RISE OF THE ROBOTS AND GLOBAL WARMING

In the Morning Star yesterday, (Tuesday, 28 March), Nigel Flanagan, Senior Organiser for the UNI Global Union, warned of the potential for intelligence robots to replace workers on a global scale. The appropriate response, he argued, should be to build a global union system to negotiate and bargain with the global companies that will own and operate these intelligent robots.

But is this a sufficient response? The UNI Global Union is merely a confederation of some 900 affiliated unions from 140 countries. These unions represent 20 million workers; but with a global workforce, according to ILO estimates, of 3 billion workers, the employers will not be trembling with fear. The UNI Global Union may represent a start in organising workers globally, but it has a long way to go and, even if it succeeds, much more is required than mere global Mondism.

The continual replacement of workers by machines lies at the heart of Marx’s Labour Theory of Value. His conclusion that it would lead to the collapse of capitalism – unless that collapse was first triggered by some other constraint to the development of productive forces that capitalism was unable to surmount – is the conclusion to his masterwork, Capital. At the start of the 21st Century we now recognise global warming caused by CO2 emission to be such a constraint. With both robotization and global warming increasingly emergent, the issue now is is how these two death knells for capitalism will interact and what consequences they will have on what replaces capitalism.

For communists, the struggle is about hastening capitalism’s demise and ensuring that it is replaced by communism – by which we mean a classless society in which the abundance made possible by advanced technology, including intelligent robots, is shared by all. As Marx recognised, and a brilliant little book by Peter Frase, Four Futures – visions of the world after capitalism (Verso, 2016) discusses, other post-capitalist societies are possible; and they are all much less desirable. If workers are largely replaced by intelligent robots, who owns those robots is crucial. If they are owned by the former capitalists, the elite, a society based on rentism could emerge in which a tiny ruling elite live off the rents from licensed technology and the largely unemployed workers subsist on menial tasks and handouts. The other possible outcome with a hierarchical society suggested by Frase is even more scarey: if the elite don’t need 3 billion workers, it would be in their interests to exterminate them.

Frase has some interesting ideas about extreme global warming. He suggests that it’s now inevitable and the real issue now is how we survive it. This could be relatively easy for the global elite, but very difficult for the rest of us. Climate change deniers, he suggests, no longer sincerely doubt the evidence; they simply think that their class can survive it, and very comfortably, thank you. These and other contentious issues will be discussed at Croydon TUC on 11 May when a speaker from the Campaign against Climate Change has been invited. Note it in your diary and make sure you are there!

Things must change

Another Croydon Assembly was held on Saturday, 20 November at Ruskin House, Croydon. After brief introductions by Ted Knight and ex NUT President Philipa Harvey and an entertaining warm up by Attila the Stockbroker, the Assembly broke up into discussion groups addressing housing, health, education, welfare and the economy – all from the perspective of democracy and how we can make our voices heard. It was a successful day – most participants leaving energised, enthused and determined that things must change.

If the day had one shortcoming,  it was a familiar one: a failure to discuss how to address CO2 emission and global warming. Whether discussed or not, the problem, however, continues to grow. A report by the Stockholm Environment Institute has now concluded that effects of Arctic warming will cause uncontrollable climate change at a global level. With temperatures in the Arctic currently 20C above what would be expected at this time of year and sea ice at its lowest recorded level, this is no longer just a problem for polar bears. It’s going to affect us, our children nd future generations.

How can such a significant issue consistently escape the attention of well-meaning progressives everywhere? One explanation proffered by Alex Randall in Red Pepper is that the centre-left’s arguments on global warming have focussed on the wrong issues: the impact on terrorism, migration and, on the positive side, the opportunities presented for Keynsian job creation. By doing this they have convinced no one and left the way open for the climate deniers, including President Elect Trump, to prosper.

Another explanation, and one that surfaces from time to time in the Croydon Environment Forum, is that global warming is simply too big an issue for any local group to have any impact. Better to concentrate on street cleaning and similar mundane issues more clearly under the control of the local authority.

