Based on a talk presented by Terry Townsend.
Al Gore’s 2006 film, An Inconvenient Truth, helped dramatise for a whole new generation the enormity of the global environmental crisis we face. Global warming is just the latest manifestation of the environmental crisis of capitalism, a crisis of such enormity that the web of life of the entire planet is at risk of fundamental degradation and with it human civilisation itself.
The scale of the threat posed by industrially induced global warming, and the short time in which we have to take meaningful action to prevent the potentially catastrophic consequences, makes the issue of global warming and how to seriously combat it arguably the most urgent question facing humanity.
As they come to understand the depth of the problem, and move into action around it, more and more people will conclude that to avert global warming — let alone achieve the ultimate goal of an ecologically sustainable society — very radical measures need to be taken in a very short period of time.
What is required — the rapid, far-reaching reorganisation of industry, energy, transport, mass consumption patterns, and the massive transfer of clean technology to the Third World — is simply not possible under capitalism.
Gore’s film offers graphic evidence of some of the better known impacts and threats of global warming — rapidly shrinking glaciers, the receding and possible collapse of the vast polar ice sheets, rising sea levels, more intense and destructive weather events — as well as lesser known consequences such as the widespread disruption of ecosystems. Seagulls were spotted in the Arctic for the first time in 2000; polar bears are drowning due to the shrinking ice. Disease-carrying mosquitoes are spreading from the tropics, threatening the health of billions.
The heat is on
Globally, the 10 hottest years on record have been in the past 14 years, with 2005 being the hottest and 2006 the sixth hottest. There is near unanimous agreement among scientists. The concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere — primarily carbon dioxide (CO2) from the burning of fossil fuels, as well as methane, nitrous oxides, water vapour and other gases — is rapidly rising. These gases trap heat and cause warming.
The average global temperature is already 0.6°C hotter than at the end of the 19th century and even if CO2 levels were stabilised today, the temperature would continue to rise for the next 30 years. The level of CO2 in the atmosphere today is higher than at any time in more than 650,000 years.
In 2001, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned that unless CO2 levels are stabilised at around twice the pre-industrial level, the Earth’s average atmospheric temperature will rise by up to 5.8°C by 2100. To keep warming to below 2°C, at which it is hoped the worst effects could be avoided, the IPCC recommended that global human-generated greenhouse gas emissions be slashed by at least 60%-80% by 2050 at the latest.
If greenhouse gas emissions are not reduced, it is forecast, there will be a sea level rise of between 20 centimetres and 1 metre by 2100. And that’s on the increasingly fragile assumption that the ice caps remain intact. Without urgent action, some of the world’s most densely populated cities will be flooded. Global warming will trigger severe storms and floods, worse droughts and expanding deserts, severe shortages of fresh water and increased epidemics of dangerous tropical diseases. The world’s impoverished majority will and already are bearing the brunt.
And every day brings more evidence that not only strengthens these conclusions, but suggests they are underestimates.
Radical British columnist George Monbiot convincingly argues, based on the less well-publicised concentrations of more powerful greenhouse gases than CO2, that the more accurate target for emission cuts by the advanced industrialised countries should be an average of 90% by 2030. For the US and Australia, he urges a 94% cut. The “60% by 2050” being loudly proclaimed by the ALP here won’t avert the crisis.1
The price of prolonged inaction could be climate catastrophe. If the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets collapse, sea levels could rise by up to 10 metres in the space of a few decades. More moderate melting could slow or shut down the circulation of ocean currents in the North Atlantic, which are responsible for the relatively mild temperatures of Northern Europe.
More recent studies reveal that warming could cause the abrupt release of large quantities of methane — a greenhouse gas 21 times more powerful than carbon dioxide — stored in frozen, but quickly thawing, tundra; and this would greatly accelerate the process of warming. There many such “feedback loops” that may greatly speed global warming, all of which are unpredictable.
Capitalism ‘fiddles while Rome burns’
The scientists’ and environmental movement’s warnings on global warming are certainly not the first serious alert about the developing global environmental crisis that has been sounded.
In 1992, the World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity, a document signed by 1575 of the world’s leading scientists, including more than half the living scientists awarded the Nobel prize, cautioned: “Human beings and the natural world are on a collision course. Human activities inflict harsh and often irreversible damage on the environment and on critical resources. If not checked, many of our current practices put at risk the future we wish for human society and the plant and animal kingdom, and may so alter the living world that it will be unable to sustain life in the manner that we know. Fundamental changes are urgent if we are to avoid the collision our present course will bring.”2
The world scientists went on:“The environment is suffering critical stress in such areas as the atmosphere, the oceans, water resources, soil, forests and living species. The irreversible loss of species, which by 2100 may reach one-third of all species now living is especially serious.”
