Capitalism and the Violence of Environmental Decline

Cover for the latest issue of CounterPunch Magazine. Art by Nick Roney

The Statement Problem

Since the re-beginning of the environmental movement in the 1960s, the scale and scope of environmental ills have been systematically understated, suggesting both that the causal mechanisms weren’t entirely understood and that environmental problems have been growing. That way of proceeding, of identifying problems and solving their proximate causes, occasionally resolved individual problems without addressing their singular generating mechanism— industrial capitalism. Environmental woes are now past the point when solving multiple problems individually constitutes a workable path forward.

Regular assurances that technology will save us have been issued in the 1970s. Since then, environmental problems have aggregated to world-threatening scale. Granting the extraordinary regenerative capacity of nature and, to use a spatial metaphor, the localized cleverness of technology, it is this localized quality that is the problem. If I take a bite from an apple, whither the apple? Without knowing the size of the bite relative to the size of the apple, there is no way to know. Then apply the complexity of the world to the idea of the apple. Technology is the bite of the apple.

The logic of capitalist solutions ties to the logic of the generating mechanism. Through the latter, the world is broken into pieces and reconfigured using the framework of capitalist efficiency. This is how environmental problems were conceived for a while— as isolated problems to be solved by addressing constituent pieces. ‘External’ solutions like geoengineering to address climate change take this modular view from capitalist production and apply it to ‘the world.’ Rather than changing the configuration of the pieces creating the problem, change the world to accommodate it.

What is seen as a technical problem is, in fact, conceptual. This has been partially recognized with the shift from siloed sciences to environmental ‘systems’ analysis. But holism and systems are variants of the ontology that guides capitalism. They are complex taxonomic objects, but then so are their constituents. The problem is, and always will be, the reciprocal in the world— what isn’t known. Or to go deeper, what may be known in some sense— the feel of the breeze on one’s cheek, the cock of a lover’s arm in sleep, etc. but that isn’t known to be a constituent. Capitalism is the occasional aspect of life that has been put forward as its totality.

This comes to bear in a pragmatic sense through now accumulating environmental crises. The history of pesticides since Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring has been to serially replace one adverse side-effect with another. Separately, PFAS were known to cause adverse health effects by the early 1970s. Today, several thousand PFAS exist, each developed to ‘solve a (particular) problem’ while causing a host of others. Even within the ontological conceit that guides capitalism, these serial failures are only plausible under the terms provided until their toxic effects become known. In an earlier age, this was called a ‘long con.’

A temporal dynamic is set up through capitalist production. The choices are, 1) forego the activity that will cause an environmental problem, 2) engage in the activity without regard for the consequences, 3) reconfigure the activity with the hope of not causing the problem, or 4) reconfigure the world to accommodate the problem. Note: only 1) precludes capitalist production. 2), 3) and 4) are first and foremost types of violence toward the world, and second, profit opportunities for capitalists. 3) assumes that the logic that caused the problem will solve it. And 4) relies on the ‘broken window fallacy.’

Violence is as Violence Does

The very idea of ‘the environment’ as a separate and distinct entity is one with the ontological premises that drive capitalism. To the extent these are applicable, animals breath, drink water and eat just fine without any necessary ‘human’ knowledge of what they are doing. Put differently, ‘the world’ doesn’t come with necessary conceptual partitions. Foucault’s ‘Chinese encyclopedia,’ whatever its fealty to its subject, captures this idea wonderfully. His point, if I may (can): the contingency of taxonomy.

‘animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) suckling pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies’.

Capitalism is in this sense a meth-addled drone pilot sitting in an air conditioned trailer in bumblefuck Virginia with a pile of pornographic magazines in one hand and the button that slaughters a wedding party in Afghanistan in the other. The choices are, 1) don’t push the button, 2) push the button and slaughter the entire wedding party, 3) push the button, but only target the men, 4) OD on meth with plans to meet the wedding party in the afterlife. If anything, this metaphor is too generous.

A History of Violence

The American story of goodness and benevolence has always depended on a particular conception of time linked to selective history. The Indian Wars— genocide to clear the land for ‘real estate’ and resources, had just concluded, and the American eugenics movement of forced sterilization was just getting started, when Nazism was being conceived in Germany. Far from being driven by ideology, it was the economic success of American industrialization driven by the fruits of slavery and genocide that motivated Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich.

The conception of a sad and tragic, but necessary, past is used to place this history in a vaguely conceived ‘before.’ However, indigenous women were still being forcibly sterilized in 1976. The U.S. war in Southeast Asia, in which at least four million overwhelmingly innocent human beings were slaughtered, was just ending then. And despite the victories of the Civil Rights movement, the class position of American blacks remained little changed. This marked the start of the era of ‘freedom to’ capitalism— neoliberalism.

Following decades of smaller scale terror, brutality, rape and pillage, George W. Bush launched the U.S. War against Iraq that led to the deaths of at least one million Iraqis and lit the wider Middle East on fire. The bloodshed led several million Iraqis to flee their homes both internally, and to neighboring countries, including Syria. The U.S. has been ‘putting out fires’ it started in the region, including supporting a Saudi-led genocide in Yemen, arming a relentless proxy war in Syria and bombing Libya back to the seventeenth century, ever since. Most of the central architects of the Iraq War spent years or decades working in the oil and gas industry.