As communists, we sympathise with the first explanation and reject the second. Part of the problem, as we see it, is that the centre-left fails to recognise that a profit driven (capitalist) society is incapable of addressing the problem. Karl Marx, writing in the nineteenth century, predicted from historical evidence that capitalism would only be overturned and replaced by socialism when the growth in the economy it facilitated became impeded by some fundamental constraint it was incapable of surmounting. Although it took two world wars, capitalism has shown remarkable resilience in overcoming all the constraints it has faced until now. In the 21st century it’s becoming increasingly clear that CO2 emission is first constraint it is incapable of surmounting. The solution – the only solution – is for us to replace capitalism before it destroys us.

 

The Sleeping Poodle

It is the role of the Climate Change Committee (CCC) to monitor overall progress against carbon budgets and the 2050 target. It is the nation’s watchdog to confirm that the UK meets its commitment to cut greenhouse gas emissions by at least 80% by 2050, as set out in the Climate Change Act. ‘Watchdog’ is, however, a generous metaphor. A sleeping, toothless poodle would be more appropriate. The CCC was sidelined when Howard Davies, the bungling former head of the Financial Services Authority, produced his report recommending Heathrow expansion (see earlier comment). The CCC continued to doze while the government accepted Mr Davies’s recommendation, believing itself to be inhibited from examining “specific projects”, including even Heathrow expansion. It has, however, finally woken up to the fact that the Heathrow expansion is incompatible with the 2050 target. It has now belatedly called on the government to “publish a strategic policy framework for UK aviation emissions”. More of a whimper than a snarl!

The CCC refers to the need for the government to address “strategic options and innovation priorities to pursue deeper cuts in aviation emissions” but they must know that no such options or innovations exist other than restricting demand for flying. As David MacKay demonstrated in   Chapter 5 of Sustainable Energy – without the hot air , after 100 years of aviation development, the theoretical efficiency limits for hydro-carbon based aviation are being approached. There are, essentially, no more efficiency savings to be secured. If the CCC doesn’t understand this, it’s time they stood down.

Capitalists don’t, of course, like interfering in any market capable of generating huge profits. They are also not very keen on restricting the “freedom of choice” of the rich and powerful – the people responsible for the great majority of flights. On the whole, they come clean about such motives. They are less transparent when it comes to their willingness to tolerate a large proportion of the world’s population being exterminated by global warming so that the super-rich can survive and thrive. When this is appreciated, so is the understanding that halting global warming and replacing capitalism with communism are synonymous.

Heathrow – an irrational decision

The UN Convention on Climate Change (COP 21), which the governments of the world, including ours, signed up to in December, requires net zero emissions by the second half of this century for the target ceiling for global warming of 1.5 degrees centigrade to be met. It means that by 2050 the UK government has to cut its carbon emissions by 90 percent.

Project yourself forward to 2050. If the new runway at Heathrow goes ahead, aviation will (on current projections) account for 50% of our carbon emissions by 2050. How will you or your children feel about living in a country where the availability of gas and oil to heat your home is a tenth of the current level, where electricity is available for only a few hours a day unless it is expensively provided by nuclear power plants for which there are no credible plans to store safely the radioactive waste for thousands of years? Will this situation be tolerable when 50% of the available hydrocarbons are being guzzled by an affluent 1% taking multiple leisure flights every year?

Clearly, even disregarding the adverse environmental effects on the inhabitants of West London, the plan to expand Heathrow is irrational. This should leave it vulnerable to judicial review. This route will be explored, and we wish those who pursue it well, but the CP has little confidence in our judges to decide such matters. However unconsciously, they reflect the interests of the class from which they are drawn and whose ideas they have imbibed. As has been demonstrated time and time again, the rights of capital and property always prevail over the rights of workers.

As we commented on 12 December when COP 21 was announced, a low carbon future is both essential and attainable, but whether it can be delivered without dismantling capitalism first is quite another matter

Keeping focussed on Global Warming

Averaged as a whole, the global temperature across land surfaces for June 2016 was 1.24°C (2.23°F) above the 20th century average—tying with 2015 as the highest June temperature in the 1880–2016 record See source. In June the CO2 level reached an all-time high of 404.48 ppm. That compares with 381.82 in July 2006 and peaks of only 300 ppm in the last 400,000 years. See source.

The government’s response was to scrap the Department of Climate Change. Climate change is now the “responsibility” of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and will have no one in Cabinet to make the case for action to oppose it. If problems went away by ignoring them, this would be a masterstroke. Unfortunately, they don’t and it isn’t.