Their conclusion was blunt: “A great change in our stewardship of the Earth and the life on it is required if vast human misery is to be avoided and our global home on this planet is not to be irretrievably mutilated.”
The ecology of the entire planet is threatened with “irretrievable mutilation” because of the rapidly rising rate and scale at which human society, primarily by the richest capitalist economies, is exceeding the capacity of the Earth’s natural processes to deal with its activities.
Some examples of this: somewhere between a third and a half of the land surface of the Earth has been transformed by human action; more than half of the fresh water sources are now put to use by human beings; the species extinction rate today is the highest in 65 million years, with the extinction rate approaching 1000-times the “benchmark” or natural rate.3
A 2002 study by the US National Academy of Sciences concluded that the world economy had exceeded Earth’s regenerative capacity in 1980. By 1999, it was beyond that point by as much as 20%.
There is a growing global fresh water shortage, a problem being made worse by global warming. According to the World Health Organisation, 1.1 billion people today do not have access to safe drinking water. About 2.6 billion people — half the developing world — lack adequate sanitation. As a direct consequence, 1.6 million people die every year of disease; 90% are children under five, mostly in developing countries.
Another serious global environmental problem that needs to be tackled immediately is the state of our oceans. The November issue of Science just reported that a major study had found that if the current unsustainable rate of industrial fishing continues the world may run out of seafood by 2048. Nearly one-third of all commercially fished species in the open ocean and coastal regions have collapsed — meaning that the catch has plummeted by more than 90% since 1950. The rate is accelerating; in 1980 just 13% of fished species had collapsed. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, three-quarters of commercially viable fish stocks around the world are being overfished.
Due to declines in biodiversity of 50% or more, the study found, significant coastal marine ecosystems have also begun to unravel, resulting in dead zones caused by the remaining sea life, such as oysters, being unable to filter and detoxify the water. The cloudier water stunts the growth of sea grasses, which are essential nursery habitats for many fish species. As the study director Boris Worm remarked: “Through this research, it became clear … that we hardly appreciate living on a blue planet. The oceans define our planet, and their fate may to a large extent determine our fate.”4
Yet, as the planet-wide crisis has gathered pace and the scientific warnings have multiplied and become louder, the long-drawn out response of the ruling capitalist classes and their governments has been first to deny that there is a crisis at all, then assert that the warnings are exaggerated and anyway we can adapt. When it is finally obvious something really has to be done, they “fiddle while Rome burns”, opting for inadequate, voluntary, gradual measures that will cost big business as little as possible to implement.
As the UN Environment program’s 1997 Global State of the Environment Report despaired: “Progress towards a global sustainable future is just too slow. A sense of urgency is lacking. Internationally and nationally, the funds and political will are insufficient to halt further environmental degradation … even though technology and knowledge are available to do so … As a result, the gap between what has been done thus far and what is realistically needed is widening.”
Kyoto Protocol: too little, too late
We can see this being played out yet again. While scientists began warning of global warming in the 1980s, it was not until December 1997 that an international treaty, the Kyoto Protocol, was finally agreed upon. It did not come into force until February 2005. The US, the world’s largest emitter of industrial greenhouse gases — 23% of the total — and Australia refuse to ratify the treaty, and US President George Bush and John Howard (backed by the powerful fossil-fuel, oil and car industries) continue to question the reality of industrially induced global warming.
And yet, after more than 20 years of knowing that global warming is happening, not only are the Kyoto treaty’s formal emission reduction targets minuscule compared to what is required, the corporate-friendly, market-based mechanisms contained in it to achieve these are counterproductive.
Under the treaty, the rich industrialised countries, which have historically been and remain the major emitters, are only required to cut their greenhouse gas emissions on average by 5.2% below 1990 levels. They have until 2012 to achieve this. However, despite the need to achieve a minimum 60-80% reduction in emissions by 2050 (let alone Monbiot’s much more accurate estimate), no reduction targets or timetables are yet established for beyond 2012.
