Section E - What do anarchists think causes ecological problems?
E.1 What do eco-anarchists propose instead of capitalism?
E.1.1 Why do eco-anarchists advocate workers' control?
E.1.2 Why do eco-anarchists favour direct democracy?
E.2 Can "absolute" private property rights protect the environment?
E.3 Does economic power affect pollution controls?
E.4 Can "education" solve ecological problems under free market
E.5 How does its need to focus on short-term profitability affect
capitalism's ability to deal with the ecological crisis?
E.6 What is the population myth?
E.7 Can ethical consumerism stop the ecological crisis?
Section E - What do anarchists think causes ecological problems?
Anarchists have been at the forefront of ecological thinking and the green
movement for decades. Murray Bookchin in particular has placed anarchist
ideas at the centre of green debate, emphasising the *social* nature of
the ecological problems we face and arguing that humanity's domination of
nature is the result of domination *within* humanity itself. (See, e.g.
_Toward an Ecological Society_ ). The ecological implications of many
anarchist ideas (such as decentralisation, integration of industry and
agriculture, and so forth) has meant that anarchists have quickly
recognised the importance of ecological movements and ideas.
Precursors of eco-anarchism can be found in Peter Kropotkin's writings.
For example, in his classic work _Fields, Factories and Workshops_,
Kropotkin argued the case for "small is beautiful" 70 years before E. F.
Schumacher coined the phase. Through his investigations in geography and
biology, Kropotkin discovered species to be interconnected with each other
and with their environment. _Mutual Aid_ is the classic source book on
the survival value of co-operation within species, which Kropotkin regarded
as the chief factor of evolution, arguing that those who claim competition
is the chief factor have distorted Darwin's work. So, while a specifically
"eco" anarchism did not develop until the revolutionary work done by
Murray Bookchin from the 1950's onwards, anarchist theory has had a
significant "proto-green" content since at least Kropotkin's time.
This section of the FAQ expands upon section D.4 ("What is the
relationship between capitalism and the ecological crisis?") in which we
indicated that since capitalism is based upon the principle of "growth or
death," a "green" capitalism is impossible. By its very nature capitalism
must expand, creating new markets, increasing production and consumption,
and so invading more ecosystems, using more resources, and upsetting the
interrelations and delicate balances that exist with ecosystems.
Takis Fotopoulous has argued that the main reason why the project of
"greening" capitalism is just a utopian dream "lies in a fundamental
contradiction that exists between the logic and dynamic of the growth
economy, on the one hand, and the attempt to condition this dynamic with
qualitative interests" on the other ["Development or Democracy?", p. 82,
_Society and Nature_ No. 7, pp. 57-92]. Under capitalism, ethics,
nature and humanity all have a price tag. And that price tag is god. This
is understandable as every hierarchical social system requires a
belief-system. Under feudalism, the belief-system came from the Church,
whereas under capitalism, it pretends to come from science, whose
biased practitioners (usually funded by the state and capital) are
the new priesthood. Like the old priesthoods, only those members who
produce "objective research" become famous and influential -- "objective
research" being that which accepts the status quo as "natural" and produces
what the elite want to hear (i.e. apologetics for capitalism and elite
rule will always be praised as "objective" and "scientific" regardless of
its actual scientific and factual content, the infamous "bell curve" and
Malthus's "Law of Population" being classic examples). More importantly,
capitalism needs science to be able to measure and quantify everything
in order to sell it. This mathematical faith is reflected in its politics
and economics, where quantity is more important than quality, where 5
votes are better than 2 votes, where $5 is better than $2. And like all
religions, capitalism needs sacrifice. In the name of "free enterprise,"
"economic efficiency," "stability" and "growth" it sacrifices individuality,
freedom, humanity, and nature for the power and profits of the few.
Besides its alliance with the ecology movement, eco-anarchism also finds
allies in the feminist and peace movements, which it regards, like the
ecology movement, as implying the need for anarchist principles. Thus
eco-anarchists think that global competition between nation-states is
responsible not only for the devouring of nature but is also the primary
cause of international military tensions, as nations seek to dominate each
other by military force or the threat thereof. As international
competition becomes more intense and weapons of mass destruction spread,
the seeds are being sown for catastrophic global warfare involving
nuclear, chemical, and/or biological weapons. Because such warfare would
be the ultimate ecological disaster, eco-anarchism and the peace movement
are but two aspects of the same basic project. Similarly, eco-anarchists
recognise that domination of nature and male domination of women have
historically gone hand in hand, so that eco-feminism is yet another aspect
of eco-anarchism. Since feminism, ecology, and peace are key issues
of the Green movement, anarchists believe that Greens are implicitly
committed to anarchism, whether they realise it or not, and hence that
they should adopt anarchist principles of direct political action rather
than getting bogged down in trying to elect people to state offices.
