‘Socialism or extinction’ is a scientific fact, not just a slogan

Grossmanite
14 min readSep 2, 2020

On 1 September 2020, Extinction Rebellion UK insisted that it is “not a socialist movement” and distanced itself from the rallying cry ‘socialism or extinction’.

‘Socialism or extinction’ is not just a slogan; it is a statement of scientific fact. Even if the climate has at times been warmer in the past few centuries, the rate of carbon dioxide emissions and warming is much higher than at any point in the past 1,000 years and must therefore be treated seriously, like nuclear weapons, as a serious potential existential threat.

If XR does not stand for socialism — the social, collective ownership of all production — then it must necessarily stand for extinction, rendering its own alleged purpose redundant.[1]

In short: capitalism is dependent on the production of value and profit, and must therefore continue to expand production (via economic contractions, on average once a decade, in order to cheapen the costs of production when an inevitable rise in surplus/overaccumulated capital that is unprofitable to re/invest forms a barrier to productiviry growth). The more abundant production becomes, the less profit tends to be contained in each commodity, so the capitalist must offset this by expanding production, only to intensify the contradiction.

Since profit comes from capital’s exploitation of commodity-producing labour — the theft of its surplus labour time — the intensity of subtractive production (where materials are subtracted from nature rather than added or grown, as with additive prodution), particularly in the form of fossil fuel and toxic, fuel-intensive metal mining, is (increasingly) necessary (in absolute terms).

To flesh this out a bit: capital’s exploitation of commodity-producing labour is the sole source of profit — the capitalist appropriates surplus value (surplus labour time) from the worker, i.e the worker keeps less value than they create, covering their living costs (necessary labour time), and surplus value is then realised as profit through commodity sales. This social relation is obscured by the money-wage relation, or commodity fetish (money being the money-commodity).

Therefore, capital’s evermore demanding need to accumulate is based on the continual expansion of intensive production, i.e. the extraction of fossil fuel and metals, deforestation, intensive farming, etc., that is releasing carbon and other ‘greenhouse’ emissions trapped in nature into the atmosphere — not to mention that they are fuel-intensive practices in the first place and usually toxic to the local environment — making the planet warmer and threatening runaway global heating that, according to numerous scientific studies, will make the planet uninhabitable for humans, probably before the end of the present century.

(Capital’s exploitation of labour is therefore also the root cause of alleged plummeting sperm counts (down a reported 59% from 1973 to 2011), further threatening extinction. The microplastics, nanoparticles and toxic chemicals sourced from fossil fuels and metal mines and consumed in everyday products penetrate and damage human cells.)

Although extractive industries are usually now very capital-intensive — the source of capitalism’s (now existential) economic crisis, i.e., since automated production is abolishing the source of profit — the rate of exploitation of the remaining workers is extremely high.

It is not capitalism’s need for ‘infinite growth on a planet of finite resources’, as most ‘leftists’ seem to put it, that is the central or immediate problem; rather, it is the pace of production and its expansion — determined by the size of an ever-larger total capital and its need to expand yet further by feeding off labour — relative to nature’s ability to replenish itself (something capitalism’s dependence on intensive extraction obviously hinders); and, most importantly, on the basis of extractive, labour-intensive production, i.e. the necessarily increasing rate of exploitation.

Just as surplus value is converted into capital faster than it is produced — resulting in (on average) decennial recessions and, eventually, a historical limit to capital accumulation — so nature is converted into capital faster than it can be replenished.

Compound accumulation

If the world meets the ‘minimum’ internationally agreed target of 2 degrees Celsius warming since the beginning of the industrial revolution (circa 1760), according to S&P Global Platts Analytics, fossil fuels (petroleum, coal, natural gas and orimulsion) would shrink to roughly half of total primary energy supply in 2050, from about 77% in 2020 — down from 81% in 2010.

According to the Global Footprint Network, in 2018 it took a record 212 days to consume a year’s worth of carbon, food, water, fibre, land and timber; i.e., the point at which consumption exceeded the capacity of nature to regenerate moved forward on 2017 by two days to the 1st of August. In other words, we used ‘1.7 Earths’.

(Even 1C has already seen a reported 400,000 people (and counting) a year dying from climate-related causes; while the Arctic permafrost — containing 1.8 trillion tonnes of carbon, more than twice as much as is currently suspended in Earth’s atmosphere — is, we are told,[2] melting 70 years sooner than previously expected.)

