Why capitalism can’t save the environment by Allen Myers

[Talk presented to RSP Marxist Education conference January 2-5, 2010]

By Allen Myers

The 19th century US writer and humorist Mark Twain said that everyone talks about the weather but nobody does anything about it. He was able to make that joke because nobody at that time realised how capitalism was changing the weather. On the other hand, Twain’s remark has an unexpected relevance today: it could be a commentary on the Copenhagen meeting, where hundreds of heads of government talked about the weather but did nothing about preventing further changes.

US President Barack Obama, trying to put the best possible face on a failure that was largely caused by his government, said: “instead of a total collapse if nothing had been done, which would have been a huge step backward; at least we could remain more or less where we were …”. Think about that: the world is on a path to disaster, everyone knows it’s on a path to disaster, and the leader of the richest and most powerful country takes comfort from the fact that nothing is being done about it.

The so-called Earth Summit, held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, adopted the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. It pledged to “stabilise” greenhouse gases at a level that would prevent dangerous climate change, but set no binding targets for individual countries. Instead it called for periodic updates or “protocols” to set binding targets; Copenhagen was the 15th such meeting. The third, the Kyoto Protocol, in 1997, is the only one to have set supposedly binding targets. Collectively, 39 industrialised countries agreed to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 5.2% from 1990 levels. That was a woefully insufficient target, but they will not come close to meeting it. The European Union as a whole was committed to an 8% reduction, but managed only a little over half of that by 2007. Australia was allowed an 8% increase, but has so far increased its emissions by 30% or 82%, depending on whether changes in land use are included. The USA did not ratify the Kyoto Protocol, and since 1992 its official greenhouse gas emissions have increased around 17%. Since the Earth Summit in 1992, worldwide emissions have increased 40%. And at Copenhagen, the leaders of the rich capitalist countries agreed to do nothing.

It’s not as though they can claim that climate change took them by surprise. The warnings about global warming have been around for quite a while now. Indeed, the possibility of carbon dioxide accumulation changing the climate of the planet was raised back in the 19th century, although it was only during the 1960s that significant numbers of scientists began trying to discover whether it was really happening. Initially, of course, there were legitimate doubts. There were problems of accurately measuring the level of atmospheric carbon dioxide, both currently and in the past. But eventually science came up with ways to measure the current level of CO2 accurately. And by 1987, ice cores from glaciers in Greenland and the Antarctic provided a precise record of atmospheric CO2 levels going back 160,000 years, through the last ice age and well into the warm period that preceded it. Over those 160,000 years, there was a close correlation between atmospheric CO2 and global temperature, with a low of 180 ppm of CO2 in cold periods and a high of 280 ppm in warm periods. But already in the 1980s the average atmospheric CO2 had reached 350 ppm, and today it has passed 380. By 1987, there was no longer any scientific question about the connection between atmospheric CO2 and global temperature. The only scientific questions were how great would be the effects of a continued accumulation of CO2 (and other heat-trapping gases).

Now, to say that there were legitimate grounds for scientific doubts in the 1960s and 1970s is not to say that there were legitimate reasons for inaction. After all, in other situations where there is a possible serious danger, we don’t wait until there is incontrovertible proof before we take action. If you’re sitting in your home and someone says, “It’s getting smoky in here; maybe we should see if something is burning”, do you reply, “We don’t have a clear measurement of whether it’s smokier now than it was three hours ago, and it’s quite possible that the smoke is unrelated to that fire smouldering in the sofa, so let’s wait until we’re certain before we do anything”?

No rational person behaves that way. So why did capitalist governments all over the world not take some precautionary measures when the first warnings were raised? More importantly, why are they still refusing to do anything substantial about the problem when it is no longer possible to have serious doubts about the catastrophe we face? Are capitalist governments totally irrational? Yes and no: rationality always relates to particular assumptions or systems. There is no Platonic or Hegelian absolute rationality floating around somewhere in the ether.

Pattern of behaviour

In addressing this question, we need to look for clues, such as particular patterns of behaviour. And if we do that, we soon become aware that climate change is far from the first serious environmental problem that capitalism has created or failed to overcome. In fact, capitalism has been producing complaints about its environmental pollution for as long as it’s been around. Two centuries ago, the English poet William Blake contrasted the hopes of human progress with the reality that capitalism was creating:

And did the countenance divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among those dark Satanic mills?

In the early 19th century, the word “Satanic” wasn’t used loosely. Blake, and the vast majority of the English public, believed that there was a hell, which was unimaginably more awful than anything you could ever experience on earth, and that it was ruled by Satan. So when Blake described early capitalist factories as “Satanic”, he was saying something about their effect upon England’s “clouded hills”.

