Revolution #199, April 18, 2010

Something Deeper at Work...

Why Capitalism Cannot Solve the Environmental Emergency

What Is the Cause of the Emergency?

Why is the natural environment being destroyed?

Is it simple greed of corporations? Ignorance? “Human nature”? Science itself?

In December of 2009, the governments of the earth assembled in Copenhagen, Denmark. They promised to create an agreement that would at least begin to slow down climate change. But instead of a serious scientific convocation followed by meaningful steps to address the emergency, the world got something quite different. The great powers, with the U.S. dominating the rest, were contending with each other over climate issues. These biggest polluters in the world, and the U.S. alone is responsible for more than a quarter of all carbon emissions in the atmosphere, used the climate negotiations to gain strategic advantage over each other and to strong-arm the poor countries, which are also the most vulnerable to the effects of global climate change. Protesters—some of whom have dedicated their lives to saving the planet—were locked out, often arrested, and sometimes beaten by police. The end result: a promise that did nothing to stop climate change and was worse than meaningless.

What happened? Are these powers just too ignorant, arrogant and corrupt to accomplish what was needed?

Or is there something deeper at work?

Cancerous Growth, Crippling Integration

To answer this, we need to come to grips with the economic and political system that we live under: capitalism. We have to examine the economic relations at the foundation of this society, and the institutions and ideas which have grown up on and reinforce that foundation.


To capital, nature is either something to be seized and plundered, or a gift to be taken for granted, exploited and poured into profit-based commodity production.

Capitalism has led to the fastest growth in productivity of human labor in human history. But this growth has been based on the more intense exploitation of world humanity and the more savage plunder of the planet. Unparalleled growth has carried with it unparalleled destruction. Capitalism arose on a foundation of the “African holocaust”—the enslavement and murder of over 11 million African people—and the genocide of the Native American peoples, through conquest, disease and working them to death in the silver mines. Capitalism thrived on the exploitation of children and immigrants, and brought with it devastating depressions and two world wars. Today, in its phase of capitalism-imperialism, it carries out and/or sponsors terrible genocidal invasions and wars against people in Africa, Asia and Latin America. And now capitalism is causing environmental destruction that endangers human existence itself.

Capitalism has integrated the whole world. But this integration is horrifically unequal. This is a world divided up by a handful of wealthier countries which dominate the rest of the world. The relative prosperity in the imperialist powers—prosperity which cannot hide the exploitation and poverty of millions in the “developed world”—exists in relation to the bitterest immiseration in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

Imperialist powers like the U.S., Japan and the European nations parasitically feed off the peoples of the rest of the planet. The imperialists achieve control over the resources of the whole world through investments, trade agreements, control of technology and dominance of markets. They gorge themselves on these resources—and then they shift back the pollution that they cause into the very nations which they oppress and plunder. Different countries and different peoples face this crisis in radically unequal ways, and those who live in the imperialist countries often don’t even know how bad the crisis really is.

Let’s look at a few examples of how this comes down:

And this terrible plunder of the earth’s environment and its people, and the unequal and oppressive way this comes down, is defended and reinforced by brutal military power—especially that of the U.S. military (which, as it turns out, just happens to be the single biggest institutional consumer of oil in the world. (See “A Dirty Little Secret of Capitalism: The U.S. Military Is One of the World’s Largest Polluters.”)

Capitalism Is a System: What That Means

But still—is there something intrinsic to capitalism, something built into the way it works, that has generated this?

Any society is a system. That means that it operates according to certain rules, like a game. If the rules are violated, the system doesn’t work. Think about the rules of basketball, or soccer. When the players go on the court, they can’t just do whatever they want. If a basketball player should decide to kick the ball, as you do in soccer, because it seems the best way to get it downcourt, she’d be penalized. If she kept doing it, she’d be thrown out of the game. So you need to understand the rules. And you need to understand whether you can make the game work by modifying the rules, or whether you need to be playing a different game altogether.

The same is true with the system of capitalism. Yes, there are individual capitalists and corporations who have created the crisis. But we need to understand if there is something about the rules of that game that have led to this crisis. We need to understand whether we can deal with this crisis by working within the rules of capitalism, including perhaps modifying those rules—or whether capitalism itself must go. The future of life itself depends on our getting this right.