Under the treaty, rich countries that cannot or do not want to reduce greenhouse gas emissions below their target can buy “right to pollute” credits from other countries that have bettered their Kyoto promises. It should be remembered that the Kyoto baseline of 1990 conveniently ignores the fact that after 1990-91, the economies of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe (including East Germany) collapsed, resulting in a 40% reduction in emissions from those countries. Russia and Ukraine will sell to other industrialised countries the right to increase their greenhouse gas emissions by that amount, and unified Germany’s emissions have been artificially reduced on paper.
Individual corporations are also allowed to buy and sell the right to pollute. Under the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), rich-country corporations can earn credits for investing in projects that claim to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in underdeveloped countries. The evidence so far is that many of these projects are of questionable benefit, may have taken place anyway or have other serious environmental impacts.
For example, a CDM project might allow the Australian government to finance a factory producing energy-efficient appliances in India, but not do it in Australia; or BHP Billiton might construct wind generators in Mozambique but continue to pump CO2 into the atmosphere from its operations in Australia and South Africa.
A further likely result of the CDM will be that rich country governments and corporations will dump obsolete technology on the poor countries as the First World introduces new energy-generation plant and equipment. Because this out-of-date technology may be “cleaner” than existing Third World factories and power plants, the First World will be awarded greenhouse credits, while the Third World will be stuck with obsolete (and uncompetitive) infrastructure considered too dirty to use in the rich countries.
According to the New Scientist website,5 the treaty’s initial loopholes and scams meant that even if the industrialised countries achieve Kyoto’s 5.2% reduction on paper, the real-world reduction would be just 1.5%.
However, figures released in October show that since 1990 annual greenhouse gas emissions from the richest countries are continuing to rise and, adjusted for the paper reductions that followed the collapse of the Eastern European economies, were more than 11% greater in 2004. Of the 41 richest Kyoto ratifiers, 34 had increased emissions between 1990 and 2004. US emissions are up 21.1%, Australia’s by 25.1%. Emissions from transportation jumped 24%. Conveniently, car and airplane emissions are not covered by the treaty.
At the same time, the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere continues to rise and at an increasing rate. The World Meteorological Organisation reported in November that CO2 increased to 379.1 parts per million in 2005. To keep global warming to 2°C, CO2 concentration must be stabilised at around 450ppm by 2050. According to Oxford University’s Myles Allen, one of Britain’s leading climate scientists, “at these rate, it certainly sounds like we’ll end up towards the high-end of the emission scenarios”, translating at above 5°C by 2100.
As all this shows, even when confronted with the greatest environmental challenge yet, capitalist governments and the capitalist economic system they defend simply cannot put people or the planet before profits.
Individual solutions not enough
Which brings us back to the “former next president of the United States”.
Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth does an excellent job in making the threat we face understandable and dramatises the need for emergency action. But it is precisely on what needs to be done, and how, that he falls far short.
The main solutions Gore offers are individual actions: that we all install long-life light bulbs, insulate our homes, drive hybrid cars, vote for the “right” respectable candidates. Beyond that, Gore makes few serious demands on big business, and endorses the largely voluntary market-based measures, such as emissions trading, contained in the Kyoto treaty. Gore also mentions in passing and approvingly “geosequestration”, so-called clean coal, and nuclear power.
Unfortunately, such an approach is both inadequate and politically misleading, given the magnitude and source of the global environmental crisis. Gore and others urge us to lead “carbon-neutral” lives — but how is that possible, if the Australian and world economy is not carbon neutral because the unaccountable, unelected giant multinational car makers, fossil fuel combines, huge mineral processors and the major power generating corporations and corporatised public utilities spew greenhouse gases into the air at increasing rates?
However well intentioned, appeals to people to change their individual habits — “Don’t drive a car”, “Don’t keep your appliances on stand-by”, “Stop being a consumer” — bring trivial results when measured against the problem. If there’s no adequate public transportation, if there’s no adequate city planning that lets workers live close to jobs, schools, hospitals and recreation, how can they stop driving cars? If every appliance the big corporations churn out is designed be on standby by default, it makes it bloody difficult.
As a leading liberal wealthy capitalist politician who so recently sought to take the political reins of the world’s most powerful capitalist government, someone who believes that capitalism and the market can solve the world’s problems, Gore is unwilling to and sees no reason to confront the world’s most powerful corporations, and the ruling capitalist class. He doesn’t blame the political and economic system run for and by the tiny minority class of capitalists who are prepared to gamble with the fate of the Earth in order to maximise their profits.
