Delusions of techno-fix
Today’s capitalist politicians are unlikely to agree, let alone implement, the measures needed to stop runaway climate change. Jack Conrad argues that the fundamental problem lies at the level of the system itself. Nonetheless, as shown by the Soviet Union, more than the mere abolition of capitalism is needed. The associated producers must take control
Cop26 is widely expected to end in failure - by mainstream media commentators, by political insiders, even by UN general secretary António Guterres himself.1 There will probably be no binding agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to the net-zero level needed to ensure that global temperature rises are kept at no more than 1.5°C - or, for that matter, even the 2°C upper limit agreed in Paris in 2015.
Instead there will be 12 days of governmental ‘green is good’ platitudes - along with thousands marching on the streets of Glasgow under the Cop26 Coalition umbrella and its politically meaningless slogan: ‘The era of injustice is over - the time is now’.2 The Cop26 Coalition is approvingly described as “broad and radical” by the Socialist Workers Party.3 Needless to say, it is yet another popular front consisting of NGOs, faith groups, justice networks, trade unions and a few leftish add-ons, such as Anticapitalist Resistance. Such amorphous protest politics are, in themselves, no more than safety valves, and as such are destined to go nowhere. But, given the reality of the climate crisis and its impact on all classes and all states, they could easily serve as justification for climate socialism. Be warned, this is a real danger - railed through, imposed and overseen by capitalist slave politicians turned masters.
Of course, Boris Johnson is relying on a combination of the ‘invisible hand of the market’ and government sponsorship of techno-fixes: he has “regularly expressed the belief that technology would mostly solve the problem”.4 No wonder many see Cop26 as a brilliant business opportunity. Unilever, Microsoft, NatWest, Sainsbury’s, GSK and Sky are all corporate sponsors.
Top of the techno-fix list is, of course, electric vehicles (as previously argued, not a planet-saver but a profit generator for an ongoing car economy5). But there are plenty of other so-called solutions being pushed and peddled - some perfectly reasonable, such as heat pumps and home insulation. Others, however, are far more problematic. True, small modular reactors (SMRs) have the great advantage of dramatically cutting the start-up times associated with standard nuclear power stations (normally 20 years). But not only is the electricity generated still hugely expensive: there is the problem of disposing of the spent fuel, radioactive for thousands of years, and the risks of terrorist attack, nuclear weapons proliferation and disastrous accidents - Kyshtym, Sellafield, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Fukushima, etc. Producing hydrogen from natural gas (!) falls into exactly the same category.
Under circumstances where greenhouse gas emissions continue to inexorably rise globally, there is a growing clamour for much more radical measures such as carbon capture and sequestration (CCS). The idea here is to reduce atmospheric CO2 by seeding the oceans with iron filings; growing huge algae beds in the oceans; sucking CO2 from the atmosphere mechanically or capturing it before release from fossil fuel burning power stations, steel plants and cement kilns. The CO2 would be safely stored in geologically suitable underwater or land sites.
However, there is a definite downside. The estimated cost of CCS is around $70-$100 per ton. Note, the IPPC reckons that to limit the global temperature rise to 1.5°C between 100 billion and one trillion tons of CO2 needs to be removed from the atmosphere.6 In other words, we have a CCS price tag of between $7 trillion and $100 trillion (in 2021 global GDP is put at some $93 trillion7). As Mick Hulme puts it: “prohibitive”.8
There are also proposals to shoot particulates into the upper atmosphere in an attempt to mimic the cooling effect of volcanoes - suggested by Dutch Nobel prize winner Paul Crutzen in a famous paper: ‘Albedo enhancement by stratospheric sulphur injections: a contribution to resolve a policy dilemma’ (2006).9 The basic idea is that solar radiation would be masked - that, or be reflected back into outer space, and would thereby counteract the greenhouse effect down here on Earth.
Crutzen deployed the terms ‘geoengineering’ and ‘climate engineering’. Nevertheless, he never actually advocated such a course. Presumably he knew better. Despite that, his work spawned a whole slew of research papers, networks, conferences, computer simulations, feasibility studies and government consultations.
