Crumbling Capital

Words by Kate Aronoff

Photographs by Jin Jia

One way or another, late-stage capitalism will collapse. We can let it take us down with it, or we can grow something new: a world where mindsets of scarcity have been overrun by sustainability.

The heat pump keeps the temperatures inside at a pleasant 74 degrees, but as you step outside, you feel the sun glaring down. It’s already 80 at 9 a.m. and “muggy as hell,” as your neighbor taking his morning coffee shouts out from his balcony. Last night, over dinner in the complex’s courtyard, he’d gone on about his new bag of Stenophylla, a type of wild coffee the USDA had been working to scale up with the Global Food Innovation Labs since the Arabica harvests started giving out. A coffee co-op uptown had done a great light roast with some Florida beans, so he’s using his Friday morning to test out new ways to make it. (He likes the French press best so far.)

 

You wave goodbye and are off to the beach. You’ll walk to meet up with friends and grab some wine and joints at the station before taking the high-speed line to the coast. Mia’s bringing Andouille cultivated in that great place next to her kid’s daycare. Andres is getting buns and peppers from the garden he’s been managing on his job-guarantee placement—after a year of paid paternity leave, he was eager to get out of the house. Taylor said they’d bring seltzer, right? It’s the weekend, of course, but it’ll be a bit less crowded since it’s October now and the September crowds have gone back home. Hopefully, it won’t be too hard to find a spot to set up near the solar grills. Waiting by the ticket kiosk—they’re mostly for tourists now that everyone’s got a $2-a-day annual U.S.A. Rail pass—you spot a worn sticker from the Transport Workers’ strike last year. They had called it in solidarity with the United Lithium Miners’ own strike demanding a greater share for workers and tribes of export profits from American Minerals, the state-owned technology metals company. Per the rules of the Organization of Metal Exporting Countries (OMEC), there have always been miners and i ndigenous leaders on the governing board, but that doesn’t mean they don’t need to throw their weight around now and then. Two years prior, they’d fought off a fare hike.

 

After a moment reminiscing, you spot Mia bounding in on an e-bike and wave hello. Taylor and Andres are running late, she says—a tense meeting of their neighborhood council had run on until midnight—so once she parks, the two of you both head into the dispensary to decide what balance of THC and CBD you’d like to enjoy on the ride out.

Inspired by the crumbling structures, Jin Jia went to the abandoned fishing village of Houtouwan, searching for how life grows in the wake of human dominance.

“The American way of life,” George H. W. Bush told the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, “is not up for negotiation.” That first round of climate talks inaugurated the UN Framework Conventions on Climate Change, the parties to which produced the Paris Agreement 23 years later. With precious little progress having been made toward its goals in the seven years since, it might be time to ask: why not? The American way of life isn’t all that great, for many reasons other than the fact that it bears by far the largest historical responsibility for the climate crisis. What could the U.S. look like in another 30 years?

 

We have a punishingly short window left to take on climate change, meaning that capitalist markets will be involved in—and in some cases quite central to—decarbonization. However, instead of replacing our current capitalist class with a different one, the process of dramatic change must erode the power of capital. Concretely, this requires going after capitalism as a belief system while accepting the need to use its productive and distributional capacities in the near-term. In this vision of the future, people are more free than capital—and people, not capital, control society.

 

The scenario I’ve laid out isn’t too far off from things that already exist elsewhere, in some hardly left-wing places. Friends in Vienna took some pleasure explaining over cake and wine this summer what they get just by living there. Only one third of rental units in the city are privately owned. The remaining two-thirds are public and cooperative units featuring gardens and playgrounds that are clustered near ruthlessly efficient public transit. Thousands more units of social housing are built every year. In August, the country announced that it was offering a €3-a-day annual “Klimaticket,” good for a trip anywhere on Austria’s expansive train network—including breathtaking high-speed routes through the Alps. Brazil, a friend from São Paulo tells me, has an extensive tuition-free public higher education system and a universal healthcare system that’s completely free for anyone who happens to find themselves there.

The “ghost village”—which is off the coast of Shanghai, on the remote island of Shengshan—was abandoned in the 1990s, after overfishing and pollution had exhausted the fishery’s resources. As residents left in search of economic opportunity, human-made structures slowly degraded. Now, vines have crept over walls, bursting through empty doorways and caved-in roofs.

Brazil and Austria are hardly models for what a good society should look like: like the U.S. and much of Europe, both countries have seen the rise of vicious far-right movements that have ascended to government. What’s remarkable is that these benefits have managed to endure despite such strong political headwinds. Most wealthy nations—and plenty of non-wealthy countries, too—have at one point had labor or socialist parties that placed checks on capital’s tendency to extract value from every corner of life. They created and preserved public goods, insulating essentials like housing from profiteers and capitalist speculation. Thanks to more than a century of brutal repression and our notoriously dysfunctional two-party system, the U.S. has never experienced such a period.

 

As a result, we have a long list of what we’re missing out on. Peruvians can enjoy 30 days of paid vacation, in addition to 12 paid public holidays. Much of Europe simply takes the month of August off thanks to mandatory paid time off. Benin, Mauritius, and Gabon are just a few of the 20 African countries that offer at least 12 weeks of fully paid maternity leave, a benefit extended to 85 weeks in Estonia. Local councils in Sweden are required to provide heavily subsidized childcare for kids one year and older, most of which are open from 6:30 a.m. through 6:30 p.m.