While fossil fuel may fall to 50% of the mix of energy production, its absolute production may rise, since economic output under capitalism tends to double every 20 years.[3]

As Jason Hickel writes in his book Less Is More, there was

“a steady rise of material use in the first half of the 1900s, doubling from 7 billion tons per year to 14 billion tons per year. But then, in the decades after 1945, something truly bewildering happens… material use explodes: it reaches 35 billion tons by 1980, hits 50 billion tons by 2000, and then screams up to an eye-watering 92 billion tons by 2017… This increase in material use tracks more or less exactly with the rise of global GDP. The two have grown together in lockstep. Every additional unit of GDP means roughly an additional unit of material extraction.

“There has been a radical acceleration of fossil fuel use since 1945, rising along with the explosion in both GDP and material use. And carbon emissions have gone up right along with it. Annual emissions more than doubled from 2 billion tons per year to 5 billion tons per year during the first half of the 1900s. During the second half of the century they rose fivefold, reaching 25 billion tons by the year 2000. And they have continued to rise since then, despite a string of international climate summits, reaching 37 billion tons in 2019. Of course, there is no intrinsic relationship between energy use and CO2 emissions. It all depends on what energy source we’re using. Coal is by far the most carbon-intensive of the fossil fuels. Oil — which has grown much more quickly than coal since 1945 — emits less CO2 per unit of energy. And natural gas is less intensive still. As the global economy has come to rely more on these less polluting fuels, one might think that emissions would begin to decline.… [But] because GDP growth is driving total energy demand up at such a rapid pace … these new fuels aren’t replacing the older ones, they are being added on top of them. The shift to oil and gas hasn’t been an energy transition, but an energy addition.

“The same thing is happening right now with renewable energy… To keep energy flowing when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing will require enormous batteries at the grid level. This means 40 million tons of lithium — an eye-watering 2,700% increase over current levels of extraction… It takes 500,000 gallons of water to produce a single ton of lithium. Even at present levels of extraction this is causing real problems. In the Andes, where most of the world’s lithium is located, mining companies are burning through the water tables and leaving farmers with nothing to irrigate their crops. Many have had no choice but to abandon their land altogether. Meanwhile, chemical leaks from lithium mines have poisoned rivers from Chile to Argentina, Nevada to Tibet, killing off whole freshwater ecosystems. The lithium boom has barely started, and it’s already a catastrophe…

“Today the world is producing 8 billion more megawatt hours of clean energy each year than in 2000. That’s a lot — enough to power all of Russia. But over exactly the same period, economic growth has caused energy demand to increase by 48 billion megawatt hours.

“There’s also something else going on. With every year that goes by, it becomes more and more difficult to extract the same amount of materials from the earth. Today, three times more material has to be extracted per unit of metal than a century ago.”[4]

There is no such thing as ‘green capitalism’. The ‘Green New Deal’ proposed by social democrats — which actually involves privatising the last areas of common land and increasing the exploitation of workers in Africa, Asia and Latin America — is species suicide.

Socialism and non-intensive production

Under capitalism, commodities are only produced if they are profitable, i.e. if labour is exploitable enough to expand capital. They are use-values/utilities and exchange-values.

Under socialism, utilities/goods/products (having been decommodified) are produced if we deem them to be useful, via democratic regulation and demand. They are just use-values and socially owned, so no exchange of ownership takes place, i.e. exchange value and profit are abolished. If we deem that a good is not useful since it is damaging the environment or contributing to climate change too much, we can decide not to make it. Or we can find a way of making it that does not damage, pollute or exhaust nature; or/and find ways of replenishing nature more quickly.

Rather than fossil fuel (which disappears into thin air and so has to be extracted anew by exploited labour, making it perfect for the needs of capital) or metals (which are finite and again, intensive to extract), we could use non-labour-intensive renewables — sunlight, wind and especially (for physical products) natural fibrous materials, especially hemp; mycelium (from which we can even make computers); and chitin; all three of which can combine to replace, to a considerable extent, steel, concrete, graphene, lithium and fossil fuel.

And because socialism can plan and co-ordinate production as a whole on a break-even basis — instead of having to bow to the demands of profit, capital accumulation and anarchic competition between private producers — we can grow economic output at the rate nature replenishes (or slower), something that socialism could help instead of hinder.