And he wasn’t wrong, although it took modern technology and production methods to show us just how destructive capitalism is. Last month – December 3 – was the 25th anniversary of the beginning of the Bhopal disaster. On that date, a pesticide plant owned by Union Carbide in the Indian city of Bhopal leaked a large amount of poisonous methyl isocyanate gas. Somewhere between 8000 and 10,000 people died in the first three days, and 20,000 within three weeks. I said that this was the “beginning” of the disaster because it is still going on. Many of the deadly chemicals have been spreading through the soil and ground water, which provides drinking water for the local people, who suffer birth defects at 10 times the rate for the general Indian population. One study found water three kilometres from the Union Carbide plant that contained a pesticide at 110 times times the legal limit for Indian bottled water. According to the Guardian newspaper, another study found the carcinogen carbon tetrafluoride in drinking water at a concentration 2400 times WHO guidelines. The paper’s story quoted an Indian woman, now 52: “My real worry is my grandchildren. Already some have been born without eyes. Why is nobody doing anything for us?”

Why is nobody doing anything for the victims, for the children born without eyes? Union Carbide – later bought by that equally humanitarian company, Dow Chemical – settled a lawsuit brought by some of the survivors for US$470 million. To put that in perspective, it represents two or three years’

bonuses for a successful US bank CEO. According to the Guardian, the survivors, nearly all of them condemned to a lifetime of health problems, got around $500 each. The dead, of course, got nothing.

You might wonder what role Indian governments have played in trying to punish those responsible for this disaster and to get some compensation for the victims. The Union Carbide CEO at the time was arrested, but he was released on bail and fled. Indian authorities say he can’t be found, although the Guardian easily found his publicly listed address in a New York suburb. It seems that the Indian government would like more investment from Dow Chemical. Meanwhile, the government is promoting the disaster site as a tourist attraction.

Also in developed countries

This kind of environmental destruction and consequent poisoning of human beings is at its most extreme and most blatant in Third World countries, but it is also extremely widespread – “all pervasive” probably isn’t too strong a term – in the developed capitalist countries. The US socialist and environmentalist Daniel Faber published a book in 1998 on the ecological crisis in the United States (The struggle for ecological democracy: environmental justice movements in the United States, Guildford Press). The following information from his book is therefore a little bit dated: it will be worse now. Faber pointed out:

Things are undoubtedly worse now, because capitalist industries have gone on adding to the pollution. In 2000, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency, US industries generated more than 17 billion kilograms of “managed” toxic wastes – which means that they were put into some sort of official site, from which they will gradually disperse into air, soil and water. Another 3.2 billion kg were released directly into the environment.

2000 was the first year in which US industries were required to report their release of persistent toxic chemicals like mercury and dioxin. Dioxin is a very powerful carcinogen that also damages the reproductive, immune and nervous systems. It persists in the environment and accumulates in animal tissue, including, of course, the human animal. The WHO estimates that the maximum “safe” daily intake of dioxin is from 1 to 4 trillionths of a gram. During the Vietnam War, the US caused the release of somewhere between 150 and 600 kilograms of dioxin in Vietnam, and the effects are still showing up in deformities of the grandchildren of people who were only slightly exposed. But in the year 2000 alone, US industries reported producing almost 400 kg of dioxin contained in toxic waste, and another 100 kg released directly into the environment. If the WHO says 1 to 4 trillionths of a gram a day is unsafe, then 1000 times that dosage would presumably kill you pretty quickly. But let’s say it takes a year. In that case, between 1 and 4 grams of dioxin a day for one year would be enough to kill 1 billion people. US capitalism is producing something like 1.4 kilograms of dioxin every day. So, every year, US industry produces enough dioxin to kill between 350 billion and 1.4 trillion people. Don’t you have to admire the productivity of capitalism?

There is a striking paradox that capitalism increases human productivity to unprecedented levels, creating material wealth sufficient to maintain a greatly enlarged population with a higher standard of living. But it does so in a form that threatens to destroy utterly the material basis on which human life depends.

It’s not just climate change, or air pollution or dioxin: we could spend days or months sitting here cataloguing all the destruction that capitalism does to the environment. This should lead us to conclude that capitalist rationality must be different from our rationality – that it must operate on the basis of some fundamental assumptions that cause it to function in a way that seems irrational to those who don’t share those assumptions.

Profits above all

And in fact, that’s exactly the situation. The driving force, the ultimate goal, of capitalism is to accumulate surplus value, which in the modern world is normally in the form of profits. In capitalism, there is no more worthwhile task than the accumulation of surplus value. And that goal creates what passes for rationality in capitalism.