Here we discuss some of the main themes of eco-anarchism and consider a
few suggestions by non-anarchists about how to protect the environment,
including the false free market capitalist claim that the answer to
the ecological crisis is to privatise everything, the myth that population
growth is a *cause* of ecological problems rather than the *effect* of deeper
root-causes, and why green consumerism is doomed to failure. The issue of
electing Green Parties to power will be addressed in section J.2.4
("Surely voting for radical parties will be effective?") and so will be
ignored here, as will the question of "single-issue" campaigns (like
C.N.D. and Friends of the Earth), which will be discussed in section J.1.4
("What attitude do anarchists take to 'single-issue' campaigns?").
For anarchists, unless we resolve the underlying contradictions within
society, which stem from domination, hierarchy and a capitalist economy,
ecological disruption will continue and grow, putting our Earth in
increasing danger. We need to resist the system and create new values
based on quality, not quantity. We must return the human factor to our
alienated society before we alienate ourselves completely off the planet.
Many greens attack what they consider the "wrong ideas" of modern society,
its "materialistic values" and counter-pose *new* ideas, more in tune with
a green society. This approach, however, misses the point. Ideas and
values do not "just happen", but are the *product* of a given set of social
relationships. This means that it is not just a matter of changing our
values in a way that places humanity in harmony with nature, but also of
understanding the *social* and *structural* origins of the ecological crisis.
Ideas and values *do* need to be challenged, but unless the authoritarian
social relationships, hierarchy and inequalities in power (i.e. the material
base that produces these values and ideas) is also challenged and, more
importantly, *changed* an ecological society is impossible. So unless
ecologists recognise that this crisis did not develop in a social vacuum
and is not the "fault" of people as *people* (as opposed to people in a
hierarchical society), little can be done root out the systemic causes
of the problems that we and the planet face.
E.1 What do eco-anarchists propose instead of capitalism?
In place of capitalism, eco-anarchists favour ecologically responsible
forms of libertarian socialism (see section I), with an economy based on
the principles of complementarity with nature; decentralisation of
large-scale industries, reskilling of workers, and a return to more
artisan-like modes of production; the use of environment-friendly
technologies, energy sources, and products; the use of recycled raw
materials and renewable resources; and worker-controlled enterprises
responsive to the wishes of local community assemblies and labour councils
in which decisions are made by direct democracy. (See, e.g. Murray
Bookchin, _Toward and Ecological Society_ and _Remaking Society_). Such
an economy would be "steady-state," meaning that the rate of resource
depletion would equal the rate of renewal and that it would not be subject
to disastrous collapses in the absence of quantitative growth or
stimulation by military spending.
As Bookchin emphasises, however, the ecological crisis stems not only from
capitalism but from the principle of domination itself (see D.4) -- a
principle embodied in institutional hierarchies and relations of command
and obedience which pervade society at many different levels. Thus,
"[w]ithout changing the most molecular relationships in society --
notably, those between men and women, adults and children, whites and
other ethnic groups, heterosexuals and gays (the list, in fact, is
considerable) -- society will be riddled by domination even in a
socialistic 'classless' and 'non-exploitative' form. It would be infused
by hierarchy even as it celebrated the dubious virtues of 'people's
democracies,' 'socialism' and the 'public ownership' of 'natural
resources,' And as long as hierarchy persists, as long as domination
organises humanity around a system of elites, the project of dominating
nature will continue to exist and inevitably lead our planet to ecological
extinction." [_Toward an Ecological Society_, p. 76]
So, although we focus our attention below on the economic aspects of the
ecological crisis and its solution, it should be kept in mind that a
complete solution must be multi-dimensional, addressing all aspects of the
total system of hierarchy and domination. This means that only anarchism,
with its emphasis on the elimination of coercive authority in *all* areas
of life, goes to the real root of the ecological crisis.
E.1.1 Why do eco-anarchists favour workers' control?
Eco-anarchists advocate workers' control of the economy as a necessary
component of a steady-state economy. This means society-wide ownership of
the means of production and all productive enterprises self-managed by
their workers, as described further in section I.
Most ecologists, even if they are not anarchists, recognise the pernicious
ecological effects of the capitalist "grow or die" principle; but unless
they are also anarchists, they usually fail to make the connection between
that principle and the *hierarchical form* of the typical capitalist
corporation. In contrast, eco-anarchists emphasise that socially owned and
worker self-managed firms, especially the type in which surpluses are
shared equally among all full-time members, would be under far less
pressure toward rapid expansion than the traditional capitalist firm.
