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Capitalism versus life on Earth

Originally published: Climate and Capitalism (November 19, 2019)   | 

These sentences are from a recent report on the consequences of climate change:

Sea level rise, changes in water and food security, and more frequent extreme weather events are likely to result in the migration of large segments of the population. Rising seas will displace tens (if not hundreds) of millions of people, creating massive, enduring instability.…Salt water intrusion into coastal areas and changing weather patterns will also compromise or eliminate fresh water supplies in many parts of the world…. A warming trend will also increase the range of insects that are vectors of infectious tropical diseases. This, coupled with large scale human migration from tropical nations, will increase the spread of infectious disease.

Many reports have made such points. What makes this one significant is that it was commissioned by the Pentagon, by the General who is now chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The authors are senior officials of the U.S. Army, the Defense Intelligence Agency, and NASA, and it was published by the United States Army War College.

Their report recommends strengthening the U.S. military, already the biggest war machine on Earth, to protect the U.S. empire from the consequences of the environmental chaos. They call for a “campaign-plan-like approach to proactively prepare for likely conflict and mitigate the impacts.” As we know, when the U.S. military embarks on a campaign, the result is always devastation and destruction for the poor and oppressed.

As this report shows, the U.S. Army, unlike the U.S. president, knows that climate change is real, and that the consequences may be catastrophic. The generals recognize that something has gone terribly wrong in the relationship between human society and the Earth.

Planetary Boundaries

Climate change is the most extreme example of the crisis, but it is not the only one. Earth System scientists have identified nine planetary boundaries—global environmental conditions that define “a safe operating space for humanity.” Crossing any one of those thresholds could have deleterious or even disastrous consequences for civilization. Seven of the nine critical planetary boundaries are close to or already in the danger zone.

Such research leads irresistibly to the conclusion that modest reforms and policy shifts are not enough. We confront not individual problems that can be tackled separately, but an interlocked set of disruptions of Earth’s life support systems. Fundamental natural processes that have evolved over millions of years are being shattered in just a few decades.

Radical remedies are obviously required, but we won’t find a cure unless we identify the underlying cause, the systemic disease that is attacking our planet.

Why Growth?

Many environmentalists identify the underlying problem simply as growth. And indeed, as many books and articles show, the drive to extract, produce and grow ever more stuff is filling our rivers with poison and our air with pollution. Oceans are dying, species are disappearing at unprecedented rates, water is running short, and soil is eroding faster than it can be replaced—but the growth machines push on.

Corporate executives, economists, bureaucrats and politicians all agree that growth is good and non-growth is bad. Unending material expansion is a deliberate policy promoted by ideologues of every political stripe, from social democrats to conservatives. When the G20 met in Toronto they unanimously agreed that their highest priority was to “lay the foundation for strong, sustainable, and balanced growth.” The word growth appeared 29 times in their final declaration.

Uncontrolled growth is clearly a central issue, but that raises a further question—why does it continue? Why, in the face of massive evidence that expanded production and resource extraction is killing us, do governments and corporations keep shoveling coal for the runaway growth train?

In most environmental writing, one of two explanations is offered—it’s human natu re, or it’s a mistake.

The human nature argument is central to mainstream economics, which assumes that human beings always want more, so economic growth is just capitalism’s way of meeting human desires. For our species, enough is never enough. That view often leads its proponents to conclude that the only way to slow or reverse the pillaging of Mother Earth is to slow or reverse population growth. More people equals more stuff; so fewer people would equal less stuff.

That claim is fatally undermined by fact that the countries with the highest birth rates have the lowest standard of living, own the least stuff, and produce the least pollution. If the poorest 3 billion people on the planet somehow disappeared tomorrow, there would be virtually no reduction in ongoing environmental destruction.

The other common explanation for the constant promotion of growth is that we have been seduced by a false ideology. The drive for growth has been described as a fetish, an obsession, an addiction, or even a spell. Greens often use the term growthmania.

Such accounts present the drive for growth as a choice that politicians and investors make, under the influence of a bizarre obsession. As British Marxist Fawzi Ibrahim says, this

must be the first time in history that a necessity has been described as a fetish. You might as well describe fish having a fetish for water as capitalism having a fetish for growth. Growth is as essential to capitalism as is water to fish. As fish would die without water, so would capitalism drown without growth.

Growth ideology doesn’t cause perpetual accumulation—it justifies it. Uncontrolled growth is not the root cause of the global crisis—it is the inevitable result of the profit system, of capitalism’s inherent drive to accumulate ever more capital.

