Capitalism and Climate Justice: The People’s Climate March

Updated Below

It has been very hot and humid in the American Southwest and because of the exceptional heat I have to pick my kids up from school before mid-day when classrooms without air conditioning become dangerous. This heatwave and the disruption it means for my workday coincide with the final run up to the People’s Climate March in New York, with solidarity rallies around the country. The organizers have deemed the event a disruption and there is a film called Disruption that attempts to document the organization of the march and to provide a wide range of reasons that people should, absolutely must, join in. Hopefully, the increasing frequency and intensity of disruption to people’s lives will move them to disrupt the forces that prevent a serious reckoning with global warming.

I will need to watch it again to be sure, but I don’t think the word “capitalism” was uttered once throughout the entire film. While political economy was central to the film, the thrust of the discussion amounted to an argument for green capitalism. Ultimately, the film argues, we can replace carbon-based energy with renewables while preserving, even creating, jobs. The power of the carbon industries rests on a corruption of the market, in which they have managed to externalize the costs of pollution (Van Jones’ irritating quip about individuals not being able to pollute but energy companies being free to do so is in the same horrible camp as treating the government like a family that must balance its budget). The obstacles to internalizing the costs of pollution and thereby making renewables such as wind and solar competitive are political in so far as powerful energy interests have a practical monopoly on political power. As a consequence, mass mobilization of concerned people around the globe is the best chance of inspiring the political  class to action. The Civil Rights movement and Nixon’s environmental record are the model events. And the process for mobilizing people today is rooted in a-historical cognitive functions that make climate change seem too distant–if they see bodies in the street, you can get away from the “rational” part of the brain and into the emotional (which doesn’t explain why some people’s brains want to march now and others’ don’t without seeing millions of protesters). Moreover, there is an example of where a sustainable capitalist economy seems to be emerging, namely Germany. The conclusion you can draw from this film, then, is that a large protest movement can mobilize the powerful to act in the interests of humanity along proven lines of economic policy.

From a marketing and mobilization stand point, the exclusion of the word capitalism makes sense. Seeing the application of labels such as socialist and communist to economic policy that is nothing of the sort suggests that any inclusion of the word capitalism will be met with hysterics and ultimately undermine any effort to mobilize the masses. That a-historical brain function is, in fact, colored by schemas of capitalist existence. That is, the “rational” problem solving and temporal frameworks of the brain should be understood in the rationality and temporality of capitalism. As a result, arguments against capitalism can appear as arguments against what appears commonsensical and what appears to be the normal flow of time.

Moreover, there is no anti-capitalism that lays out any kind of vision for the future.  Left anti-capitalist discourse almost always concludes with a call for a new vision of the future but with little indication of where that vision would come from. By contrast, the climate justice movement promises a sustainable status quo. Maybe Naomi Klein’s new book will, but I’m guessing that even if it does the details will be far less clear than a green capitalism that already has the basic processes of social life laid out. The once climate activist Paul Kingsnorth suggested that there is a great deal of self-censorship among environmentalists. This self-censorship is an obstacle to the process of creating a new vision of the future, one that I believe will have to be anti-capitalist. By not putting anti-capitalist voices up front from the start, they risk being marginalized once a green capitalist movement is raging. But there may be no movement if anti-capitalism is the starting point.

In any case, watch the film and join a march this weekend!

Update: Almost immediately after I posted this I saw this tweet


It linked to the website which has a call for an anti-capitalist protest the day after the People’s Climate March. Here’s the description from the site:

Join the flood on September 22 starting at 9 am. The economy of the 1% is destroying the planet, flooding our homes, and wrecking our communities. After the People’s Climate March, wearing blue, we will bring the crisis to its cause with a mass sit-in at the heart of capital.

The schedule includes pre-protest speakers Naomi Klein and Chris Hayes, both of whom were prominent in the Disruption film. In the film, Klein made the point that the technologies for a sustainable economy were already available while Hayes most notable contribution was an aww shucks explanation of oil wealth as billions of dollars put in the ground by the sun. It’s hard to imagine Hayes crafting a coherent anti-capitalist message. Either way, I imagine that there will be some dissonance between the messages on the 21st and 22nd of this month.