The fundamental point is this: capitalism as a system cannot deal with the environment in a sustainable and rational way—even if an individual capitalist, or group of capitalists, sincerely wanted to. Capitalism cannot cope with the many-sided effects of its own production. Capitalism cannot plan for future generations.

Why? Because capitalists, or blocs of capital, confront one another as competitors; sometimes they cooperate but at bottom each must be ready to seize on any advantage, to undercut their competition, lest their competition undercut them and drive them under. This basic underlying dynamic is what drives the actions of individual capitalists; and it is what lay behind the failure of the major powers to agree on any meaningful action at the recent Copenhagen conference on climate change.

Capitalist Rule Number One: Everything Is a Commodity and Everything Must Be Done for Profit

Capitalism approaches everything as a commodity. A commodity is anything that is produced in order to be exchanged, to be sold. Now to be exchanged—for someone to buy it—the commodity must be useful. In previous societies, people would produce for their own direct use and then supplement this by exchanging some of what they produced for goods that they needed. In today’s capitalist society virtually everything is produced in order to be sold to others—to be exchanged—and this almost universal dominance of commodity production and exchange marks off capitalism from previous forms of society. But there is something else, as well, at the heart of capitalism: the measure and motivation of all production is profit.

With capitalism, the mentality of viewing everything as a commodity and a potential source of profit penetrates into everything—into how people look at other people, how they look at themselves and, yes, how they see nature too. To capital, nature is either something to be seized and plundered, or a gift to be taken for granted, exploited and poured into profit-based commodity production. Even environmental disasters are seen first and foremost as “opportunities for profit”—as we see today with the melting of the polar ice caps due to relentless burning of fossil fuels. This is a terrible loss and tragedy, and puts all kinds of life—including human life—in acute danger. But for the capitalists of the U.S., Canada, Norway and Russia it is a call to maneuver to exploit the potentially rich reserves of new fossil fuels being opened up in the increasingly ice-free Barents and Arctic Seas. Global warming simply opens up new ground perversely, for capitalism to take “advantage” of—and take that warming to an even more horrible level.

Capitalist Rule Number Two: Production Is Privately Owned and Driven Forward by the Commandment “Expand or Die”

Capitalist production is by its nature private. The economy is fragmented into separate and competing units of capitalist control and ownership. Each unit of capital must fight others for market share, and to cheapen costs, in order to stay alive. To the extent that agreements are concluded, these either take the form of alliances in a larger battle, or temporary truces. Thus, each capitalist or bloc of capital must follow one basic commandment: expand, or die.


The fundamental point is this: capitalism as a system cannot deal with the environment in a sustainable and rational way—even if an individual capitalist, or group of capitalists, sincerely wanted to.

Each unit is fundamentally concerned with itself, with its own operations—with “realizing its investment” in the form of profit and expansion. An individual capitalist who opens a steel mill will subject the cost and efficiency of that steel mill to strict accounting. But what happens outside of that—for instance, what that steel mill’s pollution does to the air—is not “on its ledger.” When capitalist interests cut down rainforests in Indonesia for timber and then grow trees producing palm oil for biofuels, neither the massive amount of carbon released into the atmosphere nor the destruction of the habitat of the orangutan and Sumatran tiger even enter into the calculations.

To mainstream economics, tigers and apes (or air and water) are simply “externalities.” What this means is that environmental damages and the exhaustibility of resources don’t get counted. The extinction of entire species, the birth defects and diseases that ruin the lives of small children—these are “external” to capitalism’s account books. In the Niger Delta in West Africa, Shell Oil has caused tremendous pollution to the soil and water in extracting oil. And the burning of that oil adds to greenhouse gases left for future generations to deal with. But none of these effects are part of Shell’s economic bookkeeping. Each unit of capital looks at what lies outside itself as a “free ride.”

Due to its privately owned and controlled character, and flowing from the life-and-death competition between different capitals, there can be no conscious, society-wide coordination of production. There can be no long-term planning to take into account ecological impacts, or relations. The impact of its growth on the ecology of rainforests or oceans is not considered. Or whenever reforms are passed that seek to restrain them, capital is driven to seek to defeat or get around them. The horizons of capitalism tend to be short term because it must seek returns on its investment quickly. Consequences in 10, 20, 30 years don’t matter.

