Scene: The State of Denmark
Belgian negotiator - "The planet is imperiled."
French negotiator - "Deserts of forests!"
Brazilian negotiator - "Bile of oceans!"
Al Gore - "Everyone look at this graph!"
German negotiator - "We must work together to avert catastrophic climate change."
Danish diplomat - "We must produce an agreement that limits greenhouse gas emissions, transitions the world toward sustainable forms of energy, and invest state and private capital in technologies and infrastructure that mitigates already occurring climactic disruptions. All while growing our economies, of course."
African negotiator of unidentified state - "I must say that...."
Australian negotiator - "Oh boy, looky there!"
[Barack Obama enters from stage left]
Obama - "Through the UN, and our sovereign governments, we leaders must choose policies that utilize the power and choice of the free market to cap CO2, sequester it, and develop alternatives fuels. Bla bla, hope, bladi bla change. Future of little children and changey hope stuff...."
[All gather round to ink a global agreement (binding or nonbinding, whatever), agreeing to reduce carbon emissions by X percent of such and such year's levels by such and such future date. The delegates sign on the dotted line. The markets for carbon get going. The world marches on, free markets, nation states and all. Lights
dim, Obama and all exit, stage right to triumphant music, perhaps this?]
Something's Rotten in the State of Denmark
A Critic Responds
A farce is a comedic form that emphasizes ludicrously improbable situations. Audiences are expected to recognize the improbability of the plot, the absurdity of characters, and the impossible resolutions reached, or not. When a people mistake themselves for an audience, and believe they are viewing a great drama upon the world stage, when in fact a farce is playing out before their eyes, these people become victims of an epic tragedy. This is us, and this is Copenhagen.
The Copenhagen climate talks aren't really about "climate change," or "global warming." That would be too narrow a view of what the core capitalist nations are attempting to justify, preserve, and expand through their proposals, including the Danish document that was leaked last week. Equally, it would ignore the way in which the "developing" peripheral nations of the capitalist world system are approaching things, the deals they're trying to cut with the core nations, many of which would sell their own people out in the name of national "progress" and "growth."
The Copenhagen proceedings are actually about the future of everything: planetary levels of economic activity, energy production and consumption, state and private capital investments, industrial organization, labor relations, the global financial system, state subsidization, regulatory powers, biopolitical interventions, trade regimes, and core-periphery relations. The list goes on and on.
What Copenhagen represents is an attempt by the international state system and the largest transnational titans of capital to produce a solution to a planetary ecological, social, and political crisis born out of capitalism's developmental telos. Destabilizing CO2 pollution in the atmosphere is only one of the many ecologically destructive aspects intrinsic to this developmental trajectory. It is, however, the most systemic and existentially threatening; it affects every corner of the planet and very likely will produce conditions leading to the collapse of agriculture, acidification of the oceans, loss of freshwater sources, and destruction or disappearance of habitable lands. Therefore CO2 pollution is the most politically and socially disruptive challenge facing the continued expansion of capital and state power.
What is farcical about this is that the expansion of capital and state power is the greatest impediment to the expansion of capital and state power, and yet we are watching heads of state and corporations propose vast expansions of their dominion over earth and sky as a solution to the problems born out of their already disastrous dominion over earth and sky. Absurd.
Capitalism and the international state system cannot solve this problem. This is the most important thing for us to recognize. The states and corporations cannot overcome the crisis, for they are the crisis. Therefore our demands must must be tempered to transcend them, building the new society within this old one that is dying. We've got to aim toward obsolescence of the state and capital. We've got to scream, "no!" and hold fast that their solutions are not ours. We've got to be honest with ourselves that this theater in Copenhagen is not a drama, but a farce, and we don't intend to be any mere audience.