2 thoughts on “Capitalism and Climate Justice: The People’s Climate March

  1. Edgeworth

    Honest question, why is it that sociologists obsess about economics and yet do not actually study economics? You’re an academic who seems interested in economic growth, have you ever worked through Barro and Sala i Martin’s Growth textbook? Any economic text at all?

    Why are you committed to “anti-capitalism”? (what does that even mean? Are you opposed to Al Roth’s work in organ markets, Financial markets, or Grocery stores?)

    Please don’t misunderstand this, I am not attacking you, I genuinely want to understand why sociologists interested in economics don’t read any economics.

    why did you enter sociology instead of economics when the disciplines basically study the same systems (at least after the Beckerian revolution of the ’50s)?


    1. Kelly Nielsen Post author

      Thanks for the question! I don’t feel attacked at all and I appreciate the chance to reflect on why I study sociology and not economics. I’m also concerned with being as careful as possible (even in the context of a blog post) with how I characterize other disciplines and the concepts they use.

      I can’t speak for all sociologists, but I think any appearance of obsession is due to the fact that economics as a way of thinking is dominant in American society. Economics, particularly neoliberal economics, is often a default rationale for or way of thinking about any and all social phenomena. And there are many sociologists who do follow closely and skillfully the arguments and methods of economists, such as Lane Kenworthy who was recently hired in the department where I study. If sociologists have not read economics texts as carefully as economists I would imagine it’s because of the character of disciplines, including their particular intellectual foundations and common points of reference. Sociology was founded, or at least distinguished itself as a discipline, largely by tackling the questions that were excluded by economists. At risk of oversimplifying it, sociologists explored the irrational and the traditional, the bits of social existence that could not be explained by utility maximization alone. As such, sociologists concerned themselves with meaning and the thorny question of the relationship between structure and agency. Economists, to be sure, have considered these questions to some extent, and the emergence of behavioral economics seems to be an institutionalized recognition of these problems. But the questions that sociologists have traditionally asked are not exactly the same as the questions economists have historically posed.

      For me, at least, I have not been a sociologist for so long that I have had the chance to even read what I must read as a sociologist let alone read economics textbooks. I am interested in economic growth and I would benefit greatly from readings those texts. But I have had to learn to study the social world from the perspective of sociology. As a result, I have studied concepts such as growth and markets through people like Karl Marx, Karl Polanyi, Bob Jessop, Pierre Bourdieu, Michael Piore, Charles Sabel, and Edna Bonacich among many others. But I have followed the arguments of people like Michael Spence on job market signaling, Amartya Sen and Joseph Stiglitz on inequality, as well as the economic geography of Paul Krugman, Michael Storper, and Enrico Moretti. More casually, I have followed the blogging of Marxist economists like Michael Roberts, who writes seemingly every other day about national and international rates of growth.

      But my interest in anti-capitalism here stems less from an argument reasoned with the tools and concepts of economists and more from the status of anti-capitalist discourse. As many analysts of contemporary social thought have noted, it is hardly possible to think about alternatives to capitalism. It is, to paraphrase Frederic Jameson, easier to contemplate the end of humanity as a result of climate change than it is to contemplate the end of capitalism in order to solve it (this is not to say that ending capitalism will solve it, just that it is very difficult if not impossible to imagine a non-capitalist world today). Given the immensity and severity of the threat from global warming, it is striking that mobilizing the mass of humanity to action requires that it be done so within the discourse and tools of capitalism. Yet capitalism is only one way of organizing society. One does not need to have a sophisticated understanding of growth models and market mechanisms to ask whether or not there are alternative social relations (that is, anti-capitalism) that might not have the same impact that industrial capitalism has had on the planet. From my limited understanding of economics, there does not seem to be anywhere to ask these questions within economics (apart from Marxist economics). If you do, you have to accept a set of assumptions about people and society that necessarily constrain what kinds of alternatives are available. It is the exclusion of any hint at thinking outside of the one economic tradition that I am struck by.

      I hope this helps to clarify my thoughts.



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