Achieving the abundant material wealth for all promised by communism (as it develops into its higher stage, when production becomes fully automated and, eventually, free) is part of the solution.

Hemp quickly draws down and sequesters CO2 while reviving the soil, reversing desertification; and the products made from hemp (including bioplastic that is 10 times stronger than steel; batteries that outperform lithium and graphene; and highly-insulating, fire-resistant and carbon-negative hempcrete) keep that carbon sequestered indefinitely. Solar panels can be made much more cleanly and efficiently than at present using grass, leaves and plants. Abundant material wealth for all includes abundant vegetation, permaculture, afforestation, etc.

There is also the potential for micro-organisms to supply a near-infinite source of energy. In 2018, scientists in the US confirmed a theory first proposed by Soviet geologists when they found huge populations of bacteria living in the extreme temperatures of Earth’s crust, despite the lack of photosynthesis and nutrients, living solely from chemical reactions fuelled by geothermal energy. They estimated that up to 23 billion tonnes of micro-organisms live in this “deep biosphere”, making it the largest ecosystem on the planet and accounting for nearly 400 times the amount of carbon found in all living humans. Here lies a potential source of abundant energy. (Although we will have to assess whether the benefits outweigh the impacts of drilling, they very likely do.)

Other scientists have even found that the Geobacter bacteria found in human waste can convert sewage into fresh water and produce electricity in the process. It is now thought that one day microbial fuel cells could power our phones, household appliances — and even spaceships.

Investment in microbial fuel cells will remain seriously limited, however, until value-creation is based solely on utility instead of exploitation and profit margins, since capital cannot exploit the labour time of microbes!

Modern science — which is looking more and more ‘presocialist’, i.e. systematic, holistic and dialectial-materialist (realising that matter (and thus history) is a continuous kinetic process rather than binary, atomistic, etc.) has proven that humans depend on plants and bacteria for everyday life, smashing the myth of The Individual — the world is powered by collectivism. Indeed, trees, plants and bacteria are our relatives. The world is one interconnected whole.

The socialisation of the ownership of the means of production, whereby the means of production are owned by all humanity instead of privately by a minority of capitalists, will thus be a ‘naturalising’ humanisation, plantification and microbiolisation of production.

Other forms of existing carbon-negative production that could be scaled up include ‘sky mining’ for diamonds that are chemically identical to earth diamonds, another industry that only exists on a small scale under capitalism because of the lack of labour exploitation involved.

Emissions-free, energy-dense nuclear power, is also a very serious option. The initial impact of mining uranium on the environment must be re-assessed by an independent socialist state, of course. But although liquid thorium requires some uranium as a kind of ‘kick-starter’, the former is much more abundant and therefore cheaper, and also safer, since it is already a liquid and therefore cannot melt. In terms of worker safety, nuclear is claimed to be the safest form of energy production.

The capital-intensity of nuclear has become unprofitable as ever-growing total capital becomes harder and harder to expand by the relatively diminishing pool of commodity-producing human labour. Even where nuclear is publicly-owned, that has become a hindrance to capital since public expenditure can be redirected to prop up falling private profits, through privatisation and ‘austerity’.

There is also the prospect of space-based solar power and associated wireless transmission, without the intermittency of night time or winter suffered by solar panels and wind turbines on Earth. This, too, however, has proven too expensive for investors who won’t invest without the prospect of a higher return.

That technology is getting smaller and smaller means much production could be moved underground, leaving much more ‘overground’ space for rewilding, hemp farming, permaculture, hydroponics, public parks, and so on.

Even masses of traditional farmland will be freed up by the emergence of (automated and additive) precision fermentation (the ‘programming’/genetic engineering of micro-organisms to produce complex organic molecules) and cellular agriculture (the production of plants and animal meat in abundance by growing them in labs from their DNA; something that will massively reduce emissions (and water consumption) and one day in the not-too-distant-future give everybody the capacity to produce most of their own food, enabling real economic independence and freedom for all, with 3D-printing having the same effect for materials in general — making the division between owner/producer and worker/consumer, the source of all division, increasingly obsolete.) The falling prices and rising quality of cellular agriculture will make traditional meat increasingly uncompetitive — the latter’s increasing capital-intensity is making it unprofitable anyway, hence why investors have started to migrate to the cheaper alternative of cellular agriculture. So if we determine a need to save conventional farming, based on demand or need, to make the transition from the old to the new system much less risky — a collapse of the former system before the newer one is fully ready infrastructurally and logistically — then that too will require to socialisation of conventional farming.