If Mark Twain had read the Communist Manifesto, he might have foreseen the impact that capitalism would have even on the weather: “The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production …”, Marx and Engels wrote. Why is the bourgeoisie driven constantly to revolutionise the instruments of production, constantly to develop new forms of productive technology without regard for how it impacts on people or their environment? For the sake of profits, of surplus value. Reducing costs through technological improvement is a major way to obtain extra profits (in a highly competitive environment, it might be the only way to ensure any profits at all).

Now, some people might think that, after several centuries of increasing their profits by revolutionising the means of production, the capitalists as a class would decide that their profits were at last sufficient, and they didn’t need to go on trying to increase them. But the only difference between a good profit and a poor profit is size; of two possible profits, the bigger one is always better. Which is to say that no profit is ever so large that it doesn’t seem worthwhile increasing it.

And then there’s the fact that the constant pursuit of higher profits doesn’t automatically mean that profits really increase. The capitalists face a fairly fundamental contradiction here, namely that each individual capitalist’s success comes at the disadvantage of the capitalists as a class. The individual capitalist realises a surplus profit by introducing improved machinery, which typically means reducing the size of his/her workforce. But workers are the source of the surplus value that makes up the capitalists’ profit. So in effect, individual capitalists seek a larger piece of the surplus value pie by methods that reduce the size of the pie. This is not what specialists in conflict resolution would call a win-win situation.

It’s impossible for all the capitalists to win from this procedure. But capitalists who lose out consistently for any period of time tend to stop being capitalists. Capitalists who want to remain capitalists therefore are forced into playing the competitive game that way. They have to seek to produce more efficiently in capitalist terms, which means increasing the number of commodities produced by a given amount of labour. This is why Marx describes production for profit as production for production’s sake: capitalist production seeks to expand infinitely; there are no social or natural limits. We can be even more precise here: there are no natural limits on capitalist production because there are no social limits.

Human beings are social animals. We produce our own means of existence, and we do so as part of a collective, a society. That collective can be almost any size, from a dozen or so individuals to billions, but Robinson Crusoe, the isolated individual single-handedly wresting a living from nature, has never been anything but fiction. (Even in fiction, Crusoe couldn’t do the job all by himself, and Defoe had to send him a Third World indigenous person, Friday, as a slave.)

One of the things that Marx and Engels figured out is that the different forms of organisation of different societies have a material cause. Ancient Athens or Rome was different from 14th century England, which was different again from 19th century England, not because of the insights of some lawgiver or because of the prescriptions of religion, but because of the different ways in which those societies produced their means of existence. In turn, the means of production – the tools with which the society works – require particular relations of production: connections between the members of that society which prescribe things like which people perform which types of work and how the product is distributed. And these relations of production create, and are buttressed by, a larger or smaller superstructure of customs, ideas, arts and so forth.

Among the different forms of social organisation, capitalism is a latecomer, growing up in Western Europe out of the decay of feudalism in the late Middle Ages. It has some unique characteristics which are highly relevant to the environmental crisis.

In other forms of economy, the relations of production tend to be fairly straightforward, at least in comparison to capitalism. For example, if you’re a serf in a feudal society, you know what you have to do. Custom, religion and the threat of violence from the nobility dictate that you stay on the land, spending part of each week working on the land assigned to your subsistence and part on the land which produces crops for the nobility. Everyone’s role in that society is similarly defined.

Capitalism destroys all those old forms of customary relations, as the Communist Manifesto explains: “The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his ‘natural superiors,’ and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous ‘cash payment.’”

Marx and Engels put that colourfully, but it is not at all exaggerated. In capitalist societies, social roles are not directly prescribed, neither by law nor custom. The fact that your parents are farmers or wharfies or school teachers doesn’t require you to be a farmer or wharfy or school teacher. Moreover, you are not stuck with any particular occupation: you can change it as often as you like.

In place of customary relations, capitalism puts, as Marx and Engels wrote, cash payment. Social connections are no longer direct and immediate, as they were in feudal society. Instead, relations between individuals, and the relationship of each individual to society as a whole, are mediated by money.

In capitalist society, you have no automatic claim to food, shelter, health care or anything else. Your entitlements to anything exist only to the extent that you have money. This is expressed in everyday speech when someone is denied some government benefit they believe they are entitled to. They don’t normally say, “I deserve that, I’m a citizen”. They say, “I deserve that, I’m a taxpayer”.

Because it is central to capitalism’s productive relations, money tends to dominate all other aspects of society. It comes to regulate human behaviour in general, not only directly economic activity. Money, as the mediator of human behaviour, takes on human characteristics. “Money talks”, we say.

Furthermore, it’s in the very nature of capitalism to express social approval or sanctions through the mediation of money. It contradicts the nature of capitalist society to regard making money as socially wrong, because money is the standard reward of capitalism for approved behaviour.

