The capitalist roots of the environment crisis
Updated: Apr 10
Amid the infinite, silent expanse of the universe, the emergence of any kind of life at all on the small speck we call Earth is miraculous enough. That those first primitive forms of life, after 3 to 4 billion years of development, would give rise to a species that can ask about the origin and meaning of the universe and our place in it, and that can, at least potentially, freely and consciously try to build a good society and live a good life within it, is truly wondrous.
On one level, the potential scope of human achievement seems limitless. We’ve explored every corner of the globe, from the highest Himalayan peaks to the depths of the Mariana Trench. We’ve walked on the moon and sent robot-scouts to take happy-snaps on Mars. We’ve harnessed the powers of nature – turning earth, air, fire and water into materials for the satisfaction of our desires and the construction of our dreams.
Yet here we are, heading into the middle decades of the 21st century, with all the accumulated wisdom and knowledge of millennia of human endeavour literally at our fingertips, staring down the barrel of a catastrophic, and possibly terminal, breakdown of the relationship between human society and the natural world on which we depend.
The fires that have ravaged Australia this summer provide just a taste of the kind of destruction we’ll experience if we don’t rapidly change course. We’re currently on track for a global average temperature rise of between 3 and 5 degrees by the end of the century. If we don’t prevent this, it’s likely that vast areas of the planet, including many densely populated coastal areas, will become uninhabitable. Hundreds of millions of people will be displaced. Entire cities and countries will be driven to collapse. Human civilisation, in anything resembling its current form, will struggle to survive.
Climate change is only one aspect of the problem. Everywhere we look, the natural systems that maintain our planet in its habitable state are rapidly deteriorating. Can we survive the destruction of the tropical rainforests of the Amazon – the lungs of Earth? Can we survive the spread of dead zones – areas too low in oxygen to sustain life – across our oceans? Can we make do without the bees and other insects we currently depend on to pollinate our crops?
Perhaps the scariest thing about the situation isn’t the vast scale of breakdown in natural systems but the fact that those entrusted with the leadership of our society appear determined to hasten us to our doom. Instead of listening to the advice of the scientists, firefighters, land managers and others who’ve been sounding the alarm about climate change for decades, Scott Morrison and Co. parrot propaganda points from the Murdoch press. Instead of agreeing, finally, to contribute more to global efforts to reduce carbon emissions, they double down on the expansion of Australia’s booming coal and gas industries, attempting all the while to distract the public with fairy tales about greenies preventing back-burning and the fires just being part of Australia’s natural cycle.
Elsewhere in the world, the picture is the same. Decades of global climate negotiations have gone nowhere. Despite the increasingly urgent warnings of scientists, emissions continue to rise. And with the likes of Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and Jair Bolsonaro in charge of some of the world’s biggest economies, the prospects for a major shift occurring soon appear terrifyingly dim.
Where did it all go wrong? The answer is suggested by the increasingly popular slogan “System change, not climate change”. Morrison, Trump and their fellow fossil fuel enthusiasts act not simply in accordance with their personal whims and desires but as the conscious servants of a system: capitalism. Proponents of capitalism talk as if it’s the natural form of human society – something that has existed since the dawn of time. The reality, however, is that the age of capitalism spans only the past two to three centuries. For the vast majority of our 200-300,000 year history, humans lived in societies, like those of the Indigenous inhabitants of Australia prior to invasion, characterised by collective decision making and sharing of resources, not the system of private property and the endless competitive scramble for individual gain that define the world today.
If the capitalist system was most befitting of our human nature, you would expect its emergence to have been embraced by all whose lives were transformed by it. But the birth of capitalism in the 17th and 18th centuries was an extremely violent process that was strongly resisted from the start. As Karl Marx put it in Capital: “The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalled the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production”. Capital came into the world, he wrote, “dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt”.
Since the earliest days of human existence, we have had a significant impact on the environment. Scientists believe, for instance, that hunting, along with the use of fire and other land management techniques employed by Australia’s Indigenous population, contributed to the extinction of the continent’s megafauna. Deforestation was a major problem in ancient Greece and the Roman Empire. Air pollution from the burning of wood and coal was an issue in London as early as the 12th and 13th centuries. All this, however, was on a minuscule scale compared to the devastation of the past 200 years, and particularly in the period after World War Two – the era in which capitalism came to dominate every corner of the globe.
In 1950, global carbon emissions totalled 5.28 billion tonnes. By 2017, they were 36.15 billion tonnes. According to the World Wildlife Fund’s Living Planet Report 2018, the total population of mammals, birds, fish and reptiles has declined by 60 percent since 1970. Every year, the rate of extinctions rises, and scientists estimate that a million animal and plant species may go extinct over the coming decades. According to a 2016 report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the production of plastic has risen 20-fold since 1964 and is expected to double again in the next 20 years and quadruple by 2050. Only around 5 percent of plastic ends up being recycled. If current trends continue, the report predicts, by 2050 there will, by weight, be more plastic in the world’s oceans than fish.
