The Environmental Crisis and Capitalism

A talk I originally gave on February 23, 2012 at the University of North Carolina – Asheville, as part of the “Speak for the Earth” series.

Capitalism is very very good at one thing above all else, fermenting crisis. There is a direct link of continuity between a monstrously chaotic system that has caused the greatest economic crisis since the great depression and one that is laying the foundation for the greatest compounded environmental crises since the extinction of the dinosaurs.

I’m going to attempt to do a number of nearly impossible things of giving proper justice to a number of different subjects. One is a quick overview of the current environmental problems in the world today and how there are fundamentally interrelated. That is kind of the doom and gloom section, sorry. Two, give a critique of the main types of solutions being offered. Three, show how these environmental crises are fundamentally linked to the system of capitalism on a structural level. And finally and throughout this, give an overview of what can be called a Marxist Ecology or Eco-Socialism as a viable alternative to the current mess. In all of this my intention is to make clear why the environmental movement needs to be imbued with anti-capitalism just as the so-called anti-capitalist movement needs to be imbued with a deep ecological understanding, the synthesis of Social and Environmental Justice if you will, and how Marxism can be an important aid in this dialogue.

Environmental questions are all encompassing and all interconnected. This is a Marxist idea that I’ll come back in one form or another, but nothing can be taken in isolation from the whole. We are always part of a continuing process that we are effected by and effect back upon in a myriad of ways. Nature is the most clear example of this; a multi-faceted, multi-layered, incredibly complex system of mutual interconnectivity. You can’t fuck up something without fucking up far more, and that’s precisely what’s happening on a global scale. All the different environmental problems are linked.

To begin with the most obvious one, climate change. Now I’m sure many people are aware of the science by now, so I won’t going too far into specifics, but just to address some points. One; it’s happening. Look at just this month of poor excuse of a winter. Many morons on Fox News would claim that just because it’s still getting colder in the winter, that global warming isn’t real. But the climate and short term weather patterns are getting weirder and weirder. Freak blizzards, freak droughts, freak brush fires, unseasonable everything, so-called 100 year storms and hurricanes, these things are now regular occurrences. Two; its human made. The neat thing about carbon in CO2 is that you can use radio-carbon dating on it to find the age, and the extra CO2 in the atmosphere has been proven to be from pre-historic sources, ie fossil fuels. There is no debate in the scientific community about climate change, unless the scientists in question are bought and paid for by Exxon-Mobile. The only question now is how bad it will be. To quote Bill McKibben, we’ve entered the “oh shit era” of global warming after long since passing through the “we don’t know era” and the “maybe era.”

Pre-industrial CO2 concentrations were about 280 parts per million, we are currently at a 390ppm, the highest its been in at least the last 800,000 years, the extent of reliable data we have atmosphere composition. What is desperately needed is that we do not past 450ppm and get as quickly as possible under 350ppm. We are already locked into 1.5-2 o C global warming by 2050, its already too late to stop that. Because of the inter-connectivity of the earth’s environmentally systems, the great fear is about feedback loops. With less ice at the poles there’s less of the sun’s light being reflected back into space, that increases warming. Higher temperatures means the Siberian permafrost will thaw releasing a butt-ton of methane into the atmosphere, a far more potent global warming gas then CO2. If we continue on this course, the results can be only described, like in Mark Lynas book “Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet” as apocalyptic.

In terms of sources, 30% of world CO2 is gasoline, 35% coal and wood burning, and 20% natural gas. In terms of sectors of the economy that’s 21% for electrical power, 14% transportation, 17% purely industrial, 10% residential and so forth. The point is it’s at all levels of the economy. Oil, coal, natural gas, is so pervasive that its hard to think of any economic process at any level that’s not fueled in some way by CO2 emitting fuels. We are addicted to it and its killing us. The very process of extracting and refining these fuel sources is destructive before they’re even consumed, 11% of greenhouse gas emissions come just from the production process of fossil fuels itself. But we can see this blatant destructiveness with lovely things like Mountain Top Removal, natural gas hydro-fraking, the Canadian tar sands, or the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and possibly soon Iran. The U.S. military is the single largest polluter in the world, lets not forget.

But this is just the tip of the iceberg as it were. Across the globe we are seeing massive species loss. Over-fishing, too many dams, destruction of natural habitats, pollutants everywhere and in everything, including us. The earth’s biodeversity is crashing, at 1000 times the background level of historic species loss. When we factor in the expected effects of global warming, which estimate as many as 30-50% of extinction of world species, the level of mass-extinction could very well rival that of, by one report, the Permian-Triassic mass extinction 251 million years ago, it took over 50 million years afterwards for the earth to return to the pre extinction level of bio-diversity.