What all this means in a practical sense is that, if you notice a factory pouring carbon dioxide into the atmosphere or toxic waste into a river, you can’t knock at the door and tell whoever answers, “Look what you’re doing – you’d better stop". First of all, they know what they’re doing. Secondly and more importantly, if you ever actually meet them face to face, they can and probably will reply to the effect, “Society approves of what I’m doing. Here’s the proof: I’m making money by doing it.” You can’t defeat that argument within the framework of capitalism: within capitalism, it’s correct. Money is the symbol, in fact the very substance, of social acceptance and approval.

Other forms of economy, from subsistence agriculture to socialism, are capable of polluting, but environmental destruction is not an inherent feature in those economies, as it is for capitalism. In non-capitalist economies, environmental destruction is clearly a mistake in the sense that it gets in the way of the productive goal, which is concerned with use-values: if you over-fish the river or dump rubbish in it, next year you won’t get as many fish. But such destruction doesn’t at all interfere with the capitalist goal of accumulating surplus value. If it becomes generally more difficult to produce crops because of soil depletion, for example, that doesn’t bother capitalist agribusiness, which can raise prices and go on making the same or even higher profits. That is an outline of the connection between what capitalism does to people and what it does to the environment, the reason that capitalism is so much more destructive of the environment than earlier forms of economic organisation – more destructive per head of population or per unit of product, not just in absolute terms. Capitalism transfers the power of social decision making to an inanimate object, to money. Nothing – not even the survival of the human race – can overrule money.

When capitalism was establishing itself by overthrowing the decaying remnants of feudalism, the power of money was a progressive force against the dead hand of outdated tradition. It set up a neutral, objective standard of social approval, against the arbitrary subjective whims of the feudal nobility. But that time is long past. The power of money has been transformed from a force for progress into a threat to human survival. If we cannot take conscious social action to address or avoid environmental dangers, then we are done for. But conscious social action – which means the active involvement of the majority of society – is inherently contradictory with the character of capitalism. Either people decide or money decides: it can’t be both.

But what about capitalist X, who has given several million dollars to clean up a river, or for research into climate change? Can’t capitalists worry about the environment just as much as workers? Well, leave aside green-washing: pretending to do something about the environment because it will help sales. Can particular capitalists become upset about the state of the environment and want to do something about it? Of course they can. What matters, however, is not what capitalists want to do, but what they are able to do. Can the CEO of some big corporation decide that it will produce only by non-polluting methods, even if that slashes profits? No, they can’t – not legally anyway. Corporate officers are required by law to put the profits of shareholders above everything else. Okay, what about someone who is not an overpaid flunky, but who owns the company 100%: can they do it? Yes, but only to the extent that they stop being capitalists, that they break with the logic of capitalism. To the extent that they do that, they will simply leave the field to their competitors, who will go on polluting as normal, and eventually bankrupt the capitalist who is trying to produce “uncompetitively”. Such a capitalist would have just as much or as little effect by selling the business and giving the money to worthy causes. That is certainly morally superior to continuing to be a capitalist exploiter, but it doesn’t save the environment because there are always many more capitalist exploiters ready to step into his/her place. The crisis we face is not one of individual morals; it is a fundamental crisis of an outmoded and increasingly destructive social system. While that system survives, the very conditions for human existence are threatened.

Parliaments and capital

If you recognise the overwhelmingly determinant role of money within a capitalist society, then it becomes much easier to understand why there are at best minimal results from what we might call the “standard” view of how to stop the destruction of the planet, or to accomplish any other progressive goal. In the standard view, which is best exemplified by the Greens, what you have to do is elect enough of the right people to parliament.

But thinking something like that requires you to ignore history. Universal suffrage has been around in different countries of the world for about a century. For several centuries before that, there were various parliaments elected by a restricted suffrage. So the world has had quite a lot of experience with capitalist parliaments, from the barely democratic to those that are formally completely democratic. What does history tell us about all these parliaments? That they never do anything against the interests of capitalism (except by accident, if they mistake what is really needed by capitalism, which is something that can happen during social crises). They can, of course, act against a particular capitalist whose behaviour threatens the capitalist class as a whole. But parliaments are virtually guaranteed defenders of capitalism. And in the few cases where the capitalists fear that a parliament isn’t up to their needs, they of course launch a military coup or call in the US Marines.

Why is it that parliaments always end up supporting the interests of capitalism? The short answer is: because, if they didn’t, capitalism would have abolished them long ago. But nearly everything about parliament is custom-designed to conform to capitalism. First of all, there is the idea that protecting the interests of human beings is not something we all can and should do, but has to be a special occupation: you can grumble or complain about things to your mates, but once the election has been held, your MP is the only one who can do anything about it. Here, politics mirrors the hierarchy of the capitalist factory, except that in the factory you don’t get to vote for your foreman or forewoman (not that it would make a difference if you did).

