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We need to buy some time before the lights go out

When a US president urges Americans to break with their “addiction to oil” you know something is up. Former oil man Bush was, however, not concerned in his State of the Union address about the contribution that endless car journeys make to global warming. He had simply got wind of the fact that world oil production has reached its peak and that its downhill from here on in.

But it’s not just the American suburbs that will have to start worrying about what happens when oil supplies run out. The global economy and society in general is fuelled by oil, either as a source of energy or as a basis for materials and countless by-products. The production and transport of goods within and between countries could not happen without oil. Hospitals do not work without energy.

As things stand, the peaking of oil production carries with it the likelihood of society grinding to a halt within a generation. What a reckless system capitalism is! Not satisfied with threatening the planet’s physical well-being through the wanton burning of fossil fuels, it has no answers to what happens when the same energy source runs out. Bush was reduced to urging Americans to turn over large areas of agricultural land to produce methanol as an “alternative” fuel. The energy and land required to do this exist only in White House fantasy land. In Britain, we’re offered a crash programme of nuclear reactors.

The stark truth is that having got us into this fine mess, world capitalist political and economic leaders haven’t got the ability or the capacity to get us out of it. These regimes are obsessed, locked into and driven by the market economy which regards nature and its resources primarily as a source of profit. Shell, for example, made profits of £13 billion in 2005 - up nearly a third on the previous year. They will carry on producing until the last drop is out of the ground.

As Robert Newman, the writer-comedian, noted in The Guardian (February 2, 2006): “Capitalism is not sustainable by its very nature. It is predicated on infinitely expanding markets, faster consumption and bigger production in a finite planet. And yet this ideological model remains the central organising principle of our lives, and as long as it continues to be so it will automatically undo (with its invisible hand) every single green initiative anybody cares to come up with.

“Much discussion of energy, with never a word about power, leads to the fallacy of a low-impact, green capitalism somehow put at the service of environmentalism. In reality, power concentrates around wealth. Private ownership of trade and industry means that the decisive political force in the world is private power. The corporation will outflank every puny law and regulation that seeks to constrain its profitability. It therefore stands in the way of the functioning democracy needed to tackle climate change. Only by breaking up corporate power and bringing it under social control will we be able to overcome the global environmental crisis.”

Newman is dead right but humanity needs to act fast, before the lights go out and the dark ages return. We have to buy some time to find credible alternative energy sources to oil before capitalism plunges us into a double nightmare of global warming and depleted energy.

What is required is a massive social investment in research into alternative, clean energy and the development of the technology to deliver it. Alongside this, we need to abandon damaging capitalist methods of production and distribution in favour of a low energy, not-for-profit approach. We could then reclaim the resources wasted on arms manufacture, predatory wars for corporate control over resources, on persuading people to buy goods they don’t need, or on forcing people to drive increasingly long distances to work. Only then could we move towards more community-based power supply systems, for example.

The key to this change lies in mobilising people on issues that matter and then focusing their energy on the politics of social transformation. Existing political institutions and systems are as locked into the capitalist system as the corporations are. In fact, the private control and ownership of corporate power is legitimised by the state in countless ways. The two sides of capitalist society have evolved into an ever-closer, deadly embrace with each other under the impact of globalisation.

Just as it is impossible to persuade the corporations to produce in a way that undermines their very being, so too is it impractical to ask the existing political system to act as the motor for revolutionary, social change. At present, the vast majority are denied effective access to political power and the ability to shape their lives. The occasional general election is no substitute for power and the outcome only reinforces the limited nature of our democracy. Even this is constantly eroded by the construction of a surveillance, authoritarian state that regards dissent itself as a crime.

A World to Win advocates the extension of democracy in new ways, that will take us beyond the rapidly fading parliamentary system. This means turning the growing anger about the absence of representation towards the building of new democratic institutions at local, regional and national level. The first task of these assemblies will be to encourage workers in every sector of economic life to take control of their workplaces and set up democratic management systems. Then – and only then – will we have the power to create an alternative to the disastrous scenario towards which capitalism is staggering.

6 February 2006

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