Coronavirus, Climate and Capitalism

The Coronavirus has achieved in the course of a few months what the environmental and climate movement hasn’t been able to do in 80 years. We’ve largely stopped flying, cruises are cancelled, car manufacturers have stopped producing their killing machines and most importantly, both politicians and the majority of the population is actually listening to the advise of scientists and taking a serious situation seriously. We’ve also been quite violently reminded what the important things in live actually are: Food, water, shelter, health and, most apparently, interaction with other people.

All it took was an immediate risk to each individuals well being, governments taking the situation seriously, and media reporting without really considering corporate interest. Reassuringly, we are already seeing some of the media (and billionaires twitters, essentially the same thing) coming back to their senses and pointing out that saving lives is nice and all, but if we have to tank the economy to do it, maybe we should just sacrifice a couple hundred million people and be done with it.

Behind this somewhat revealing mockery of basic human decency stands another truth that Covid19 has brought to the surface: Our current economic system is fundamentally incompatible with the low-consumerism life that has temporarily been forced on us. Essential jobs are still kept working and through this we can see that most jobs, I guess, aren’t essential. But of course, many if not most people are working those jobs, me certainly included. And the simple rule of capitalism seems to be, if you don’t work, you don’t eat. But phrasing it like that is already falling into the trap of allowing capitalist ideology to define what work means. Really, I should say, if you’re not getting paid, you don’t eat. And then we can ask who decides if we get paid. A then we have to ask who is really in power. I guess we will get the answer to that based on weather people are forced to go back to work before it’s safe to do so or not. In the US, in which more than in most other countries, the billionaires are in power, the questions seems legitimately open. In Germany and most of Europe, it seems like states are mostly doing what they are supposed to do, keeping their constituents safe and bailing out the corporations who in times of crisis always rely on the state and at all other times tell it to kindly fuck off and not regulate them or take any of their profits. But at least yes, our states are trying to keep their constituents safe. So maybe our democracy isn’t quite so broken.

This would be good news, except that after the corona-crisis is over, I guess we’ll have some time to make up in producing wonderfully efficient (at killing people either very slowly or very quickly) SUVs, shopping for child-labor-produced fast-fashion to fill our already overflowing wardrobes, time to throw last years collection in the bin, and taking that vacation to the the great Barrier reef while it’s still there, presuming enough airlines have been bailed out since they spent all their profits on stock buybacks instead of saving for hard times because that would be silly if you can be bailed out by taxpayer money. And yes, all these are indirectly examples of consumer blaming and not really helpful. But I’m not trying to be helpful here. I’m just trying to point out what has never been more obvious: If all the consumer blaming actually worked, and people would vote with their wallets and no longer buy or do anything that’s not actually worth the environmental impact it causes, the whole damn system would collapse, just as it is, temporarily, doing right now, because people have to stay inside and can’t do all that consuming right now. So any politician or movement that’s claiming we can fight climate change without fundamentally changing how our economy operates is either not serious about fighting climate change and just trying to appease you, or completely out of touch with reality. In the case of movements, many of the more popular ones are also sort of mincing their words or avoiding the topic in order to not scare off all the people who are, through no fault of their own, incapable of imagining a life beyond capitalism.

Many Economists tell us we just have to price in the carbon and keep everything else the same. Maybe support poor people so they can still afford the necessities. Great, if we really did that, included all industries, and set the price such that it had an actual effect, stuff would get really expensive, we would buy less stuff, companies would go bankrupt, there’d be mass unemployment, the results would be the essentially same as just shutting down or re-purposing the factories directly. The simple truth is, we have to completely stop increasing the concentration of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere, and fast. However we get there, the end result will not be the same economy we have now except with electric cars instead of gas fueled ones and all the coal plants replaced by windmills. That perception is based on the myth that with increases in efficiency, the economy can keep growing without running out of resources. Because capitalism is so great at increasing efficiencies. This appears to have been the answer every time environmentalists have asked in the past how exactly a system dependent on perpetually growing can fit onto a fixed size planet. In the case of climate change, the myth becomes, the economy and material standard of living can stay the same while decreasing resource use because of increase in efficiency through green technology. Because the free market is so great at innovation once you price in carbon emissions it will magically find a solution.