Capitalism positively reinforces a belief in parliamentarism. Would-be reformers persist with parliamentarism because that is the method that capitalist society prescribes for so-called “social action”. It’s a fake, a form of pseudo-collective activity in which the participants remain atomised (the individual alone with his/her conscience in the voting booth). And it reaffirms the social mediation of money, because only candidates with money have a realistic chance of competing.

So, if we wait for parliaments to solve the climate change crisis, we’ll have a very long wait – until long after the Pacific Ocean is lapping at the foothills of the Blue Mountains. Because capitalism is not going to reform itself. It’s not going to decide that something else is more important than profits. And to give the devil his due, Kevin Rudd and others who come up with carbon trading schemes are at least realistic about one thing: they recognise that the capitalists aren’t going to go along with anything unless it brings them profits. That’s what the Labor government’s scheme and all the other carbon trading schemes do first of all and above everything else: make money for capitalists.

Will these schemes do anything else, such as stopping the dangerous accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere? Of course not. Kevin Rudd’s proclaimed goal is to reduce Australian greenhouse gas emissions over a long period by a tiny fraction of what is needed immediately. That’s if the scheme works as advertised, which it won’t. According to an article in the Sydney Morning Herald (“Down and dirty: farm soil will offset emissions in Australia’s carbon cut scheme”, December 14, 2009), the Labor government expects to meet its already inadequate emissions cut target by what amounts to a fiddling of the numbers: it will claim large, mostly unmeasurable and probably fictitious carbon credits for changing agricultural processes, thereby supposedly capturing more carbon in the soil.

There is already sufficient experience of various carbon trading schemes to make it clear that they have little or no effect on greenhouse gas emissions. Some capitalist can sell the right to burn coal because he has paid a pittance to farmers in Africa to plant some trees, or maybe only to promise not to cut down existing trees. But the coal is burned now, today, and the trees, if they really exist and survive, will capture an equivalent amount of carbon only over half a century or more – and then they will die, and decay, releasing their carbon back into the atmosphere.

‘Market failure’

The same capitalist economists who tell us that markets can and should determine everything have a special phrase they use whenever reality smacks them in the face a bit too strongly. They call it “market failure”. Markets are perfect, infallible – but sometimes they fail. As if putting a name on a problem or its solution causes the problem to go away: inventing a phrase like “clean coal” is so much easier than actually dealing with the problem.

The argument of the carbon traders is that markets themselves are infallible, but there are some things, like atmospheric pollution, that aren’t sufficiently governed by the market. Carbon trading is designed to apply market rules to air pollution and thus supposedly fix the problem. But that is nonsense. The natural world, which is the basis of our existence, exists quite independently of markets. Markets can destroy parts of nature, but there isn’t much of it that they can create. Where is the market that can construct a coral reef? What market can create the incredible biodiversity of the Amazon rainforest?

The environmentalists who support such schemes imagine that the problem is that our society puts too low a dollar value on the environment, and they think that increasing that valuation will help to save the environment. But the real problem is that money is made the measure of non-economic phenomena, such as the environment. So long as this is the case, economic activity will be allowed to damage the environment whenever the price is right. For example, the owners of a coal-fired power plant may be able to regard the air as “free” and thus to pollute it with carbon dioxide and other gases. If the government taxes the plant’s emissions, or requires the owners first to secure a tradeable emissions permit, the plant will charge more for its electricity. If the higher charge results in lower use of electricity, there may be somewhat lessened pollution until increases in the number of consumers make up the gap. That’s all, at best, and even that little is not a necessary result: higher charges may not significantly reduce electricity consumption, or the company may make up for declining consumption by finding new customers.

The problem humanity faces is not a shortage of markets. The problems we face are mostly the result of markets becoming too all-encompassing – that is, they are a product of capitalism’s tendency to turn everything into a commodity, something that can be bought and sold. Fifty years ago, the idea that you would go to a shop and buy the water you drink in order to survive was almost unheard of. Today it’s the norm. Now the capitalists are trying to turn the air we breathe into a commodity. That is not a solution to climate change or anything else; it is a multiplication of the problem. For the sake of money, they are destroying the world on which we depend. We can’t save the world by extending the rule of money.

