China’s coal-fuelled boom: the man who cried “stop”

April 30, 2020

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“We can no longer act on nature with impunity.” The “classic” model of economic development “poses a threat to humanity’s very existence”. China needs a new development model, based on renewable resources used effectively and sustainably, that will be built on the old model’s ruins.

Deng Yingtao, a high-profile Chinese economist, made this call to action thirty years ago in his book A New Development Model and China’s Future.[1] Its message was ignored by the political leaders it was addressed to. In this review article, I will consider why.

In the 1990s, the Chinese Communist party leadership prioritised expansion of export-focused manufacturing industry. The industrial boom really took off in the 2000s, fuelled by mountains of coal – the classic unsustainable resource.

In every year since 2011, China has consumed more coal than the rest of the world put together;

Steelmaking is one of China’s coal-hungry industries

more coal than the entire world used annually in the early 1980s; and more than twice what all the rich countries together used annually in the mid 1960s, during their own coal-fired boom.[2]

The primary beneficiaries of this economic model are not China’s 1.3 billion people. The big fuel users are in China’s giant east-coast manufacturing belt – which produces, in the first place, energy-intensive goods for export to rich countries: steel bars, cement, chemical products, agricultural fertilisers and electronics products. Household fuel consumption remains extremely low.

This level of fossil fuel use can not go on, not in China and not anywhere else, without courting the most horrendous dangers brought about by global warming.

Deng Yingtao made a compelling argument against going down this road, BEFORE the decisions were made.

In the Introduction to his book, he pointed to the yawning gap between rich and poor countries; the multinational companies’ rising power; and the damage done to the global south by capitalist boom-and-bust.

The “classic” development model had led to “a world economy dominated by the developed West Read the rest of this entry »


China: reform economists who sought the road not taken

April 30, 2020

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Deng Yingtao, who in the 1990s called on China to reject the western-oriented industrial development model, was neither a dissident nor an environmentalist. As a senior economist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, he first made his mark in the late 1970s, in debates about reforming agriculture. (See MAIN ARTICLE about Deng’s work here.)

Deng’s father, Deng Liqun, was high up in the Chinese Communist party. He joined it in 1936, and served as a military leader, both before the revolution of 1949 and in the suppression of revolts in western China in the 1950s.

In the 1970s, during the cultural revolution, Deng senior, like many leading and middle-ranking Communists, was sent to the countryside. He worked in Henan province. There his son Deng Yingtao

Farmer with buffalo, 2007. Photo: Andy Siitonen / Creative commons

met Chen Yizi: their discussions about how the collective farm system obstructed the development of agriculture started a long collaboration.

Mao Zedong’s death in 1976, the purge of the Maoist “gang of four” that followed, and Deng Xiaoping’s emergence as the undisputed party leader in 1978, marked a big political turning-point. The cultural revolution was repudiated.

A “Beijing spring” was declared, allowing open political discussion that had been impossible under Mao. The “four modernisations” (economy, agriculture, science and defence) reform policy was adopted; the use of market mechanisms and some opening-up to capitalism were key elements.

At the top of the party, Deng Xiaoping sidelined Hua Guofeng, Mao’s obvious successor. In the ranks, intellectuals and officials who had been sent to the countryside returned to Beijing – including Deng Yingtao and Chen Yizi.[1] Along with Wang Xiaoqiang, Deng and Chen became central figures in a group of reform economists who in 1979 began to meet on weekends in parks and empty offices in Read the rest of this entry »


Coronavirus, economic crash and climate change: this could go either way

April 28, 2020

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The coronavirus pandemic has given human society a jolt, sent the world economy into depression – and is producing what looks like the sharpest-ever cut in the level of greenhouse gas emissions.

Is this going to help or hinder us in tackling climate change in the coming years and decades? Will it speed up or slow down the transition away from fossil fuels?

It could go either way, in my view. It depends on what governments do – but also on what

American health workers’ picket line. Photo: Elizabeth Lalasz / Labor Notes

society does, what we all do. This is a question with many moving parts, and below I list 12 of them.

A couple of themes run through all the parts. On one hand, capitalism thrives by emerging from the crises it has created; its powerful drivers endlessly seek new ways of producing, profiteering and exploiting. We will be up against that logic, whatever happens.

On the other hand, those crises – and the pandemic, with the resulting economic chaos, certainly counts as one of the greatest – produce glimpses of how we could live differently. They contain the possibilities of futures free of capitalism, in which we can take effective strides away from the wretched fossil-fuelled economy.

  1. The historical analogies are not comforting. Past economic crashes gave way to accelerated economic expansion and accelerated greenhouse gas emissions.