There are other such sunlight reflection methods (SRMs) being proposed. Eg, deploy a giant, 2,000-kilometre-diameter eye patch in space - though that would cost an estimated $5 trillion (plus). Then there is building massive cloud-generating machines; whitening low-level clouds by spraying them with seawater; painting roads, buildings and roofs white, etc - all run into costs of tens of billions annually. Expensive, but obviously far cheaper.10
When it comes to the reasoning of the geoengineers, Elizabeth Kolbert damningly says this: “If control is the problem, then, by the logic of the Anthropocene, still more control must be the solution.”11 In effect, the geoengineers want to treat greenhouse gas emissions in the same way as Victorian engineers such as Joseph Bazalgette treated sewage. But the climate system is vastly more complex than London’s 1858 ‘great stink’12 - and certainly vastly more complex than whizz-bang geoengineers deign to imagine: everything is connected to everything else. Physics, biology, chemistry - and human society - form an interconnected and interacting whole.
So, in all probability, if one (or a number) of these ‘solutions’ was to be implemented, it would let loose a Pandora’s box of demons. For example, once the SRM programme of upper atmosphere seeding is finally terminated, there exists the “potentially dangerous” consequence of a temperature bounce, which would be “two to four times larger” than would otherwise have had been the case.13 The impact on ecosystems and biodiversity, though largely unexplored, would, to put it mildly, probably be decidedly negative.
Then there is the danger of “slowing or reversing” the recovery of the ozone layer and reducing global rainfall and turning it more acidic (editors of Scientific American November 1 2008).14 Geoengineering also might well breed political complacency. Saved from the immediate prospect of climate catastrophe, big business blithely carries on as before, emitting greenhouse gases as it pursues its overriding aim: profit.
International politics represents another obvious barrier. What would China do if the US unilaterally placed a giant solar eye patch above its territory in near space? There would, surely, have to be an agreement between all the rival major powers - unlikely.
Surveying the sorry results of past efforts to ‘solve nature’s problems’, Michael and Joyce Huesmann argue that it is “impossible for humans to substantially modify natural world systems without creating unanticipated and undesirable consequences”.15 Even at the most modest level, consider the introduction of the giant cane toad into Australia in the mid-1930s. Intended to kill off the pesky grey-backed cane beetle, the cane toad now plagues the north-western regions of the country (it is poisonous and therefore kills off animal predators). Almost needless to say, the gray-backed cane beetle survives and prospers. It lives mainly at the top of plants and the cane toad is a bad climber.
What needs to be understood, first and foremost, is that the Anthropocene is in fact the Capitalocene. The danger of runaway climate change is primarily the result of capitalism and its M-P-M′ imperative. That is what the blind hand of the market amounts to. And neither carbon taxes nor a Green New Deal would change that imperative. It is capitalism which, often violently, separated the worker from the land and therefore broke the organic relationship between the worker and the natural conditions of production. It is capitalism which is the threat to the very civilisation it has created … the solution therefore must primarily lie at the level of the social.
Despite that, far too many on the left advocate techno-fixes. It is often assumed that humanity can do what it likes with nature. That, or nature can be ignored or treated as if it were a free gift, to be robbed, mistreated and refashioned at whim.
This approach has been seen in recent times with left accelerationists such as Nick Land, Mark Fisher, Paul Mason, Nick Smicek and Aaron Bastani. Technology is held out as the panacea for overcoming climate change and third-world poverty. It is even credited with an ability to deliver so-called “fully automated luxury communism”. Instead of organising the working class into a party - so passé - we have the relentless forward march of technology: that, not the class struggle, undermines capitalism and holds out the promise of human freedom. Through supercomputers, through embracing automation, through space rockets, through mining asteroids, through following the “leading-edge” political vanguard of Alexis Tsipras and Pablo Iglesias, we are promised a 10-hour working week, more equality and all manner of tawdry luxury commodities - yes, taken from an article that is over five years old.16 The whole, almost instantly dated, utterly banal, left Accelerationst programme clearly owes rather more to Eduard Bernstein, Peter Struve and Nikita Khrushchev than to Karl Marx and Frederick Engels.