Carbon trading, or trying to regulate the market with carbon taxes, is, at best, self-deception, mere wishful thinking. It’s very similar in that respect to the idea that pops up from time to time in the capitalist media: that capitalism will save the environment because capitalists will discover that it’s profitable to do so: they will cut back on the use of resources, for instance, because it saves them money now or in the future. Usually, the capitalists require a guru of some sort to explain this to them, especially a guru who is ignorant about what capitalism has been doing for the last two centuries. Last month, shortly before the opening of the Copenhagen conference, the New York Times gave 2000 words on its op-ed page to a California geography professor who is also on the board of the World Wildlife Fund and Conservation International (Jared Diamond, “Will Big Business Save the Earth?” December 6, 2009). Big business can “save the earth”, he suggested, because more and more business executives are thinking along the following lines:

“Lower consumption of environmental resources saves money in the short run. Maintaining sustainable resource levels and not polluting saves money in the long run. And a clean image … reduces criticism from employees, consumers and government.”

But reducing criticism is not the driving force of capitalism. Capitalists know how to deal with criticism. If it comes from employees, they sack them. If it comes from consumers, they lie to them. And they own the government, so they’re not that worried about its criticisms. Capitalists will endure any amount of criticism if the action they are criticised for raises profits by 1%.

It’s true, of course, that using less of some particular resource is normally cheaper than using more of that resource. But it’s also the case that for many production processes, the capitalists have a choice of resources and methods, not just a choice between using more or less of one resource. There might be a choice, for example, between a resource that is relatively clean but expensive and one that produces lots of greenhouse gas emissions but is cheap. In capitalism, that’s not a choice; that’s an imperative to produce climate change. And if corporation A doesn’t do it, corporation B will.

As for keeping future resource costs lower by consuming resources more slowly today, each capitalist knows that he or she is paying today for the resources used today, but it may be a quite different capitalist whose future costs are being spared. Moreover, we should keep in mind the historic vision that characterises the ruling class. This was expressed succinctly by the capitalist economist John Maynard Keynes when he said, “In the long run, we are all dead”. Capital’s perspectives are bounded by the prevailing interest rate: the higher that is, the more future welfare is discounted and the more short-sighted capital becomes.

Unfortunately, the profit motive does not mean that capitalism has a built-in drive to be economical in its use of resources – and not only because the capitalists are driven to produce and sell as much as possible of their commodities, irrespective of real demand. In working out what is “economical”, a lot comes into play that is not usually mentioned in economics textbooks.

A new technology may well have the potential to be economical for society as a whole – that is, to reduce the overall social cost of producing some good or service. But it will not be widely used unless it improves the profits of a particular capitalist – generally one with considerable market power, which provides a measure of protection against new competitors taking up the technology.

Costs and profits are not determined solely by the amount of resources consumed. Market power carries with it the ability to use political means to protect and increase profits, through securing monopolies, subsidies, favourable tax treatment and so on. For instance, a study done for the Australian Conservation Foundation in 2003 found that government subsidies for the production and consumption of fossil fuels amounted to at least $8.9 billion a year (Christopher Riedy, Subsidies that Encourage Fossil Fuel Use in Australia). This referred only to direct financial assistance, not to “externalities”, the damage that the fuels do but which is not paid for. The study found that 9% of the subsidies discouraged greenhouse gas emissions and 91% encouraged them. Furthermore, 58% of the subsidies both increased greenhouse gas emissions and were economically inefficient – for society, that is, not inefficient for the capitalists who received them.

So the capitalists don’t need well-meaning environmentalists to tell them how to make profits. They already know how to make profits; if they didn’t, they wouldn’t be capitalists. The reason they are destroying the planet is because it’s profitable to do so. The reason they won’t stop is that to stop destroying the planet, they would have to stop being capitalists. Or, to put it more precisely, capitalism would have to stop being capitalism.


People who are not yet prepared to go all the way and get rid of capitalism try to find some particular aspect of capitalism that can be blamed: if we get rid of that little bit of capitalism, maybe that will solve the problem. And that’s a perfectly understandable response: why go to the effort of changing more than you need to change?

So some people try to blame technology. Remember “small is beautiful”? That’s not as popular as it was 10 or 15 years ago, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see it get another run in some form: let’s get rid of the polluting technology of mass production and go back to growing our own vegetables and making our own clothes.

And it’s true that some things could be done better on a smaller scale: there is enormous waste of electric power through long-distance transmission, for example. But would anyone argue seriously that steel production should be switched from a few large steel mills to small blast furnaces dotted around the countryside? That was tried by the Chinese government during the “Great Leap Forward” of the 1960s, and the result was a disaster. Much of the steel produced was unusable, and the total amount of polluting gases and other wastes and the total of energy consumed were much greater than they would otherwise have been.