On top of that, we have ocean acidification, mass loss of soil nutrition and soil erosion, the disruption of the very nitrogen cycle that keeps food growing, a huge trash problem, read Heather Rogers’ “Gone Tomorrow: the hidden life of trash”. Trash islands we got now in the world’s oceans.

All of these issues are anthropocentric, human centered, in fact they’re econ-ocentric (a fantastic word I’ve created), they are tied to how we structure our economy. How we produce, how we move what we produce, how we generate power, how we transmit power, how we make food, what kind of foods we make, and beyond everything else, how we deal with byproducts, waste.

There are basically three types of solutions we are being offered by the status quo, to save the status quo, and the earth to as a side note. There’s a lot of overlap, but you can divide them by the market “solutions” (all in quotes), technological solutions and personal solutions. What they all have in common is that they take the system as is as a given that cannot nor should not be changed.

To begin with the most ridiculous and least serious of all. The market solutions. First off, I believe it’s the heights of lunacy to believe that the structure that caused the problem in the first place, the free market, can somehow solve it by simply being extended into more spheres. This worship of the invisible hand of the market, using its magic of supply/demand to solve all the world’s problems, has in part taken the form of the idea of carbon-trading, or cap-n-trade.

Frankly this idea is so ridiculous, and has failed so miserably in Europe up till now, I don’t  really want to waste too much time on it. But I will say a few things, cause they illustrate a point. It should be noted that typically the biggest supporters of such schemes to very very gradually lower emissions through the highly roundabout pressure of market incentives are often times the world’s biggest polluters; companies like Shell, BP, DuPont, ConocoPhillips, Rio Tinto. Why? Because cap-n-trade schemes create, to quote the Wall Street Journal, a “huge playground” of speculative trading. A pollution casino. To quote the New York Times from 2008, “it seems clearer by the day that while carbon trading represents a neat and economically sound solution to cutting emissions on paper, in practice it may be unleashing a new bonanza of corporate lobbying and corporate handouts.”

The whole logic of such schemes rests their hope in the self-regulation of markets, but we saw how well that worked on Wall St before the economic crisis.

Similar to this idea is that markets can be perfected somehow, that all we have to do is remove the externalities. Externalities in economic speak, are any costs that are encored on a third party that were not part of the normal exchange process, ie in this case pollution. The idea here is that there must be a way to make sure the price of a final good reflects the true environmental costs of its production. And there are all sorts of ideas for methods by taxation to make this work.

The issue is that businesses and capitalism in general are natural externalizing machines. The whole point of business is to minimize costs and maximize gain, and they’re really good at that. Companies barely tolerate paying wages, and when they can they prefer to pass off as much of the cost of keeping their workforce alive onto other shoulders, look at Wall-Mart’s practices of having their employees live off food-stamps. Nature doesn’t have much of a chance of getting anything. This system is all about socializing as much costs as possible while privatizing all the gain, just look at the bailouts.

The next major theme of the mainstream “solutions” being offered is that of technology. That there is some kind of silver bullet just on the horizon, that all we need to do is keep on economically expanding and our natural entrepreneurial instincts will innovate a magic solution to our environmental problems.

Now some of these high-tech schemes are absolutely insane, from pumping sulfur into the atmosphere or putting millions of mirrors in space to block out some of the sun’s light, to making thousands of fake plastic icebergs to replace the white reflective power of all the ice we’re losing due to global warming. These are disturbingly absurd, almost sadistic. But it shows where these people’s heads are at.

Yet there are some who say, hey, we don’t have to do all of these high-risk high-expense, nonsense ideas, all the technological solutions already exist. I for one will start cheering, woo, woo, exactly, hurrah. And then they start talking more.

Cause the current technological “solutions” being offered to make us “energy independent” or stop our “addiction to foreign oil”, they always use chauvinistic phrases and never talk about stopping our addiction to oil entirely, are awful. When Obama came to office his energy plan was; clean coal, offshore drilling and nuclear power. Interestingly enough, each one of those areas has had major disaster in the past few years.

Offshore oil drilling; BP spill, we killed a whole body of water, it continues our addiction to oil, nothing more to say. Clean coal, it’s a dirty lie. There’s not an ounce of truth to the whole notion. Carbon capture technology doesn’t currently exist, and would probably be risky anyway, and coal-burning power plants are one of the largest single source of greenhouse gasses in the US. They all have to go, no exceptions.

