Capitalism is failing the planet
Date Written: 2014-11-20
Publisher: Green Left Weekly
Year Published: 2014
Resource Type: Article
Cx Number: CX16979
If we continue with capitalist business as usual, there will be disastrous consequences for humanity. Capitalism is in unavoidable conflict with environmental sustainability because of three key features that are inherent to the system.
Capitalism is in unavoidable conflict with environmental sustainability because of three key features that are inherent to the system.
Profit motive: The motivating force of capitalism is the never-ending quest for profits and accumulation; all other areas are and suffer as result.
Unfettered growth: Capitalist economies must continually expand, which is incompatible with the Earth’s defined boundaries and finite resources. Marx called this the “treadmill of production”, and it was one of his most valuable ecological insights.
Externalities: Social and environmental costs are externalised and unable to be accounted for in capitalist economics.
In reality, the environment is not something “external” to the human economy as capitalism tells us; it constitutes the essential life support systems for all living creatures. A system that is unable to take this into account is not “rational” and “efficient”, but paving the way for its own destruction.
Marx and Engels’ conception of the Earth as a dynamic and complex whole demonstrate that their views constituted some of the most advanced environmental thinking of the nineteenth century.
This advanced view also saw humans as a part of this ecosystem structure, rather than above it, and derided the view that humans could exploit nature as they wished without consequences.
In Dialectics of Nature engels wrote: “Let us not, however, flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human victories over nature. For each victory nature takes its revenge on us…
“Thus at every step we are reminded that we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing outside nature – but that we, with flesh, blood and brain, belong to nature, and exist in its midst”.
Marx and Engels may not be well known for their ecological thinking, but in fact, they have a lot to teach us in this field. They argued that capitalism’s exploitation of working people and the unsustainable exploitation of nature were linked and part of the same process.
Marx’s two most important ecological insights were “the treadmill of production” (previously mentioned) and the “ecological (or metabolic) rift”.
The Metabolic Rift states that the capitalist mode of production causes a sharp break in the metabolism (two way relationship) between nature and humans, which Marx sees as mediated by process of human labour. This occurs on dual levels; at the local level where industrial production reduces soil fertility, depriving both soil and workers of nourishment and sustenance, and on the global scale through exploitation of the resources of the Global South by the imperialist countries of the Global North.
It is evident that we cannot just reform the system or shift to “green capitalism” because ecological destruction is built into the inner nature and logic of our present system of production and distribution.
As socialists, we know there can be no lasting solution to the world’s environmental crises as long as capitalism remains the dominant economic and social system on this planet. Eco-socialism or Barbarism, there is no third way.
Eco-socialism aims to combine the best aspects of green and red — of ecology and Marxism. It takes from ecology an understanding of nature as interrelated, integrated eco-systems and essential insights into humanity’s impact on the environment.