This can be understood through epochs, in geopolitical terms, as tragedy related to being human and / or as an amalgam particular to American history. Left out would be the economic motivations, the use and abuse of ‘the world’ as a means to ascend an economic pyramid to wealth, prestige and power. This isn’t to suggest that this is all that it is, history reduced to a single motivation. However, religious, political and cultural ‘freedom’ could in theory have been achieved without slavery, genocide and / or anyone getting rich.

By the late nineteenth century, the American forests had been cut to the ground. Resources had been mined. With ‘industrialization’ in full flower, rivers and lakes were used as open toilets for industrial waste. Jim Crow laws were in force, the later stages of ‘Indian removal’ were underway and industrial conglomerates were using their economic power to eliminate competition, consolidate market power and crush labor. ‘Freedom to’ remained the province of the oligarchs, newly minted industrialists and those outside of government reach.

By the 1960s the environmental consequences of American industrialization had reached their temporary limits. Rivers and lakes were catching fire from high concentrations of industrial pollutants. The ravages of strip mining for coal— along with the human toll that coal mining had on miners, was becoming known outside of Appalachia. The air in major cities was toxic and had been made nearly unbreathable by surrounding industries, vehicular traffic and the burning of waste. The Federal government responded to unrest from below, with Richard Nixon creating the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) shortly after the first Earth Day in 1970.

The ‘process’ of industrialization has been turned into a formula of sorts by economists. 1) produce industrial inputs and consumers goods (dirty production) for export, 2) use the wages and accumulated capital from doing so to shift to higher value-added production and domestic consumption and when this has been accomplished 3) let ‘newly industrializing’ countries take over dirty production. From London to New York to Beijing, two and one-half centuries of toxic air, undrinkable water and rolling public health crises. But then, the pollution moves on and everyone is rich, right?

Back to the conception of time at work for a moment: the idea of ‘progress’ in the economist’s history is an illusion in the sense that it implies a past, present and future to an idea— that of industrialism, that is totalizing. Capitalism is a mode of social organization. Labor is organized as parts of a whole as gears are to a machine. The reciprocal of capitalist social organization is ever-present within capitalist societies. America is littered with the carcasses of past capitalism. The abandoned factories, gas stations and industrial sites exist in the present as much as they did in the past. ‘Capitalism’ doesn’t see them— and live with them, but we do.

Industrial agriculture is a prime example of the capitalist concept of efficiency applied to break a process into constituent parts and then reconfigure it along industrial lines. Monoculture planting reconfigures the landscape and local ecosystems. Chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides reconfigure plants, ecosystems and the makeup of the soil. Formerly prime agricultural land is killed, denuded of the very life that made it good for growing crops for millennia. By the 1970s, farmers in Southeastern Pennsylvania were abandoning orchards, claiming improbably that the land had ‘gone sour’ when industrial methods were to blame.

Liberal economists admit to environmental destruction without granting it primacy. This is by design. Value Theory, the capitalist method of determining what something is worth, is tied to money and power. As the argument goes, something is worth what someone is willing to pay for it. Two points: in this theory, without a price, there is no value. Second, given the skewed distribution of income and wealth, price means one thing to the rich and another to the poor. And in fact, the relation of price to wealth has its direct corollary in the relation of wealth to political power.

As accumulating environmental crises are in the process of demonstrating, nature exists regardless of whether or not it has a market price assigned to it. And to the extent that wealth can buy temporary respite from the consequences of environmental destruction, the people with the money to adequately price nature, were doing so actually possible, have less motivation than the people who don’t. And this leaves aside the class relations that have environmental destruction as a source of concentrated wealth and power.

An argument is making the rounds that a small number of corporations are responsible for the preponderance of greenhouse gas emissions. This formulation supports not-useful parsing of the problem in favor of a limited response. Climate change is a function of carbon emissions relative to nature’s capacity to absorb CO2— carbon sinks, which are being destroyed. Industrial agriculture both emits greenhouse gases (primarily methane) and destroys carbon sinks. And oceans are giant carbon sinks that are being destroyed. The problem is larger than ‘rogue corporations’ encompasses.

The problem is capitalism, not corporations per se. And the problem with capitalism is political and conceptual, not technological. Technological solutions to climate change 1) address the problem in isolation and 2) provide no indication that the unsolvable problem of unintended consequences is understood. The refocus on science and technology since the 1970s correlates 1:1 with the accumulation of environmental problems in multiple, related dimensions. You can argue that this is coincidence, not correlation, but the technological generating mechanisms— industrial production, industrial agriculture and industrial fishing, tell the true story.

The irony that liberal critics of past totalitarian regimes are about to face is that unless immediate and far reaching action is taken to resolve the environmental crises now unfolding, liberal capitalism might end up being the most murderous force in human history. Since the 1960s the U.S has had enough nuclear weapons to end human life on the planet. Through its promotion and practice of industrial capitalism, the U.S. now has primary responsibility for its consequences. If the powers that be don’t want to lead, then get out of the way.


Rob Urie is an artist and political economist. His book Zen Economics is published by CounterPunch Books.