Decolonising and Decarbonising: The Origins of Capitalism and Climate Change

The 2018 hurricanes Irma and Maria signal the emergence of a new climate regime in the Caribbean. At no point in the historical records dating back to the 1880s have two category five storms struck the eastern Caribbean in a single year. The Caribbean is seeing repeated and prolonged droughts, an increase in the number of very hot days, intense rainfall events causing repeated localised flooding, and rising sea levels.

The slogan “1.5°C to Stay Alive!” was adopted by the Caribbean Community Climate Change Centre. A world warmed by no more than 1.5°C is one in which existing Caribbean societies have a future. However, the emissions reductions that have been voluntarily agreed through the United Nations have been predicted to lead to warming of 2.7-3.7°C.

A good place to start on the discussion is Leon Sealey-Huggins (2017) ‘1.5°C to stay alive’: climate change, imperialism and justice for the Caribbean, Third World Quarterly, 38:11, 2444-2463

The failure of the efforts by the “international community” to deal with climate change can partly be attributed to the domination of the discussions by the old imperialist powers, those who, as representatives of the major historical and current polluters,  are mainly responsible for the state the climate is in.

It is now well established that the origin of the current crisis of global warming can be traced back to the widespread adoption of the coal-powered steam engine by the British textile industry in the early 19th Century. Since then the drive for profit has been linked to the vastly increased use of fossil fuels, resulting in massively increased production of greenhouse gases and other pollutants.

Malm, Andreas. (2013). “The Origins of Fossil Capital: From Water to Steam in the British Cotton Industry”. Historical Materialism. 21. 15-68

The full argument can be read in Malm’s book: Fossil Capital The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming.

Industrialisation in Europe and North America required a primary accumulation of capital, the initial funding that could start the process. 

John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark and Hannah Holleman, “Capitalism and Robbery: The Expropriation of Land, Labor, and Corporeal Life”, Monthly Review, December 2019 (Volume 71, Number 7)

This started by driving peasants farmers from their farms and the privatisation of common land that had previously been open to the use of all; processes known as clearances and enclosures.

A detailed explanation of the process of enclose can be found in A Short History of Enclosure in Britain by Simon Fairlie

Linebaugh, Peter. 2014. Stop, Thief! : The Commons, Enclosures, And Resistance. Oakland: PM Press is a well written collection of essays on this topic.

Ian Angus has written two articles for Climate and Capitalism

The origins of European and North American capitalism are linked to a combination of historical factors, all achieved at the expense of the people of Africa, who were enslaved and transported to the Americas, the country people of Europe, who were forced off their land and driven into the new industrial cities by enclosures and the First Nations of North America who saw their land expropriated and were subject to a process of genocide. Both stopping climate change and reparations for slavery are linked social justice issues.

Why did the steam engine come to dominate capitalist development in the early 19th century when water power was readily available and cheaper?  There is one major factor: control of labour. Industrialisation needed to turn people into wage workers; by enclosing common land, the law not only enriched the landowners who gained increased holdings, it also rendered independent farming inaccessible to most ordinary country folk, who had previously had access to the commons, and thereby forced many to seek paid employment in the towns. 

In Europe and America they stole the land from the people, in Africa they stole the people from the land.

And so the other component of this expropriation, which started with the seizure of the common land of ordinary country folk in Britain, was the expropriation of the very bodies of ordinary country folk in Africa as they were captured and sold into slavery. The coercion and violence required to operate slave labour was matched by the expansionist war against indigenous people all over the Americas. Thus, systematic violence destroyed subsistence agriculture and forced commodity production, using coerced labour where necessary.

A classic work is Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery. This book has been the subject of much controversy since its first appearance. For those interested in both sides of this argument, the debate is summed up in:
Selwyn H. H. Carrington, “Capitalism & Slavery and Caribbean Historiography: An Evaluation”, The Journal of African American History, Vol. 88, No. 3. (Summer, 2003), pp. 304-312

In a parallel process, the indigenous population of North America and the Caribbean who did not prove amenable to agricultural slavery, were subjected to a process of extermination by a mixture of violence and disease. This freed land for European colonisation, but left those colonists without a labour force to exploit.

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, “Not a Nation of Immigrants”, Monthly Review, September 2021 (Volume 73, Number 4)

The upshot of all this is the complete dependence of capitalist industry on fossil fuels, with oil added into the package in the 20th century. Just as  employers in the 19th century moved their operations into the cities to obtain cheap labour, in the 21st, they are moving to the Third World in an attempt to avoid the trade union organisation in the metropolitan countries that pushed up wages. The dominance of fossil fuel based power is a consequence of the class struggle and an essential driver in capital’s need to extract greater surplus value from labour. The stronger global capital has become, the more rampant the growth of CO2 emissions, as Andreas Malm says “the decisive capitalist victory in the long twentieth-century struggle with labour was crowned by the post-2000 rush towards catastrophic global warming“. Rex Tillerson, CEO of ExxonMobil, said in March 2013: “My philosophy is to make money. If I can drill and make money, then that’s what I want to do“. Steam driven mechanisation became central to the ideology of the industrial capitalist class.

Recent research also shows that intensive fishing also played an important role in the early development of capitalism. This clearly has a relevance when discussing the depletion of fish stocks around the world. Ian Angus has written 4 short articles on this for Climate and Capitalism:

So, the unjust economic transition brought about by coal-based steam power was initially based on the primary accumulation of capital through Caribbean slavery, colonial exploitation and the proletarianisation and immiseration of labour in the metropolitan counties. Even after the abolition of slavery in the British Empire, the cotton industry in Britain was still dependent on imported cotton from the USA that was picked by enslaved labour. 