The slower growth rate of co-operatives has been documented in a number of
studies, which show that in the traditional capitalist firm, owners' and
executives' percentage share of profits greatly increases as more
employees are added to the payroll. This is because the corporate
hierarchy is designed to facilitate exploitation by funnelling a
disproportionate share of the surplus value produced by workers to those
at the top of the pyramid (see C.2, "Where do profits come from?") Such a
design gives ownership and management a very strong incentive to expand,
since, other things being equal (e.g. no recession), their income rises
with every new employee hired. Hence the hierarchical form of the
capitalist corporation is one of the main causes of runaway growth. [See
e.g. Henry Levin "Employment and Productivity of Producer Co-operatives,"
in Robert Jackall and Henry Levin (eds.), _Worker Co-operatives in
America_, UC Press, 1984; cf. David Schweickart, _Against Capitalism_].
By contrast, in an equal-share worker co-operative, the addition of more
members simply means more people with whom the available pie will have to
be equally divided -- a situation that immensely reduces the incentive to
expand. Thus a libertarian-socialist economy will be able to function in
a stationary state, requiring neither an expanding population nor
technological innovation at a pace sufficient to guarantee increased
production. Moreover, it will be able to switch from a growth state to a
stationary state without excessive disruption. For if consumers start
buying less, this will increase leisure time among producers, which will
be shared by those firms affected first and then gradually spreading to
other sectors. For these reasons, libertarian socialism based on producer
co-operatives is essential for the type of steady-state economy necessary
to solve the ecological crisis.
E.1.2 Why do eco-anarchists emphasise direct democracy?
The eco-anarchist argument for direct (participatory) democracy is that
effective protection of the planet's ecosystems requires that ordinary
citizens be able to take part at the grassroots level in decision-making
that affects their environment, since they are more likely to favour
stringent environmental safeguards than the large, polluting special
interests that now dominate the "representative" system of government.
Thus a solution to the ecological crisis presupposes participatory
democracy in the political sphere -- a transformation that would amount to
a political revolution.
However, as Bakunin emphasised, a political revolution of this nature must
be preceded by a *socio-economic* revolution based on workers'
self-management. This is because the daily experience of participatory
decision-making, non-authoritarian modes of organisation, and personalistic
human relationships in small work groups would foster creativity,
spontaneity, responsibility, independence, and respect for individuality
-- the qualities needed for a directly democratic political system to
Given the amount of time that most people spend at the workplace, the
political importance of turning it into a training ground for the
development of libertarian and democratic values can scarcely be
overstated. As history has demonstrated, political revolutions that are
not preceded by mass psychological transformation -- that is, by a
deconditioning from the master/slave attitudes absorbed from the current
system -- result only in the substitution of new ruling elites for the old
ones (e.g. Lenin becoming the new "Tsar" and Communist Party aparatchiks
becoming the new "aristocracy"). Therefore, besides having a slower
growth rate, worker co-operatives with democratic self-management would lay
the psychological foundations for the kind of directly democratic
political system necessary to protect the biosphere. Thus "green"
libertarian socialism is the only proposal radical enough to solve the
In contrast, free market capitalism (an extreme example of this viewpoint
being right-wing "libertarianism") not only cannot solve the ecological
crisis but would in fact exacerbate it. Besides the fact that
right libertarians do not propose to dismantle capitalism, which is
necessarily based on "grow or die," they also do not wish to dismantle
the hierarchical structure of the capitalist firm, which contributes its
own greed-driven pressure for expansion, as discussed above. (Indeed,
right-libertarian literature is full of arguments showing that
hierarchical firms are necessary for reasons of "efficiency.") But since
there would be no state regulatory apparatus to mitigate any of the
negative ecological effects of capitalist expansion, "free market"
capitalism would be even more environmentally malignant than the present
In sections E.2, to E.5 we discuss and refute some spurious free market
capitalist "solutions" to the ecological crisis. Section E.7 discusses why
"green consumerism," another basic capitalist assumption, is also
doomed to failure.
E.2 Can "absolute" private property rights protect the environment?
According to free market capitalists, only private property can protect the
environment. Murray Rothbard, for example, claims that "if private firms
were able to own the rivers and lakes. . .anyone dumping garbage. . .
would promptly be sued in the courts for their aggression against private
property. . . . Thus, only private property rights will insure an end to
pollution-invasion of resources" [_For a New Liberty_, p. 256].
This ignores one major point: why *would* the private owner be interested
in keeping it clean? What if the garbage dumper is the corporation that
owns the property? Why not just assume that the company can make more
money turning the lakes and rivers into dumping sites, or trees into junk
mail? This scenario is no less plausible. In fact, it is more likely to
happen in many cases. As Glenn Albrecht argues, such a capitalist "solution"
to environmental problems is only "likely to be effective in protecting
species [or ecosystems] which are commercially important only if the
commercial value of that species [or ecosystem] exceeds that of other
potential sources of income that could be generated from the same 'natural
capital'. . .this model becomes progressively less plausible when we are
confronted with rare but commercially unimportant species [or ecosystems]
versus very large development proposals that are inconsistent with their
continual existence. The less charismatic the species, the more 'unattractive'
the ecosystem, the more likely it will be that the development proposal will
proceed. . ." ["Ethics, Anarchy and Sustainable Development", _Anarchist
Studies_ vol. 2, no. 2, pp. 104-5] To claim that "absolute" property rights
will protect the environment is just another example of free market
capitalism's attempt to give the reader what he or she wants to hear.
