The Earth is not abstract.


Capitalism abstracts the dead and the living into a market value. Incommensurable objects, like a an apple or a doctor’s appointment, are abstracted into quantities that represents their values in the market, and in that case, are rendered interchangeable. This process is usually not planned;  capitalist value  is a spontaneous and  emergent property from the sumtotal of all interactions between consumers, workers, and capitalists.

However, not everything can be abstracted. There are processes where no monetary renumeration is involved but are required for capitalism’s survival – one of them is domestic labor. If mothers went on strike and refused to take care of their children, society would collapse. Some of these processes can be partly abstracted into value, for example, the maid and the nanny. However, a large amount of these activities must be done for free, because society cannot afford to pay for them. The sphere of free domestic labor is treated as infinitely available.

The Earth-system is similar to domestic labor in that it cannot be fully abstracted. Hydrocarbons are some of the cheapest sources of energy, yet carbon emissions are threatening to cause  a violent change in the thermodynamic state of the Earth. Even if global warming could melt the polar caps, annihilate whole species of organisms, trigger monsoons and draughts, and perhaps, ruin humanity, the watt produced by diesel engines is less costly than the watt created by photo-voltaic cells. The death of the great coral reef will not be mourned by a stock market crash.

Capitalism is blind to the planetary boundaries that it must not cross. Technocrats propose to make the boundaries visible to capitalism by pricing the ecological cost of carbon emission. They say that the magic of the market will transfigure the carbon price into a green energy revolution.  Technocrats argue that the market  will be much more efficient at curtailing carbon emissions and innovating renewable energies than centralized planning.  There are some obvious faults in this strategy from the perspective of a Leftist. Essentially, these measures  try to “force” capitalism to do something that is alien to its inner logic – that is, abstracting these ecological damages into a price, when  historically capitalism was (and is) blind to ecological costs, treating the Earth-system as an unpaid externality.  This blindness is what   led to our present climate predicament.

Yet, even if we were charitable about carbon pricing as a realistic and efficient way to deal with global warming, there is a  problem of knowledge. The information that goes into this carbon pricing can only reflect what scientists currently know, with their imperfect models and instruments. But the Earth-system is complex and vast. Our limited instruments and models cannot register with certainty all the possible beams, walls or gears that can break within the Earth-system and must be accounted for.

The accounting of the planetary boundaries will always be slow and imperfect compared to the rate at which the Earth could transform cataclismically, A function that converts ecological cost to price will be dangerously incomplete, limited by the slow speed of scientific research, and the rate of propagation of  recently discovered ecological cost into monetary price. Recently,  scientists argued that the melting of the polar caps could release  ancient virii and bacteria that laid dormant for thousands of years in the ice, a possibility that hasn’t been fully accounted for. This is just another nonlinear, feedback process that defines the current planetary boundaries. Will the rate of scientific discovery of these boundaries and the velocity of its propagation into a  carbon price be faster than the rate of social ruin?

The problem of knowledge, coupled with the inability of capitalism to abstract ecological damages into price, compounds into a technocrat’s nightmare. It turns out that forcing a square peg into a round cog is a nontrivial task.  Other large issues that are rarely discussed in the laymen press are the logistical problems of carbon pricing. Some of  the possible logistical difficulties are:  the man force necessary to enforce  emission limits and fill spreadsheets, the level of compliance and synchronicity required from different opposing factions trying to outcompete each other,  and  finally,  unforeseeable ways the gargantuan project of trying to domesticate capitalism into playing ball with the Earth-system could go wrong.

However, despite our limited instruments and imperfect models, we know about the strong correlation between capitalism and global warming. After all, humanity is tens of thousands of years old, and it wasn’t until the last century that human activity threatened the disruption of the Earth-system’s equilibrium. Instead of engaging in futile attempts at codifying all the possible planetary boundaries into a numerical value of price, changing the social relationships that brought us to ecological volatility will be a better place to start.

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