Of course, Gore is not alone in pushing the onus of solving global warming and other manifestations of the broader environmental crisis onto individuals, while also relying on the capitalist market, nudged along by so-called “green” taxes and legislative regulations. This is also the underlying approach of most mainstream environmental groups and the major Greens parties. Even Monbiot’s otherwise radical proposals include a form of carbon trading, albeit much more egalitarian. As a result, this consensus is accepted by most environmental activists.
Such views among genuine environmental activists reflect a well-meaning but ultimately utopian belief that if only enough of us decide to drastically reduce our demand on the world’s resources — via greatly reduced personal consumption, purchasing from firms with sustainable production techniques and non-polluting technologies — big business and governments will respond to “market signals” and accept and adapt to a slow-growth or no-growth economy.
Of course, we should not dismiss the importance of environmental consciousness and radicalisation, which is often expressed in attempts to live in ways consistent with sustainability. It is a good thing if people try to organise their lives so that they live more ecologically.
But we have to be clear that that alone will not be enough to halt the crisis. It certainly cannot be the main strategy of the mass environment movement, as it will let the real culprits off the hook and divert precious activist energy away from the underlying systemic dynamic that is driving ecological degradation.
As Marxist ecologist John Bellamy Foster explained in a very useful and accessible article published in the Monthly Review magazine in February 1995,6 behind most appeals for individual “ecological morality”, “there lies the presumption that we live in a society where the morality of the individual is the key to the morality of society. If people as individuals could simply change their moral stance with respect to nature and alter their behaviour in areas such as propagation, consumption, and the conduct of business, all would be well.”
However, Foster continues: “What is all too often overlooked in such calls for moral transformation is the central institutional fact of our [capitalist] society: what might be called the global ‘treadmill of production’.”
The ‘treadmill’ of capitalist production and capital accumulation
Foster draws directly from the scientific socialist analysis of capitalism first made by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels to illustrate how, despite the assertions of many environmental movement theorists over the years, Marxism not only provides essential insights into the fundamental cause of the environmental crisis, but also offers the best political guide to its solution. Only far-reaching social revolution aimed at replacing the anti-environmental capitalist system can pull the planet back from the brink of disaster.
Foster breaks down the logic of the capitalist “treadmill” into six elements. “First … constituting its central rationale, is the increasing accumulation of wealth [capital] by a relatively small section of the population at the top of the social pyramid. Second, there is a long-term movement of workers away from self-employment and into wage jobs that are contingent on the continual expansion of production. Third, the competitive struggle between businesses necessitates, on pain of extinction, the allocation of accumulated wealth to new, revolutionary technologies that serve to expand production. Fourth, wants are manufactured in a manner that creates an insatiable hunger for more. Fifth, government becomes increasingly responsible for promoting national economic development” … and “Sixth, the dominant means of communication and education are part of the treadmill, serving to reinforce its priorities and values.”
Foster is summarising and paraphrasing Karl Marx’s account of the essential operation of the capitalist system, and identifies its fundamentally anti-ecological trait, captured by Marx’s general formula for the creation of capital.
During the long period of pre-capitalist simple commodity production, peasants and artisans sold their surplus produce for money to buy goods to meet their other immediate needs (for example, wheat sold to buy shoes).
This circuit of commodities and money takes the form of Commodity-Money-Commodity, and usually ends with the consumption of the commodity. However, under the capitalist mode of production — in which commodity production is now generalised — the circuit begins and ends with money. The capitalist buys or produces commodities in order to sell them for a profit, and then buys or produces more to sell more again. The formula is now M-C-M’, in which M’ represents the original outlay to buy or produce the commodities, plus the surplus value created by human labour during their production.
Unlike simple commodity production, there is no end to the process, since the capitalists’ aim is the reinvestment of the surplus, or accumulation of the capital, from the previous cycle. Competition between capitalists ensures that each one must continue to reinvest their “earnings”, increase their production of commodities and continue to expand in order to survive. Production tends to expand exponentially until interrupted by crises (depressions and wars) and it is this dynamic at the very core of capitalism that places enormous, unsustainable pressure on the environment.
Capitalism is a system that pursues accumulation and growth for its own sake, whatever the consequences. It is a juggernaut driven by the single-minded need on the part of business for ever-greater accumulation of capital. “Accumulate, accumulate! That is Moses and the Prophets!”, wrote Marx in Capital.7 Capitalism is like the proverbial scorpion, who, after stinging the frog as he was being carried across the river on its back, meaning the death of both, could only say: “I could not help myself. It is my nature.”