When the capitalists at Texaco, as we discussed above, poisoned the waters of the people in Ecuador, it wasn’t just greed (though the greed was monstrous); they feared that if they didn’t take all the profit that they could they would be driven under by some other capitalist, somewhere else, who would cut costs to the bone.

Capitalist Rule Number Three: Capitalism Today Proceeds through Imperialist Domination of Oppressed Nations and Strategic Rivalry between Imperialist Powers

By the mid-1800s capitalism began to burst its bounds. Capital stretched deeper into Asia, Africa and Latin America, investing in these countries and increasingly dominating their political and social structures—whether through outright colonialism or the more indirect domination of neocolonialism carried out through “native elites.” The imperialist powers carried out wars and invasions with a staggering and awful toll—hundreds of thousands murdered in the U.S. invasion of the Philippines, in the French subjugation of Algeria, or in the British repressions of resistance in India; in the Belgian Congo alone, an estimated 10 million people (half the population) was destroyed through murder, starvation, exhaustion, exposure, disease and a plummeting birth rate during Belgium’s horrific rule.

Like gangsters carving up turf and then violently clashing with each other, these capitalist powers would go to war with each other over the division of the planet. This caused World War 1 and was also the principal cause of World War 2. This drove the U.S. to threaten the use of nuclear weapons—which themselves could easily end human life on this planet—against what used to be the Soviet Union. Ultimately, U.S. military superiority both spurred on the collapse of their Soviet rivals and led to the era of U.S.-dominated globalization. But this rivalry itself continually recurs and takes new forms—and this rivalry played out at Copenhagen and prevented any significant agreement.

As we have shown in our article on the dimensions of the crisis, this terrible global inequality finds concentrated expression in the environmental emergency humanity now faces. The people in these oppressed nations find their waters and air utterly befouled, their agriculture devastated, their lands robbed of fertility; they find that their children face birth defects and a blighted future on a scale people in the imperialist countries can barely imagine; they find themselves driven by starvation and want into making the situation they face even worse—driven to clearing rainforests, or poaching in jungles. They awake each morning on a planet where the continued burning of fossil fuels puts the very existence of the island nations of the Pacific, as well as heavily populated low-lying countries like Bangladesh, in grave doubt; indeed, it is just a matter of time, on the current course, before these lands are inundated.

Six Reasons Why Laws Passed by the Government Will Not Even Begin to Solve this Problem

“Okay,” some will say, “the capitalists will do bad things if left on their own. But there is a whole history of laws that restrain their actions, and these laws often work. Why can’t we work for more and better reforms?”

As evidence for this, people point to certain “environmental successes” under the current system—for example, the international agreement cutting chlorofluorocarbons (CFC’s) that were damaging the ozone layer; some cuts in production of acid rain in the United States; the cleaning up of various bodies of water such as Lake Erie; the Clean Air Act; and others.

Well, what about this? It’s true there have been rules and regulations passed that have resulted in some curbing of environmental destruction and better standards in certain situations. Yet a closer examination reveals just how badly such efforts fall short of solving the problem.