Nuclear power is interesting cause you have elements, stupid elements, of the environmental movement who are advocating it as a solution to global warming. The truth is nuclear power is in no way carbon neutral. It requires massive amounts of carbon sourced energy at every stage of the production process, from uranium mining, to refining, to powering the plant, to “disposal” (which is in quotes causes there is no way to dispose of spent fuel rods), and every single step in that process is highly dangerous. The uranium refining process alone requires the power equivalent of the electrical output of the country of Yemen. There are 104 nuclear power plants in the US, ¼ of all Americans are within 50 miles of at least one. Fukishima, dare I say more. It’s dangerous, hyper expensive, highly inefficient, and it’s not there for the purposes of civilian energy. Nuclear power is about making nuclear bombs. It’s about geopolitical military ambitions and imperial posturing.

But the point is, as long as we are investing in these dead-ends (literally), nuclear, clean-coal, biofuels (which I’ll come back to), we’re not investing in the real alternatives. According to the Wall St Journal, Nuclear power costs 12-20 cents per kilowatt hour, while real alternatives (wind, solar, tidal, geothermal) cost 6 cents per kilowatt hour.

The truth is there are no technological barriers left at all to achieving a fully sustainable, local, organic, decentralized, carbon-neutral, electrical and food system that can power and feed everyone. It would only take 0.3% of the sunlight that hits the Sahara desert to power Europe. The wind power alone of North Dakota (not saying we should cover North Dakota totally in wind turbines, just making a point) could power all the US. There are some German states currently that get 50% or more of their power from just wind power, and this is one of the largest economies in the world.

One study, from 2008, by the Worldwatch Institute, estimated that it would cost $400 Billion, requiring the construction of 3.8 million wind turbines and 90,000 solar energy facilities, the whole world could be green powered by 2030. The pentagon’s budget is twice that amount, a year, and world production of automobiles is 70 million a year.

The problem is not technological, it’s purely social.

The last big theme of the false solutions can best be called consumerist. And this may be the most contentious point I make, but I have to, it needs to be said. There are many variations on this idea, that range from buying local, buying organic, or to not buying at all, growing your own food and such. But they all have the same weakness; it internalizes the logic and ideology of the system that wants us to believe that we are only atomized consumers who’s only power rests in what we are going to buy.

The supremacy of the market is reinforced cause we’re informed that consumer demand has a real effect and we can now vote with our dollars for a better environment. But as Chris Williams rightfully joked, you know he’s been on a lot of protests but he can never remember a time that they were demanding for them to be fed crap, in plastic containers and at high speeds. Consumers have little control over the system, opt out or buy something different, maybe retreat into purely local economies, the global system keeps puttering along towards planet wide oblivion.

Worse yet there is a clear class angle to. We’re suppose to feel guilty cause we consume too much. Now I don’t know about you, but from my point of view if you fall under the poverty line and living in part off food stamps, you’re probably not consuming that much. But there all those who are consuming too much, cause they own too much, they’re called the 1%. If we’re not part of the super-elite, we don’t have that much power as just mere consumers, as producers on the other hand, that’s a different matter.

See individual, atomized consumers can’t dismantle a nuclear power plant or a gas station or build a light rail system. That’s the thing with capitalism, it takes all of our power away as mere individuals, but as a collective, we are now all powerful. We can’t shop our way to a better planet, but we can fight like hell for it.

Connected to all these previous false answers is the notion of creating so-called “green” markets, or the “greening” of capitalism, but these schemes truly work in the “green” sense only in terms of the color of money. For instance, bio-fuels.

Read Heather Rogers’ excellent book “Green Gone Wrong”. In it, among everything else, she really rips the bio-fuel scam a new one. Bio-fuels, really designed as a means to keep us on the liquid diet to the current gasoline infrastructure, is just another distraction like clean coal. All the various bio-fuels, corn, palm oil, when you account for the whole process can actually generate more CO2 than fossil fuels. Indonesia, not an industrial country, is the 3rd largest emitter of greenhouses because of biofuel industry. Systematic deforestation in order to make room for the palm oil monocrop.

In here is synthesizes all the false solutions. A new “green” market is invented to produce a shitty technology in order for green conscious consumers to feel better about themselves. Economically, it’s perfectly logical to tear down a whole rainforest, plant a monocrop, deplete the soil, then move on, all for solutions that won’t work and to maximize profits.

Now I’m sorry to be so negative in this section. But we want real hope, not false hope. And there are no local or individual solutions to global and societal problems. Period.

In all of this we see an absurd level of disconnect between the problems around us and the “solutions” offered. Cause none of these solutions are taking on a structural approach, they refuse to. The notion of “sustainable” capitalism is an oxymoron, cause all of these schemes are not about sustaining the environment, but rather about sustaining the capitalist system as is. The system is justified, not altered. The point is that neither the capitalist state, individuals under capitalism or capitalism as a whole can save and restore nature, the solutions reside outside of the system. And here’s why.

