Sunday, January 5, 2020

Detoxing Capitalism

"Capitalism is a system used by sunflowers and salamanders. But sunflowers and salamanders are not taking over the world and destroying it."


Over the past few months I have been trying to tap into a river that could save the planet. You can hear about that river in Bank of England CEO Mark Carney’s year-end interview for BBC Today that Greta Thunberg guest-edited. The river is money. And its owners have a problem.

It is the same problem we all have, really. Climate change is changing everything at a pace that is hard to get our heads around. The world has already left the comfortable Holocene epoch when weather was predicable enough that humans could grow multi-year surpluses of corn and grain and quadruple their offspring’s populations in a single lifetime (mine). We have entered the chaotic world of the Anthropocene, where 8 billion two-legged hominids could very soon be back to zero. We can watch, in real time, as extinction smokes its way through innumerable ranks and orders of beings, smoldering and sparking along like a long fuse that terminates at the powder-keg we perch upon. As go the phytoplankton, so too, go we.

Carney and the others in his world know this. Not dummies, these guys. They get it. At the Madrid COP-25 climate conference they held their own summit at a Marriott Hotel. I attended and heard the same message I’ve been hearing for the past decade: trillions of dollars invested into polluting industries have to be divested, rapidly, and re-tasked to save us. The hour is late but there are opportunities to still intervene if we can act with the urgency required. 

A senior figure from the European Investment Bank pledged to put one trillion into the kitty over the next 10 years; to divest the bank’s assets from all fossil (including fracked gas) by 2021; fifty percent of the Bank’s portfolio into climate mitigation (drawdown and emissions reductions) by 2025. They urged the entire financial community to pledge that henceforth their loans or private equity stakes would accord with the Paris Agreement. I later spoke with a gentleman who influenced the disposition of ten trillion in capital, more than 90 percent of it presently earning negative interest (i.e.: it is paying parking fees to governments that exceed the assets’ earnings). At least one year-end prediction pegs negative interest rates to top 25 percent in 2020. To Carney and the others, the risk of lending to climate mitigating projects is less than the cost of keeping his funds where they are. He would be willing to lend at zero interest if it were an improvement over where he stands.

Here in Central America, I am both heartened and discouraged. I am heartened because I know that it is just a matter of time before projects like the Cool Lab that Christopher Nesbitt and I are trying to build in Belize will receive the runway they need. I am discouraged because a lot of investment money is still framed badly, as, well… “investment,” and that framing risks implanting a fatal virus into the DNA sequence of good projects like ours. 

First, let me digress to outline our Cool Lab project, for those who have yet to read Burn: Using Fire to Cool the Earth, soon to be in paperback as Burn: Igniting a New Carbon Drawdown Economy to End the Climate Crisis (Chelsea Green Publishers, April 2020). The Cool Lab concept is to re-envision the economy of human communities so as to pull them back into line with local ecosystem regeneration and rejuvenation as raison d’être, rather than as the more typical: global resource exploitation and ruthless commerce to the temporary benefit of a single rogue species.

In practical terms, our prototype, proof-of-concept Cool Lab is planned for the small Maya village of San Pedro Columbia, in the Toledo District of Southern Belize, close to the borders with Guatemala and Honduras. San Pedro Columbia is within the indigenous reserve system established by Belize a century ago to allocate land for the native Maya population. The village lies nested in the foothills of the Maya Mountains on the Rio Grande river that flows from an underground source near the Maya Mountain Research Farm to the Caribbean Sea near Punta Gorda Town. That Southern Belize watershed is key to the health of the Mayan Reef and the coastal mangroves that protect the coast from hurricanes and produce the fish, corals, and kelp forests that are needed for ecosystem recovery in the region. 

The Cool Lab plans to convert present sources of watershed pollution such as crop and animal waste into biofertilizer and energy, extracting as many permacultural cascades from the various feedstocks and products as are practical for particular seasons of the year. So, for instance, cacao fermentations can be produced in the traditional management style of mixed-age, mixed-species, integrated agroforestry hillside production — the prevailing pattern of human occupation in that rural area since before the Columbian encounter. Cacao powders can be further refined into cascades of creams, salves, foods, and tonics rather than sold as dried bulk beans to transnational chocolatiers. Cacao pods (the outer shells of the cacao beans) can be pyrolyzed to produce biochar, bio-oils, drying heat and electricity.
 Cacao is only one yield of a healthy Belizian agroforestry terrain. Selected intercrops can include turmeric, ginger, allspice, coconut, vanilla, breadfruit, jackfruit, breadnut, banana and plantains, chiles, coffee, noni, moringa, mango, papaya, pineapple, and rotational patches of corn and grains, to name a few. Traditional small farms have always also incorporated free range poultry, swine and other farm animals that aid nutrient cycling and complete whole systems of microbiome health. Enriched biochar amendments from the Cool Lab accelerate the recovery of damaged soils, shorten growth cycles for tree crops like cacao, provide resistance to floods and droughts, ameliorate accumulated soil toxins, boost the health of the animal and pollinator communities, and increase nutrient densities.