But, of course, the supporter of capitalism will jump in and say that if
dumping were allowed, this would cause pollution, which would affect others,
who would then sue the owner in question. "Maybe" is the answer to this
claim, for there are many circumstances where a lawsuit would be unlikely
to happen. For example, what if the locals are slum dwellers and cannot
afford to sue? What if they are afraid that their landlords will evict
them if they sue (particularly if the landlords also own the polluting
property in question)? What if many members of the affected community
work for the polluting company and stand to lose their jobs if they sue?
(See next section). Also, this reply totally ignores the fact suing would
only occur *after* the damage has already been done. It's not easy to
replace ecosystems and extinct species. And if the threat of court action
had a "deterrent" effect, then pollution, murder, stealing and a host of
other crimes would long ago have disappeared.
But, beyond these points lies the most important ones, namely: is the
option to bring suit against polluters *really* available in a free market
based on private property? Rothbard thinks it is. Taking the case of
factory smoke in the 19th Century, he notes that it and "many of its bad
effects have been known since the Industrial Revolution, known to the
extent that the American courts, during the. . . 19th century made the
deliberate decision to allow property rights to be violated by industrial
smoke. To do so, the courts had to -- and did -- systematically change and
weaken the defences of property rights embedded in Anglo-Saxon common law.
. . the courts systematically altered the law of negligence and the law of
nuisance to *permit* any air pollution which was not unusually greater
than any similar manufacturing firm" [Rothbard, Op. Cit., p. 257].
In this remarkably self-contradictory passage, we are invited to draw the
conclusion that private property *must* provide the solution to the
pollution problem from an account of how it clearly did *not* do so! If
the 19th-century USA -- which for many Libertarian's is a kind of "golden
era" of free-market capitalism -- saw a move from an initial situation of
well-defended property rights to a later situation where greater pollution
was tolerated, as Rothbard claims, then property rights cannot provide a
solution to the pollution problem.
It is likely, of course, that Rothbard and other free marketeers will claim
that the 19th-century capitalist system was not pure enough, that the
courts were motivated to act under pressure from the state (which in turn
was pressured by powerful industrialists). But can it be purified by just
removing the government and privatising the courts, relying on a so-called
"free market for justice"? The pressure from the industrialists remains,
if not increases, on the privately owned courts trying to make a living on
the market. Indeed, the whole concept of private courts competing in a
"free market for justice" becomes absurd once it is recognised that those
with the most money will be able to buy the most "justice" (as is largely the
The characteristically "free market" capitalist argument that if X were
privately owned, Y would almost certainly occur, is just wishful thinking.
E.3 Does economic power affect pollution controls?
In the last section (E.2), we noted that wealth can affect how
environmental and other externalities are dealt with in a capitalist
system. This critique, however, deliberately ignores other important
factors in society, such as the mobility of capital and its resulting
economic and political power. These are important weapons in ensuring
that the agenda of business is untroubled by social concerns, such as
Let us assume that a company is polluting a local area. It is usually the
case that capitalist owners rarely live near the workplaces they own,
unlike workers and their families. This means that the decision makers
do not have to live with the consequences of their decisions. The "free
market" capitalist argument would be, again, that those affected by the
pollution would sue the company. We will assume that concentrations of
wealth have little or no effect on the social system (which is a *highly*
unlikely assumption, but never mind). Surely, if local people did
successfully sue, the company would be harmed economically -- directly,
in terms of the cost of the judgement, indirectly in terms of having
to implement new, eco-friendly processes. Hence the company would be
handicapped in competition, and this would have obvious consequences
for the local (and wider) economy.
Also, if the company were sued, it could simply move to an area that
would tolerate the pollution. Not only would existing capital move, but
fresh capital would not invest in an area where people stand up for their
rights. This -- the natural result of economic power -- would be a "big
stick" over the heads of the local community. And when combined with the
costs and difficulties in taking a large company to court, it would make
suing an unlikely option for most people. That such a result would occur
can be inferred from history, where we see that multinational firms have
moved production to countries with little or no pollution laws and that
court cases take years, if not decades, to process.
