The Social and Ecological Crises of Capitalism

“It’s impossible!” I said.

“No Johnny, we’re impossible.  It’s like it always was ten million years ago.  It hasn’t changed.  It’s us and the land that’ve changed, become impossible, Us!

Ray Bradbury, from the short story “The Foghorn”

Sometimes, the calendar of international conferences attended by global elites serves up potent lessons for the rest of us, when they shine a spotlight on the deliberately murky affairs of the people who run the system.  As the 20 most powerful world leaders deliberate on economic issues in Los Cabos, Mexico for the G20 summit, representatives of the rest will be simultaneously converging on Rio de Janeiro to consider how to follow up on the original Earth Summit, 20 years ago this year.

At these seemingly separate gatherings, we in truth observe the two sides of the capitalist coin.  Namely, how can the capitalist elite continue the necessary work of exploiting both humans and the natural world in the service of profit, while cloaking their intentions in the benign language of growth, development and sustainability?  Fine words to cover nefarious ends.  No doubt, as people’s livelihoods and world decay around them as a direct consequence of the system the elite oversee, and in response the flame of revolt is rekindled from Cairo to Athens, political elites in the two locations will reflect on the fact that it’s not getting any easier.  From the other side, critics and commentators of the two conferences are missing an important and significant lesson when they consider them in isolation.

At the original Earth Summit in Rio, it was generally accepted that environmental questions could not be separated from economic ones.  This year, the two conferences, occurring concurrently at different ends of the South American continent, bring to light how this thinking has been undermined.  Furthermore, they indicate with geographical and political precision where the priorities of the global elite lie.  While the most important world leaders hot-foot it to Mexico to discuss global economic development, they send low-level delegates to Brazil to discuss issues they deem less vital; to be exact, planetary ecological crisis.

Indeed, so desperate were the Brazilian organizers of Rio+20 to cajole the British premier to attend, they changed the date of the conference so as to avoid conflicting with the much more important and worthy 60th anniversary celebrations of the Queen of England’s ascension to the throne.  An attempt that proved ultimately and embarrassingly futile, as British Prime Minister, David Cameron, chose to cling to the coattails of President Obama and other G20 leaders in Los Cabos, as they calculate, connive and concoct the further dismemberment and disenfranchisement of communities of workers and peasants around the world.

In a further sad irony, to enhance attendance at Rio, Brazil is providing flights courtesy of the Brazilian air-force to those countries too poor to send delegates.  It’s hard to imagine that the countries who can’t afford to send delegates to an environmental conference will have the financial capacity to take action to preserve biodiversity and a stable climate without international funding and technology transfer.  But the concept or even use of the word “transfer” is exactly what the United States delegation is trying to excise from any document emerging from Rio+20.

In Los Cabos, 20 people wielding enormous economic power gather to ensure that nothing stands in the way of the international accumulation of money by their respective corporations; that capitalist growth continues, uninterrupted by paltry considerations such as democracy.  Scheming and plotting in Los Cabos, the 20 leaders will huddle, concerned that their plans have been exposed by the people of Greece.  As they jet to Mexico, one of the first countries to be devastated by the neoliberal prescription of privatization, deregulation and cuts to social spending, the election results in Greece ring in their ears as a collective rebuke to austerity and unemployment.  In unprecedented numbers, Greeks exercised their democratic rights by voting for a previously obscure and marginal left coalition, SYRIZA and against handing the welfare of their country over to unelected technocrats governing from afar.  A vote, it should be emphasized, carried out in the teeth of apocalyptic warnings of doom from central bank acolytes of the 1%, desperate to stop the people voting ‘the wrong way’.

As for the Global South, capitalist economic development, particularly since its neoliberal mutation, has been a disaster of gigantic proportions as money and natural wealth are siphoned into Western financial institutions.  According to Oxfam, gross capital flows to developing countries fell from $309 billion in 2010 to $170 billion in 2011.  Last year, aid donations from major donors experienced the first decrease in 14 years, dropping by $3.4 billion; overall aid was $16 billion below what the G8 committed to delivering in 2009.  The drop in aid, along with legal and illicit financial transfers out of the developing world, mean that for every dollar received in aid (much of it tied to the purchase of materials from the West), 7-10 dollars go out. In 2009 alone, the developing world saw $903 billion disappear overseas thanks to a rigged system from which the majority cannot benefit.  While 16 of the 20 members of the G20 have seen inequality increase over the last 20 years, as complement to that process, is it any wonder that developing countries seem to be permanently ‘developing’ even as social and ecological conditions there also worsen?