It's All About Power, Physical and Political
CO2 and related toxic emissions is, was, and will remain, an inescapable product of the most efficient sources of energy. Carbon-based energies far surpass any other technology, be it wind, solar, hydro, or geothermal, in terms of the quantity and concentration of energy produced. The bang-for-your-buck gotten from coal, petroleum, and gas is impossible to surpass. Nuclear cannot compare to the cheapness of petroleum or coal. No amount of hopeful investment, be it through our emotions or dollars, in clean and green energy sources will negate this fact. This matters in a political sense because it constrains the field of action in which state agents and capitalist executors can think and act in response to the problems they have created.
The unrivaled efficiencies and quantities of hydrocarbon energy still readily available are deterministic facts within the context of global capitalism and the state system; there will be no transition to a clean/green economy through any kind of treaty or any combination of domestic policies and state subsidies. It doesn't matter if the UN produces a binding treaty, not that it will. It can't. It doesn't matter so much if the United States puts billions into "green jobs" or clean energy infrastructure. The USA, like other states, will never invest itself in these forms of energy to the extent that is necessary because it would mean more than a transition from one source to another. It would actually be more accurate to describe it as a transition from one level of energy to another, from an astronomically high level of giga-wattage required to carry out state-building and corporate growth, to an earthy level kilo-wattage, one that neither massive states nor earth straddling corporations can subsist and expand upon.
If you think that a state or any sector of capital will willingly reduce the amount of energy it produces and consumes within its borders or flows then you haven't been paying attention to the entire reason for the existence of the state and capital. The point is to produce more power, and to do it in a physical-chemical sense that is also deeply political.
There are Thantosian forces at work underneath the veneer of "democracy," and "diplomacy" in Copenhagen that will prevent any realistic plan to transition away from the toxic carbon basis of capitalist civilization. The key to understanding why Copenhagen is a farce has everything to do with the dynamic relationship of the state system to capitalism. Capitalism and the state system have a basis in violence and the forced imposition of an industrial-technological development logic, the ultimate aims of which are to produce social relations that create conditions for the ever more intense accumulation of capital. Violence and rabid economic competition between states, from war to sanctions, trade imbalances, debt predation, structural adjustment programs, espionage, sabotage, economic rivalry, assassination, embargoes, and so on, are central dynamics of the state system. These are not aberrations. They are normal state relations. The world of states and corporations really is a Hobbsian nightmare, and the terrible giants like the USA, Europe, Japan, and increasingly China and India use their economic and state/military power to expand their dominion. Economic and state/military power, lest we forget, are more or less equivalent to CO2 emissions, precisely because carbon energy produces vast amounts of the most efficient and available energy, most easily controlled by and utilized by corporations, war machines and bureaucracies.
The capitalist world system wasn't created via the voluntary adoption of conceptions such as private property, corporatism, labor-capital relations, etc. It was created through conquest, colonization, mass enslavement, genocide, and unthinkable forms of industrialized war making. From the very beginning the mercantilist states and their corporate adventurers sought the most potent fuels for their factories, ships, plantations, mines and cities.
Capitalism continues to rely on force for its operation and expansion. Full scale war between states, or war by another name, call it "free trade," or "immigration policy," remains integral to the capitalist world system. The use of state violence to pry open societies in order to incorporate their peoples and "resources" into the system is endemic. States and corporations with symbiotic alliances compete with one another to expand, to grow their own power, capitalize their own industries and cities, mechanize the countrysides under their guns, rationalize and make legible the labors of all who live within their borders.
It all runs on carbon energy, the most potent source of power, again in the physical-chemical sense that powers machinery, as well as in the political sense of powering the Mumfordian mega-machine. To think this system would willingly convert itself away from CO2 emitting forms of energy is roughly the same as thinking it would ban war. Carbon energy isn't going anywhere so long as capital and the state exist.
So carbon-based energy isn't the problem. The problem is the political and economic system. The problem is the nation state and capital. So long as both of these formations are hegemonic it's hard to imagine a transition away from the most potent and readily available forms of energy locked within hydrocarbon molecules. So long as the state and capital are the arbiters of our future, we are doomed.