Furthermore, in a "free market" society, companies that gather lists of
known "trouble-makers" would be given free reign. These "black lists" of
people who could cause companies "trouble" (i.e. by union organising or
suing employers over "property rights" issues) would often ensure
employee "loyalty," particularly if new jobs need references. Under wage
labour, causing one's employer "problems" can make one's position
difficult. Being black-listed would mean no job, no wages, and little
chance of being re-employed. This would be the result of continually
suing in defence of one's "absolute" property rights -- assuming, of
course, that one had the time and money necessary to sue in the first
place. Hence working-class people would be in a weak position to defend
their "absolute" rights in free market (or "libertarian") capitalism
due to the power of employers both within and without the workplace.
All these are strong incentives *not* to rock the boat, particularly if
employees have signed a contract ensuring that they will be fired if they
discuss company business with others (e.g. lawyers, unions).
E.4 Can "education" solve ecological problems under free market
Besides their emphasis on the right to sue polluters, supporters of "free
market" capitalism sometimes also address ecological problems like pollution
and depletion of resources by calling for public education which will
raise people's awareness to the point of creating enough demand for
environment-friendly technologies and products that they will be
profitable to produce.
This argument, however, ignores three crucially important facts: (1) that
environment-friendly technologies and products *by themselves* are not
enough to avert ecological disaster so long as capitalism is based on
"grow or die," which it necessarily is due to the requirements of
production for profit (see D.4.1); (2) No amount of education can
countermand the effects of market forces. If faced with a tight budget
and relatively expensive "ecological" products, consumers and companies
may be forced to choose the cheaper, ecologically unfriendly product
to make ends meet or survive in the market. Under "free market" capitalism,
we may be free to choose, but the options are usually lousy choices, and
not the only ones potentially available; and (3) Under the price system,
customers have no way of knowing the ecological (or social) impact of
the products they buy. Such information, unsurprisingly, is usually
supplied *outside* the market by ecological activists, unions, customer
groups and so on. As is the case today, the skillfully created media
images of advertising can easily swamp the efforts of these voluntary
groups to inform the public of the facts. And the example of McDonald's,
who (until the famous McLibel trial) successfully used the threat of
court action to silence many of their critics, indicates that the money
and time required to fight for free speech in court against large
companies is an effective means to keep the public in the dark about
the dark side of capitalism.
We must also point out that if, as is increasingly the case, companies
fund children's education then there are obvious limitations on the
power of education to solve ecological problems. Companies will hardly
fund schools which employ teachers who educate their pupils of the
*real* causes of ecological problems! And we may add, alternative schools
(organised by libertarian unions and other associations) which used
libertarian education to produce anarchists would hardly be favoured
by companies and so be effectively black-listed - a real deterrent to
their spreading through society. Why would a capitalist company employ
a graduate of a school who would make trouble for them once employed
as their wage slave?
This indicates the real problem of purely "educational" approaches to
solving the ecological crisis. Even in a "pure" capitalist world in which
private property is protected by a "night-watchman" state or private
security forces, a wealthy capitalist elite will still control education,
as it does now.
Any capitalist elite must control education, because it is an essential
indoctrination tool needed to promote capitalist values and to train a
large population of future wage-slaves in the proper habits of obedience
to authority. Thus capitalists cannot afford to lose control of the
educational system, no matter how much it costs them to maintain
competitive schools. And this means that such schools will not teach
students what is really necessary to avoid ecological disaster: namely
the dismantling of capitalism itself.
E.5 How does its need to focus on short-term profitability affect
capitalism's ability to deal with the ecological crisis?
Harmful environmental effects such as pollution, global warming, ozone
depletion, and destruction of wildlife habitat are referred to in
economics as "externalities," which are not counted as "costs of
production" in standard methods of accounting because they must be borne
by everyone in the society affected by them. Since their costs are thus
spread out over the whole society, externalities can be ignored by
capitalists when planning future production. But this means that they
*will* be ignored, since competition forces firms to cut as many costs
as possible and concentrate on short-term profits.
Here's an example (paraphrased from Noam Chomsky): Suppose there
are 3 automobile companies, X, Y, and Z, which are competitive (not
conspiring to fix prices) and which exist in a typical capitalist
society where there is no democratic community control of the economy.
Then suppose that company X invests in the project of developing a
non-polluting car within ten years. At the same time its competitors, Y
and Z, will be putting their resources into increasing profits and market
share in the coming days and months and over the next year. During that
period, company X will be out of luck, for it will not be able to attract
enough capital from investors to carry out its plans, since investment
will flock to the companies that are most immediately profitable. This
means that the default position under "free market" capitalism is
that the company (or country) with the lowest standards enjoys a
competitive advantage, and drags down the standards of other companies
The supporter of capitalism may respond by arguing that business leaders
are as able to see long-term negative environmental effects as the rest of
us. But this is to misunderstand the nature of the objection. It is not
that business leaders *as individuals* are any less able to see what's
happening to the environment. It is that if they want to keep their jobs
they have to do what the system requires, which is to concentrate on what
is most profitable in the short term. Thus if the president of company X
has a mystical experience of oneness with nature and starts diverting
profits into pollution control while the presidents of Y and Z continue
with business as usual, the stockholders of company X will get a new
president who is willing to focus on short-term profits like Y and Z.
