For those concerned with the fate of the earth, the time has come to
face facts: not simply the dire reality of climate change but also the
pressing need for social-system change. The failure to arrive at a world
climate agreement in Copenhagen in December 2009 was not simply an
abdication of world leadership, as is often suggested, but had deeper
roots in the inability of the capitalist system to address the
accelerating threat to life on the planet. Knowledge of the nature and
limits of capitalism, and the means of transcending it, has therefore
become a matter of survival. In the words of Fidel Castro in December
2009: “Until very recently, the discussion [on the future of world
society] revolved around the kind of society we would have. Today, the
discussion centers on whether human society will survive.”1
I. The Planetary Ecological Crisis
There is abundant evidence that humans have caused environmental
damage for millennia. Problems with deforestation, soil erosion, and
salinization of irrigated soils go back to antiquity. Plato wrote in Critias:
What proof then can we offer that it [the land
in the vicinity of Athens] is…now a mere remnant of what it once
was?…You are left (as with little islands) with something rather like
the skeleton of a body wasted by disease; the rich, soft soil has all
run away leaving the land nothing but skin and bone. But in those days
the damage had not taken place, the hills had high crests, the rocky
plane of Phelleus was covered with rich soil, and the mountains were
covered by thick woods, of which there are some traces today. For some
mountains which today will only support bees produced not so long ago
trees which when cut provided roof beams for huge buildings whose roofs
are still standing. And there were a lot of tall cultivated trees which
bore unlimited quantities of fodder for beasts. The soil benefitted from
an annual rainfall which did not run to waste off the bare earth as it
does today, but was absorbed in large quantities and stored in retentive
layers of clay, so that what was drunk down by the higher regions
flowed downwards into the valleys and appeared everywhere in a multitude
of rivers and springs. And the shrines which still survive at these
former springs are proof of the truth of our present account of the
What is different in our current era is that there are many more of
us inhabiting more of the earth, we have technologies that can do much
greater damage and do it more quickly, and we have an economic system
that knows no bounds. The damage being done is so widespread that it not
only degrades local and regional ecologies, but also affects the
There are many sound reasons that we, along with many other people,
are concerned about the current rapid degradation of the earth’s
environment. Global warming, brought about by human-induced increases in
greenhouse gases (CO2, methane, N2O, etc.), is in the process of
destabilizing the world’s climate—with horrendous effects for most
species on the planet and humanity itself now increasingly probable.
Each decade is warmer than the one before, with 2009 tying as the second
warmest year (2005 was the warmest) in the 130 years of global
instrumental temperature records.3 Climate
change does not occur in a gradual, linear way, but is non-linear, with
all sorts of amplifying feedbacks and tipping points. There are already
clear indications of accelerating problems that lie ahead. These
- Melting of the Arctic Ocean ice during the
summer, which reduces the reflection of sunlight as white ice is
replaced by dark ocean, thereby enhancing global warming. Satellites
show that end-of-summer Arctic sea ice was 40 percent less in 2007 than
in the late 1970s when accurate measurements began.4
- Eventual disintegration of the Greenland
and Antarctic ice sheets, set in motion by global warming, resulting in a
rise in ocean levels. Even a sea level rise of 1-2 meters would be
disastrous for hundreds of millions of people in low-lying countries
such as Bangladesh and Vietnam and various island states. A sea level
rise at a rate of a few meters per century is not unusual in the
paleoclimatic record, and therefore has to be considered possible, given
existing global warming trends. At present, more than 400 million
people live within five meters above sea level, and more than one
billion within twenty-five meters.5
- The rapid decrease of the world’s mountain
glaciers, many of which—if business-as-usual greenhouse gas emissions
continue—could be largely gone (or gone altogether) during this century.
Studies have shown that 90 percent of mountain glaciers worldwide are
already visibly retreating as the planet warms. The Himalayan glaciers
provide dry season water to countries with billions of people in Asia.