  1. First off, the degree to which problems are addressed has to do with how central they are to profit-making and the entire functioning of the capitalist country. It is quite different for certain companies to switch from CFC’s to other substances (the switch that has resulted in leveling off of the destruction of the ozone layer) than it is for whole countries to switch off of fossil fuel energy use. The first affects a relatively small sector of companies; the second is foundational to the economies of capitalist countries and in particular to the domination of the U.S. over the entire world.
  2. Certain “gains” in cleaning up of water and air within the U.S. remain within an overall picture of continuing environmental destruction. While air quality in the U.S. has improved to a degree in certain areas, after 38 years of the Clean Air Act, one out of three people in the U.S. still live in counties with air pollution levels that exceed EPA standards. One in five live in areas with unhealthy year-round levels of particulate pollution, like soot. And note well: these dangers are more concentrated for oppressed nationality (i.e., Black, Latino, Native American and other “people of color”) and poor people.
    Or let’s look at efforts to clean the water. After 30 years of EPA standards, the EPA said in 2002 that more than a third of rivers and half of lakes surveyed didn’t meet pollution standards. Many fish, mammals, reptiles, flowering plants and amphibians are either imperiled or vulnerable to extinction in the U.S. And if anything, larger amounts of toxic chemicals—pesticides, insecticides, etc. are being released into the environment.
    This also holds true for schemes like “cap and trade,” which envisions a trade between capitalist enterprises in licenses to pollute. The most ardent defenders of this point to the Clean Air Act and similar reforms discussed above as positive examples. Some of them even concede that such an act would be more complex, more open to financial speculation and the various forms of corruption and fraud that go with that, and at the same time very unlikely to even pass into law at this point in the U.S. (see, for example, “Building A Green Economy,” Paul Krugman, New York Times Magazine, April 11, 2010, for a defense of cap and trade). Given all that, there is no reason to invest any more hope in this scheme than in the others, and every reason to expose it for the dangerous fraud that it is. In fact, detailed and blistering exposures of cap and trade in particular have been done by Mark Schapiro in the February 2010 Harper’s, “Conning the Climate: Inside the carbon-trading shell game,” and James Hansen, “Cap and Fade,” New York Times, December 7, 2009. Schapiro in particular, after going deeply into both the theory and the actual practice of this scheme as it has been done in Europe, concludes that cap and trade is “an elaborate shell game, a disappearing act that nicely serves the immediate interests of the world’s governments but fails to meet the challenges of our looming environmental crisis.”
  3. Whatever “greening” of the imperialist countries takes place occurs on the basis of the continuing ravaging and destruction by international capital of the oppressed countries. Rainforest destruction, toxic spills, etc., continue unabated in the countries where capital has no need for any “standards,” and this is a tremendous advantage to profitability. Thus, so long as we are inside the framework of imperialism, “greening” within the U.S. or Europe will be “paid for” by the exploitation of the oppressed countries and the lack of outlay for environmental protections there. 77% of the world’s resources are consumed by 20% of the world’s people. While in America people shower, wash and mainly freely drink (relatively) clean water (using 176 gallons per day on average), an average African lives on 5-6 gallons per day. This is about the same amount as 2-4 toilet flushes in the U.S.
  4. Any environmental standards or regulations are always short term, subject to reversal if necessities of capital change. It is not just that individual blocs of finance capital and corporations are all tied into the government—though they are. Even more fundamentally, the “rules” of capitalism are relentless and much more powerful than any short-term environmental protections.
    James Speth, an environmentalist who actually spent years working in the highest reaches of the UN and the U.S. government on environmental issues, notes that whatever partial gains there have been such as on ozone or acid rain, “the threatening global trends highlighted a quarter century ago continue to this day and have become more serious and intractable.” “As a result, the climate convention is not protecting climate, the biodiversity convention is not protecting biodiversity, the desertification convention is not preventing desertification, and even the older and stronger Convention on the Law of the Sea is not protecting fisheries. The same can be said for the extensive international discussions on world forests, which never have reached the point of convention.”
  5. Major political figures who operate within the framework of capitalism must ultimately enforce the interests of capital. Many people acknowledge that the Bush regime opened up massive destruction of the environment and undermining of standards. But Obamawho campaigned as an “environmentalist”has announced plans to pursue offshore drilling, nuclear power, and so-called “clean coal.”
  6. Even more basically, especially when confronted with the immense environmental dangers the world is facing, what is needed is nothing less than putting the needs of humanity and the environment first, and unleashing the creativity and initiative of masses of people is actually what is neededand no, that can’t happen under this system! Look at any natural disasterbe it Hurricane Katrina or the earthquake in Haitiand the first thing these capitalist-imperialists do is to send in troops to clamp down on the people and put a stop to/sabotage the self-organized efforts of the masses to deal with the emergency. Capitalism can’t confront this problem and mobilize humanity to deal with it because any such mobilization could undercut its necessity to defend the “sanctity of private property” and to maintain masses of people in a suppressed and subordinate position. The interests of the capitalist class and the interests of humanity as a whole are in antagonism.