The purpose of capitalism, or more specifically production under capitalism, is not about producing this or that thing to meet human need. At best that’s a side effect. Agriculture, agro-business, is not about making food, it’s about making profit.

Karl Marx described this all consuming drive in three letters, M-C-M’, that is money, to commodity, to more money. To explain. A normal worker or person’s typical economic transaction is C-M-C, they sell a commodity, that is themselves, their labor power, their ability to work and do something, they get a wage, money, and with that money they buy the things they need to keep on keeping on. A rather simple transaction, things don’t get out of hand, everything’s hunky-dorey.

But the system as a whole doesn’t work that way, cause the system as a whole works by the logic of those who rule it, those who own it. Call them capitalists, the bourgeoisie, the 1%, doesn’t matter. They enter the economy with a completely different set of priorities. They have money, M, they invest it into commodities, labor, technology, capital, natural resources, they exploit those things, labor and nature especially, and out of it they get more money, M’, profit. The purpose of it all isn’t to make things, but to make more money, to make profit.

And capitalists aren’t doing this just cause they’re greedy, they are, but the market itself impels them to. If a company isn’t constantly making a profit and then reinvesting that profit back into production, back into new technologies, into relentless expansion for its own sake, the company is outpaced by the competition and goes under.

To quote at length from the Communist Manifesto, “The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production .. Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned…. The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere.”

Profit, expand, profit, expand, forever, all on a planet that isn’t infinite.

Now a whole mess-load of important effects, causes and counter-effects spring from this unceasing drive at the heart of the thing.

For instance, if the American economy is not growing at a steady clip of about 3% a year, give or take, it goes into a serious economic crisis. It needs to grow just to stay stable. At a 3% growth rate, the economy doubles in 24 years, that alone makes capitalism unsustainable.

A report by the British government in 2006, the Stern Report, stated that we shouldn’t hope to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by more than 1% a year, or else it’ll hurt the economy. And what they mean is it’ll hurt profits. I mean that’s the logic of the system, we can’t save the earth cause it’ll hurt business. But truthfully, the interests of business and their workforces and society at large are very rarely the same.

Economic growth is an abstraction and it misses the point entirely. What matters is the living conditions of people. Who cares if the “economy” is dynamic if no one can get a job and the natural world which sustains us is dying.

The sheer irrationality of this, this disconnect between what humans need and what is produced for a profit by the market, is startling. Instead of AIDS medications for Africa and solar cells we get F-16s and Styrofoam.

See due to it’s massive productivity, far outstripping the effective demand of a population who are always paid less than the value of what they produce, companies persistently have a problem of over-producing too much junk that it can’t sell. Capitalism needs to manufacture a culture of consumerism just as much as it needs to manufacture actual things and services.

1/6 of every dollar spent in the American economy is spent on marketing. 3 times then what we spend on total education on all levels (private, public, K-12, college, ect), and even more than what we spend on the military. You spend that kind of money when you have to convince people really hard to be a certain way. And it’s money spent on something that’s completely useless and superfluous.

The UN estimates that it’ll cost only $44 billion to eradicate all hunger period. Done. And it’ll be so cheap cause, despite what any neo-Malthusian will tell, there’s enough food to feed everyone, actually feed everyone 2,800 calories a day, that is make all 7 billion of us quite corpulent. And of course the agricultural system needs to made fully sustainable to ensure lasting soil fertility and species regeneration, especially with the world fisheries, cause the current system is totally destructive and irrational, factoring farming and such. But even that is far cheaper than the wasteful cost of marketing, $198 billion it’ll cost by one UN estimate.

A system that spends more on wasteful marketing and packaging, the stuff that takes up 30% on average of municipal dumps and is made from plastic, then food, healthcare and education, because its more profitable, isn’t just irrational, its psychotic.

Attempts to reign in this destruction through regulation and international agreement always comes up against the same barriers. Because of the vicious competitive nature of the system, no nation state is willing to take serious actions to address the core problems less they risk falling behind the pack. The who’ll put the bell on the cat problem. And regulation of polluting industries, as many involved in the mountain justice movement can attest to, is the equivalent of the fox guarding the hen house. Just like Wall St and the Treasury department, the polluters and the EPA are one hand.

The vulnerability of the planet is rooted in the inherent contradiction between the beautiful complexity of ecological life, the interconnected biosphere, vs the single minded simplicity and irrationality of capitalism’s drive for profit. The system exploits nature so that it can exploit worker’s so that it can extract a profit. Or to quote Karl Marx, “All progress in capitalist agriculture (and you can extend this principle to all other sectors) is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the worker, but of robbing the soil.”