Their shrinking will lead to floods and acute water scarcity. Already
the melting of the Andean glaciers is contributing to floods in that
region. But the most immediate, current, and long-term problem,
associated with disappearing glaciers—visible today in Bolivia and
Peru—is that of water shortages.6
- Devastating droughts, expanding possibly to
70 percent of the land area within several decades under business as
usual; already becoming evident in northern India, northeast Africa, and
- Higher levels of CO2 in the atmosphere may
increase the production of some types of crops, but they may then be
harmed in future years by a destabilized climate that brings either dry
or very wet conditions. Losses in rice yields have already been measured
in parts of Southeast Asia, attributed to higher night temperatures
that cause the plant to undergo enhanced nighttime respiration. This
means losing more of what it produced by photosynthesis during the day.8
- Extinction of species due to changes in
climate zones that are too rapid for species to move or adapt to,
leading to the collapse of whole ecosystems dependent on these species,
and the death of still more species. (See below for more details on
- Related to global warming, ocean
acidification from increased carbon absorption is threatening the
collapse of marine ecosystems. Recent indications suggest that ocean
acidification may, in turn, reduce the carbon-absorption efficiency of
the ocean. This means a potentially faster build-up of carbon dioxide in
the atmosphere, accelerating global warming.10
While global climate change and its consequences, along with its
“evil twin” of ocean acidification (also brought on by carbon
emissions), present by far the greatest threats to the earth’s species,
including humans, there are also other severe environmental issues.
These include contamination of the air and surface waters with
industrial pollutants. Some of these pollutants (the metal mercury, for
example) go up smoke stacks to later fall and contaminate soil and
water, while others are leached into surface waters from waste storage
facilities. Many ocean and fresh water fish are contaminated with
mercury as well as numerous industrial organic chemicals. The oceans
contain large “islands” of trash—“Light bulbs, bottle caps,
toothbrushes, Popsicle sticks and tiny pieces of plastic, each the size
of a grain of rice, inhabit the Pacific garbage patch, an area of widely
dispersed trash that doubles in size every decade and is now believed
to be roughly twice the size of Texas.”11
In the United States, drinking water used by millions of people is
polluted with pesticides such as atrazine as well as nitrates and other
contaminants of industrial agriculture. Tropical forests, the areas of
the greatest terrestrial biodiversity, are being destroyed at a rapid
pace. Land is being converted into oil palm plantations in Southeast
Asia—with the oil to be exported as a feedstock for making biodiesel
fuel. In South America, rainforests are commonly first converted to
extensive pastures and later into use for export crops such as soybeans.
This deforestation is causing an estimated 25 percent of all
human-induced release of CO2.12 Soil
degradation by erosion, overgrazing, and lack of organic material return
threatens the productivity of large areas of the world’s agricultural
We are all contaminated by a variety of chemicals. A recent survey of
twenty physicians and nurses tested for sixty-two chemicals in blood
and urine—mostly organic chemicals such as flame retardants and
each participant had at least 24 individual
chemicals in their body, and two participants had a high of 39 chemicals
detected.…All participants had bisphenol A [used to make rigid
polycarbonate plastics used in water cooler bottles, baby bottles,
linings of most metal food containers—and present in the foods inside
these containers, kitchen appliances etc.], and some form of phthalates
[found in many consumer products such as hair sprays, cosmetics, plastic
products, and wood finishers], PBDEs [Polybrominated diphenyl ethers
used as flame retardants in computers, furniture, mattresses, and
medical equipment] and PFCs [Perfluorinated compounds used in non-stick
pans, protective coatings for carpets, paper coatings, etc.].13
Although physicians and nurses are routinely exposed to larger
quantities of chemicals than the general public, we are all exposed to
these and other chemicals that don’t belong in our bodies, and that most
likely have negative effects on human health. Of the 84,000 chemicals
in commercial use in the United States, we don’t even have an idea about
the composition and potential harmfulness of 20 percent (close to
20,000)—their composition falls under the category of “trade secrets”
and is legally withheld.14
Species are disappearing at an accelerated rate as their habitats are
destroyed, due not only to global warming but also to direct human
impact on species habitats. A recent survey estimated that over 17,000
animals and plants are at risk of extinction. “More than one in five of
all known mammals, over a quarter of reptiles and 70 percent of plants
are under threat, according to the survey, which featured over 2,800 new
species compared with 2008. ‘These results are just the tip of the
iceberg,’ said Craig Hilton-Taylor, who manages the list. He said many
more species that have yet to be assessed could also be under serious
threat.”15 As species disappear, ecosystems
that depend on the multitude of species to function begin to degrade.
One of the many consequences of degraded ecosystems with fewer species
appears to be greater transmission of infectious diseases.16
It is beyond debate that the ecology of the earth—and the very life
support systems on which humans as well as other species depend—is under
sustained and severe attack by human activities. It is also clear that
the effects of continuing down the same path will be devastating. As
James Hansen, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies,
and the world’s most famous climatologist, has stated: “Planet Earth,
creation, the world in which civilization developed, the world with
climate patterns that we know and stable shorelines, is in imminent
peril….The startling conclusion is that continued exploitation of all
fossil fuels on Earth threatens not only the other millions of species
on the planet but also the survival of humanity itself—and the timetable
is shorter than we thought.”17 Moreover,
the problem does not begin and end with fossil fuels but extends to the
entire human-economic interaction with the environment.