"From the standpoint of higher economic forms [socialism and communism], private ownership of the globe by single individuals will appear quite as absurd as private ownership of one human by another. Even a whole society, a nation, or even all simultaneously existing societies taken together, are not the owners of the earth. They are simply its possessors, its beneficiaries, and must hand it down to future generations in an improved state."

—Karl Marx

To sum up: any environmental laws passed by governments under capitalism will always be limited, partial, under constant assault, and overwhelmingly confined to the rich countries while pollution and destruction continue unabated in the poor countries. And as people spend their efforts and energies in fruitlessly and harmlessly “working through the system,” that very same system will generate even more devastating environmental problems.

Making Important Efforts—But Running into Obstacles

This is not to say that people are not taking important steps right now to combat environmental destruction. They are, and these efforts should be supported. For example, biologists and others have developed very important initiatives to preserve natural systems and prevent ecosystem collapse in diverse ecosystems in many regions around the globe. Some of these efforts involve very imaginative thinking to “rewild the world” by linking together natural ecosystems into larger cores of wilderness and to develop natural corridors in particulararound and over roads or other developmentso that in particular top “apex” predator species that regulate whole ecosystems can travel to expand their range, migrate, etc. Some initiatives have met with some successfor instance, efforts to reintroduce wolves to the Yellowstone National Park area and to build corridors across busy highways have already had a positive impact. In other regions, however, these efforts run into tremendous difficultyfrustrated by big capitalist and other narrow interests, and also in many cases, by countries. For instance, efforts to develop corridors for top predators in the Mexico/U.S. border region have been prevented by U.S. Homeland Security building of border walls and fences.

In order for initiatives like this to really succeed in preserving critical ecosystems on the truly large scale needed, there is a need for bold initiatives that would often cross national boundaries and bring together unprecedented international cooperation among scientists and the people living in this region. Such efforts would need to overcome the ways the current system drives masses of people into cutting forests and poaching endangered species just to survive. These conservation efforts are extremely important but they are frustrated by the current capitalist relations. The new socialist system will be able to unleash such crucial initiatives.

Four Reasons Why “Green Technology” Is NOT the Answer


Actually saving the earth cannot be done within the framework of capitalism. It cannot be done by entrusting the fate of life on this planet to those whose only qualification is their history as the chief despoilers of that life. This may be a hard truth to face—but face it one must. A whole new way must be found.

Some argue that the development of new “green technologies” under the current system can be the solution for the climate crisis. The thinking goes that more current “clean” technologieslike use of water power, wind and solar for energy, and development of new technologieswould be the magic bullet to solve the climate problem, for instance. The trick, they say, is to make these technologies profitable enough to attract the capitalists into investing in themor else, get the governments to subsidize them.

Let’s look closer at this solution.