 

Essentially we all live in the same country called capitalism,” Parasite director Bong Joon-Ho has aptly said. But the form it has taken in the U.S. feels especially twisted, encumbering basic services like healthcare and education with layers of middlemen extracting hefty fees along the way. The wealthiest country on earth spends twice as much on healthcare as the average Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) country. Yet the U.S. has the lowest life expectancy and highest suicide rate of 11 peer nations reviewed by the Commonwealth Fund, as well as the highest rate of avoidable deaths. We are the only developed country to not mandate any paid time off, and just 40% of low-wage workers get any paid time off at all. It’s no wonder that less than half of Americans aged 18 to 34—loaded up with debt and declining prospects—hold a positive view of capitalism or that tens of thousands have flooded into the ranks of the Democratic Socialists of America over the last several years.

In some ways, capitalism here just looks a bit more honest. Less unequal countries with more generous welfare states are electing rabidly xenophobic governments and continuing to pour emissions into the atmosphere with abandon. Tackling the climate crisis, meanwhile, requires going toe-to-toe with the most powerful industry the world has ever known. Trillions of dollars worth of assets will need to be rendered useless as we upend the energetic basis of the global economy at a rapid clip. Making capitalism more liveable is a fine thing to do, but until it has been replaced as society’s operating system, capitalism’s constant drive for accumulation will continue to chew up and spit out hydrocarbons as enthusiastically as it does people. There are no non-radical futures left: either the world breaks with an economic system built on endless expansion, or it burns.

 

Conveniently, the things that are making us miserable in the U.S. are also driving up emissions. Though China is now the planet’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide—and its per-capita emissions have grown by 75% since 2005—per-capita emissions in the U.S. remain more than twice as high. As a matter of strategy, then, the fact that the quality of life is so bad in the U.S. means that decreasing emissions can be tied to implementing the kinds of social programs that are enduringly popular elsewhere (rather than to abstract talk of parts per million in the atmosphere). That could mean undertaking projects like building out electrified public transit systems to improve commutes or swelling the number of green jobs by expanding investments in schools and care work, all the while building up the unions and democratic constituencies needed to fight for more wins and to face off with fossil capital. Historically, it has been socialists and communists that have managed to extract these sorts of welfare state gains, galvanizing fights for sweeping and enticing visions of a more dignified and democratic world. Those tend to get whittled down by the political process, of course. But without the left, major quality of life improvements wouldn’t be on the agenda at all. The changes needed to build a low-carbon welfare state in the U.S. can be the building blocks of a more leisurely and deeply sustainable society that cuts ties with today’s fossil-fueled dystopia, making sure to grow the ranks of people who can wield the scissors along the way.

 

In the U.S., the Green New Deal has come to occupy the kind of visionary space historically occupied by leftists, and has mobilized thousands of people who may or may not identify as such. It has turned conversations about climate policy on their head in the process. H.R. 109, introduced by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ed Markey in 2019, describes decarbonization as a “historic opportunity” to “provide unprecedented levels of prosperity and economic security for all people of the United States.” While far from becoming a reality in the U.S., the Green New Deal’s great success has been in shifting the conversation around climate policy away from personal lifestyle choices and business-friendly tweaks. Lacking their own ideas for how to communicate compellingly about climate policy, even relatively centrist politicians have picked up some of that framework’s basic insights. The Biden Administration’s Build Back Better agenda, for instance, approaches climate change primarily as a problem of investment: how this country’s vast resources can be leveraged to take on the greatest existential threat humanity has ever known. That’s a welcome shift, to be sure. Yet much of the White House’s climate rhetoric still portrays a seamless transition to a decarbonized world, slapping solar panels on today’s suburban sprawl and switching out every gas guzzler on the road for an electric vehicle. The main change envisioned by a certain strain of Green Keynesianism—and certain imaginings of a Green New Deal—is that churning these products out of U.S. factories will restore the country to its high-growth postwar glory days, as men (and they are mostly men) take their rightful place back on assembly lines. Even the military can go green! The American way of life, that is, is still not up for negotiation.

Is the horizon of climate policy to get stuck in two hours of I-5 traffic in a Chevy Bolt instead of a Toyota Corolla? Or to spend hours after a grueling 60-hour week wandering aimlessly around Target or Amazon.com in search of lower-carbon widgets to provide a quick burst of serotonin because you don’t have the energy for anything else? There are plenty of pragmatic reasons to reject this kind of future: the theoretical world in which business as usual runs on clean energy still represents an unsustainable strain on the planet’s resources. There is some evidence that advanced economies like the U.S. can “decouple” GDP growth from increasing carbon emissions, but that process isn’t happening nearly fast enough or in enough places to keep warming below 2, let alone 1.5 degrees Celsius. And the consumption of high-income countries—particularly on the part of the wealthy—is sapping much-needed carbon sinks and biodiversity. Important as it is to produce lots of green stuff, just as key is to produce less stuff overall. The more compelling reason to reject a cleaned-up business as usual, though, is because it sucks.

 

This isn’t a call for austerity so much as a different kind of substitution: building what the writer George Monbiot has referred to as public luxury. Rather than swimming pools reserved for the few who can afford them, picture beautiful public pools for the many, complete with waterslides and saunas to lounge and shoot the shit during three-day weekends. Instead of a single high-speed line carting the one percent from Wall Street to Washington and back again, imagine routes for home health aids and sanitation workers to see the natural wonders this vast country has to offer—with ample paid vacation time to soak it all in. Dense, gorgeous low-carbon housing and a proliferation of public transit options can allow for easier access not just to work and school but also to sloppy nights out, new flings, and sweaty dance floors.

 

Ditching fossil-fueled capitalism isn’t just necessary for keeping the planet habitable. It can make it more fun, too.

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