In general, then, if one company tries to devote resources to develop
products or processes that are ecologically responsible, they will simply
be undercut by other companies which are not doing so (assuming such
products or processes are more expensive, as they generally are), and hence
they won't be competitive in the market. In other words, capitalism has a
built-in bias toward short-term gain, and this bias -- along with the
inherent need for growth -- means the planet will continue its free-fall
toward ecological disaster so long as capitalism exists.
E.6 What is the population myth?
The idea that population growth is the *key* cause of ecological problems
is extremely commonplace. Even radical green groups like _Earth First!_
promoted it. It is, however, a gross distortion of the truth. *Capitalism*
is the main cause of both overpopulation *and* the ecological crisis.
Firstly, we should point out that all the "doomsday" prophets of the
"population bomb" have been proved wrong time and time again. The dire
predictions of Thomas Malthus, the originator of the population myth, have
not come true, yet neo-Malthusians continue to mouth his reactionary
ideas. In fact Malthus invented his "law of population" in response to the
anarchist William Godwin, as an attempt to "prove" that social
stratification, and so the status quo, was a "law of nature" and that
poverty was the fault of the poor themselves, not the fault of an unjust
and authoritarian socio-economic system (in contrast, and in direct
contradiction to his population "theory," as an economist Malthus was
worried about the danger of *over-production* within a capitalist economy.
No mention of "excess" population then, which indicates well the ideological
nature of his over-population theory). The utility of the population
myth as a justification for the inhuman miseries inflicted upon the
British people by "its" ruling class of aristocrats and industrialists
was the only reason why it was given the time of day. Similarly today,
its utility to the ruling class ensures that it keeps surfacing every so
often, until forced to disappear again once the actual facts of the
case are raised. That the population myth, like "genetic" justifications
for race-, class- and gender-based oppression, keeps appearing over and
over again, even after extensive evidence has disproved it, indicates its
usefulness to the ideological guardians of the establishment.
Neo-Malthusianism basically blames the victims of capitalism for their
victimisation, criticising ordinary people for "breeding" or living too
long, thus ignoring (at best) or justifying (usually) *privilege* -- the
social root of hunger. To put it simply, the hungry are hungry because
they are excluded from the land or cannot earn enough to survive. In Latin
America, for example, 11% of the population was landless in 1961, by 1975
it was 40%. Approximately 80% of all Third World agricultural land is
owned by 3% of landowners.
Increased population is not the cause of landlessness, it is the result of
it. If a traditional culture, its values, and its sense of identity are
destroyed, population growth rates increase dramatically. As in 17th-
and 18th-century Britain, peasants in the Third World are kicked off their
land by the local ruling elite, who then use the land to produce cash
crops for export while their fellow countrypeople starve. Like Ireland
during the Potato Famine, the Third World nations most affected by famine
have also been exporters of food to the advanced nations. Malthusianism
is handy for the wealthy, giving them a "scientific" excuse for the misery
they cause so they can enjoy their blood-money without remorse.
In a country that is being introduced to the joys of capitalism by state
intervention (the usual means by which traditional cultures and habits are
destroyed to create a "natural system of liberty"), population soon
explodes as a result of the poor social and economic conditions in which
people find themselves. In the inner-city ghettos of the First World,
social and economic conditions similar to those of the Third World
give rise to similarly elevated birth rates. When ghetto populations are
composed mostly of minorities, as in countries like the US, higher birth
rates among the minority poor provides a convenient extra excuse for
racism, "proving" that the affected minorities are "inferior" because they
"lack self-control," are "mere animals obsessed with procreation," etc.
(an argument which ignores the fact that slum dwellers in e.g. Britain
during the Industrial Revolution virtually all white but still had high
Population growth, far from being the cause of poverty, is in fact a
result of it. There is an inverse relationship between per capita income
and the fertility rate -- as poverty decreases, so do the population
rates. When people are ground into the dirt by poverty, education falls,
women's rights decrease, and contraception is less available. Having
children then becomes virtually the only creative outlet, with people
resting their hopes for a better future in their offspring. Therefore
social conditions have a major impact on population growth. In countries
with higher economic and cultural levels, population growth soon starts
to fall off. Today, for example, much of Europe has seen birth rates fall
beyond the national replacement rate. This is the case even in Catholic
countries, which one would imagine would have religious factors
encouraging large families.
