Capitalism and the Environment

By Declan Murphy

There is overwhelming evidence that the world is facing an ecological crisis.

The exhaustion of natural resource deposits, soil erosion, reckless deforestation, the poisoning of rivers and seas by chemicals and the contamination of the earth by nuclear waste are all part of it. At the centre, of course, is climate change. The earth is heating up at an unprecedented rate. The rising sea levels produced by global warming threaten to displace millions of people, turning them into so-called “climate refugees.”

In country after country, the prevailing public opinion is that something needs to be done. People everywhere are asking how we can stop climate change and turn back the clock on environmental destruction. But to answer the question of how we can stop global warming, we first need to ask why the crisis exists in the first place.

Capitalism and the environment

There are two key characteristics of capitalism. The first is that a tiny minority of people control the economy. The second is the fact that these people are locked in fierce competition with one another. This creates a society where everything is produced not in order to satisfy some human need, but rather to be sold to make a profit. This profit motive is the basis of all production. The rest of us have no say in how the economy is run. All human interests, the environment included, are subordinated to this insatiable drive to profit. It makes capitalism a system that is, in the last instance, blind to everything except the bottom line.

Every capitalist is driven to re-invest their profits back into the economy to try to make even greater profits. If one company doesn’t, its competitors will. Sure, every capitalist has a choice: they can worry about the environment or they can worry about their investments. But those who choose to worry about the environment will soon find themselves out of business. This influences how the ruling class views the environment. The only way they can conceive of the natural world is either as a source of resources to be exploited, or as a receptacle in which to dump waste and excess.

This dynamic makes capitalism extremely myopic and short sighted. It makes capitalists pretty much incapable of seeing beyond their next immediate profit. One of the clearest examples of this is the Gulf of Mexico oil spill of 2010. A BP (British Petroleum) oilrig off the south coast of America exploded into flames, triggering a massive oil leak. The explosion itself killed 11 workers, and the leak saw five million tons of oil find its way into the ocean. The spill destroyed massive amounts of marine life and wildlife habitats, as well as eradicating thousands of jobs overnight in the tourism and fishing industries. Even today, oil is still washing up on Gulf State beaches.

This crisis said to be accidental. But this was not just some mistake. The White House Oil Spill Commission, hardly an enemy to corporations like BP, found that the company had cut corners on a whole series of extremely basic safety procedures that had directly led to the explosion. It concluded that “whether purposeful or not, many of the decisions that BP and the other corporations involved made that increased the risk of the oil blowout clearly saved those companies significant time and money.” Hardly any wonder, then, that BP posted profits of over $5 billion less than a year after the spill took place.

This same story has played out time and time again. Almost all of the environmental disasters of the last 100 years or so have their roots in the blind profit motive of capitalism. But this shortsighted pursuit of profit by the ruling class doesn’t just underlie these would be “accidental” tragedies. It’s also the reason why capitalism is incapable providing solutions for any longer term environmental issues, like climate change.

Climate change isn’t the kind of crisis that you can resolve with just a brief concerted effort. Most scientists agree that CO2 emissions need to be reduced by up to 80 or 90 percent by 2050 to avoid serious and irreversible climate change.

But taking such action would require a massive reorientation away from polluting energy sources like fossil fuels, and this inevitably butts its head against the realities of the capitalist economy. Worldwide, more than $13 trillion of capital are invested in fossil fuels. In the U.S. alone, there are 150 oil refineries, 4000 offshore platforms, 160,000 miles of oil pipelines, facilities to handle more than 15 million barrels per day in imports and exports, 10,400 fossil fuel consuming power plants, 410 underground gas storage fields and 1.4 million miles of gas pipelines.

But it’s not just that the capitalists in the fossil fuel industry have massive amounts of money invested and will fiercely oppose any attempt to switch to more renewable options. It’s also that the capitalist class as a whole has an interest in maintaining an economy based on fossil fuels. Having a cheaper, non-renewable source of energy like fossil fuels allows other industries to operate at a lower cost, enabling bosses everywhere to make higher profits. So any demand to transition to a sustainable economy generally meets the staunch resistance of not just the fossil fuel industry, but the broader ruling class as well.

So compare that staggering $13 trillion to the paltry $10 billion invested in alternative energy, most of which is funneled to massive agro-fuel corporations like Monsanto who use it to develop technologies that need fossil fuels to run anyhow. Switching from fossil fuels is a pretty simple idea, but it comes up against a formidable barrier—the logic of capitalism. Too many capitalists would lose too much money, so the necessary action simply doesn’t take place. In fact, things generally get worse.

In November 2006, scientists working on the Global Carbon Project announced that emissions were rising four times faster than a decade previously. To quote scientist Mark Lynas, “in other words, all of our efforts—of carbon trading, switching off lights, the Kyoto Protocol and so on—have had a discernible effect so far: less than zero.”

This helps explain why all of the “attempts” by officialdom to reverse the ecological crisis have actually done very little. From the UN-sanctioned talkfests at places like Bali and Copenhagen—which have produced nothing more than large amounts of hot air and toothless treaties—to the myth of “clean coal,” those in power clearly have no solution to the environmental crisis.

Capitalism, then, is both the cause of the crisis and the barrier to all solutions that don’t seek to abolish it. If we want to stop environmental destruction and live in a truly sustainable society, we have to abolish capitalism. The choice, to put it bluntly, is between capitalism and a habitable planet.

Socialist Alternative, March 21, 2012