Because of the many products that can be gleaned from the Cool Lab — all of them contributing to reversing climate change by drawing down and sequestering greenhouse gases — the Lab itself becomes a microenterprise hub. To anyone in the village — but especially young men and women confronted with the end of their schooling and the stark choice of remaining in a place with few paying jobs, an influx of Guatemalan and Honduran refugees, poor public services, and not much hope for the future versus leaving to go to the big city up North where jobs are even fewer, violent crime and exploitation are rife, and lives are short — the Cool Lab offers creative enterprise opportunity. The Lab can become for the village of San Pedro Columbia an enterprise incubator, where original products and services are limited only by the imagination. It sits at the birth of the new carbon economy that will sweep the world. This little Mayan village is the answer to Mark Carney’s prayers.

But there’s the rub.

Big bank climate investors are trapped in more ways than they know. Sure, they are stuck with negative interest that is eating away their capital. Yes, they will face higher taxes in the future as countries confront Peak Everything climate chaos with knee-jerk reflexes rather than a long-term plan. The Global Insurrection Against Banker Occupation (GIABO) is striking fear into the billionaire boomer class of 2020. Their unpopularity is rising beyond what platoons of bodyguards and private islands can protect.

What worries me is that the bankers are trapped into a mindset that the Climate Emergency is not so serious that we have to stop stealing from the poor to give to the already fantastically wealthy. Hence, my notion of small, anti-fragile, village cooperatives is coming into conflict with megabillionaire green investors’ notions that the new wave of climate mitigation “investments” must produce ROI for the one-percent. “Show us how you will generate profit,” is the currency of their “green” giving. 

While the notion of a debt jubilee has some appeal, especially when we are speaking of student-to-government debt, I think bankers should be entitled to repayment of their loans at the rate of interest that was negotiated at the outset. The expectation of sufficient profit to endow future loans and pay overhead is the way nature works when plants and animals produce numbers of offspring beyond mere replacement.

Let me be clear. I am not against capitalism. In this I separate myself from many other activists who demand system change as a predicate to reversing climate change. As one who studies nature, I actually believe in capital formation, risk, funding loss leaders, and surpluses in return. These are strategies used by sunflowers and salamanders. But sunflowers and salamanders are not taking over the world and destroying it. 
“Green” capital is simply the fetishized, phantom-like objectivity of capital’s absolute necrosis. It is not a contradictory attempt to “sustainably” square the circle of endless accumulation, or “save capitalism from itself”; rather, it is another form of accumulation that sees the destruction capital wreaks as an opportunity for further profit. Branding itself as a solution to this destruction, it further incentivizes its continuation by existing only as another option for accumulation when other avenues are closed off. It would cease to exist without the necrotic entropy to which it owes its reason for being.
— Justin McBrien, Truthout 

Capitalism as an economic proposition makes sense in the same way the bishop’s storehouse made sense for the early Mormon pioneers in Utah — hold surpluses to endow bad years, as will inevitably come. Capitalism was the method used by one of the purest forms of communism ever to appear — the Israeli kibbutz — to finance new kibbutzim and grow a movement. Capitalism as a political proposition is another matter, and we can trace its history from an emergence in opposition to theocracy and feudalism to present day domination of corrupt political processes at home and abroad, promulgation of conflict, dismantling of the rule of law, and deregulation of the commons.

The cooperative model sits in juxtaposition to this, both economically and politically. Instead of adding to the size of billionaire yachts and mansions, our Cool Lab model would build health clinics and schools. Instead of returning outsize rewards to fat cats in London and Geneva, we would fund programs for population education, soil management, restoring corals, and recovering plastic from the ocean.


Now if I can just persuade Mark Carney that further enriching the one percent is incompatible with saving the planet….


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