To be clear, we are *not* saying that overpopulation is not a very serious
problem. Obviously, population growth *cannot* be ignored or solutions
put off until capitalism is eliminated. We need to immediately provide
better education and access to contraceptives across the planet as well as
raising cultural levels and increasing women's rights in order to combat
overpopulation, which only benefits the elite by keeping the cost of
labour low *in addition to* fighting for land reform, union organising
and so on. However, the "population explosion" is not a neutral theory,
and its invention and continual use is due to its utility to vested
interests. We should not be fooled by them into thinking that
overpopulation is the main cause of the ecological crisis, as this is a
strategy for distracting people from the root-cause of both ecological
destruction and population growth: namely, the capitalist economy and
hierarchical social relationships it requires.
Some Greens argue that it is impossible for *everyone* to have a high
standard of living, as this would deplete resources. However, their use
of statistics hides a sleight of hand which invalidates their argument.
Firstly, the argument assumes that society and technology are static and
that the circumstances that produced historic growth and consumption rates
will remain unchanged. This is obviously false, since humanity is not
static. In addition, for all their concern about "average" consumption in
the West, they fail to ask how many tanks and fighter aircraft the
"average" person "consumes" in a year or how many Rolls Royces or
mansions they have.
The advocates of the "population myth," as well as getting the problem
wrong, also (usually) suggest very authoritarian "solutions" -- for
example, urging an increase in state power, with a "Bureau of Population
Control" to "police" society and ensure that the state enters the bedroom
and our most personal relationships. Luckily for humanity and individual
freedom, since they misconceive the problem, such "Big Brother" solutions
are not required.
It is probably true that a "Western" living standard is not possible for
the population of the world at its present level. A recent study posited that
for the rest of the world to enjoy the standard of living the First World does,
it would require the resources of *two* additional Earths! This "standard of
living" is a product of an alienated society in which consumption for the
sake of consumption is the new god. In a grow-or-die economy, production
and consumption must keep increasing to prevent economic collapse. This
need for growth leads to massive advertising campaigns to indoctrinate
people with the capitalist theology that more and more must be consumed to
find "happiness" (salvation), producing consumerist attitudes that feed into
an already-present tendency to consume in order to compensate for doing
boring, pointless work in a hierarchical workplace. Unless a transformation
of values occurs that recognises the importance of *living* as opposed to
*consuming,* the ecological crisis *will* get worse. It's impossible to
imagine such a radical transformation occurring under capitalism, whose
lifeblood is consumption for the sake of consumption.
It is often claimed that "industrialism" rather than "capitalism" is the
real cause of overpopulation -- as if there could be a capitalism that
does not lead to industrialism or depend on a large industrial base. Of
course it cannot be denied that developments like better health care,
nutrition, and longer lifespans contribute to overpopulation and are made
possible by "industry." But to see such developments as primary causes
of population growth is to ignore the central role played by poverty, the
disruption of cultural patterns, and the need for cheap labour due to
capitalism. There are always elevated birth rates associated with
poverty, whether or not medical science improves significantly, e.g.
during the early days of capitalism. "Industrialism" is in fact a term
often used by liberal Greens who don't want to admit that the ecological
crisis cannot be solved without the complete overthrow of capitalism,
pretending instead that the system can become "green" through various
band-aid reforms. (As shown D.4 and in the next section, this is not
possible.) "Controlling population growth" is always a key item on such
liberals' agendas, taking the place of "eliminating capitalism," which
should be the centrepiece.
As Murray Bookchin argues, "If we live in a 'grow-or-die' capitalistic
society in which accumulation is literally a law of economic survival and
competition is the motor of 'progress,' anything we have to say about
population causing the ecological crisis is basically meaningless. Under
such a society the biosphere will eventually be destroyed whether five
billion or fifty million people live on the planet" ["The Population Myth"
in _Which Way for the Ecology Movement?_, p. 34]. A sane society would
not be driven by growth for the sake of growth and would aim to reduce
production by reducing the average working week to ensure both an
acceptable standard of living *plus* time to enjoy it.
By focusing attention away from the root causes of ecological and
social disruption -- i.e. capitalism and hierarchy -- and onto the victims,
the advocates of the "population myth" do a great favour to the system
that creates mindless growth. Hence the population myth will obviously
find favour with ruling elites, and this -- as opposed to any basis for
the myth in scientific fact -- will ensure its continual re-appearance in
the media and education.
E.7 Can green consumerism stop the ecological crisis?
No. In fact, it could make it worse by creating new markets and thus
increasing growth. However, just so there is no misunderstanding: we fully
recognise that using recycled or renewable raw materials, reducing consumption
and buying "ecologically friendly" products and technologies *are* very
important, and we would be the last to denounce such a thing. But such
measures are of very limited use as solutions to the ecological problems
we face. At best they can only delay, not prevent, capitalism's ultimate
destruction of the planet's ecological base.