There is also a danger that, in the heat of battle over getting Jeremy Corbyn re-elected as Labour Party Leader, the Left, and even the Communist Party, could also lose sight of this issue. This must not be allowed to happen. Global warming may, according to Marxist theory, act as a fetter on the growth of productive forces and thereby lead to the replacement of capitalism with a higher form of social organisation, i.e. socialism, but this is not the only possible outcome. Global destruction – a Sixth Great Extinction – is another. Indeed, according to Barnosky and others Nature 2011, it has already begun, but it will only become irreversible if we allow the capitalists to ignore it.

The 54th Communist Party Congress will be held on the weekend of 19-20 November. We are currently in a pre-Congress discussion phase when members and supporters debate anything and everything on the Members and Supporters site. It’s important that we take this opportunity to keep Global Warming at the forefront of concerns.

 

 

The Long Term View

In the final paragraph of his book, Stepping Stones, the making of our Home World, Steve Drury concludes that:

a mere 10 thousand years of human history has created economic chains that stifle such potential and increasingly endanger its survival. It seems to me that if history is to continue being recorded and sifted through, the next stepping stone is consciously to break those chains.

As communists we heartily endorse this conclusion, but we may not all be fully aware of how we got here. Marxists tend to study history and pre-history back to the end of the last Ice Age, but Steve Dury takes us from when our planet was formed some four and a half billion years ago and, drawing on the latest scientific evidence, explains everything with stunning clarity and insight. You can still find copies of the original hardback first edition  (Oxford University Press, 1999, ISBN 0 19 850271 0) if you hunt round for them but he has now generously published a revised, second edition as an e-book  here . Both this and the revised second e-edition cannot be recommended highly enough. Day to day political and economic analysis and knockabout is all very well, but, in addition, we all need to be aware of the long term view..

Is the Paris Agreement credible?

In the blog last week I suggested that the credibility of the agreement reached in Paris last weekend on climate change should be judged by what happened to the share prices of oil and gas producers following the announcement of the agreement – or at least following the first indication that such an agreement would be reached. If the agreement really signalled a switch away from oil and gas based economy, we could expect to see a significant fall in these share prices. What we actually saw was a fall of only some 3.6%. See the chart below:

oil and gas index

Oil and Gas Producer’s index (NMX0530)

Under capitalism bad news tends to hit unexpectedly[1] – or at least it comes as a surprise to the Nobel Prize winning economists and bank regulators who provide capitalism’s high priesthood. Under capitalism when problems are clearly predictable, they are, however, discounted at the so called “cost of capital”. This is the long run average return investors expect to rake in and is estimated by the priesthood to be about 5% per annum before inflation. Thus a cost, or loss of profits, occurring in 20 years time would be currently valued by markets at only 38% [2]of the eventual cost in real (i.e. inflation adjusted) terms. Thus it could be argued that the observed 3.6% drop in share prices actually represents around a 10% drop in profits in 20 years time. But a fall in oil companies’ profits of only 10% by 2035 is hardly consistent with a target ceiling for global warming of 1.5 degrees centigrade and a new goal of net zero CO2 emissions by the second half of this century.

Conclusion: stock markets think capitalism is incapable of delivering the Paris Agreement. So do I. We need to replace capitalism.

Happy Christmas, everyone!

 

[1] In the past such crises tended to happen every fifteen years or twenty years, but the dot.com bubble bust in 2000 followed by the bank bust in 2007 suggests that such crises are now occurring more frequently.

[2] 1.05-20 = 0.38

Agreement in Paris!

The agreement reached in Paris yesterday at the UN Convention on Climate Change (COP 21 See attached,) is to be welcomed. Recognition of a new target ceiling for global warming of 1.5 degrees centigrade and a new goal of net zero emissions by the second half of this century are both highly desirable. The first test of whether this agreement is to be taken seriously will be how stock markets respond when they open on Monday. If the share prices of oil, gas and coal companies fall substantially and stay down, this first test will be passed. We shall see.

It would be foolish to celebrate COP 21 and abandon all scepticism when the USA has yet to ratify the Kyoto Agreement and when our own government has been cutting green subsidies and is seeking to overcome environmental objections to a third runway at Heathrow (or the no less serious environmental objections to Gatwick expansion). Furthermore, there are no sanctions on governments who fail to deliver their obligations under COP 21. This is in sharp contrast to TTIP under which businesses will be able to prosecute governments who stand in their way of their profit making by taking into account environmental considerations. Can a government willing to sign up to TTIP be trusted to deliver under COP 21 when the latter has no sanctions?