Ecological domination is the basis for social domination. That’s is the market’s mentality towards the natural world as something separate from humanity that needs to be conquered, dominated, exploited then used as a dumping zone.

If we are to survive we need to counterpoise this ideology of humanity vs nature with something more like this, “thus we are reminded that we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing outside of nature – but that we, with flesh, blood and brain, belong to nature, exist in its midst.” Or this, “Nature is man’s inorganic body. Man lives from nature, ie nature is his body and he must maintain a continuing dialogue with it if he is not to die. To say that man’s physical and mental life is linked to nature simply means that nature is linked to itself, for man is a part of nature.”

Now the first person I quoted was Frederick Engels, the second again was Karl Marx. There is certainly a dominant narrative out there that Marx and Engels were promethean, they didn’t care about the environment only industry and so forth. And that frankly holds no water. The truth is Marx and Engels wrote extensively on ecological issues of their time, specifically the massive loss in soil nutrition throughout Europe and the pollution levels suffered by working people in the cities, and how those things were then linked.Now obviously they died 130 years ago, we have many new environmental problems now, but their approach and perspective, of total opposition to the current status quo, gave them certain sharp insights into the structure of things, and a similar approach can be quite useful today.

Marx had said that the environmental problems were rooted in what he called a “metabolic rift”, a total short-circuiting of the natural flow and cycle of resources, energy and waste between humanity and the environment, created by the private ownership of the earth and the chaos of the market.

To quote Marx at length, “From the standpoint of a higher socio-economic formation, the private property of individuals in the earth will appear just as absurd as the private property of one man in other men. Even an entire society, a nation, or all simultaneously existing societies taken together, are not owners of the earth. They are simply its possessors, it beneficiaries, and have to bequeath it in an improved state to succeeding generations as boni patre familias (good heads of households). The conscious and rational treatment of the land as permanent communal property is the inalienable condition for the existence and reproduction of the chain of human generations.”

We need stewardship, not ownership. We need cooperation, not competition. We need real democracy, not price mechanisms. We need production for human need, not wasteful production for profit. Long term planning it antithetical to capitalism’s persistent short-term profit maximization, but it’s exactly what we need. We need a real Ecological Revolution that is also a Social Revolution.

The alternatives are not pretty. Either nature goes (which also means us) or capitalism. Not to sound too much like Derrick Jensen, but rather here I’m quoting Frederick Engels, “The people who, in Mesopotamia, Greece, Asia Minor, and elsewhere destroyed the forests to obtain cultivable land, never dreamed that they were laying the basis for the present devastated condition of those countries, by removing along with those forests the collecting center and reservoirs of moisture.” Or with Marx, “Capitalist production only develops the techniques and the degree of combination of the social process of production by simultaneously underling the original source of all wealth – the soil and the worker.”

This system is undermining itself, with every step forward it prepares for two steps back, it is destroying our forests and then some, much like in Mesopotamia, Greece and Asia Minor. The likely scenario of this system left to its own devices of unplanned expansion, uncoordinated technological implementation, and production for the sheer sake of producing is like how Engels warned, “Let us not flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human victories over nature. For each victory nature takes its revenge on us.” We are passing a lot of points of no return and are running out of time.

But don’t fall into pessimism or opportunism, that’s not the answer. The answer is to fight, just fight. We need the social consciousness of the 60s, the labor militancy of the 30s, and the “I got no future left in this system” attitude of today. In the here and now we need to be of course fighting for everything we can get, we need to buy time; green jobs for all, solar panels on every rooftop, windfarms off every coast, community gardens, light-rail systems, everything. But as we push for more and more sustainability and more and more eco-justice coupled with social-justice, we will come up against the profit system, cause the two are exact opposites. But you know what, if we have to abolish the 1%’s private property in the means of production and the tyranny of the invisible hand, in order to save the world, I’m ok with that.

I’ll end with quoting John Brown, “The cost of continuing the system is greater than overthrowing it.”

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About redpleb

I'm a socialist, an activist, a worker and an all around troublemaker here in New Jersey. You can find me on twitter @RedPleb
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5 Responses to The Environmental Crisis and Capitalism

  1. starmeleon says:

    This is a great article to serve as an entry point to address some basic environmental concerns from a radical leftist perspective.

  2. reded says:

    John Bellamy Foster wrote a good book

  3. Pingback: After Forward On Climate March, Where Do We Go From Here? | The Red Plebeian

  4. Pingback: Wither Derrick Jensen: The Transphobia of Deep Green Resistance | The Red Plebeian

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