Did capitalism cause climate change?

At demonstrations of "Fridays for Future" one often sees cardboard on which someone has written with a felt pen: "Change the System, not the Climate". In Aachen, happy young people marched through the streets, carrying a banner that read "Burn Capitalism, not Coal" in front of them. One wonders what exactly they mean by burning capitalism and what should take its place once it is burned up. In any case, the simple slogans of the striking students show how much the anti-capitalist zeitgeist has gripped the younger generation.

If a great many people believe that the climate crisis is a product of capitalism, it is worth looking back at the debate on the limits to growth that began in 1972 with the famous "Report of the Club of Rome on the State of Humanity". What is difficult to imagine today is that the report was not received particularly well by the anti-capitalists of the time. In the "Introduction to the Political Economy of Capitalism", published by the party college "Karl Marx" at the Central Committee of the SED, it was stated, for example, in 1973 that growth criticism was a "reactionary, anti-progressive attitude" and "an expression of the deep crisis of imperialist politics and ideology ":" Because the economic policy goals were never achieved, and the development of the economy in the socialist countries is proceeding significantly faster than in capitalism, the slow pace or stagnation are now presented as actually desirable goals. System criticism sometimes leads to grotesque results. Today not even the DKP would argue like that.

When the growth debate began in the 1970s, the general public was unaware of climate change; the Club of Rome dealt with resource depletion, overpopulation and pollution in a very broad sense. Nevertheless, now that CO₂ has become the overriding topic, there is a lot to learn from that time. Above all, this helps to counter the trivialization of the topic.

On this occasion, Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen (1906-1994) should be remembered. The Romanian-American economist and mathematician is one of the guild's great unknowns. This may be due to the fact that Georgescu-Roegen thought the limits of growth particularly radically, so that there was little to do with him in the political battle of opinion. He wrote the gloomy sentence: "If we overlook the details, we can say that every baby born today means one less human life in the future. But every Cadillac that is produced at some point also means less life in the future. " In this drastic way, Georgescu-Roegen wanted to warn of the consumption of resources.

He studied mathematics in Bucharest and economics at Harvard, where he was influenced by Joseph Schumpeter. After the fall of the dictator Ion Antonescu, allied with Hitler, in Bucharest in 1944, he headed the Romanian Armistice Commission; In 1949 he fled the communist dictatorship to the United States and then taught at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.

Georgescu-Roegen wrote his most important works in the early 1970s. The theme of his life was the investigation of the economic consequences of two central physical laws, the first and second law of thermodynamics. According to the first law, energy can neither be created nor destroyed. According to the second sentence, energy does not disappear when it is used, for example to heat an apartment, but it becomes scattered and useless - to environmental pollution. Or, in the language of physics: "Entropy" (a measure of disorder) increases.

It is time to face the problems ruthlessly

These are iron laws, but actually, if one follows the economist, humanity would have no problems with them, because it lives in an open system: A constant stream of usable energy flows from the sun to the earth, which is inexhaustible according to human dimensions. The problem is that people have learned to exceed the limits set by solar energy by using the solar energy - coal, oil, natural gas - stored in the earth's crust for millions of years. They are too numerous and - at least a large part of them - have become too rich, so that they have to feed on the reserves. The atmosphere is polluted by CO₂, the cause of climate change, as we know today.

The economist did not believe that the problem could be solved so easily through the market, because a significant part of the necessary participants in this market, the future generations, has not yet been born or at least not yet fit for business. But it does not work without a market, as the destruction of the environment in the socialist countries has shown. Georgescu-Roegen himself wanted to impose a "minimum bioeconomic program" on the world, which included, among other things, limiting the number of people on earth so that they could be fed from organic farming. In fact, the world's population has almost doubled since the publication of Georgescu-Roegen's major work "The Entropy Law and the Economic Process" in 1975. Who should enforce such a program? A world dictator? Perhaps it is such rigorous advice that has robbed the brilliant economist of some of its effectiveness. It is all the more important to face the problems as ruthlessly as he did.