Personifications of capital

As individuals, the people who run the giant polluters undoubtedly want their children and grandchildren to live in a clean, environmentally sustainable world. But as major shareholders and executives and top managers they act, in Marx’s wonderful phrase, as “personifications of capital.” Regardless of how they behave at home or with their children, at work they are capital in human form, and the imperatives of capital take precedence over all other needs and values. When it comes to a choice between protecting humanity’s future and maximizing profit, they choose profit.

As a case in point, consider the nitrogen oxide gases, nitrogen monoxide and nitrogen dioxide, which are produced by burning petroleum fuels, especially by diesel engines. They don’t get as much media attention as carbon dioxide, but they are powerful greenhouse gases, and they are directly harmful to human health. They cause throat and lung diseases, and they increase the severity of diseases such as asthma.

In 2009, regulators in Europe and North America introduced strict limits on automobile nitrogen oxide emissions. All automakers had to submit their cars for testing. That was a big problem for the world’s second largest automobile company, Volkswagen, because much of their profit came from vehicles with diesel engines that did not meet the new standards.

But, as we are often told, capitalism encourages innovation. Just in time, VW announced that its engineers had solved the problem. They had invented technology that fully met or exceeded the new standards. They promoted it very heavily under the slogan “Clean Diesel,” and it was hugely successful. Between 2009 and 2016 Volkswagen sold over 11 million Clean Diesel cars worldwide.

That’s pretty impressive—a giant corporation was doing well by doing good, making huge profits while protecting the environment and human health.

Or so it seemed.

In 2016, thanks to investigations by some dedicated engineers, we learned that Clean Diesel was a hoax. Volkswagen had not invented new emissions technology. Volkswagen had invented software that cheated on the tests. When the software detected that a test was being conducted, it reduced the engine’s power and performance. Under laboratory conditions, VW’s Clean Diesel cars met the emission regulations. On the road, they emitted up to 40 times more nitrogen oxide than the legal limit.

Senior executives have been fired and the company has paid heavy fines, but that’s after the fact. Seven years of Volkswagen pollution and seven years of big Volkswagen sales illustrate two fundamental characteristics of capitalism—short-term gains are always more important than long-term losses, and profit is always more important than protecting human health.

Volkswagen’s owners and executives are personifications of capital, and capital must grow, no matter who gets hurt.

Machines for accumulation

The reason is very simple, although its implications are complex and profound. Big banks and money funds and multimillionaires invest in corporations like Volkswagen in order to get more money back. They really don’t care if Volkswagen makes cars or clothes and candy bars, so long as they get a return on their investment.

Corporations are giant social machines for turning capital into more capital. That’s what shareholders expect and want, and that’s what managers and executives must deliver.

A person who is unwilling to put the needs of capital first is not likely to become a major corporate executive. If the screening process fails, or if a CEO has an inconvenient attack of conscience, he or she will not last long in that position. It has been called the ecological tyranny of the bottom line. When protecting humanity and planet might reduce profits, corporations will always put profits first.

Capital has only one measure of success. How much more profit was made in this quarter than in the previous quarter? How much more today than yesterday? It doesn’t matter if the sales include products spread disease, destroy forests, demolish ecosystems, and treat our water, air, and soil as sewers. It all contributes to the growth of capital, and that is what counts.

Each corporation seeks to ensure that its products produce an attractive profit on invested capital. A corporation with lower costs or more attractive products can drive its competitors out of business. There is constant pressure to expand physically, financially, and geographically.

If nothing stops it, capital will try to expand infinitely, but Earth is not infinite. The atmosphere and oceans and forests are finite, limited resources, and capitalism is now pressing against those limits.

Capital must grow. A zero-growth capitalist economy simply cannot exist. As Marx wrote, the historical mission of the bourgeoisie is “accumulation for accumulation’s sake, production for production’s sake…. production on a constantly increasing scale.”

Of course, the fact that capital needs to grow does not mean that it always can grow. On the contrary, the drive to grow periodically leads to situations in which more commodities are produced than can be sold. The result is a crisis in which immense amounts of wealth are destroyed. Individual corporations can and do go out of business in such situations, but over the long term, the drive for profit, to accumulate ever more capital, always reasserts itself.

That is the defining feature of the capitalist system and the root cause of the global environmental crisis. Mass opposition and public pressure can slow down or hinder the drive to expand more and faster, but it will always reassert itself in some form.

Metabolic rifts

The anti-ecological results of such a system were first analyzed in the nineteenth century, when the productivity of English agriculture was in decline.

