<title>D.4 What is the relationship between capitalism and the ecological crisis?
<H1>D.4 What is the relationship between capitalism and the ecological crisis?</H1>
Environmental damage has reached alarming proportions. Almost daily there
are new upwardly revised estimates of the severity of global warming,
ozone destruction, topsoil loss, oxygen depletion from the clearing of
rain forests, acid rain, toxic wastes and pesticide residues in food and
water, the accelerating extinction rate of natural species, etc., etc.
Some scientists now believe that there may be as little as 35 years to act
before vital ecosystems are irreparably damaged and massive human die-offs
begin [Donella M. Meadows, Dennis L. Meadows, and Jorgen Randers, <b>Beyond
the Limits: Confronting Global Collapse, Envisioning a Sustainable
Future</b>, Chelsea Green Publishing Company, 1992]. Or, as Kirkpatrick Sale
puts it, <i>"the planet is on the road to, perhaps on the verge of, global
ecocide"</i> [<i>"Bioregionalism -- A Sense of Place,"</i> <b>The Nation</b>
Many anarchists see the ecological crisis as rooted in the psychology of
domination, which emerged with the rise of patriarchy, slavery, and the
first primitive states during the Late Neolithic. Murray Bookchin, one of
the pioneers of eco-anarchism (see <a href="secEcon.html">section E</a>), points out that <i>"[t]he
hierarchies, classes, propertied forms, and statist institutions that
emerged with social domination were carried over conceptually into
humanity's relationship with nature. Nature too became increasingly
regarded as a mere resource, an object, a raw material to be exploited as
ruthlessly as slaves on a latifundium."</i> [<b>Toward an Ecological Society</b>
p. 41]. In his view, without uprooting the psychology of domination,
all attempts to stave off ecological catastrophe are likely to be
mere palliatives and so doomed to failure.
Bookchin argues that <i>"the conflict between humanity and nature is an
extension of the conflict between human and human. Unless the ecology
movement encompasses the problem of domination in all its aspects, it
will contribute <b>nothing</b> toward eliminating the root causes of the
ecological crisis of our time. If the ecology movement stops at
mere reformism in pollution and conservation control - at mere
'environmentalism' - without dealing radically with the need for an
expanded concept of revolution, it will merely serve as a safety
value for the existing system of natural and human exploitation."</i>
[<b>Ibid.</b>, p. 43]
Since capitalism is the vehicle through which the psychology of
domination finds its most ecologically destructive outlet, most
eco-anarchists give the highest priority to dismantling capitalism.
<i>"Literally, the system in its endless devouring of nature will reduce the
entire biosphere to the fragile simplicity of our desert and arctic
biomes. We will be reversing the process of organic evolution which has
differentiated flora and fauna into increasingly complex forms and
relationships, thereby creating a simpler and less stable world of life.
The consequences of this appalling regression are predictable enough in
the long run -- the biosphere will become so fragile that it will
eventually collapse from the standpoint human survival needs and remove
the organic preconditions for human life. That this will eventuate from a
society based on production for the sake of production is . . .merely a
matter of time, although when it will occur is impossible to predict."</i>
[<b>Ibid.</b>, p. 68]
It's important to stress that capitalism must be <b>eliminated</b> because it
<b>cannot</b> reform itself so as to become "environment friendly," contrary to
the claims of so-called "green" capitalists. This is because <i>"[c]apitalism
not only validates precapitalist notions of the domination of nature, . . .
it turns the plunder of nature into society's law of life. To quibble with
this kind of system about its values, to try to frighten it with visions
about the consequences of growth is to quarrel with its very metabolism.
One might more easily persuade a green plant to desist from photosynthesis
than to ask the bourgeois economy to desist from capital accumulation."</i>
[<b>Ibid.</b>, p. 66]
Thus capitalism causes ecological destruction because it is based upon
domination (of human over human and so humanity over nature) and
continual, endless growth (for without growth, capitalism would die).
<a name="secd41"><h2>D.4.1 Why must capitalist firms "grow or die?"</h2>
Industrial production has increased fifty fold since 1950. Obviously such
expansion in a finite environment cannot go on indefinitely without
disastrous consequences. Yet, as the quotation above suggests, it is
impossible <b>in principle</b> for capitalism to kick its addiction to
growth. It is important to understand why.
Capitalism is based on production for profit. In order to stay
profitable, a firm must be able to produce goods and services cheaply
enough to compete with other firms in the same industry. If one firm
increases its productivity (as all firms must try to do), it will be able
to produce more cheaply, thus undercutting its competition and capturing
more market share, until eventually it forces less profitable firms into
bankruptcy. Moreover, as companies with higher productivity/profitability
expand, they often realise economies of scale (e.g. getting bulk rates on
larger quantities of raw materials), thus giving them even more of a
competitive advantage over less productive/profitable enterprises.
Hence, constantly increasing productivity is essential for survival.
There are two ways to increase productivity, either by increasing the
exploitation of workers (e.g. longer hours and/or more intense work for
the same amount of pay) or by introducing new technologies that reduce
the amount of labour necessary to produce the same product or service.
Due to the struggle of workers to prevent increases in the level of their
exploitation, new technologies are the main way that productivity is
increased under capitalism (though of course capitalists are always
looking for ways to increase the exploitation of workers on a given
technology by other means as well).
But new technologies are expensive, which means that in order to pay for
continuous upgrades, a firm must continually sell <b>more</b> of what it
produces, and so must keep expanding its capital (machinery, floor space,
workers, etc.). Indeed, to stay in the same place under capitalism is to
tempt crisis - thus a firm must always strive for more profits and thus
must always expand and invest. In other words, in order to survive, a firm
must constantly expand and upgrade its capital and production levels so it
can sell enough to <b>keep</b> expanding and upgrading its capital -- i.e.
or die," or "production for the sake of production."
Thus it is impossible in principle for capitalism to solve the ecological
crisis, because "grow or die" is inherent in its nature:
<i>"To speak of 'limits to growth' under a capitalistic market economy is as
meaningless as to speak of limits of warfare under a warrior society. The
moral pieties, that are voiced today by many well-meaning environmentalists,
are as naive as the moral pieties of multinationals are manipulative.
Capitalism can no more be 'persuaded' to limit growth than a human being
can be 'persuaded' to stop breathing. Attempts to 'green' capitalism, to
make it 'ecological', are doomed by the very nature of the system as a
system of endless growth."</i> [Murray Bookchin, <b>Remaking Society</b>,
As long as capitalism exists, it will <b>necessarily</b> continue its <i>"endless
devouring of nature,"</i> until it removes the <i>"organic preconditions for human
life."</i> For this reason there can be no compromise with capitalism: We must
destroy it before it destroys us. And time is running out.
Capitalists, of course, do not accept this conclusion. Most simply ignore
the evidence or view the situation through rose-coloured spectacles,
maintaining that ecological problems are not as serious as they seem or
that science will find a way to solve them before it's too late. Right
libertarians tend to take this approach, but they also argue that a
genuinely free market capitalism would provide solutions to the ecological
crisis. In <a href="secEcon.html">section E</a> we will show why these arguments are unsound and why
libertarian socialism is our best hope for preventing ecological