This is why all schemes based on the hope of a no-growth, slow-growth or sustainable-growth form of capitalism are pipe dreams. As too are strategies based on a critical mass of individual consumers deciding to go “green” in order to reform the system. A “stationary” or “steady-state” capitalism is an impossibility.
As Foster points out: “Everyone … is part of this treadmill and unable or unwilling to get off. Investors and managers are driven by the need to accumulate wealth and to expand the scale of their operations in order to prosper within a globally competitive milieu. For the vast majority, the commitment to the treadmill is more limited and indirect: they simply need to obtain jobs at livable wages. But to retain those jobs and to maintain a given standard of living … it is necessary, like the Red Queen in [Alice] Through the Looking Glass, to run faster and faster in order to stay in the same place”
This, Foster notes, also allows us to quickly dispose of that other related but even more utopian approach: appeal to the heads of corporations to do the right thing. To quote Noam Chomsky: “The chair of the board will always tell you that they spend every waking hour labouring so that people will get the best possible products at the cheapest possible price and work in the best possible conditions. But it is an institutional fact, independent of who the chairperson of the board is, that they had better be trying to maximise profit and market share, and if they aren’t doing that, they are not going to be chair of the board any more.”
Bourgeois economists since the days of Adam Smith have conceded that capitalism is a system devoted to the pursuit of individual wealth, and only indirectly — by some “hidden hand” — meets society’s broader needs. But as is becoming increasingly clear, the former goal supersedes and corrupts the latter.
For capitalists, profit is an end in itself. It does not matter to them whether the commodities they produce satisfy fundamental human needs — such as food, clothing, shelter — or are devoted to pointless or ostentatious consumption, or are even destructive to human beings and the planet. A buck is a buck whether it comes from mung beans, Lamborghinis or cigarettes.
People are not “consumers” by nature. A multi-billion-dollar capitalist industry called advertising constantly plays with our minds to convince us that happiness comes only through buying more and more “stuff”, to keep up with endless wasteful fads, fashions, upgrades, new models and built-in obsolescence. The desire for destructive and/or pointless goods is manufactured along with them.8
In 2003 alone, US big business spent more than US$54.5 billion on advertising to convince people to consume more and more goods and services.9 This compares to the US government’s total education budget of US$76 billion in 2003. In 1995, the average adult in the United States watched 21,000 television commercials a year, about 75% of which are paid for by the 100 largest corporations. In Australia, annual ad spend passed the A$10 billion mark in 2004.10 Worldwide more than US$298 billion is expected to be spent on advertising in 2007.11
But surely, it would be in the capitalists’ own interests to shift to more energy-efficient production and replace dirty fossil fuels with cleaner, more efficient renewable sources.
Many in the environmental movement argue that with the right mix of taxes, incentives and regulations, everybody would be winners. Big business will have cheaper, more efficient production, and therefore be more profitable, and consumers will have more environment-friendly products and energy sources.
In a rational society, such innovations would lower the overall environmental impact in terms of materials and energy used per unit of output, when substituted for more harmful technology. Unfortunately, we don’t live in a rational society.
Another feature of capitalism that flows from its growth at all costs nature has also been noted by John Bellamy Foster.12 Known as the “Jevons Paradox”, after the 19th Century British economist William Stanley Jevons, it refers to capitalist industry’s tendency to use up even more of a natural input as it finds more efficient ways to utilise it.
As Jevons noted in his 1865 book The Coal Question: “It is the very economy of its use which leads to its extensive consumption … If the quantity of coal used in a blast-furnace, for instance, be diminished in comparison with the yield, the profits of the trade will increase, new capital will be attracted, the price of pig-iron will fall, but the demand for it will increase; and eventually the greater number of furnaces will more than make up for the diminished consumption of each.”
Of course, capitalism approaches technology — in the production process or in the final commodity — in the same way as it does everything else. What will generate the most profits? Whether it is efficient, clean, safe, environmentally benign or rational has little to do with it. The technologies that could tackle global warming have long existed. Even though research into them has been massively underfunded, renewable energy sources are even today competitive with coal and nuclear power (if the negative social and environmental costs are factored in). Public transport systems, such as trams and trains, have been around since the late 1800s (the first underground railway, London’s Tube system, began operation in 1863).