Not that orthodox(ish) Marxism can be entirely excused. Here is what Leon Trotsky, still at the pinnacle of political power in 1924, breathlessly wrote about refashioning nature:
The present distribution of mountains and rivers, of fields, of meadows, of steppes, of forests and of seashores cannot be considered final. Man has already made changes in the map of nature that are not few nor insignificant. But they are mere pupils’ practice in comparison with what is coming. Faith merely promises to move mountains; but technology, which takes nothing ‘on faith’, is actually able to cut down mountains and move them. Up to now this was done for industrial purposes (mines) or for railways (tunnels); in the future this will be done on an immeasurably larger scale, according to a general industrial and artistic plan. Man will occupy himself with re-registering mountains and rivers, and will earnestly and repeatedly make improvements in nature. In the end, he will have rebuilt the Earth - if not in his own image, at least according to his own taste. We have not the slightest fear that this taste will be bad.17
And the approach to nature Trotsky preached, Joseph Stalin and his successors put into practice - not in order to realise some global artistic grand design: rather, more prosaically, to provide the state (and in due course, its citizens) with more and more use-values. However, this could not be achieved with genuine socialist planning, which relies on the active participation, the positive control, of the associated producers. The bureaucratic elite pursued the interests of the state (along with its own narrow self-interest).
Therefore the organisation of production - crucially with the first five-year plan and the counterrevolution within the revolution - necessitated setting targets from above: ie, via Gosplan. This can be presented as: T-P … PP … P′-T′. Here T stands for target and P for product. The ellipsis indicates the time delay involved with PP, the production process. However, the movement is best presented in expanded form: P-T-P … PP … P′-T′-P′. This being the case simply because targets rely on existing products: eg, raw materials and labour-power. And, to stress the point, the aim is to obtain use-values on an ever growing scale.
Yet, despite massive oppression and the effective atomisation of the population, those below resisted. They flitted from enterprise to enterprise in search of better terms and conditions, they lied about their output figures, they cheated when it came to the time spent at work, they exerted negative control over the production process and they forced managerial concessions one after another. In their turn managers lied to and cheated those above them. They hoarded, over-ordered inputs - ie, supplies of labour-power and raw materials – they did everything to reduce the targets demanded by Gosplan and finally presented wonderfully inventive statistics. That way, failure became success and non-use-values became use-values.
What mattered both to workers and enterprise managers (in industry and agriculture too) was quantity, not quality. Indeed quantity and quality stood in contradiction. Hence the all too characteristic expenditure of useless labour-power, waste of raw materials and production of non-use-values. Hence this form of growth: T-P … P-T′. Or even this: T-P … P⁻-T′. In its turn Gosplan had its own reasons not only to accept such results, but celebrate them as a triumphant vindication of ‘socialist planning’. True between 1928 and 1973 there were impressive economic growth rates - largely for real. True, between 1953 and 1973 living standards rose substantially - largely for real. But what people experienced in terms of everyday life was shortages, poor quality, being lied to and the necessity of lying in return. A vicious circle that was bound to eventually close.
Under such inherently irrational circumstances, the top leadership blamed foreign experts, old Bolsheviks, former kulaks, first-generation Stalinite cadre, lazy workers, hidebound managers, etc, for the litany of failures … and all that went hand-in-hand with the desperate attempt to find and implement all manner of gigantic techno-fixes. Surely an object lesson, when it comes to climate change.
Leave aside the radioactive waste littered over Kazakhstan, the open-cast mining, the oil spills and the ruinous industrial practices which caused choking air pollution, poisoned rivers and killed lakes. Let us concentrate on agriculture. We will see why Marx argued that what is needed for rational agriculture is either the “small famer living by his own labour or the control of associated producers.”18
Expropriating the peasants through forced collectivization in the late-1920s and early-1930s caused agricultural production to crash. The cities went hungry. The countryside starved. Millions died. However, joining together the country’s peasant farms without the necessary tractors and combines meant that the regime would never again be held to ransom by richer peasants, the kulaks. Throughout the 1920s they had held back grain when prices were considered too low. The state had to respond, either by increasing prices (and thereby denying industry, the army, etc) or by sending out special armed detachments to seize grain supplies.
