycling and reuse that actually reduced material throughput.
Even formulating that list makes one cry with frustration. We know what is required, and yet we are all along the line hampered by the imperatives of capital and the insistence on blind, mathematical, destructive growth. Hence Naomi Klein’s tormented realization that “a serious response to the climate threat involves reclaiming an art that has been relentlessly reviled … 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 period in which a war cabinet essentially took responsibility for the entire economy and directed it to victory. During that time, the government did not establish a single overall plan. Instead, it decided on general priorities and rough plans for various economic sectors, which were then constantly updated through a process of rapprochement and negotiation with those responsible for their implementation. Although the economy was mainly geared towards heavy industry, the resources were reserved for civilian consumption distributed, explains economist Pat Devine, “through consumer surveys and by looking at statistics on stocks and sales […] with production […] then organized to meet demand ”.
The system worked and enabled a remarkably – and remarkably rapid – transition from peacetime relations to a war economy. In 1938, for example, Britain had allocated 7.4% of national expenditure on armaments – and five years later that figure had risen to 55.3%. At the height of the conflict, something along the lines of half the working population was engaged in the armed forces, the munitions industry, or other areas that were crucial to the war effort. As Austin Robinson noted, “the power to make rapid changes in the disposition of the nation’s resources was the greatest war-winning weapon of all.”
The unbridled authority that the British state enjoyed at the time prompted environmentalist James Lovelock in his 2009 book, The Vanishing Face of Gaia, to propose the temporary suspension of democratic government to allow for a World War II emergency.
But Lovelock completely misunderstood what made wartime planning possible. The system worked in spite of and not because of authoritarianism. As Pat Devine argues, its success depended on two key factors: first, the active support of the population and, second, the provision of adequate information to planners. These were, of course, closely connected. Despite the lack of war, the involvement of ordinary people in the defeat of the Nazis meant that they broadly accepted the priorities of the government, and they spoke honestly about how and where the plans required adjustment. The men and women on the store floor wanted the economy to succeed; they used their intimate knowledge of each factory to see that it did.
A planned economy does not need military discipline. On the contrary, it is dependent on a new and much greater freedom.
In the midst of the crisis, we can easily forget the wonderful results 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 when our environment collapses around us, we must adapt nature to a failing economic system. We do not need to raw whales. Instead of degrading ourselves to the markets, we need to quickly determine our own future, democratically and collectively.