The Curse of Growth: Accelerated Climate Change

As Veblen might have said, conspicuous consumption = the objectification of waste, an equation at the core of modern capitalism grounded in the exploitation of the laborer as the raison d’etre for the creation of surplus value. Quite a mouthful? No, a straightforward description of a System whose excessiveness in all things pertinent to the accumulation of power and wealth for upper groups has brought humankind to a condition of ecocide that threatens the habitable existence of the planet. Naomi Klein in her recent book had it right, the abhorrent contradiction of politicized economic development having structurally produced global inequality now stands, and has for some time, in direct opposition to the reduction of carbon emissions as a primary factor in global warming. Implicitly, she goes further: the culprit, beyond carbon emissions in the wanton destruction of the Earth, is the societal framework which makes possible and sustains growth on terms deleterious to nature.

Thus far the issue of emissions has been disconnected from the necessity for a systemic transformation of society and political economy if climate change is to be brought under control and seemingly irreversible trends not only halted but reversed. Is it too late? If so, at least progressive forces cannot give up without a fight, one that somehow may activate regenerative energies hitherto latent in nature’s struggle to surmount human cruelty, greed, and error. Capitalism is the enemy of nature; we have seen that as built into a predaceous mindset. I say this, not in the spirit of Thoreuvian romanticism, which nonetheless had its valued ascetic personal standard, so much needed today, but in the praxis of uncompromising militancy directed to de-privileging financial-industrial elites and their political servants, in America and worldwide.

Global warming is, as the phrase denotes, a global phenomenon. It is like a noxious infectious disease, the virulent initial carrier being the multinational corporation. But that is only surface, an inherent dynamic of unrestrained capitalism which itself is not predetermined or inevitable so much as the product of war, imperialism, exigencies of profit maximization and securing the natural resources critical to an industrial civilization. Behind the putative ineluctable economic tendencies stands the long arm of CLASS; oppression-repression-impoverishment do not just happen, dropping from the skies of a benign or malignant divinity (depending on which side one is on), but, like global warming itself, result from human activity as the predominating factor in shaping outcomes. To avoid the inclusive criminality of capitalism in the effort to rectify current trends is to ignore global warming itself and blissfully continue as usual.

The human race is, or should be, made of sterner/better stuff. Raising living standards for all is more than a noble moral aspiration; beyond defining an altruistic sensibility distinguishing man/woman from lower animals, it is the key to human survival. Nothing less. I say this because growth as it has occurred in the so-called advanced nations, notably the US, where capitalism, in the absence of European feudalism (but not the institution of slavery, itself organized capitalistically), had taken on a purist form, created a globalized INEQUALITY which fuels (pardon the pun) unrestricted carbon emissions, differential stages of development with, for the less-developed countries, a veritable hell of outsourcing, cheapened labor standards, nonexistent pollution regulations, all pointing to top-down contamination of the environment.

In sum, the world structure of capitalism specifically, and I think deliberately as the beguiling shortsighted voice of the asocial, pell-mell drive for aggrandizement, results in displacing the atmospheric poisons of nonrenewable sources of energy onto the still economically captive nations, an historical process of domination furthered through, indeed made possible by, the militarization—beyond the earlier stage of market penetration—of advanced capitalism. War is the handmaiden of global warming. Economic growth for one set of nations supposes or presupposes the retardation of growth in the economically vassal states. Not that coal, fracking, timber spoliation, etc., etc., will disappear from North America and the West, for exploitation of labor and disregard for the environment go with the territory, geographically and ideologically. Upper groups in their selfishness will never learn, or don’t care to; instead, shift the social costs of wanton destructiveness they themselves are responsible for onto others in the name of progress.

World inequality is the mechanism for destruction of the planet, carbon emissions being only the pus finding its way to the surface of privilege. Curtail privilege, thereby redistributing wealth and destroying the ethos behind it, and the world has a chance for survival. Capitalism says otherwise: life is not worth living without hierarchy, the dominance of individuals and nations over others, and without waste—for waste, like domination, demonstrates superiority, ego-fulfillment in a society emptied of meaning, material striving filling the philosophical-emotional void. We demean ourselves, so why not nature as well? Anything standing for integrity must be demolished, lest reminding us of how far we have fallen from achieving human potentiality. Nature especially must be despoiled, its innocence and grandeur, its uncompromising will to live, the very opposite of our puerile will to power.

Norman Pollack Ph.D. Harvard, Guggenheim Fellow, early writings on American Populism as a radical movement, prof., activist.. His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism. He can be reached at