But collectivization merely collectivized primitiveness. The peasants were, to all intents and purposes, re-ensurfed. They were state helots. Even when tractors and combines eventually came on stream, productivity remained notoriously low. Collective farm members had to be allocated individual plots to grow fruit and vegetables for their own consumption and for sale in special, private, markets established in the towns and cities. Even without machinery, productivity on the individual plots was far higher than on the kolkhoz and sovkhoz.
In the second half of the 1940s Stalin proposed his ‘Great Plan for the Transformation of Nature’ - a superambitious response to the 1946 drought, which in 1947 left an estimated 500,000 to one million dead. Huge bands of land were to be forested in the southern steppe to provide a network of shelterbelts. Rivers feeding into the Aral Sea were to be diverted - once the world’s fourth largest lake, it has now virtually disappeared. Irrigation canals, reservoirs and countless ponds were going to upgrade the thin soils. Trofim Lysenko’s “elite strains of seed”, so went the presumption, would ensure fabulously high yields.
Lysenko, of course, contemptuously dismissed the Mendelian theory of gene inheritance as an example of “metaphysics and idealism”.19 Instead he upheld a neo-Lamarckian doctrine of crops passing on environmentally acquired characteristics, such as cold resistance and drought resistance. This was vigorously opposed in Britain by the CPGB’s scientific superstar, JBS Haldane (much to the chagrin of the official leadership faction).20 Haldane was famously one of the originators of the Darwinian-Mendelian synthesis21 and eventually resigned in 1950. A great loss.
Lysenkoism had been elevated into official doctrine in the Soviet Union. Those who disagreed were viciously denounced, dismissed from academic posts and often ended up in the gulag. That or they were simply shot. The message was clear: politics, not scientific facts - certainly not nature - was in command.
In 1948, Lysenko made his notorious speech to the Lenin Academy of Agricultural Sciences. He rhetorically asked: “What is the attitude of the central committee of the party to my report?” He answers: “the central committee has examined my report and approves of it (Stormy applause. Ovation. All rise).” The “most chilling passage in all the literature of the 20th century science”, writes Stephen Jay Gould.22
The Great Plan ended in complete failure. The trees were of the wrong kind, went untended and died. The crops were of the wrong kind too, and froze or wilted. Topsoils were quickly exhausted and were washed away by rain or blown away on the winds (they contained, of course, the highest concentrates of organic matter and microorganisms). All negative and unintended consequences.
Nikita Khrushchev attempted his own agricultural revolution. In 1953 the virgin lands campaign was launched. Within two years the first secretary sought to put 13 million hectares of hitherto uncultivated land under the plough, in “Kazakhstan, western Siberia, the lower Volga and (to a limited extent) in the northern Caucasus”.23 ‘Fallow land is lost land; erosion is a fiction’ ran a Khrushchevite slogan, featured widely in the Soviet press during the mid-1950s.24 An obvious absurdity.
The eventual target for 1962 was a staggering 42 million hectares. Never before in history had there been such a vast projected extension of cultivation in such a short period of time. Masses of urban volunteers were mobilised - especially young enthusiasts. However, neither instruments of labour (tractors, combines, etc) nor the extra labour-power itself proved up to the job. Crucially, though, topsoils were thin and weather conditions notoriously dry. Repeatedly ploughing, sowing and harvesting the fragile virgin lands of the northern Caucasus, western Siberia and north Kazakhstan saw productivity steadily decline. Soils were quickly exhausted and deserts expanded.
Khrushchev had one more gigantic plan up his sleeve: irrigating the arid south, specifically in order to expand cotton production. He gave the go-ahead to divert 12 rivers ‘uselessly’ flowing into the Arctic Ocean. Reversing the flow of the Pechora was not only going to boost cotton production: the shrinking Aral and Caspian seas would be replenished.