  1. First of all, because of all the “rules” we have spoken to, capitalists are driven to do what they calculate will be most profitable. And the current energy system of extracting oil, coal and gas is tremendously profitable. This is why it is the overwhelmingly dominant form of energy use in the world, despite the fact that it is both unsustainable and tremendously destructive, and is now fueling potentially catastrophic climate change. Companies and countries must try to dig and drill for every last bit of fossil fuels because if they don’t, some other competitor will grab it up and drive them under. Even if the U.S. were to launch a major project to develop green technologies and subsidize them, these subsidies would still have to come, in the form of tax moneys, from the overall profits generated by capital. Other countriesincluding some that rely on their own advantage in resources in fossil fuel productionwould see an opening and use the cheaper energy as a wedge to undercut U.S. economic dominance and the political and military power that is tied to it.
  2. Second, tremendous resources, infrastructure and knowledge are invested in fossil fuel production already. Again according to capitalism’s “rules,” all this investment has to be recouped. But if fossil fuel energy is no longer to be used, how will that happen? Going along with that, switching into “green tech” would itself require a huge outlay of capital. So it’s not so easy under capitalism to just break out of this fossil fuel dependence, to switch to green technologies that may not hold as much promise of profit-making. This is reflected in the actual investments into fossil fuel technologies from major energy companieswhich, contrary to the gauzy ads on public broadcasting TV, continue to dwarf by many times the investment in “green tech.” Indeed, as oil companies speak of “green technology” they are drilling deeper offshore in West Africaand along with that, the U.S. government is propping up and reinforcing corrupt ruling cliques in that region and have even instituted a special U.S. military “African command” (AFRICOM) there.
  3. Third, let’s suppose that it turns out that “green tech” could not, in the foreseeable future, produce energy more cheaply than burning fossil fuels. In a socialist or communist society a shift from burning fossil fuels to green tech could be made even despite that possibility because the needs of humanity and sustainability of natural systems would be the prime basis for decision making (even though cost would have to be taken into account). In addition, the state would be able to shift the surplus produced by society quickly into different sectors of the economy, according to greater social need. But this isn’t possible under capitalism, the reign of private ownership and control.
    Unless somehow people were prevented from extracting and burning fossil fuels, capital will flow into that economic path “naturally” because it would be cheaper and bring a higher return on investment. And if this was strictly outlawed in some fashion, even then production and sale of fossil fuels would still go on through the black market and the use of bribery, behind the backs of any law or environmental regulation. This is already the case today with logging of rainforests—officially banned in Indonesia, for example, but still going on—and also the shipping of toxic electronic waste from rich to poor countries, which is shipped under the cover of “donations” of computer equipment—despite being outlawed by international declarations and agreements.
  4. Fourth, and even more fundamentally, technology exists and can only be used by one economic system or another—and if that system is capitalism, any new technology will and can only be used within the framework of capitalism’s “rules” and its power relations. To follow this through, let’s assume the wildest dreams of “green tech” do come true—that scientists made great new breakthroughs and found ways to produce vast amounts of energy in cheap new ways that do not produce greenhouse gases.

What would happen under this system? Immediately various monopolies and blocs of capital—the only groupings under this system capable of organizing the mass production and distribution of this new energy—would battle over who would patent it, who would own it, who would profit from it. Those who won the battle would seek to charge as much as they could to make the most profit. The various machines and raw materials needed to produce this energy would be obtained by finding the places where all this could be produced most cheaply, by people working for low wages under very oppressive working conditions. And there would be a battle between capitalist powers leading to wars and interventions—for, just like oil, whoever could control this technology could control and dominate the world. Moreover, what is to prevent the capitalists from using green technology to make things like weapons of mass destruction? (Is it surprising to learn that the Pentagon is very interested in green technology?)

So even if somehow, in the wildest dreams of “green tech,” this led to more seriously addressing the climate crisis—and all our previous arguments show why this is, to put it mildly, highly unlikely—all this would still take place within a capitalist system, that in myriad other ways would be polluting and degrading nature and also oppressing the world’s people.

Yes, we desperately need green technologies that can sustainably produce energy without destroying the environment by warming the planet. But these can only be of help in a totally different social system, geared to deploying technology for the good of the peopleand NOT utilizing it with no other consideration than increasing profit. Actually saving the earth cannot be done within the framework of capitalism. It cannot be done by entrusting the fate of life on this planet to those whose only qualification is their history as the chief despoilers of that life. This may be a hard truth to facebut face it one must. A whole new way must be found.


Green Tech and the Story of Biofuels

The development of biofuels today is a living example of what happens when new “cleaner” energy sources are developed under capitalist relations. With the promise of profit from producing more “environmentally friendly” fuels to replace oil and gas, capital was sunk into agricultural production of crops that could be turned into ethanol, biodiesel fuel, etc. When this turned out to be very profitable, capital flowed into production of such crops and away from food production. This flow of capital into crop production for biofuels was a major factor triggering food shortages and skyrocketing corn and grain prices. This hit poor countries with devastating force, since they depend so much on the world market for grains and other food needs. So “green” fuel crop development caused people in poor countries worldwide to starve. This is a tremendous indictment revealing the bankruptcy of this system.

And more, biofuel crops, such as oil palm trees, are being grown in countries like Indonesia by destroying the rainforests to clear land. This is releasing massive amounts of carbon dioxide. (see “Plunder of the rainforests in Indonesia”). So, growing biofuel crops to “cut greenhouse gases” ends up causing even more build-up of greenhouse gases. Why? Because all this takes place under the rules of capitalist commodity production.

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