Yet, huge private vested interests have ensured that, for example, the vastly more wasteful, inefficient and polluting private motor vehicle has come to dominate the industrialised capitalist countries. US Marxist economist Paul Sweezy has described how what he calls the “automobile-industrialisation complex” — the major car companies, the oil industry, the steel, glass and rubber corporations, the highway builders, the trucking combines and the real-estate and construction interests tied to suburban sprawl — have been the axis “around which [capital] accumulation in the 20th century largely turned”. This “automobile-industrialisation complex” remains at the heart of the dependence of the major capitalist economies on oil today.13 Transportation accounts for the largest proportion of CO2 emissions in the US and the third largest in Australia.
Today, following Henry Ford II’s famous maxim, “minicars make miniprofits”, car manufacturers make the bulk of their profits from making and selling big cars, 4X4s and minivans.
Fundamental to capitalism’s development has been its power to shift the cost of its ecological and social vandalism onto society as whole, by using the biosphere as a giant dunny down which it can flush its toxic wastes. More profits can accrue if the big capitalists don’t have to bother themselves with the elimination, neutralisation or recycling of industrial wastes. It’s much cheaper to pour toxic waste into the air or the nearest river. Rather than pay for the real costs of production, society as a whole subsidises corporate profit-making by cleaning up some of the mess or suffering the environmental and/or health costs.
Or the whole messy business can simply be exported to the Third World. In August, a Dutch company with revenues of US$28 billion last year dumped 500 tonnes of toxic waste in the Ivory Coast, West Africa, because it did not want to pay the $250,000 disposal fee in the Netherlands. At least 10 people died from the fumes, 69 were hospitalised, more than 100,000 needed medical attention.
At the same time, the impact of systematic polluting has been magnified by the profit-driven development of synthetic chemicals associated with the growth of the petrochemical and agribusinesses, and synthetic products (like plastics, pesticides and detergents) have been substituted for natural ones (like wood, leather and soap). The result is much more toxic wastes, such as those from chlorine-related (organochlorine) production — creating Frankenstein substances such as dioxin, PCBs and CFCs. The degree of toxicity associated with a given level of production has risen steadily since the middle of last century.
Renowned pioneer of radical environmentalism Barry Commoner, in his 1992 book Making Peace with the Planet, reported that the petrochemical industry alone up to that point had introduced 70,000 alien synthetic chemical compounds into the biosphere. He writes: “These … compounds … disrupt normal biochemistry, leading to mutations, cancer, and in many different ways, to death. In effect, the petrochemical industry produces substances that … cunningly enter the chemistry of life, and attack it.”
In general, there is no natural feedback mechanism that works to trigger the great god “the market” to rein in this sort of environmental destruction by increasing costs for capital, no matter how severe the cost to nature and society. Attempts to manage the damage by “regulating” capitalism with “green taxes” have had limited successes, precisely because pro-capitalist governments are run by corporate-funded political parties and politicians, with bureaucracies headed by loyal establishment figures, who see their role as defenders of the status quo.
Tax rates, charges or fines are set well below the level that would impact seriously on profits; so more often than not it is cheaper for big business to go on polluting until the next scheduled refit than to immediately put a stop to it. Taxes tend to be set at rates that can be passed on to consumers, the goal being to influence demand for certain products, rather than at a level that forces a fundamental and rapid redirection of investment into non-polluting or renewable technology.
Capitalism, an economic and political system based on the never-ending expansion of production of commodities for sale, is incompatible with the basic ecological cycles of the planet.
As is becoming abundantly clear today, the Earth cannot sustain this system’s plundering and poisoning without humanity sooner or later experiencing a complete ecological catastrophe.
To have any chance of preventing this, within the 30- to 50-year window that we have in relation to global warming, humanity must take conscious, rational control of its interactions with the planet and its ecological processes, in ways that capitalism is inherently incapable of providing.
Marx and Engels on ecology
Contrary to the repeated assertions by some environmental movement theorists, Marx and Engels were personally well aware of and respectful of humanity’s interconnectedness with the environment, and they recognised that it was essential for socialism to be ecologically sustainable. John Bellamy Foster and fellow Marxist Paul Burkett have discussed this in their articles and books on Marx and Engels’ neglected writings on the subject.
But let’s touch on their findings briefly. Marx in several places noted how capitalism had created a “metabolic rift” between human beings and the earth. The wrenching of the mass of people from the soil, forced to work in the factories of the cities, was one of the preconditions for the development of industrial capitalism. Before long the fields were being starved of nutrients, while city streets and rivers stunk of human effluent and associated filth.