Obviously part of the project relied on digging new water channels. However, instead of using traditional methods - mechanical diggers, dumper trucks and the requisite labour-power - the proposal was to detonate 250 nuclear devices. In fact, the Soviet bureaucracy envisaged the almost boundless application of nuclear technology to construction, industry, agriculture and medicine: “atomic-powered communism”.25 Sounds familiar, does it not?
The wonders of computers, automation, robots and, yes, nuclear power held out the prospect of catching up with the US by 1970 and the beginnings of ‘communist abundance’ by 1980. Three 15-kiloton devices were actually detonated - inevitably causing some fallout. The whole crazy river-diversion idea was finally abandoned in 1986. Who knows what the consequences would have been if it had gone to completion.
With warm river waters no longer flowing into the cold Artic ocean from the south, maybe a new, Eurasian, ice age, is triggered. Glaciers, permafrost and sea ice slowly spreads. Leningrad is eventually permanently frozen in. The city becomes uninhabitable and has to be abandoned. Nowadays climate modellers might well be able to give us a highly accurate prediction. Impossible in the 1960s and 70s, though.
In a final, desperate throw. Mikhail Gorbachev told the 27th Congress of the CPSU that a “decisive turn is needed in the agrarian sector to improve the food supply”.26 He proposed to dramatically increase mechanisation, chemicalisation and soil amelioration (ie, drainage schemes, irrigation, erosion control). In other words, to up the mass of inactive allocation applied to the same area of land. Despite the “objective of improving food supplies” being “first in line”, when it came to Gosplan’s guidelines for the period ending 2000, agriculture showed the unmistakable signs of diminishing returns.27 Albeit in the distorting language of roubles (not real money, not a universal equivalent, but only a partial equivalent), what was needed to obtain a ton of grain rose from 51 roubles in 1970 to 101 roubles in 1987.28 With still further mechanisation, chemicalisation and soil amelioration, the chances are that what was needed to obtain a ton of grain would have doubled again ... if the system had managed to survive into the 21st century.
Here, as the economist and ecologist, Mikhail Lemeshev, argued, one glaring factor was ignored, or given mere lip service: ie, the “reproduction of the natural-resources potential of agriculture”.29 Soviet agriculture was not sustainable agriculture. Effectively the soil was being mined. Artificial fertilisers could temporarily “override ecological limits”.30 But chemicalisation created conditions where vital minerals, such as calcium, magnesium and potassium, were gradually leached away.31
As for the Soviet Union’s big tractors and combine harvesters that heralded the bright future for Gosplan, they pounded, compacted and suffocated the soil. “[W]ater and air permeability” was considerably reduced. 32 Micro-organisms dwindled. And, of course, the more frequently such behemoths moved across kolkhoz and sovkhoz fields, the more damage they caused.
Meanwhile, just as under capitalism, giganticism ruled. Cattle, chicken and pigs were crammed into vast warehouses, the poor creatures treated as if they had no feelings, no self-awareness. They were considered mere production units.
Output was maximised through the misapplication of science. Animals were genetically selected and manipulated to produce more milk, more eggs, more meat and more offspring. Bodies were taken to their limits in order to produce the largest amount in the shortest possible time. Crippling deformities were commonplace. Intensive livestock production is, though, grossly inefficient. Huge tracts of land are needed to produce silage, mixes and pellets - land which otherwise could be used to feed people. Note: animals have a caloric conversion ratio of 10:1. Ten calories of inputs are required for every one calorie of meat.
Not for nothing is such agriculture called factory farming. Take pigs. The scale is staggering. Soviet enterprises produced “between 12 and 126 thousand pigs per year”.33 Piglets are removed from mothers at around 10 days old for finishing. She is then impregnated again and again until slaughtered. The average life of a breeding sow is just three or four years. Disease is endemic. So is stress-related behaviour: tail-biting, cannibalism, chewing cage bars, etc. Antibiotics are administered as a matter of routine. While the availability of ham, pork chops, bacon and sausages increased, especially between 1964 and 1971, so too did urine and faeces. A “major drawback”.