Sven Beckert, Empire of Cotton: A New History of Global Capitalism, Penguin, 2014

Continued slavery in the USA was greatly assisted by investment and loans from the British financial services industry. When discussing the claim for reparations for slavery, we need to look beyond emancipation within the British empire and consider the profits that British capitalism continued to make from the business of slavery elsewhere. The victory of the concept of Free Trade with the 1846 Repeal of the Corn Laws allowed for the cheaper import of sugar from Brazil and Cuba, and again the British financial services industry, Barings Bank in particular, took their share.

Sven Beckert, Seth Rockman (Editors), Slavery’s Capitalism – A New History Of American Economic Development

During the United States Civil War, British textile industry owners, finance capital and aristocracy argued for armed intervention on the side of the slave-owners, while the working class and socialist movement in Britain, despite the hardships caused by the cotton-famine, stood in solidarity with the anti-slavery struggle represented by the northern states and were part of a mass movement against British intervention.

Melvyn Bragg, “In Our Time: The Lancashire Cotton Famine”, BBC Radio 4, 14 May 2015

Similarly, the deforestation of the Caribbean Islands to produce sugar along with the soil exhaustion resulting from mono-crop, export-based agriculture, has severely damaged the possibilities for sustainable development. 

Fredrick Engels, wrote: 

“What cared the Spanish planters in Cuba who burned down forests on the slopes of the mountains and obtained from the ashes sufficient fertilizer for one generation of very highly profitable coffee trees—what cared they that the heavy tropical rainfall afterwards washed away the unprotected upper stratum of the soil, leaving behind only bare rock! In relation to nature, as to society, the present mode of production is predominantly concerned only with the immediate, the most tangible result; and then surprise is expressed that the more remote effects of actions directed to this end turn out to be quite different, are mostly quite the opposite in character”.

In turn, the deforestation of the region adversely affected weather patterns, making the general effects of global warming even worse in the region.

John Bellamy Foster has written widely on this and other environmental topics. A good place to start would be:

John Bellamy Foster and Brett Clark, “The Robbery of Nature: Capitalism and the Metabolic Rift”, Monthly Review, July-August 2018 (Volume 70, Number 3) 

Equally, for thousands of years, the area now covered by the western United States was common land, managed by its indigenous inhabitants in a sustainable fashion. This arrangement was destroyed by the coming of the railway, the genocide and expropriation of the First Nations and the division of the land into private property.

The Great Plains were ploughed up, destroying the root system that secured the topsoil, while the bison that cropped that grass were deliberately exterminated as part of the genocide of the Indigenous inhabitants. The result was the “dust bowl”, an ecological and human disaster. 

Hannah Holleman, “No Empires, No Dust Bowls, Ecological Disasters and the Lessons of History”, Monthly Review, July-August 2018 (Volume 70, Number 3)

The Academy for Teachers has produced two YouTube videos on this topic No Empires, No Dust Bowls: Lessons from the First Global Environmental Crisis and Session 2

Presently the Caribbean islands face one of the worst threats of flooding from sea level rises and more violent hurricanes. At the same time, Caribbean victims of climate change are denied the right to migrate out of the threatened region, while industrial production is moved from the metropolitan countries to the third world. 

The last hundred years has seen a dramatic hardening of borders and restrictions on free movement of labour, while  free movement of capital and “free trade” have become the norm worldwide, making it easy for corporations to move production to ever cheaper locations and to dump their pollution on the Third World. Corporations operate across borders while regulations and workers are contained by them. Oil and mineral extraction as well as pollution is done by corporations unbounded by borders and protected by “free trade”, so the real control of the environment currently rests with those corporations. The structural violence of borders is not only to be seen in the victims of drowning in the Mediterranean or heat stroke in the Arizona desert. Borders and migration control will also concentrate the negative impact of climate change on more vulnerable places, one thinks immediately of the Bay of Bengal and the Caribbean, while at the same time confining the people most affected within these areas.

Reece Jones, Violent Borders: Refugees and the Right to Move, Verso, 2016

All this illustrates the fatuous nature of European governments talking piously of reducing their internal outputs of greenhouse gases, while their capitalists are busy exporting production to other parts of the world where they can pollute at their leisure. The actual volume of CO2 emitted does not respect borders. Capitalist profit depends, in large part, in the mobility of production, forever seeking cheaper sources of labour power, which in turn depends on fossil fuel extraction. Thus, any serious attempt to restrict global warming to 1.5o will necessitate severe restrictions on the free movement of capital. 

The British bourgeoisie profited from Caribbean sugar slavery, North American slave-picked cotton, the colonisation of Africa and Asia, the violent expropriation of the English peasants from their common land and the genocide of the indigenous population of North America. They used that capital to develop a fossil fuel based economy that was the major factor in global warming and now threatens human existence in general and the Caribbean in particular. Part of the demand for reparations, in addition to the unpaid wages that were denied to the enslaved, is that European and North American corporations fund the repair of the damage they have done to the ecology of the islands and reverse the fossil fuel driven economy that is causing global warming. 

Steve Cushion, Up Down Turn Around: The Political Economy of Slavery and the Socialist Case for Reparations, Cutlass, 2016

The argument for a just and fair economy goes hand in hand with saving the planet.