Green consumerism is the only thing the establishment has to offer in the
face of mounting ecological destruction. Usually it boils down to nothing
more than slick advertising campaigns by big corporate polluters to hype
band-aid measures such as using a few recycled materials or contributing
money to a wildlife fund, which are showcased as "concern for the
environment" while off camera the pollution and devouring of non-renewable
resources goes on. They also engage in "greenwashing", in which companies
lavishly fund PR campaigns to paint themselves "green" without altering
their current polluting practices! Companies cannot face the fundamental
cause of the ecological crisis in the "grow-or-die" principle of capitalism,
nor do they address the pernicious role of advertising or the lack of public
control over production and investment under capitalism. Hence it is a
totally inadequate solution.
Andrew Watson sums up green consumerism very eloquently as follows:
"green consumerism, which is largely a cynical attempt to maintain profit
margins, does not challenge capital's eco-cidal accumulation, but actually
facilitates it by opening a new market. All products, no matter how
'green', cause some pollution, use some resources and energy, and cause
some ecological disturbance. This would not matter in a society in which
production was rationally planned, but in an exponentially expanding
economy, production, however 'green', would eventually destroy the Earth's
environment. Ozone-friendly aerosols, for example, still use other
harmful chemicals; create pollution in their manufacture, use and
disposal; and use large amounts of resources and energy. Of course, up to
now, the green pretensions of most companies have been exposed largely as
presenting an acceptably green image, with little or no substance. The
market is presented as the saviour of the environment. Environmental
concern is commodified and transformed into ideological support for
capitalism. Instead of raising awareness of the causes of the ecological
crisis, green consumerism mystifies them. The solution is presented as an
individual act rather than as the collective action of individuals
struggling for social change. The corporations laugh all the way to the
bank" [_From Red to Green_, pp. 9-10]
Green consumerism, by its very nature, cannot challenge the "grow-or-die"
nature of capitalism. Even "green" companies must make a profit, and hence
must expand in order to survive. "Ethical" consumerism, like "ethical"
investment, is still based on profit making, the extraction of surplus
value from others. This is hardly "ethical," as it cannot challenge the
inequality in exchange that lies at the heart of capitalism nor the
authoritarian social relationships it creates.
In addition, since capitalism is a world system, companies can produce and
sell their non-green and dangerous goods elsewhere. Many of the products
and practices banned or boycotted in developed countries are sold and used
in developing ones. For example, Agent Orange (used as to defoliate
forests during the Vietnam War by the US) is used as an herbicide in the
Third World, as is DDT. Agent Orange contains one of the most toxic
compounds known to humanity and was responsible for thousands of deformed
children in Vietnam. Ciba-Geigy continued to sell Enterovioform (a drug
which caused blindness and paralysis in at least 10,000 Japanese users of
it) in those countries that permitted it to do so. Ciba-Geigy, by the way,
also sprayed a pesticide called Galecron on unprotected Egyptian children
to test its safety. The company later claimed it deeply regretted using
the children as "volunteers." Many companies have moved to developing
countries to escape the stricter pollution and labour laws in the
Neither does green consumerism question why it should be the ruling elites
within capitalism that decide what to produce and how to produce it.
Since these elites are driven by profit considerations, if it is profitable
to pollute, pollution will occur. Moreover, green consumerism does not
challenge the (essential) capitalist principle of consumption for the sake
of consumption, nor can it come to terms with the fact that "demand" is
created, to a large degree, by "suppliers," specifically by advertising
agencies that use a host of techniques to manipulate public tastes, as
well as using their financial clout to ensure that "negative" (i.e.
truthful) stories about companies' environmental records do not surface in
the mainstream media.
Because ethical consumerism is based *wholly* on market solutions to the
ecological crisis, it is incapable even of recognising the *root* cause of
that crisis, namely the atomising nature of market society and the social
relationships it creates. Atomised individuals ("soloists") cannot change
the world, and "voting" on the market hardly reduces their atomisation.
As Murray Bookchin argues, "[t]ragically, these millions [of "soloists"]
have surrendered their social power, indeed, their very personalities, to
politicians and bureaucrats who live in a nexus of obedience and command
in which they are normally expected to play subordinate roles. *Yet this
is precisely the immediate cause of the ecological crisis of our time* --
a cause that has its historic roots in the market society that engulfs us."
[_Toward an Ecological Society_, p. 81]
Until market society is dismantled, solutions like ethical consumerism
will be about as effective as fighting a forest fire with a water pistol.
Such solutions are doomed to failure because they promote individual
responses to social problems, problems that by their very nature require
collective action, and deal only with the symptoms, rather than focusing
on the cause of the problem in the first place.