The violent dispossession that characterized the bloody dawn of capitalism captured by Marx in his writings on the enforced removal of peasants in the 1500’s amid the first acts of privatization – the land enclosures, is repeated in contemporary form through land grabs; his writing has a remarkably contemporary ring to it: “Thus were the agricultural people, first forcibly expropriated from the soil, driven from their homes, turned into vagabonds, and then whipped, branded, tortured by laws grotesquely terrible, into the discipline necessary for the wage system.”

In the 20 years since the optimism of the first Earth Summit in Rio, carbon emissions have increased by 50% and, since 1950, while the rest of the world has seen an average increase in temperature of 0.70C, the arctic, due to various positive feedback loops, has experienced double that.  Absent serious action, whereas the world is now on track for 20C of warming, the arctic is on course for a truly calamitous 3-60C.  The June 16th 2012 special edition of The Economist pondered an ice-free arctic with a mixture of trepidation, casual racist indifference and a general leaning toward monetary excitement: “In the long run the unfrozen north could cause devastation.  But, paradoxically, in the meantime, no arctic species will profit from it as much as the one causing it: humans.  Disappearing sea ice may spell the end of the last Eskimo cultures, but hardly anyone lives in an igloo these days anyway.  And the great melt is going to make a lot of people rich.”  Yes, to The Economist, while the change may be “devastating” to ancient and indigenous cultures, along with cold-adapted species, a certain small subset of humans will become rich while ‘making a killing’ – in all senses of the phrase.

We and the land have certainly changed and the continuation planned by the capitalists and their political representatives has unquestionably become impossible, as further capitalist development begins to contradict not just human rights or a sense of social progress, but the thermodynamic laws of the universe, which underpin a stable biosphere, upon which all life ultimately depends.

To quote British journalist George Monbiot on the reasons for the failure of so many environmental conferences, “These summits have failed for the same reason that the banks have failed. Political systems that were supposed to represent everyone now return governments of millionaires, financed by and acting on behalf of billionaires. The past 20 years have been a billionaires’ banquet. At the behest of corporations and the ultra-rich, governments have removed the constraining decencies – the laws and regulations – which prevent one person from destroying another. To expect governments funded and appointed by this class to protect the biosphere and defend the poor is like expecting a lion to live on gazpacho.”

From the other side of the political spectrum, representatives of the US environmental organization, Environmental Defense Fund, writing in a New York Times op-ed concede that “As the Arctic becomes ice-free, we can expect that it will be drilled for oil”.  But, nevertheless, despite two decades of failure, hold out hope that with just a little more effort and market reforms such as cap and trade, 10 years from now we’ll be okay “with determination and the right policies, by the time Rio+30 rolls around, optimism might be the order of the day.”

Now, socialists are often decried as Utopians.  We are told, our ideas may sound good in theory, but humans living equitably with one another in a democratic system based on cooperation, in a society that lives in harmony with the natural world, will simply never work in practice.  Is it more realistic to believe that the same system that got us to this point will extricate us?  The message from the ‘realists’ seems to be that while we may well have covered the arctic in drilling rigs by then, just give it another 10 years and things will be fine.  Going beyond the wrong-headed pronouncements of the EDF, UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon managed a level of fervor that would have put Dr. Pangloss himself to shame, “Increasingly, we understand that, with smart public policies, governments can grow their economies, alleviate poverty, create decent jobs and accelerate social progress in a way that respects the earth’s finite natural resources.”

One has to ask, who are the real Utopians?  To many people around the world, leftwing and explicitly socialist ideas, along with class-based revolt, are re-emerging as real alternatives precisely because our rulers quite clearly have no answer other than an extension of the market into whole new areas.  Meena Raman of the Malaysia-based Third World Network, was unequivocal in her denunciation of the US’s role in derailing climate negotiations in Durban in 2002 and in Rio+20: “Given the US stance, we do not want President Obama or any US leader to come to Rio to bury what was agreed in 1992 in Rio. We cannot expect the US to show any leadership in truly wanting to save the planet and the poor. So it is better for President Obama to stay at home.”

Meanwhile, 105 scientific institutions are urging action at Rio on population and consumption “For too long population and consumption have been left off the table due to political and ethical sensitivities. These are issues that affect developed and developing nations alike, and we must take responsibility for them together,” said Charles Godfray, a fellow of the Royal Society.  Except that population growth is a function of poverty and it is in fact the countries with the largest levels of consumption, such as the United States and Europe, that not only are the historical cause of the ecological crisis, but are helping to drive it to its logical conclusion – a cascading collapse of ecosystems – by advocating continual economic expansion and the generation of poverty through the promotion of financial and trade agreements that accentuate inequality.  Capitalism is like a shark; just as these animals can never stop moving forward for fear of drowning, so capitalism must grow or die.

