The Unborn Future: How climate change is driven by economics

Philosopher Todd Dufresne has written a three-part lecture series for IDEAS, entitled: Climate Change and the Unborn Future: Capitalism, Philosophy, and Pandemic Politics. He argues that the way we live needs a stem-to-stern overhaul — and a new philosophy of the Anthropocene to see the world with new eyes. This is his first lecture called Utopic Realism.

Todd Dufresne's first lecture ‘Utopic Realism’ explores the role of capitalism in the climate crisis

Scientists say glaciers in China's Qilian mountains are disappearing as global warming raises the prospect of major long-term water shortages. Philosopher and author Todd Dufresne argues that capitalism is turning the planet into 'a sacrifice zone.' (Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters)

The climate catastrophe we're facing stems from the way we produce, consume and exchange wealth, according to Todd Dufresne, philosopher at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay.

 "In other words, climate change is in large part driven by economics." That's the thesis of Dufresne's lecture entitled Utopic Realism — the first of a three-part lecture series he's written for IDEAS, called Climate Change and the Unborn Future: Capitalism, Philosophy, and Pandemic Politics. 

"When we speak generically of economics, we really mean some form of Western capitalism, which includes everything from early industrial capitalism to recent finance capitalism."

Dufresne's lectures build on his 2019 book, The Democracy of Suffering: Life on the Edge of Catastrophe, Philosophy in the Anthropocene, in which he explored the past, present and future of our age, the Anthropocene. He argues that climate catastrophe is the necessary result of an economic and political worldview whose core value is infinite economic growth. That argument may not be startlingly new. But what may be new is how Dufresne also points the finger at Western philosophy itself, and its bequeathal of our current obsession with individualism. 

In The Democracy of Suffering, philosopher Todd Dufresne proposes a list of 13 major features of the Anthropocene condition - such as the rise in social inequality, the return of existential angst, and a revolutionary shift in human consciousness. (McGill-Queens University Press/Lakehead University)

In the 20th century, Dufresne says free market ideology became a secular religion in the Western world.

"The values of the rich, powerful, and free doubling as iron laws of nature. That's why so many of us still believe in fairy tales, laundered through laughably bad science, about masculinity, competition, individualism, and aggression — even as we denigrate the so-called feminine virtues of altruism, cooperation, collectivism, and empathy. "

In turn, Dufresne explained, the widely shared anxiety that things are falling apart is based on reality because, as he puts it, the "mythic foundation of the neoliberal world order… is collapsing around us today."  

"Naturally, apologists for neoliberalism — that school of economic thought that elevates profit and growth to a veritable theological belief — insist that capitalism has been the highly efficient motor of progress and freedom for over 200 years. And for those of us lucky enough to be born in the West in the 20th century, most especially those of us born in the two or three decades after World War Two, they're at least partly right."

'Capitalism is destroying the planet'

Economics in this context includes all forms of Western capitalism, Dufresne adds, from early industrial capitalism to recent finance capitalism. What ties them all together he says is very basic: a commitment to perpetual growth.

Dufresne doesn't claim to be the first or only critic of capitalist ideology and its variants. In 1848, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote The Communist Manifesto, examining the internal contradictions of capitalism, the history of class struggles and to theorize  about the nature of society and politics.

Their ideal was communism, a "society as a lived, material, concrete reality," said Dufresne — who is quick to assert that he is not a Marxist. But the critiques that Marx and Engels had of their own societies in the mid-nineteenth century have bearing on our own.

'The fact that many of us are still talking about [Karl] Marx, the fact that even a non-Marxist like me is so interested in Marx, I think says a lot about this moment in time,' says philosopher Todd Dufresne. (Evening Standard/Getty Images)

"Marx is relevant because we never really managed to become the kind of free society that he imagined was just around the corner, a society that's best suited for human beings. So I guess now it's up to us, I guess. I think maybe the revolution is now," Dufresne told IDEAS host Nahlah Ayed.

He references Marx in his lectures because he says his "language of alienation, exploitation, irrationality of the marketplace" is pertinent to today. Dufresne adds that in many ways we are in the same position that people were back in the 1880s during the so-called first Great Depression — a constant boom and bust cycle, a constant market irrationality, people left out of the incredible profits of capitalism. 

"Capitalism is destroying the planet itself. It's not just that all these profits are flowing into so few hands, people like [Amazon founder, Jeff] Bezos and rendering all the people outside of the system as losers. It's really about the future. It's about future generations. Capitalism isn't bankrupting the future, it's destroying it and in the extreme, rendering it unliveable," Dufresne explained.

"So in my view, Marx just happens to be the right thinker. You know, someone in tune with the excesses of his own time, his anger and outrage and his insights and analyzes are suddenly our own."

Insatiable greed

Dufresne also emphasizes that it's not enough to turn capitalism into an ideological punching bag. Both Marx and Engels saw value in capitalism. As does Dufresne himself.

"Some metrics look pretty good, thanks to capitalism. I think that it's foolish not to recognize them as such and recognize what capitalism has done. In a way, this is no different than what Marx said in his own time," Dufresne said.

But what can't be ignored is the lasting effect that capitalism and what Dufresne calls the "dogma of perpetual growth" has had "destroying life as we know it."

Smoke and steam rise from a coal processing plant in Hejin, China, in November 2019. The annual peak of global heat-trapping carbon dioxide in the air has reached another dangerous milestone: 50 per cent higher than when the industrial age began. (Sam McNeil/The Associated Press)

Dufresne argues capitalism is taking more resources than is sustainable, from the amount of carbon emissions we've created to the natural resources we've extracted — it's all irreversible.

"Our greed and our desires are so insatiable that we keep requesting more of it to the point where we exhaust it much more quickly," Dufresne told Ayed. 

"We can't simply continue to exploit these resources in a way that can go on forever. So we've enjoyed it. We've benefited from it, but it can't go on."

The extent to which capitalism has taken over, is not set to a region, Dufresne said. Capitalism has extended its power to the entire world. "That's what globalization is. And this extension has imperilled the entire world. 

"This is the entire planet that has been turned into, as I say, a sacrifice zone."

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