Large scale intensive livestock production broke the natural interchange between animals and soil. Enterprises flushed the poo and piss into stinking, open-air cesspits. After treatment the slurry went to fertilise nearby fields, but the sheer quantity made it impossible to complete the metabolic cycle. With applications reaching “10-20 tons per hectare”, there were numerous reports of ammonia poisoning.34 Crops yellowed, wilted and died. Seepage into underlying water tables and runoff into streams, rivers and lakes inevitably followed too. Fish stocks were wiped out. Tap water carried dangerous pathogens. Wild swimming became a health hazard.
Once upon a time it was lazily assumed - and not only by the paid apologists for the Soviet regime - that, untrammelled by the capitalist profit motive, with universal nationalisation, and hence the ability to organise on a vast scale, environmental protection was guaranteed.
No, nothing could be further from the truth. The progress of Soviet agriculture was progress towards ever greater ecological degradation.
Party Notes October 18 2021.↩︎
See ‘Hadean to capitalocene’ Weekly Worker October 7 (weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1366/hadean-to-capitalocene); and ‘The wealth of nature’ Weekly Worker October 14 (weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1367/the-wealth-of-nature).↩︎
M Hulme Can science fix climate change? Cambridge 2014.↩︎
PJ Crutzen ‘Albedo enhancement by stratospheric sulphur injections: a contribution to resolve a policy dilemma’ Climatic Change No77, July 25 2006, pp211-19.↩︎
E Kolbert Under a white sky: the nature of the future London 2021.↩︎
CH Trisos et al, ‘Potentially dangerous consequences for biodiversity of solar geoengineering implementation and termination’ Nature Ecology and Evolution March 2018.↩︎
M Huesmann and J Huesmann Techno-fix: why technology won’t save us or the environment Gabriola Island BC 2011, pxxv.↩︎
L Trotsky Literature and art - see: www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1924/lit_revo/ch08.htm.↩︎
K Marx Capital Vol III, Moscow 1971, p121.↩︎
TD Lysenko The situation in biological science Moscow 1951, p24.↩︎
See: www.marxists.org/archive/haldane/works/1940s/lysenko.htm. For Haldane’s MI5-bugged exchanges with CPGB tops see: blogs.ucl.ac.uk/sts-observatory/2017/07/26/science-and-the-cold-war-at-ucl-1-surveillance.↩︎
JBS Haldane The causes of evolution London 1932. The title deliberately included the plural. See: jbshaldane.org/books/1932-Causes-of-Evolution/haldane-1932-causes-of-evolution-flat.pdf.↩︎
SJ Gould Hen’s teeth and horse’s toes New York 1983, p135.↩︎
R Sakwa The rise and fall of the Soviet Union 1917-1991 London 1999, p304.↩︎
NM Dronin and EG Bellinger Climate dependence and food problems in Russia, 1900-1990 Budapest 2005, p223.↩︎
PR Johnson, ‘Atomic-powered communism: nuclear culture in the post-war USSR’ Slavic Review summer 1996, pp297-324.↩︎
M Gorbachev Political report of the CPSU Central Committee to the 27th Party Congress Moscow 1986, p39.↩︎
N Ryzhkov Guidelines for the economic and social development of the USSR Moscow 1986, p59.↩︎
Figures from M Lemeshev Bureaucrats in power - ecological collapse Moscow 1990, p194.↩︎
AJ Weis The global food economy London 2007, p55.↩︎
K-E Wädekin, ‘Soviet agriculture: a brighter prospect?’ in PJD Wiles (ed) Soviet economy brink of reform Abingdon 1988, p198.↩︎
KR Gray, AV Uvrkin, AJ Biddlestone, ‘Purification of wastewater from industrial pig farms in the USSR’ Journal of Agricultural Engineering Research Vol 49, May-August 1991.↩︎
CIA, ‘Agriculture-related pollution in the USSR’, November 1977 (released 1999).↩︎