The 1930s depression and the second world war, the greatest dislocation of the world economy in the twentieth century, was followed by the post-war boom. That was the longest Read the rest of this entry »


South Asian coalition links climate demands with social struggles

February 21, 2020

In a guest post, NAGRAJ ADVE reports on an alliance that is working out new strategies and organisational forms

The climate justice movement in South Asia, and India in particular, is moving in new directions with the formation of the South Asian People’s Action on Climate Crisis (SAPACC).

In September last year, more than 300 people – representing farmers’ organisations, trade union federations, indigenous people’s organisations, fisher groups, women’s

Students for Climate Resilience launching their campaign in Thrissur, Kerala

organisations, environmental groups, and a few progressive political parties – from Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and many parts of India had met over four days in Hyderabad in South India.

The meeting discussed key impacts of the climate crisis, critiqued the inadequacy of governments’ policies, presented ways forward, and demanded that the United Nations and their respective governments declare a planetary climate crisis.

Following that launch meeting, a number of SAPACC’s constituents have organised Read the rest of this entry »


A year of record climate disasters in Africa

February 10, 2020

This article by NNIMMO BASSEY is republished, with thanks, from the African Review of Political Economy

While the world literally burns from climate and political turmoil, it is possible for Africa and other vulnerable regions to be overlooked. In an age where powerful leaders and corporations are wilfully in denial of the unfolding climate catastrophe, the news media

Women walking through flooded land in Mozambique after cyclone Idai. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/EOSDIS Worldview

could be drawn to focus more on assassinations, upcoming elections and the warmongering triggered by the petro-military complex. It is critically important that the world pays attention to the disastrous impacts already being experienced in Africa, and other vulnerable territories.

2019 was a year of extreme weather events across the world. Sweltering heat hit much of the world. Raging wildfires were recorded in Brazil, Bolivia, Australia and the United States of America. Massive floods ravaged even cities like Venice, famed to be able to handle floods.

Climate change was implicated in exposing over 33 million Africans (spread across Madagascar, Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia, Zimbabwe, South Sudan, Sudan, Ethiopia, Read the rest of this entry »


People and Nature greatest hits of the 2010s

December 23, 2019

I hope, dear readers, you get time for reflection, rejuvenation and relaxation in the midwinter holidays. If you find yourself reaching for your phone for something to read – then, rather than winding yourself up with news of Boris Johnson’s vileness, go a level more thoughtful: look at those People & Nature articles you missed out on first time round. Here is some stuff that has stood the test of time. Thanks for your interest, and see you all (virtually or really) in the 2020s. GL, 23 December 2019.

Climate and ecological emergency

Disaster environmentalism: looking the future in the face (5 December 2019). A critique of Rupert Read, Jem Bendell and other writers linked to Extinction Rebellion

Climate grief, climate anger (25 June 2019). How different global warming looks to young people

What does “climate emergency” mean? Let’s define that OUTSIDE parliament (2 May 2019)

Still bigger mountains of plastic on the way (March 2018). The petrochemicals companies are driving it

Global warming in the Indian context (June 2016). A pamphlet by Indian climate campaigner Nagraj Adve

Let’s face it. Melting ice has passed point of no return (23 November 2015)

The Paris climate talks and the failure of states (February 2015)

Stop tailoring global warming scenarios to make them “politically palatable” (July 2013). An interview with Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Research Read the rest of this entry »


Disaster evironmentalism 1: looking the future in the face

December 5, 2019

“Barring a miracle, [a global average temperature rise above pre-industrial levels of] 2 degrees C must inevitably be substantially breached.” Nothing that has happened since the 2015 Paris climate conference has “suggested any reason for doubting that judgement”.

The international climate negotiations in Katowice, Poland, in 2018, which were supposed to follow up on the Paris agreements, “can be seen as achieving no more than an elaborate seating-plan for the sun-deck of the Titanic”.

In 2020, countries are supposed to show how they have met the targets set at Paris, and set tougher targets. “But even if a radical programme of reduced emissions was started at that

One demonstration: two approaches. From the school students’ protest, 29 November, 2019

point, and one that went far beyond the Paris Agreement, it would need to achieve zero emissions by 2040 to stay within the 2 degrees C limit. […]

“Surely the most optimistic assumption we are entitled to make, based on current political agreements and actions across the world is that emissions will continue to rise after 2030, hopefully levelling off later in the century”.

And so “we must assume” that there will be “a global temperature rise associated with carrying on as we are”: that means, by 2100, “at the very least” 3-4 degrees C, and “more likely” 4-5 degrees C.[1]

I agree with all that – with the caveat that those temperatures are consistent with “carrying on as we are”, whereas I believe we have the capacity to do things differently. It is from the Introduction to a new book from the Green House think tank, Facing Up to Climate Reality.[2]

The Introduction argues (i) that “dangerous climate change is now inevitable” and (ii) that “we are going to have to live in a post-growth world”.