It’s important to understand why negotiators see the primary way to save the environment is through putting a price on it.  This is the main thrust of the talks and accepted by all negotiating parties inside the conference, representing a major schism with the tens of thousands of protesters attending the Rio+20 People’s Summit who are being forcibly kept out of the deliberations by armed riot police.

The argument goes that only by giving natural resources “value” in monetary terms can the environment be protected.  On the one hand, it’s easy to see the further privatization of every molecule of water, every tree and every piece of land as dovetailing beautifully with the desires of the corporations.  Extending the “free” market to new areas for exploitation is a tried and true method to enhance profits.   Those who run the corporations are not slow to catch on and self-advocate: “For companies this is enlightened self interest…Those who can afford water should pay. Water is essentially over exploited because we are not valuing it as an economic good. Introducing methodologies such as escalating tariffs, which some countries have already done, will help in terms of using water intelligently, often for the first time.” So said, Gavin Power, deputy director of the UN Global Compact, which is acting as an umbrella group for 45 of the most powerful CEO’s, from such well-known environmentally conscious concerns as Coca Cola, Glaxo-SmithKline, Nestle, Merck and Bayer, to ensure their voice is heard at Rio+20.

But advocacy for the “valuation” of natural resources occurs not just or even primarily because it coincides with what corporations want.  Many of the people arguing for such quantization of nature genuinely believe it will help preserve biodiversity, slow climate change and reduce the pressure on natural resources.

More fundamentally, the need to place “fair value” on everything is part of the ideological foundation of capitalism.  Within the philosophy of capitalism, if something does not have a price, it cannot have value.  Hence, putting the correct price, otherwise known as internalizing the cost, of a natural good, is to make possible its rational exploitation and simultaneous conservation.  To those mired deep within the labyrinth of a capitalistic value system, there is no contradiction between these two aims: the commodification of nature can be seen both as a way of making money from it, and as a way of saving it, as perfectly expressed by Ban Ki-moon.

The quantification of nature is the rational end-point of capitalism’s philosophical approach to nature and hence a practical approach to ‘saving nature’.  The non-quantifiable, qualitative side of nature, the purely spiritual and awe-inducing beauty of watching a sunrise for example, is not only entirely absent, or under-appreciated, it is essentially unknowable.  Hence, assuming you’re not prepared to advocate regulatory reforms to place limits on the operation of corporations and boundaries beyond which they cannot cross, or you’re not advocating revolution, then extending the market becomes the only option left, consequently the focus at Rio+20 on doing exactly that.

However, for those of us who truly want to see a better world, the extension of its commodification to every single particle of nature cannot be an answer.  Taking our inspiration from the rising struggles of 2011 around the globe, it is imperative that we link up the movements of social resistance, and forge new alliances with organized labor and the disenfranchised of the planet to force regulatory changes onto those who would foist false solutions on us.  Only by linking social and ecological change and fighting on both fronts, autonomous of mainstream political parties, while creating our own independent battle organizations, can we hope to make progress.

Ultimately, however, it is just as vital that fighters for social emancipation, human freedom and ecological sanity, recognize that capitalism represents the annihilation of nature and, thus, humanity.  A system based on cooperation, real democracy, long-term planning, and production for need not profit, i.e., socialism, represents the reconciliation of humanity with nature.  And its achievement will, as Marx pointed out, of necessity be much less violent than the process by which capitalism was born in the first place:

“The transformation of scattered private property, arising from individual labor, into capitalist private property is, naturally, a process, incomparably more protracted, violent, and difficult, than the transformation of capitalistic private property, already practically resting on socialized production, into socialized [common] property.  In the former case, we had the expropriation of the mass of the people by a few usurpers; in the latter, we have the expropriation of a few usurpers by the mass of the people.”

We currently live in an age that has been characterized as the Anthropocene, the Age of Man, by some scientists to take into account how drastically human civilization has altered the biosphere on a geological time scale.  Only by overthrowing capitalism and moving toward a cooperative, planned economy based on democracy and sustainability can we move toward an age characterized, after Epicurus, as the Oikeiotocene – The Age of Conformity to Nature.

Chris Williams is a professor in the Dept of Chemistry & Physical Science, Pace University and author of Ecology and Socialism: Solutions to Capitalist Ecological Crisis (Haymarket Books, 2010)