In the mid-1800s, the German scientist Justus von Liebig showed that in its natural state, soil provides the essential nutrients that allows plants to grow, and replenishes nutrients from plant and animal waste. But when crops are produced for distant markets, as they increasingly were in 19th Century England, soil fertility suffers because food waste and excrement do not return to the soil. Liebig called this a robbery system, because nutrients were being stolen from the soil and not returned.

Karl Marx studied Liebig’s work carefully. He seized upon the then-new scientific concept of metabolism, of biological and physical cycles that are essential to life, and made it central to his analysis of the relationship between humanity and nature. He viewed the shift away from using human manure as an important example of capitalist society’s alienation from the natural world on which human life depends.

Marx integrated Liebig’s explanation of the soil exhaustion crisis into his historical and social analysis of capitalism, concluding that “a rational agriculture is incompatible with the capitalist system,” because the imperatives of capitalist growth inevitably conflict with the laws of nature.

He described the separation of humans from food production, this break in an age-old nutrient cycle as “an irreparable rift in the interdependent process of social metabolism, a metabolism prescribed by the natural laws of life itself.”

Marx’s analysis of nineteenth-century British agriculture provides the theoretical starting point for what is now known as metabolic rift theory, which is used by many radical ecologists to analyze and understand modern environmental crises.

The concept of metabolic rift expresses society’s simultaneous dependence on and separation from the rest of nature. Like an auto-immune disease that attacks the body it dwells in, capitalism is both part of the natural world and at war with it. It simultaneously depends upon and undermines the Earth’s life support systems.

An incurably short-term horizon

Capital’s ecologically destructive impacts are driven not just by its need to grow, but by its need to grow faster. The circuit from investment to profit to reinvestment requires time to complete, and the longer it takes, the less total return investors receive. Competition for investment produces constant pressure to speed up the cycle, to go from investment to production to sale ever more quickly.

That’s why it took sixteen weeks to raise a two-and-a-half pound chicken in 1925, while today chickens twice that big are raised in six weeks. Selective breeding, hormones, and chemical feed have enabled factory farms to produce not just more meat, but more meat faster. The suffering of the animals and the quality of the food are secondary concerns, if they are considered at all.

But most natural processes cannot be manipulated that way. Nature’s cycles operate at speeds that have evolved over many millennia—forcing them in any way inevitably destabilizes the cycle and produces unpleasant results.

Fertile land is destroyed, forests are clear-cut, and fish populations collapse, all because of what Istvan Mészáros calls the incurably short-term horizon of the capital system. There is an insuperable conflict between nature’s time and capital’s time—between cyclical processes that have developed over hundreds of millions of years, and capital’s need for rapid production, sale, and profit.

The metabolic rifts that Liebig and Marx knew of and wrote about were initially local or regional, but they have grown along with capitalism. Colonialism extended the damage by transporting products and nutrients from distant places.

Ireland was the first victim of the global robbery system. Describing how England imported food from poverty-stricken Ireland, Marx wrote:

England has indirectly exported the soil of Ireland, without even allowing its cultivators the means for replacing the constituents of the exhausted soil.

Since the middle of the 20th century, capitalism has caused unprecedented changes in the entire biosphere, Earth’s lands, forests, water, and air. In its endless search for profits, it is massively disrupting and destroying Earth’s life support systems—the natural processes and cycles that make life itself possible. Metabolic rifts have become metabolic chasms.

Ecosocialist revolution

That’s why the environmental crisis can’t be just a talking point for socialists—it’s a planetary emergency that we must treat as a top priority. We need to initiate and join struggles for immediate environmental aims. We need to participate, not as sideline critics, but as activists, builders and leaders. And at the same time, we need to find the best ways to patiently explain how those struggles relate to the larger fight to save the world from capitalist ecocide.

As Simon Butler and I wrote in Too Many People?,

in every country, we need governments that break with the existing order, that are answerable only to working people, farmers, the poor, indigenous communities, and immigrants—in a word, to the victims of ecocidal capitalism, not its beneficiaries and representatives.

Such governments will have two fundamental and inseparable characteristics.

First, they will be committed to grassroots democracy, to radical egalitarianism, and to social justice. They will be based on collective ownership of the means of production, and they will work actively to eliminate exploitation, profit and accumulation as the driving forces of our economy.

Second, they will base their decisions and actions on the best ecological principles, giving top priority to stopping anti-environmental practices, to restoring damaged ecosystems, and to reestablishing agriculture and industry on ecologically sound principles.

Such a profound transformation will not just happen. In fact, it will not happen at all unless ecology has a central place in socialist theory, in the socialist program, and in the activity of the socialist movement.

In short, in the 21st century, socialists and greens must be ecosocialists, and humanity needs an ecosocialist revolution.

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