Marx referred to capitalist farming as “an art, not only of robbing the labourer, but of robbing the soil” that sapped the everlasting sources of wealth — the soil and the worker. He argued in effect for the return to ecological sustainability, which had been destroyed by, and was not possible under, capitalism.
Writing in Capital, Volume 3, Marx commented: “From the standpoint of higher economic forms of society, private ownership of the globe by single individuals will appear quite as absurd as private ownership of one man by another. Even a whole society, a nation, or even all simultaneously existing societies taken together, are not owners of the globe. They are only its possessors … they must hand it down to succeeding generations in an improved condition.”14
To simultaneously put an end to the capitalist plunder of the environment and the working people, to “systematically restore” the “metabolism”, Marx urged a social revolution that would abolish private ownership. Marx wrote in Capital that only “the associated producers [can] govern the human metabolism with nature in a rational way, bring it under their collective control instead of being dominated by it as a blind power”.15 This symbiotic relationship between humanity and the environment must again become “a regulative law of social production”. He declared that the “conscious and rational treatment of the land as eternal communal property” is “the inalienable condition for the existence and reproduction of the chain of human generations”, i.e., sustainable development.16
Engels in the Dialectics of Nature agreed. To “regulate” our relationship with nature “requires something more than mere knowledge. It requires a complete revolution in our hitherto existing mode of production, and simultaneously a revolution in our whole contemporary social order.”17
In this talk I’ve attempted to illustrate how Marxism allows us to understand how the intrinsically anti-ecological capitalist “treadmill” of production and capital accumulation cannot be the basis for an ecologically sustainable society, or even address the immediately pressing global warming crisis.
Only a socialist society can build an ecologically sustainable world
A plethora of “blueprints” for an ecologically sustainable world have been produced by the dozens by Green groups here and around the world, containing logical and commonsense solutions to global warming and the general environmental crisis. They fail not because their proposals for a rapid conversion to renewable energy and the rational reorganisation of production and consumption are far-fetched. They fail because they do not accept that capitalism is incapable of bringing them into being. Only a society that places the “associated producers” at its head and at its heart can open the way for the building of a genuinely feasible sustainable society.
As the DSP’s essential 1999 document Environment, Capitalism and Socialism succinctly puts it: “Any proposal to save the environment that doesn’t adopt this approach … is doomed to be reduced to a set of ‘interesting proposals’ in speedy transit to irrelevance, or to providing the newest wave of bamboozling eco-chatter, or to supplying the next menu items for futile gradualism that falls further and further behind in its tasks.”18
A society run by and for the “associated producers” — a socialist society — would allow the controlling levers of the “treadmill” to be seized, bringing it to a halt so we can all get off and begin to think about, discuss and rationally plan the best way forward for both the planet and all its inhabitants. Profit will no longer dictate what is produced and how or determine the relationships of rich-country governments with the Third World.
Almost immediately, huge material and human resources would be released to begin to rapidly reverse problems like global warming and the destruction of the oceans, as well as the wider global environment crisis, as well making a start on ending the poverty, hunger and disease that affect billions in the Third World.
Where from? For a start from capitalism’s war spending. Global direct military spending is running at more than US$1 trillion a year, of which the US accounts for almost 50%.19 When related spending is factored in, US military spending is set to be above $900 billion in 2008. The Australian defence budget is $22 billion a year and since 9/11 another $20 billion has been spent on the bogus “war on terror”.20
Just a fraction of these sums could eliminate starvation and malnutrition globally, provide education for every child on Earth, provide access to water and sanitation and reverse the spread of AIDS and malaria.
It would also enable the massive transfer of new and clean technologies to the Third World, to allow poor countries to skip the stage of dirty industrial development. With the end of capitalist domination, the plunder of Third World resources would end and genuine development could ensue. With the cancellation of the Third World debt, the now poor countries would retain vast sums to kick start their clean development.
On top of that, the “ecological debt” — described by the Ecuador-based Action Ecological as the debt owed to the Third World as a result of the “Northern” countries’ plundering of their natural resources, environmental damage and the dumping of wastes, including greenhouse gases — would begin to be repaid. This was estimated in 2004 to be at least $1.6 trillion a year, three times the $523 billion “owed” by the poorest countries.21
The wealth of the former ruling class and the ending of its rule would also provide immense resources for the tasks at hand. According to a UN report released in late November, the richest 2% of adults in the world own more than half of all household wealth. The poorest 50% of the world’s population own barely 1% of global wealth. Europe, the United States and Japan account for most of the extremely wealthy. More than a third live in the US. Japan accounts for 27% of the total, and Britain and France 5-6% each.22
Genuine democratic socialist planning will allow priorities to be set on the production of certain items and limit or eliminate others. Just imagine the vast amounts of wasteful production of pointless commodities produced solely for sale that could be eliminated. Without the cynical manipulation of people’s insecurities and vanities by the billion-dollar advertising and marketing industries, not to mention its outright dishonesty, needless and wasteful consumption would plummet.