What the “small is beautiful” argument also forgets is that the world of small-scale production was also a world of a fraction of the current population. And there’s a direct connection between those two facts. Even in 1800, the world’s population was still less than one billion. For better or for worse, we are stuck with mass production. There is simply no other way of providing even the most minimal requirements of food, clothing, housing, education and health care for 7 or 8 billion people.


Related to the idea of smaller scale production is the argument that we have to consume less. Consumerism is the villain: if it weren’t for consumerism, capitalist industry wouldn’t have to destroy the planet – or at least wouldn’t have to destroy it quite so fast, not in our lifetime, so we could leave it to our children or grandchildren to solve the problem. This overlooks the fact that most of the world’s people don’t consume enough. Something like 40% of the human race lives in extreme poverty. 146 million children in underdeveloped countries are seriously underweight. 200 million children sleep on the streets.

But what about those of us in rich countries like Australia? Wouldn’t it help to solve problems like global warming if we consumed less? The short answer to that is: No. Even big cuts in our consumption wouldn’t significantly reduce capitalism’s destructive impact on the environment. I want to take up this question from several angles, because it reveals a lot about why capitalism can’t stop destroying the environment, let alone save it.

First of all, even in the rich capitalist countries, most people do not consume excessively in terms of the material benefits they actually receive. It is not over-indulgence, for example, to travel from Brisbane to Sydney or vice versa. Making the journey is environmentally damaging because capitalism destroys or prevents efficient public transport so that you have to buy a car and petrol to get there. Capitalist agriculture is destroying the Australian environment, among other ways, by growing great quantities of cotton in unsuitable areas. You can’t stop that by refusing to wear cotton clothes. You can go naked and capitalism will still go on despoiling the land. Karl Marx explained this a century and a half ago in Capital:

“… all progress in capitalist agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the worker, but of robbing the soil; all progress in increasing the fertility of the soil for a given time is a progress towards ruining the more long-lasting sources of that fertility. The more a country proceeds from large-scale industry as the background of its development, as in the case of the United States, the more rapid is this process of destruction. Capitalist production, therefore, only develops the techniques and the degree of combination of the social process of production by simultaneously undermining the original sources of all wealth – the soil and the worker.”

Why is this the case? Because capitalist production is not driven by consumption: if it were possible to have workers who consumed nothing, capitalism’s production would be no less polluting. This point needs some emphasis, because it is directly contrary to all official theory and capitalist “common sense”. We produce things in order to consume them, don’t we? – Just about every economics textbook written in the last 100 years begins with that “obvious truth”.

Of course, it’s a general truth that we human beings have to produce most of the things we consume. But it doesn’t at all follow from that generality that any specific act of production – or even any system of production – is motivated or determined by consumption. Workers in a factory that makes landmines aren’t interested in consuming their product. The slave produces not in order to consume but in order to avoid physical violence.

Capitalist economics likes to deal with abstract, isolated individuals. Person A has a television or a car that s/he doesn’t want or need. Person B would like a television or a car and doesn’t know how to build one, but luckily has a skill which A needs – the ability to be exploited, for example. So A’s television is exchanged for B’s work, and they all live happily ever after in a capitalist utopia – until the world becomes uninhabitable because B has consumed too many television sets.

The real world is quite different, which is why capitalist economics is not a great help in understanding it. In the real world, person B, a worker, works for A, the capitalist, because he or she has no choice – no other way to produce his or her life. What workers produce isn’t their choice, but the capitalists’ choice. And the capitalists choose what will be produced on the basis of one criterion only. It isn’t what somebody needs or wants to consume. It’s what they think will make them a profit.

But, someone will object, the capitalists wouldn’t produce so much if we didn’t buy their products. However, that puts things backward. Capitalists don’t produce things because we want them. We buy things because capitalists produce them.

How does this come about? It happens because that substance of social approval, money, is not only money. It is also capital, or value which exploits workers. We we need money because without it we are not part of society and cannot survive. We go to work because that is the only way to get money. As we work, we are exploited: our labour makes more money for the capitalists than they pay us. Cooperative labour is the very essence of what it means to be a human being. But the products of our labour belong to the capitalists, and we can reclaim them only by buying them. And we can never buy them all, which is to say that we can never buy enough.

When the capitalists reinvest their profits in the production process, they become new capital that exploits workers anew. The workers’ own product therefore confronts them in the workplace as alien property – both alien and hostile, because it confronts them as exploiter.

Because labour in capitalism is alienated labour, labour whose result exploits the worker, our lives become split into two parts. There is work, an imposed drudgery for others, in order merely to survive, and then there is “real” life, which starts where work ends (but often is little more than physical recovery so that work can be resumed the next day). But “real” life as an absence of labour runs into the contradiction that the urge to productive activity is part of human nature; so there is always something missing from that part of our lives which we regard as our own property, not the property of the boss.