This is the starting point of what I call disaster environmentalism, being developed by Rupert Read (one of the Introduction’s three authors), Jem Bendell and other writers associated with Extinction Rebellion (XR).

In a book, This Civilisation is Finished, Read underlines: “there is no ‘safe’ level of warming”; that limiting warming to 2 degrees C, which is now “amost unachievable”, will mean the death of 99% of the world’s coral reefs, and probably the end of ice in the northern hemisphere. It Read the rest of this entry »


Disaster environmentalism 2: roads to a post-growth economy

December 5, 2019

The disaster environmentalists’ hopes for the future rest not only on “deep adaptation”, but on acceptance that we need to live in a “post growth world”. Rupert Read writes:

It is crucial that we resist growthism, the very widespread drive to keep the economy ‘growing’. For (perpetual) growthism is a perpetual obstacle to collective sanity, to facing the reality of [ecological and social] limits. […] And green growthism is merely a subset of growthism.[1] […]

Society can not afford more growth, Read argues; progress towards understanding this is “glacially slow”. And so:

It still seems, tragically, far more likely that growth will end because of collapse than because of informed decision.

Yes and no, in my view. “Economic growth”, as manifested by global capitalism, is completely unsustainable. “Green growth”, or “socialist growth”, are no substitutes. Our challenge to the

Symptom of growth: a traffic jam in the USA

economic system must open the way for a society based on human happiness and fulfilment, values completely at odds with – and distorted and defaced by – the rich-country consumerist ideology that helps to justify ever-expanding material production. But, unlike Read, I believe that the way “growth” ends is still to play for.

In my view (not new, from a socialist), all this means challenging capitalism, along with the state and political structures that protect its interests. On that, the disaster environmentalists are agnostic. They talk up the need for systemic change, but combine this with tame, almost naïve, claims about how to challenge the system.

A really thoughtful article by Richard McNeill Douglas, in a book put together by the disaster environmentalists, poses a crucial question: “Could capitalism survive the transition to a post- Read the rest of this entry »


Disaster environmentalism 3: what to do

December 5, 2019

The gap in disaster environmentalist thinking, the absence of any kind of sense of how society changes, or could be changed, explains its’ exponents political tactics, in my view.

Non-violent direct action (NVDA), which has become a hallmark of XR, is seen as a way of pushing the existing political system to change. For disaster environmentalism, it’s a last ditch attempt: if this fails, only collapse – whatever that means – awaits, and social renewal can only be achieved through “deep adaptation”.

This is underpinned by misunderstandings and half-thought-out ideas about how society changes, in my view.

The danger of co-optation

Read writes that XR wants and needs “to transform the whole existing system […] within years, not decades. Such transformation will mean that many economic interests get challenged, or indeed ended”. This “attempt to rapidly change the entire economic, social and political system” will be far more difficult than the task of previous movements; “the vested interests opposing us are vast, as are the ideologies that have to be overcome or transformed.” And what he describes as his “key point”:

Women and black people could be accommodated into the existing system; in this way the task of the Suffragettes and of the Civil Rights Movement, while hard, was doable. But what we want – need – is to transform the whole existing system, not merely to allow excluded people access to it.

This shows a breathtaking lack of understanding about how the political representatives of capitalism work to co-opt, subvert and control social movements.

To state the completely obvious, while the specific demands of the Suffragettes, for women’s right to vote, has been won, countless aspects of the repression of women have been

School students marching in London, 29 November 2019

reproduced by capitalism in new, more sophisticated forms. Women’s legal rights to abortion is currently under threat in a series of countries.

As for the Civil Rights Movement in the USA, the gains it won in terms of voting rights for black Americans have been under vicious attack from that time to this. Gerrymandering, ID requirements, laws depriving former prisoners of the vote, and more blatant measures are used across the USA to stop black people from voting. Rights are won in struggle, defended and extended in struggle, and can be lost in struggle.

If, then, tackling climate change requires a deeper-going transformation even than these battles for the right to vote – and I agree that it does – it surely follows that the battle will be Read the rest of this entry »


“Where the fuck is the government?” ask the climate strikers

November 29, 2019

About 2000 school students marched through London today, marking the latest “Fridays for Future” strike. The demonstration was just one of a huge number internationally. You can see the giant crowds in cities across Asia, Africa and Europe at #Climatestrike or #Fridaysforfuture on twitter.

In London, “Where the fuck is the government?” was a popular slogan. Possibly because the prime minister, Boris Johnson, chickened out of the first ever televised debate between

The front of the students’ march in London today

political party leaders on climate change on Wednesday – and then had his Tory party friends threaten Channel 4, who staged it, with losing its licence.

The marchers also shouted “climate justice”, “Whose streets? Our streets. Whose planet? Our Read the rest of this entry »


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