The marketing-driven over-packaging of products could end, saving entire forests, and banishing billions of tonnes of “disposable” but environmentally indigestible plastic fast-food containers and beverage bottles from the rubbish dumps. The triumphant return of the humble but eminently sensible — and recyclable — glass bottle would be at hand!
Inbuilt obsolescence would end, and the corporate creation of fads and fashions would become a thing of the past. No more “this year’s new model”. Products would be built to last for a very long time, and when they were due for replacement they would be as totally recyclable as possible. Such basic reforms would save massive amounts of materials and energy, all along the production chain.
We could collectively redirect the investment of society’s created wealth into research and development of existing and new technologies to meet society’s needs while operating as cleanly as possible, and well within the environment’s capacity to absorb any waste products. We could rapidly bring forward the expansion of renewable energy and speedily phase out coal and nuclear power stations.
With a huge boost to socially directed investment in research and development, reliable solar energy and wind power, other forms of alternative energy, could very soon become much cheaper than traditional sources, without many of the currently costly society-borne side-effects. We could begin to harness the sun’s energy, which every day delivers to the Earth 17,000 times as much energy as the entire population uses.
Right now, the technology is available to theoretically generate all the clean electricity we need. Combined with energy-efficiency targets throughout the economy, from the industrial level to house designs and household appliances, and socially organised recycling, greenhouse gas emissions could be not only slashed but reversed.
If society so chose, entire branches industry could be subsidised as they were force-marched into environmentally friendliness, or closed down overnight and the workers’ skills and talents utilised almost immediately in other industries, or retrained on full pay.
Capitalism’s dependence on the private car and truck would begin be reversed with the rapid proliferation of mass, free public transport systems. High on the agenda will be the reintroduction of extensive passenger and freight rail networks in rural, regional and remote areas. The reintroduction and expansion of coastal freight shipping will also be important. In time, cities will be no longer be designed around the private car, but around residential, community and work hubs linked by fast, efficient public transport.
And as the “associated producers” build the new society, wants and needs will inevitable alter, and so too will consumption habits. Capitalism as a system thrives on the cultivation and celebration of the worst aspects of human behaviour; selfishness and self-interest; greed and hoarding; the dog-eat-dog mentality. Capitalism’s warped view of normal human interaction is summed by the Orwellian-titled unreality show, Survivor. In this twisted vision of the workings of society, the last person standing is the victor! But all societies survive — even capitalist societies — not by bumping each other off to get the cash, but by cooperating.
In a society that is organised first and foremost to work together to produce enough to comfortably ensure people’s physical and mental wellbeing and social security — abundant food, clothing, housing, furniture and appliances, cultural pursuits, and lifelong education and training, and healthcare — and in which technological advances benefit everybody without costing the environment, a new social definition of wealth will evolve. It won’t be measured by personal wealth, or by how much “stuff” you’ve got.
In the words of Marx and Engels,23 social wealth will be defined by the degree to which it provides the means for “all members of society to develop, maintain and exert their capacities in all possible directions” so that “the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms,” is replaced “by an association [society] in which the free development of each is a condition of the free development of all”.
Social wealth — human development — will be not be measured by an ever-increasing consumption of goods and services, or expanding indices of “economic growth”, but in the shortening of the work day. In the words of Marx, “free time, [or] disposable time, is wealth itself … free time … for the free development , intellectual and social, of the individual”.
As society’s total disposable time — social wealth — expands, so too does the ability of all members of society to increasingly participate in running, planning and solving its problems, including finding solutions to the more intractable environmental or technological problems. Lifelong theoretical and practical education, made possible by this expanding disposable time, Marx states, will “convert science from an instrument of class rule into a popular force”.
Only a socialist system, in which public ownership, popular democracy and planning, and a new definition of wealth based not on individual personal enrichment and consumption can possibly meet the challenge. It would not be too extreme to declare that world humanity in the next 50 or so years faces a stark choice between capitalism or human survival.