Reverting to overly local, small-scale production — which would make everything more expensive — is not an option. Sea levels are rising and we possibly need to build incredibly vast dikes on every continent. Rising temperatures will also massively increase the demand for air conditioning, which will have to be powered by something abundant and emissions-free. Thorium is probably the only option to meet such demand. And obviously there will have to a be a transition from fossil fuel whereby other energy supplies are built up before we can wind down its use; which will involve stopping burning it before completely moving on from it, since the synthetic graphite we presently use to make batteries is made from coke which is in turn made from oil. The same goes for the carbon fibre in wind turbines.

But socialism never works?

Clearly, we need world socialism. Countries that are arguably ‘semi-socialist’ or that are supposedly ‘working towards’ socialism, like China and Venezuela, still work to a large extent on the basis of private commodity-production. But even ‘fully’ socialist countries still have to trade with capitalist countries, and that means having to make concessions to capital, working within a world capitalist system and having to overly maintain military defences at the expense of the civilian economy. Nor can they fully plan their economies due to fluctuating, unpredictable foreign prices. The need to build up foreign currency also incentivises black markets.

Again, because socialist production is based on utility, socialism will also be able to invest in things like mineralising CO2 (turning it permanently into basalt rock). This is not a silver bullet since it is water-intensive, but it could certainly be scaled up significantly where water scarcity is not an issue (or if water can be ‘artificially’ produced). That we are not doing this is a travesty — but where it would be a productive industry under socialism, it is an unproductive industry under capitalism, since it does not offer a commodity that can be sold for profit (unless it is sold to the state via mounting public debt, thereby creating no new exchange-value and contributing to money devaluation that will eventually (imminently) cause hyperinflation). It would therefore have to be funded by taxes that eat into already thinning profit margins, and so these taxes are resisted by capitalists, who anyway run the capitalist state. They are psycologically, morally and economically incapable of changing the system, even as it threatens to produce an ecocidal holocaust.

Capitalism is now effectively an extinction cult and can only continue to steer Earth into the sun. Socialism — which is anyway becoming an economic necessity for the first time, since automation is abolishing the source of profit and money is becoming worthless, necessitating an inherently centralised digital voucher system — gives humanity the chance of steering Earth to safety, hopefully in the nick of time.

[1] Moreover, as Lenin says in his April Theses, “without the Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies the convocation of the Constituent Assembly is not guaranteed and its success is impossible”.

[2] We should be conscious of the possibility that the ruling class and their media and social democratic lackeys may now be exaggerating the immediacy of the crisis in order to: firstly, justify false claims about ‘overpopulation’ and thus famines and genocides, since capital is increasingly suffering — from its point of view — from an oversupply of both capital (that cannot be reinvested profitably, and thus needs to be destroyed) and labour that it can no longer afford to employ or feed (pensions and benefits eat into profit margins); and, secondly, generally convincing people that they must live increasingly local, ascetic lives so that they accept lower wages and do not mobilise to oppose land privatisations. We cannot rule out that some of the increasing spates of wildfires are being lit deliberately to clear the way for intensive farming, for example (which itself is highly polluting and exhausts the soil and its biodiversity). The same could be true of floods (although they are also symptomatic of capital’s denuding of natural flood defences) in order to devalue land so that it is cheaper for monopolies to purchase.

[3] In his 2019 lecture ‘How to enjoy the end of the world’, Sid Smith argues that doubling the size of economic output, as tends to happen every 20 years under capitalism, would finish off the habitability of Earth’s atmosphere — but also that the economy is now so large that the cost of doubling it, based on the expense of a diminishing energy return on investment (EROI) makes that impossible. “The collapse has already begun,” he says. That this is happening — as I argue in my book — at exactly the same time that capitalism is exhausting its primary fuel supply, human labour, can be no coincidence, but is remarkably humbling nonetheless.

[4] Hickel, J. Less Is More (2020), pp. 103–6; 142–151.

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Grossmanite

Ted Reese is author of: Socialism or Extinction; Humanising Production; and The Thought of Henryk Grossman (May 2022). linktr.ee/grossmanite