No one of these gloomy metrics, considered alone, can capture the depths of the crisis we face. In only 200 years of existence, capitalism has brought us to the brink of such a calamitous breakdown in the world’s natural systems that our entire civilisation is now under threat.
Among Marx’s most evocative metaphors for the operation of capital is his description of it as “dead labour, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks”. It’s not only “living labour”, however, that sustains the vampire of capital, but also the natural inputs of the productive process – the raw materials that labour works up into the products that capitalists sell on the market for their coveted profits.
What makes capitalism uniquely destructive in comparison to previous systems is the rupture of the connection between the main drivers of economic life and the natural world that sustains us. A capitalist may own a significant amount of land. But unlike the feudal lords of the Middle Ages, their wealth isn’t tied to the piece of land that they own. If a capitalist destroys their land – say by digging up all the coal or oil it contains, poisoning it with chemicals or exhausting the fertility of the soil through over-farming – they can simply take the profits they’ve generated from it and buy more land elsewhere.
The vampire metaphor is powerful precisely because it speaks to this fundamental rift between the lifeblood of capitalism – profit – and society’s underlying life systems, including labour and the natural environment, that are the ultimate source of all wealth. Rolling Stone contributor Matt Taibbi’s description of investment bank Goldman Sachs as “a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money”, can be extended to the whole capitalist class. The environmental (or other) consequences of their activities don’t give them much pause for concern as long as they’re making money.
The wealth of the capitalist ruling class of today is so immense that even the existential threat posed by climate change won’t shake them into action. According to Oxfam, the combined wealth of the world’s 2,153 billionaires exceeds that of the poorest 4.6 billion people, who make up 60 percent of the global population. Catastrophic events like the Australian bushfires are unlikely to faze them – in contrast to the mass of ordinary people impacted by the fires, they can easily buy their way to safety.
The ruling class’s lack of concern for the environment is reinforced by the competitive nature of the system. Each individual capitalist must keep their costs low and their profits high to stay ahead of their rivals. The main way they do this is by keeping workers’ wages down. But if they can save money by not dealing with the environmental costs of their operations, they’ll do that too.
The capitalist class gains immense savings from treating environmental destruction as an “externality” that they can pass on to society. The International Monetary Fund calculated that global subsidies to fossil fuel companies amount to US$5.2 trillion a year, approximately 6.4 percent of world GDP. Most subsidies relate to the cost of dealing with the destructive consequences of all the carbon emissions produced by burning fossil fuels. This includes the impacts of climate change, along with the costs of health care associated with air pollution and so on.
You might wonder why governments are willing to let fossil fuel companies and other destructive industries get away with this. The answer lies in the role of the capitalist state. We’re taught that it is a neutral body that mediates between the conflicting interests of different social layers and guides society in the collective interest. The state, however, has never been neutral. Modern capitalist states emerged in conjunction with the rise of the capitalist class as the dominant economic power in society, and they’ve always, as Marx put it, been “a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie”.
The role of the capitalist state, in other words, is to protect and advance the interests of big business and the rich, rather than the mass of the population who suffer the consequences of their environmentally destructive practices. And again, this dynamic is reinforced by competition on an international scale. Each national state defends the interests of its capitalist class against those of their foreign rivals. This involves both maintaining good business conditions (e.g. low wages and a lack of environmental and other regulations) at home and projecting power externally, through diplomatic and military means, to ensure access to resources and markets around the world.
The destructive consequences of these dynamics can be seen in capitalism’s almost uninterrupted history of war. And they also help explain the continuing failure of global efforts to secure agreement on any serious action to reduce carbon emissions or address other major environmental issues. Sacrificing short term profits in the name of long term sustainability goes against the DNA of the capitalist nation state. This is particularly clear in the case of Australia, one of the world’s most fossil fuel-dependent nations. Neither the Liberals nor Labor are prepared to forgo the tens of billions in profits that flow from coal and gas exports. The strength of the fossil fuel industry is just too important to Australia’s status as a major regional power.
We’re in a battle for our lives. The entire future of the human experiment – so utterly miraculous and so terrifyingly fragile – depends on what we do in the coming years and decades. As Russian Marxist Nikolai Bukharin, writing a few years after the revolution of 1917, put it: “No system, including that of human society, can exist in empty space; it is surrounded by an ‘environment,’ on which all its conditions ultimately depend. If human society is not adapted to its environment, it is not meant for this world; all its culture will inevitably pass away; society itself will be reduced to dust”.
The immense potential of humanity remains. We possess all the philosophical, scientific and technical knowledge required to build a genuinely just, democratic and sustainable social order – a society liberated from the competitive scramble for short term profit, in which we can make decisions based on the long term needs of humanity and the natural world on which our existence depends. The name for such a society is socialism. And our challenge is to build a movement powerful enough to overthrow the existing destructive order and begin the task of building it.
This article first appeared in Red Flag magazine. Reproduced with the author's permission