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Picture: 123RF/PRAZIS
Picture: 123RF/PRAZIS

Despite South Africans being in the grip of one of the coldest winters in years, the UN’s World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) recently stated that June was the hottest month in history recorded globally, while the first week of July was the hottest week recorded globally. Heatwaves are currently taking place across vast swathes of southern Europe, the southern states of the US and in China. The director of the WMO’s climate services has warned that the Earth is now entering “uncharted territory”.

This is happening despite more than 30 years having passed since the first UN Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 1992, an evert that was preceded in 1972 by the UN Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm, which for the first time placed environmental issues at the forefront of international concerns.

As global temperatures continue to rise, oceans warm, ice melts, extreme weather events become commonplace and global climate targets get missed time and again, we have to seriously ask ourselves why this is so. We know what is causing climate change, and we know what to do to stop it, so why are we not doing it? What is it that prevents the global community from taking serious action to avert a crisis that threatens the very continuation of human life on earth? 

Here, we inevitably run into a debate that interrogates no less than how human affairs are organised. Without wanting to be drawn here into the merits or otherwise of capitalism, or its capacity to resolve the climate crisis, we must face the reality that the capitalist economy is the dominant mode of human organisation on the planet (including China’s “market socialism”). Therefore, would the next logical step not be to to ask if capitalism is playing any role in hindering our ability to the take the necessary global action?

It is at this point that we run into a brick wall, because even wondering if capitalism is the problem and thinking about alternatives is to upset what appears to be the “natural order” of the world. A “natural order” that was intensely promoted in the West after the end of World War 2, and to which — as former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher was often quoted as saying — there is “no alternative”. The pervasive idea that there is “no alternative” appeared to be confirmed by the collapse of the Soviet project from the late 1980s, which led political scientist Francis Fukuyama to declare the “end of history” because there was now only one ideology, that of capitalism.

The late historian Tony Judt stated that “the thrall in which an ideology holds a people is best measured by their collective inability to imagine alternatives”. As established writers and commentators on environmental and social justice issues, it has been our experience that even wondering about capitalism and alternatives to it — within the context of the climate crisis — is more often than not met with impatience, if not outright derision. We’ve been repeatedly told that we are naïve, hopelessly utopian, or that we don’t just understand how the world works. These responses do not just come from those with obvious vested interests in capitalism; they often come from within sections of civil society and academia.

UK journalist George Monbiot makes a similar point. He notes that when raising the question of capitalism’s role in the climate crisis — what he calls the issue that “we scarcely dare mention” — it appears that “we would rather face civilisational death than the social embarrassment caused by raising awkward subjects, and the political trouble involved in resisting powerful forces”. 

The late political and cultural theorist Mark Fisher argued that alternatives to capitalism are not seriously debated or discussed in our present era because “capitalism occupies the horizons of the thinkable”, resulting in a situation where it is “easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism”. In the recently published, Brainwashed: A New History of Thought Control, historian and psychoanalyst Daniel Pick states that mass conformity arises in a society when “all concerned come to believe that there is simply no alternative to a given way of operating, and share the same untested basic assumptions”.

Given the serious lack of debate around alternatives to capitalism within the context of catastrophic climate change, it is difficult not to conclude that we are all, to varying degrees, “brainwashed” into accepting the capitalist status quo as an inevitable reality — as the “natural order”. Judt argues that this normalisation of the capitalist economy “is the true mental captivity of our time”. 

In holding capitalism in such thrall, we willingly allow ourselves to forget that capitalism is a choice, that it is a social construct, and is just one way in which we can organise the economy and human affairs. It is high time that we shake off our fear of thinking about alternatives and engage in serious debates about “steady state”, “doughnut” or degrowth economies, to name a few alternatives. This debate is not naïve or utopian, it is in fact the most important debate of our era because it is likely to determine our very fate as a species.   

• Overy is a freelance environmental researcher, and Steenkamp programmes officer at Earthlife Africa. 

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