A low carbon future is attainable, but whether it can be delivered without dismantling capitalism first is quite another matter.

Looking for a Good Day to Publish Bad News

While attention has been focused on British bombers on runways in Cyprus waiting to take off and bomb Syria and on the premature attempt to launch Bomber Benn’s campaign to become Labour Leader – unlike the actual bombers, it stalled on the runway following the Oldham West and Royton by election – another runway event has gone extraordinarily quiet. This is the announcement of the government’s decision on the third London runway. Presumably the government has concluded that announcing such an environmental catastrophe while the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris is still meeting would be hard sell even with the capitalist press and the BBC in their pocket. We must presumably await another headline grabbing distraction before the government will announce its decision.

Another environmental catastrophe continues, however, to simmer away without attracting any attention at all – except, that is, in the small circulation literary magazine, Granta. In the current edition, Number 133, entitled What Have We Done, there is a splendid article by Fred Pearce on Sellafield. Splendid? Perhaps I mean ‘terrifying’. Fred Pearce is an environment consultant and former editor of New Scientist. In the article he recounts the history of Sellafield, formerly Windscale, and describes what Sellafield’s managers call its ‘legacy’ problem – the lamentable history of management failures that created and continues to create a backlog of radioactive waste and allows it to accumulate in unsafe conditions. This waste will be around on a geological timescale, i.e. for longer than human social and organisational structures have so far existed. Its accumulation under a care and maintenance regime is inconsistent with the fragility of the capitalist system that created it.

Sellafield currently has 240 radioactive buildings awaiting decommissioning, including the pile that caught fire almost 60 years ago – an event that was largely hushed up at the time. This pile comprising the core and an estimated fifteen tons of buckled uranium fuel has been left alone lest it catches fire again or even explodes. Yet, according to the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, there are four other silos at Sellafield considered to be in even more urgent need of being ’made safe’. This should have been done decades ago but these radioactive dumps were abandoned and now represent, in Fred Pearce’s words, “the dark hearts of Sellafield, the radioactive reminders of past follies”. The tragedy is that we were not forced into these follies by the need to reduce consumption of fossil fuel – something we may, arguably, have to face up to in future. The primary motive was the UK’s nuclear weapons programme. And so the folly continues.

Responses to Paris

In the run up to the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris, 30 November to 11 December, the BBC is today heavily spinning some survey findings it has commissioned from the Research Group Globe Scan indicating that only  just under half of all those surveyed across 20 countries viewed climate change as a “very serious” problem, compared with 63% in 2009. Despite this spin, the report concedes that a majority in the UK still consider it “very serious”.

One must question why a supposedly cash strapped BBC has commissioned this survey and why it has given it such a negative spin. Could it be that it is seeking to curry favour with its paymaster, the one-time “greenest government ever” when it is about to sell out in Paris?

Opinion surveys are, of course, very dependent on the questions asked. Other recent research has drawn very different conclusions. For example, that published last month by the Pew Research Center, identified climate change as the biggest concern of peoples across the globe, far more serious than global economic instability or the threat of ISIS. While in the immediate aftermath of the attacks in Paris this may not currently be the majority view in the UK, it must surely be the rational one after considered reflection. ISIS could murder thousands of people in the UK over the next few years. Unchecked global warming has the potential to extinguish all human life in a few generations.

The responses of our government to terrorism and to global warming are indeed very different. The response to terrorism is “something must be done” while taking the opportunity provided to effect largely unrelated but advantageous “regime change”. 9/11 was a horrific crime but declaring a “war on terror” and going on to invade Afghanistan and Iraq was such a response. Had President Bush simply called in the FBI to identify and arrest the culprits, we would not now be confronting ISIS and mass migrations of people from the Middle East. The wish to bomb Syria is also motivated by the “something must be done” principle and a scarcely concealed wish to topple President Assad of Syria. Both are consistent with Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity – doing something over and over again and each time expecting a different result. The response to global warming, on the other hand, is to try to spin the problem away. This is criminally inadequate but so would be “something must be done”. Real action to curb CO2 emissions has to be negotiated in Paris and then implemented or humanity is in deep, deep trouble. Furthermore, unlike meddling in the Middle East, there really is a regime change that would help: ending capitalism!