Look Deeper, Mr. Moyers

It’s enough to make your hair stand on end and your eyes bug out. Not only is the Earth in peril, but some people who hold sway over the fate of the planet believe that soon the whole place is going to go up in a blaze of brimstone anyway — and they can’t wait to watch it happen!

Bill Moyers, in the March 24 issue of the New York Review of Books, paints a scary picture indeed. With a greeting of “Welcome to the Rapture!”, Moyers writes about the vast numbers of Americans who believe that an imminent end of the world is predicted in the Book of Revelation and about their energetic support for the Bush administration. He draws this conclusion:

A powerful current connects the administration’s multinational corporate cronies who regard the environment as ripe for the picking and a hard-core constituency of fundamentalists who regard the environment as fuel for the fire that is coming. Once again, populist religion winds up serving the interests of economic elites.

Moyers is right: It “sends a shiver down the spine.” But the Earth was headed down a highway to hell long before Bush was elected or the Armageddon Clock started up. Triumphant capitalism, performing precisely to specifications, is showing itself fully capable of pulling off an ecological apocalypse, with or without the help of superstitious scripture-twisters.

When it comes to shining a light on some of the most alarming outgrowths of capitalism, Moyers is a master. But in going after the Bush administration’s scorched-Earth environmental policies, its “multinational corporate cronies”, and those hallucinatory crackpots brandishing their biblical licenses to plunder, he missed the root cause of the problem: capitalism’s addiction to perpetual growth.

Growth: the sacred bull in the china shop

While there are not enough members of Congress willing to oppose the building of roads in wilderness areas or the gutting of the Clean Air Act, many do take those positions. Such issues are OK to discuss in polite society. On the other hand, when did you last hear a national politician say, “This economy’s growing too fast, and if elected, I’ll work to cut growth!”?

They never say that, because they would be admitting that capitalism is unsustainable. There is no such thing as capitalism without growth. Capitalists — a class of folks whose income is “unearned” (a term devised and used, with uncharacteristic clarity, by the IRS) — have a well-understood role in society: to take a pile of money and turn it into a bigger pile of money.

But a bigger pile of money, once achieved, is not an end but another beginning. To the capitalist, that pile is useless unless it can be turned into an even bigger pile. As a result, more resources are used and wastes expelled this year than last, and even more next year.

Now, if you’re a politician or, say, a liberal pundit, you can’t very well tell working people, “I’m afraid that our capitalist class is going to be needing an increasingly bigger share of our national income for a while — well, um, actually forever — and it’s all going to have to come out of your paychecks.”

Instead, you talk about economic growth and its seemingly miraculous ability to keep boosting the capitalist’s return on investment while not completely wiping out the workers who generated it. No problem: Money’s imaginary, so bigger piles of it are always possible, and there is no biggest pile.

But, of course, we do have a problem. We have no infinite piles of the stuff (even the renewable stuff) that’s needed to turn money into more money. There’s a rule that no species can increase its resource exploitation infinitely, and Homo sapiens has not been granted a waiver . Fossil fuels, soil, salmon, and healthy ecosystems are real, and the rules that apply to money — which is no more real than ‘Monopoly’ money — don’t apply on planet Earth.
Where good capitalists go bad

Whatever the issue, nasty villains in plush corner offices make an easy target. But they are no more to blame for the state of the planet than are the prophets of Armageddon. All capitalists, big and small, have individual views but a common role in society.

The chief concern of one Captain of Industry might be global warming; of another, the tax deduction on his corporate jet; of another, the Beast with seven heads and ten horns. It doesn’t matter because they are all playing by the same rules. The one who doesn’t accumulate capital at the requisite pace might well end up punching a clock for one of the others, or worse.

Those who want to square the circle, to have infinite economic growth on a finite planet, generally invoke greater efficiency. Technology is supposed to let businesses generate more monetary wealth while using and abusing less of the material world.

Now, nobody — no CEO, no environmentalist, not even the Antichrist — is going to argue against efficiency. But capitalism has a way of turning good things inside out.

If you’re a business owner, and you find you can produce the same number of lawn chairs or helicopters while spending less on energy, materials, labor, or waste disposal, that’s efficiency, and that means money in the bank for you. But it’s your job as a good capitalist to get that money out of the bank, ASAP, and invest it in the real world, where you can turn more stuff into more money. (No matter if demand is down — buy advertising!)

In a growth-dependent economic order, efficiency simply provides more opportunities for production and consumption. Relying on efficiency to make growth less destructive is like trying to run up a “Down” escalator that never stops accelerating.


What’s really scary

Ecological economics, a heretical branch of the discipline, has demonstrated conclusively that if we’re to live within our material means, planet-wide, we must (1) limit our species’ rate of reproduction, (2) hold our “throughput” of resources and wastes down to a sustainable level, and (3) set upper and lower limits on monetary wealth and income. These policies make up a package; following only one or two of them won’t do the job.

While most ecological economists are not explicitly anti-capitalist — that is, they do not advocate taking society’s most important investment decisions out of the hands of an unelected capitalist class and putting them into democratic institutions — it is difficult to see how capitalists or capitalism could flourish in the kind of world they envision.

And there are ways of making investment decisions democratic. For example, in his book After Capitalism, David Schweikart outlines a vision of the future that we all would find familiar, with private property, buying, selling, profits, and entrepreneurs – but without capitalists! Letting all of society, not just a tiny sliver, decide how to invest would not by itself stop the cancerous growth that’s killing the ecosphere. But it’s the necessary step.

In his article, Bill Moyers runs through a checklist of the Republicans’ environmental sins, from their attacks on the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species Acts to their enthusiasm for oil-drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. But we can’t stop there. As I’m sure he knows, we could win every one of those legislative battles and still see the planet’s degradation proceed at an accelerating pace.

I sympathize with Moyers. Motivating people is a tricky business. End-times zealots like Gary Frazier and corporate bugaboos like Dick Cheney are just scary enough to shock thoughtful people into action on a few high-profile issues. But talk about root causes of the ecological crisis, particularly capitalism’s dependence on unchecked growth, and most of your audience runs, screaming, for the exits.

I don’t pretend to have a solution to that dilemma. But we have to start asking these deeper questions, and soon. The Armageddon Clock may be a fantasy, but real clocks are really ticking.

STAN COX is a plant breeder and writer in Salina, Kansas. He can be reached at: t.stan@cox.net


Stan Cox is the author of The Green New Deal and Beyond: Ending the Climate Emergency While We Still Can (City Lights, May, 2020) and one of the editors of Green Social Thought.