Speaking of Consumer Blaming: I bought a book on Amazon again instead of buying it directly at the small leftist publisher. But Amazon was the only place that had a readily available e-book version and I’m kind of over physical books for practical reasons. In any case, this seemed a fitting place to purchase a book investigating leftism through the lens of the melancholy of it’s failures and it’s art. Amazon may be the most prevalent monument of capitalism of our days and thereby the failures of leftism. A quasi-monopoly, a perfectly efficient machine of consumerism that automates and dehumanizes every aspect of it’s operation. Amazon employees are being constantly monitored and made to follow predefined processes dictated to them by computers as precisely as humanly possible, with very little concessions being made for such annoying bodily needs as having to pee, needing to deal with menstrual hygiene, eating and so on. If a worker dies in a warehouse, the other workers better keep working. After all, the defective piece of the machinery will simply be replaced as soon as the human resource allocation algorithm deems it necessary. Of course, paid sick leave was out of the question wherever governments didn’t enforce it. This wondrous machine is built to a large degree by software engineers like us. It serves to full hundreds of millions of peoples materialist desires, but it’s primary goal appears to be to generatbe wealth for the richest person on the planet. Having supervised the building of this machine of alienation and consumerism, it seems fitting that Bezos, like many of his billionaire silicon valley friends, is worried about AI risk. But that is another blog post.

Allow me to go on another tangent (of course you don’t have much of a choice since I’m the author and presenter of this piece). Spending a Sunday at home, letting my brain get fried by an algorithm owned by the biggest Surveillance Capitalist out there, I recently came upon an Episode of environmentalist kids-tv show „Löwenzahn“. The main character makes a startling realization of how much trash he produces. He then goes to a supermarket and attempts to buy stuff using his own reusable containers, which is of course unsuccessful. In the end he ends up buying stuff at the good old market. While at the supermarket, he explains quite well the purpose of packaging: Since these modern stores no longer have people that recommend and sell you things, they are self service, the packaging has to sell the product for you. So the purpose of the packaging is to reduce to amount of labor needed in the store, since nobody has to weigh and calculate prices with a prepackaged product, but also it is advertisement! Remarkably, the episodes cartoon short film expands on this topic. In what is somewhat an homage to Alice in Wonderland, a little girl accompanying her mother while grocery shopping gets sucked into the world of advertisement. This is, not very subtly, called „Lying-Land“. All the characters there are just repeating hollow advertisement slogans, until Alice gets seemingly offered candy, only to learn that, of course, nothing is free and she has to pay. As she refuses, a factory shaped like the stereotypical top-hat wearing capitalist tells her that she must consume, otherwise his chimneys will stop smoking and he won’t make any profit! She refuses, he cries, she is back in the real world with her mother who promptly offers to buy her a chocolate bar, which she refuses. What a wonderful episode teaching kids about advertisement, capitalism and how they could change their consumer behavior to use less packaging. A few days before I had seen an episode from another German children’s programming educating about trash – hence the recommendation, I suppose. Good to know that there’s this kind of stuff on the TV, teaching the next generation about environmental issues. I’m sure once they grow up they’ll do something about it.

Both these shows where from the 80s. That was almost forty years ago. Nothing has fundamentally changed except that there are now zero waste stores in larger cities in which a select few can spent a bit more effort and money for a better conscience. So essentially the same thing you could always do by buying at a market except in those stores you get dried goods as well.
So when I now read opinion pieces of leftists or environmentalists or both talking about how the Coronacrisis is showing us that change is possible, I can not help but to remain pessimistic. Yes, hundreds of millions of people are now seeing that a lot of rules where fairly arbitrary to begin with. If the government wants, it can totally just give everyone money, at least for a while. All these socialist reforms the left wants are completely feasible even under conservative governments if it’s necessary to keep the majority people from dying or worse, going bankrupt and henceforth being unable to consume. If we want, we can just work remotely and don’t have to commute, saving god knows how many car trips. Even the police in Philadelphia is now only arresting people that „pose a threat to public safety“. Nice to have them acknowledge that most arrests aren’t actually for that purpose. Ah and of course, rent appears to be kind of optional as well.
But none of that stuff is sustainable. It’s not designed to be. I’m quite sure that this crisis will pass and we’ll go right back to how things where. Only with a number of people dead, a lot of people even more destitute than they where before, a lot of small businesses and lower & middle class existences ruined, and a few billionaires with a lower number that’s still so big that the change in their wealth is essentially meaningless in all practical measures (such as how many yachts or luxury houses they can afford). And of course, with bigger government deficits – which make a great argument to cut back on social programs because clearly we can’t afford them.

Ah and climate change? We’re already doing everything we can about it. We’re shutting down coal in 10 years! What more can we do.

No virus will safe us. No NGO or Social Startup. No Bernie Sanders or Greta Thurnberg. Once this is over, please join the Rebellion. Join Extinction Rebellion, it’s a good organization for people new to activism. Join Ende Gelände. Support your local Antifa. It’s all the same fight. Many of you are already activists, you know what to do, just keep going.
We’ll go back to the status quo after this crisis, more or less. But the status quo is going to kill us – albeit much slower than Corona. The time has come to stir things up. I don’t really expect it will happen. I’m depressed. I’m weak and I don’t manage to do much in the sense of activism. Sometimes I sit on the street anyways. I’d like to not sit there alone. I’ve had enough of being alone for a while.