A very large chasm exists between those in power, including most of the 2020 presidential candidates, and environmentalists and scientists intent on acting now to resolve growing environmental crises. To reiterate what is known, the United Nations, through its IPCC and the IPBES committees, has provided comprehensive evidence that little time remains to avert catastrophic global warming. And the world is already in the midst of the sixth mass extinction.
Given that oligarchs, corporate executives and politicians are at least in theory physical beings as dependent on a livable world as the rest of us, it is incompatible views of the world that are illustrated by this indifference. Some people care more about wealth and power than they do about the environment, the planet and the rest of us. Lest this be confused with the human condition, the power to destroy the world has only existed for about seven decades.
The conclusion of the UN committees, considered conservative by many environmentalists, is that the opportunity to make incremental changes to industrial practices has passed. There is no way to achieve necessary goals without quickly and radically reorganizing Western political economy. And the alternative isn’t to continue on the current path. Doing nothing will alter the world in ways that will put hundreds of millions of people’s lives and livelihoods at risk.
The words and tenor of these UN reports, along with hundreds of related scientific papers, place the onus on governments to lead the transition away from industrial capitalism. Left to be worked through is the premise that governments and capital are separable. There are certainly differences by degree amongst capitalist nations, if not precisely type. However, in the belly of the beast— the U.S., the fantasy that capitalism moved beyond state dependence is belied by something as simple as property, which is 1) a legal device, 2) fundamental to capitalism, 3) enforced through state power.
For four or so decades the theorized line of political division was between those who believe climate science and those who deny it. From the perspective of power, these are equivalent appeals to different constituencies. Democrat Nancy Pelosi believes the climate science while doing everything in her power to assure that nothing substantial is done to address it. To date, the political contest has been to effectively manage the polity for the rich, not to enact legislation in the public interest.
Over the last twenty-five years an area the size of New York state has been converted into strip malls, car dealerships, fast food restaurants and ‘logistics’ facilities. There was nothing ‘natural’ about this process— it was the result of the radical reorganization of Western political economy that took root in the 1980s. The point: the contention that large-scale, radical action to solve environmental and social problems is impossible is belied by the scale and scope of the changes that have already taken place.
The length and breadth of this build-out suggests that it is an aggregation of smaller economic decisions, and therefore is in some sense the result of a democratic process. However, nothing could be further from the truth. It was the result of ‘macro’ factors like the abandonment of anti-trust enforcement, the deregulation of finance and neoliberal capture of state and local governments. The individual parts are subject to variation, but the broad trajectory was determined from above.
While the unmolested landscapes were varied, diverse, and existed in their particularity before they were ‘developed,’ what was built on / in them is remarkably uniform. The strip malls, office parks, car dealerships and retail outlets are virtually indistinguishable across the vast expanse of the U.S. Aside from ‘natural’ details like landscape and regional variations in housing styles, it is virtually impossible now to know what region of the country one is in without additional information.
This is to make the point that one Green New Deal or Medicare for All program was funded and built every year or so for twenty-five years. In an existential sense, no accounting was made for what was destroyed. Land, air, water, and ecosystems existed before a Chuck E. Cheese or mini-mart was built on / in it. Money exchanged hands and activity was undertaken, but the claim that value was created is indeterminate when climate change and mass extinction threaten life on the planet.
Lest the stakes be underestimated, the industrialized world has twelve years from one year ago to cut carbon emissions in half. Otherwise, climate change will produce adverse consequences on an increasing scale. The sixth mass extinction is already underway. Nothing less than the complete reorganization of Western political economy, from what goods are produced to industrial methods, global supply chains, resource extraction, energy production and use, transportation, agriculture, housing and building design and the organization of employment, is needed.
In addition to this build-out of a totalizing, state-corporate hellscape, what collective resources have been put into is the creation of the carceral and surveillance states and the militarization of the police. Following the attacks of 9/11, anti-terrorism legislation was written to place environmental and animal rights activists as threats to the public order equivalent to those who flew airplanes into the Twin Towers. Assuring that no counter-balance arose to the power of the oligarchs was / is the implied goal.
It is only through fantastical history and magical prisms that ‘we’ came to this point in history accidentally. From the inception of capitalism through its early imperial, industrial, late imperial and neoliberal incarnations, the consolidation and concentration of political and economic power has been the goal. As late as early 2017— with Donald Trump’s electoral victory a fait accompli, Barack Obama was pushing for passage of the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) to shift sovereign power to the corporations that are the operational backbone of state-corporatism.
In the U.S. in particular, slavery and genocide were / are ideologically and historically related to the environmental devastation that capitalism has wreaked on the planet. Genocide was undertaken to acquire the land and resources that fueled industrialization. By the late nineteenth century, most of the forests that had once covered the U.S. had been cut to the ground. The hills of Pennsylvania and West Virginia still bear the scars of strip-mining done a century ago. By the 1960s rivers and lakes were catching fire from industrial pollution.
That environmental destruction is economic expropriation is capitalism 101. It is the up-to-now abstractness of who it is who has been expropriated-from that led to political confusion. P = R – C; where P = profits, R = Revenues and C = costs. To the extent that P belongs to capitalists and C is forced onto the world, capitalists benefit. P is the realm of the ruling class and C is the realm of the rest of us. Class warfare was / is the base state of capitalism with or without Karl Marx. If environmental destruction were really ‘external’ to capitalist production, then it would have ended already.
From this profit equation and the graph of wages and labor productivity provided above, a pattern emerges. To the extent that their power allows them to, capitalists will take wages that belong to workers. And to the extent that their power allows them to, capitalists will force their environmental costs onto ‘the world,’ meaning the rest of us. It is this relation of exploiters to exploited that makes capitalism an engine of social injustice.
Oligarchs; corporate executives and the political class are doing everything in their power to stop accumulating environmental crises from being resolved. Capitalists could have voluntarily stopped destroying the environment, but they didn’t. Capitalists could have voluntarily paid workers the product of their labor, but they didn’t. It is only through taking away the power to exploit that these problems can be resolved.
This is why proposed ‘solutions’ that leave the existing distribution of power untouched aren’t solutions. And the oligarchs and their political servants know it. If one’s priority is the acquisition of power, then why would the choice be made to voluntarily give it up? The answer: it wouldn’t. This upends the liberal theory that better information will solve the world’s problems. Those in power have good information, but their priority is power.
The question then is when is enough, enough? When will the rest of us decide that the wealth and power of those who possess it is the problem? To be clear, this isn’t a matter of envy, the proto-typical right-wing canard posed to portray political opposition as an emotional disturbance. If the environment were stable and social justice prevailed, who cares if the greed-heads choke on their money? Capitalism is oppressive political economy through the tie of wealth to dispossession.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has made her hostility to programs that address environmental and social justice problems known. But she is just a placeholder, the operative who currently has the position of managing the polity for the benefit of the rich. Changing placeholders— the central role of electoral politics up to the present, leaves the political economy they represent intact.
To solve environmental problems and achieve social justice requires a fundamental reordering of political and economic power. Refusing to act as functionaries for capital is a necessary first step. Only when this refusal has achieved critical mass— when the ordinary functioning of Western political economy is no longer perceived to be feasible by the existing powers, will the rich and powerful see their lots tied to ours.
Strike for the environment, strike for social justice, strike!