This division of our lives into non-work time which belongs to ourselves and alienated labour-time for the boss has more environmental consequences. Because labour and living are divorced from each other in capitalism, living is also divorced from the natural environment, which is the ultimate basis of all production. The separation of labour and living appears in a distorting mirror as the artificial separation of city and country: on the one side, urban life cut off from the natural basis of life; on the other side, rural isolation and constantly dwindling opportunities for productive activity other than forms of environmental destruction. If we as urban workers try to recover a relationship to the natural environment, we have to do so on holiday, as non-workers “consuming” nature, not really living and producing in it.

Worst offenders

The fundamental cause of environmental destruction is the same as the fundamental cause of everything else in capitalism. Profit – more precisely, surplus value – is the basic cause of poverty, crime, sexism, racism, war, alienation and so on and so on and so on. Why should environmental destruction be any different?

It was therefore only to be expected that the countries that have the most developed capitalism – the imperialist countries – would be the worst offenders in greenhouse gas emissions. This is true both in terms of historical emissions and current ones. The United States, with the biggest capitalist economy and the military power to thumb its nose at the world, is the worst. As Fidel Castro pointed out recently: “The United States, with less than 5% of the world population releases 25% of the carbon dioxide”. Some calculations show Canada or Australia having larger per capita emissions than the US, but it turns out, not surprisingly, that the US figures are fiddled. An article recently produced by the US socialist organisation Workers World points out that, in the negotiations at Kyoto, the US obtained an exemption from measurement or limits of the greenhouse gases emitted by its military. And these emissions are larger than those of most of the countries in the world; according to the CIA’s 2006 World Factbook, the Pentagon consumes more oil than 174 countries. Stephen Kretzmann, the director of Oil Change International, has calculated that between 2003 and 2007, the US war in Iraq consumed more oil than 60% of the world’s countries. In a press conference in Copenhagen on December 21, Cuba’s foreign minister provided some additional figures:

“… from the Kyoto Protocol until today the developed countries’ emissions rose by 12.8% … and 55% of that volume corresponds to the United States.

“The average annual oil consumption is 25 barrels for an American, 11 barrels for a European, less than 2 barrels for a Chinese and less than 1 barrel for a Latin American or Caribbean citizen.

“Thirty countries, including those of the European Union, are consuming 80% of the fuel produced.”

Time to stop them

Why is it so difficult for the rest of us to take action to stop what the capitalists are doing to our planet? Part of the reason is that capitalism has some built-in protections.

Through money, capitalism establishes a universal alienation of human social activity. Capitalism concentrates our social existence, not in a direct relationship with other people, but in a thing, money. By doing this, it creates an alienated, atomised form of society in which conscious social action becomes extremely difficult and rare.

As a consequence, capitalist society has no real social mechanism for meeting and overcoming social dangers. In bourgeois political theory, overcoming such dangers is the role of the state. But in reality, the state represents, not society as a whole, but one section of society, the ruling class, against the rest.

The capitalist state has mechanisms – police, judiciary, prisons – for dealing with behaviour that threatens ruling-class property. It can forbid and punish actions that are often called “antisocial” but are really infringements against individuals. But when it comes to really antisocial behaviour – i.e. behaviour that harms the great majority of society – the capitalist state isn’t concerned. Its job is not to protect society, but to protect capitalism.

I said earlier that the capitalist state can take action against individual capitalists whose actions threaten the well-being of the whole class. It might be thought that a capitalist state – Australia, for example – would realise that the majority of capitalists could be harmed by climate change and would therefore do something to reduce radically the output of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. This hasn’t happened and isn’t going to happen if it’s left up to the capitalists, as the Copenhagen conference made clear. Why is this the case?

The fundamental reason is that capitalists compete against each other, not only within a country, but also across borders, internationally. Within national boundaries, a capitalist can and sometimes does regulate the competition of capitalists in a particular industry for the “common good” (of the capitalists). But there is no international body that has a similar power to regulate international competition among capitalists – it would require a single worldwide capitalist state, something that would not be desirable even if it were possible.

Of all human institutions, the one least able to save our environment is the capitalist state, because it has been created and structured to defend the very forces that are responsible for environmental destruction. It is up to working people, who gain nothing and stand to lose everything from environmental destruction, to create the necessary consciousness and the organisations that can stop the capitalists. To save our planet and therefore ourselves, working people will need to create their own state, a revolutionary state that destroys the political power and then the economic power of the capitalists. As was said by Hugo Chavez, the president of Venezuela, in a speech at Copenhagen:

“Socialism, this is the direction, this is the path to save the planet, I don’t have the least doubt. Capitalism is the road to hell, to the destruction of the world.”

Marxist Education