It’s Not Capitalism that’s Driving Ecocide; it’s Civilization

The fact that human beings are causing great damage to life on the planet is not up for debate. Even if one doesn’t buy anthropogenic climate change, it’s all too clear that we’re making a big mess with pesticides, air pollution, plastic in the oceans, nuclear waste, genetic modification, top soil loss, aquifer depletion, urban sprawl, wildlife extinctions, and more.

There’s a word for our collective behavior: ecocide.

We live under the reign of capitalism, so it’s easy to pin the blame there. Some have gone so far as to describe climate change as “capitalogenic” as opposed to “anthropogenic” or to suggest renaming the “Anthropocene” era as the “Capitalocene.”

But though the evils of capitalism are truly terrible, the original and underlying perpetrator of ecocide is civilization, which predates capitalism by millennia. Whereas capitalism goes back to the 16th century (give or take), civilization arose with the ramping up of the agricultural revolution, 8,000-10,000 years ago. One could say that yes, capitalism is indeed problematic but it isn’t the problem.

Why does the distinction matter?

Because things are degrading fast, at an apparently increasing rate and we don’t have time to waste on solutions that won’t work. We must focus on primary causes to the greatest degree we can.

* * *

Many well-meaning and intelligent people who recognize both our ecological crisis and the sins of capitalism want to switch to socialism. But it’s not so simple. Pumping oil out of the ground is an ecological disaster whether the people doing it are the Bush family in Texas or Bolivarian revolutionaries in Venezuela. There’s no difference to the habitat that’s destroyed or the pollution that’s generated.

Under a socialist model, some humans might do better, it’s true. But settling for that is a grievous act of human supremacy. “We have to take care of ourselves first,” it will be said. “Then we can take care of the planet.”

The idea that environmental destruction can be left out of the equation is a perverse invention of contemporary capitalism, where such costs are referred to as “externalities.” While such assumptions remain unquestioned, ecocide will continue unabated.

Some socialists insist that Marxism is inherently environmentalist and they are happy to provide lists of books and articles to prove their point. (In my review of some of this literature, the best I saw was: “Marx and Engels on the Sustainable Society.”) But when I read most of this stuff, I’m reminded of the time I used a staple gun to pound in a nail, or a steak knife to cut a piece of wood, or a shovel with a broken handle to dig a hole. It worked, kind of. Well no, not really. It would have taken a lot less effort and a lot less time if I’d have just done it right to start with. With Marxism and environmentalism, there are too many contradictions to reconcile. Why not start somewhere that’s about the earth first?

Ah, Earth First! Now we’re talking. One of their rallying cries is, “No compromise in defense of Mother Earth!” and that rings my bell a helluva lot harder than the tepid talk of eco-socialism. The call for “no compromise” goes right to the point and flies in the face of the notion of human supremacy.

* * *

At one time in human history, no defense of Mother Nature was needed because there was no attack on her. We were merely another creature on the planet, living in dynamic equilibrium with all the others. We can debate about exactly when that started changing, but a clear and dramatic shift occurred with the Agricultural Revolution, which was underway by 11,500 years ago, at the end of the last period of glaciation. With this transformation, people in the Near East established cities, property, money, bookkeeping and written law. Civilization, in other words.

Patriarchy also dates from this time, and the significance of its role can hardly be over-stated. For it was not just that human females were violently subjugated by human males; at a cultural level, those qualities considered feminine were suppressed by those considered masculine, and this radically altered our relationship to Mother Nature. We traded in cooperation for domination, and embarked on our current course of ecocide. Ice cores show that we were already adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere through deforestation eight thousand years ago and methane with rice cultivation by five thousand years ago. [1]

Patriarchy both enabled civilization—by putting nature under the yoke (literally)—and was also institutionalized by it—through the new structures of government and religion. For example, a law in Mesopotamia in 2500 BC stated that if a wife disagreed with her husband, he was allowed to smash her teeth in with a brick. [2]

Slavery was another of civilization’s innovations, and it must be pointed out that in Mesopotamian records the word for “female slave” appears earlier in time than the word for “male slave.” [3]

Patriarchy precedes “class” and is deeper and deadlier. It applies not just to humans and to human behaviors but to the relationship of humans to the planet. So, in the household, a husband rules his wife; in the culture, authority crushes collaboration; and at large, nature is reduced to “resources.” This last heresy was enshrined in the book of Genesis, where “man” is given “dominion” over “every living thing.” This idea has proven very persistent and is not limited to the religious; most of civilization’s secular and intellectual circles believe in it, if often blindly.

This is how civilization works. Everything in the world, both animate and inanimate, is reduced to a set of things to be divvied up an used. Capitalism is a particularly toxic mode, for sure, but there is no way to do civilization right. Just as capitalism cannot be reformed and must be dismantled, so too must civilization. Our domination of nature cannot continue under any flag or philosophy.

* * *

How do we go about changing?

I’m the wrong person to ask, and so is everybody else who is a civilized human. You don’t ask the addict how to quit drugs. They don’t know. If they did, they wouldn’t be using.

It’s typical of civilization’s hubris to assume that we are the ones who should decide. Nope! It’s time to put aside the old ideas and the dusty books and go outside. We must ask our family members who are still clean what to do. (There’s still a few left!) And then we need to do it.


[1] Ruddiman, William F. “The Anthropogenic Greenhouse Era Began Thousands of Years Ago” Climatic Change 61: 2003.
[2] Clay, Catherine; Paul, Chandrik; and Senecal, Christin. “Women in the first Urban Communities (after 3500 BCE)” from Worlds of history: A comparative reader, edited by Kevin Reilly (Boston/New York: Bedford/St. Martins), pp. 31-33.
[3] ibid.

Kollibri terre Sonnenblume is a writer living on the West Coast of the U.S.A. More of Kollibri’s writing and photos can be found at Macska Moksha Press