One of the latest, most important, developments in ecological
science is the concept of “planetary boundaries,” in which nine critical
boundaries/thresholds of the earth system have been designated in
relation to: (1) climate change; (2) ocean acidification; (3)
stratospheric ozone depletion; (4) the biogeochemical flow boundary (the
nitrogen cycle and the phosphorus cycles); (5) global freshwater use;
(6) change in land use; (7) biodiversity loss; (8) atmospheric aerosol
loading; and (9) chemical pollution. Each of these is considered
essential to maintaining the relatively benign climate and environmental
conditions that have existed during the last twelve thousand years (the
Holocene epoch). The sustainable boundaries in three of these
systems—climate change, biodiversity, and human interference with the
nitrogen cycle—may have already been crossed.18
II. Common Ground: Transcending Business as Usual
We strongly agree with many environmentalists who have concluded that
continuing “business as usual” is the path to global disaster. Many
people have determined that, in order to limit the ecological footprint
of human beings on the earth, we need to have an economy—particularly in
the rich countries—that doesn’t grow, so as to be able to stop and
possibly reverse the increase in pollutants released, as well as to
conserve non-renewable resources and more rationally use renewable
resources. Some environmentalists are concerned that, if world output
keeps expanding and everyone in developing countries seeks to attain the
standard of living of the wealthy capitalist states, not only will
pollution continue to increase beyond what the earth system can absorb,
but we will also run out of the limited non-renewable resources on the
globe. The Limits to Growth by Donella Meadows, Jorgen Randers, Dennis Meadows, and William Behrens, published in 1972 and updated in 2004 as Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update, is an example of concern with this issue.19
It is clear that there are biospheric limits, and that the planet
cannot support the close to 7 billion people already alive (nor, of
course, the 9 billion projected for mid-century) at what is known as a
Western, “middle class” standard of living. The Worldwatch Institute has
recently estimated that a world which used biocapacity per capita at
the level of the contemporary United States could only support 1.4
billion people.20 The primary problem is an
ancient one and lies not with those who do not have enough for a decent
standard of living, but rather with those for whom enough does not
exist. As Epicurus said: “Nothing is enough to someone for whom enough
is little.”21 A global social system
organized on the basis of “enough is little” is bound eventually to
destroy all around it and itself as well.
Many people are aware of the need for social justice when solving
this problem, especially because so many of the poor are living under
dangerously precarious conditions, have been especially hard hit by
environmental disaster and degradation, and promise to be the main
victims if current trends are allowed to continue. It is clear that
approximately half of humanity—over three billion people, living in deep
poverty and subsisting on less than $2.50 a day—need to have access to
the requirements for a basic human existence such as decent housing, a
secure food supply, clean water, and medical care. We wholeheartedly
agree with all of these concerns.22
Some environmentalists feel that it is possible to solve most of our
problems by tinkering with our economic system, introducing greater
energy efficiency and substituting “green” energy sources for fossil
fuels—or coming up with technologies to ameliorate the problems (such as
using carbon capture from power plants and injecting it deep into the
earth). There is a movement toward “green” practices to use as marketing
tools or to keep up with other companies claiming to use such
practices. Nevertheless, within the environmental movement, there are
some for whom it is clear that mere technical adjustments in the current
productive system will not be enough to solve the dramatic and
potentially catastrophic problems we face.
Curtis White begins his 2009 article in Orion, entitled “The
Barbaric Heart: Capitalism and the Crisis of Nature,” with: “There is a
fundamental question that environmentalists are not very good at
asking, let alone answering: ‘Why is this, the destruction of the
natural world, happening?’”23 It is impossible to find real and lasting solutions until we are able satisfactorily to answer this seemingly simple question.
It is our contention that most of the critical environmental problems
we have are either caused, or made much worse, by the workings of our
economic system. Even such issues as population growth and technology
are best viewed in terms of their relation to the socioeconomic
organization of society. Environmental problems are not a result of
human ignorance or innate greed. They do not arise because managers of
individual large corporations or developers are morally deficient.
Instead, we must look to the fundamental workings of the economic (and
political/social) system for explanations. It is precisely the fact that
ecological destruction is built into the inner nature and logic of our
present system of production that makes it so difficult to solve.
In addition, we shall argue that “solutions” proposed for
environmental devastation, which would allow the current system of
production and distribution to proceed unabated, are not real solutions.
In fact, such “solutions” will make things worse because they give the
false impression that the problems are on their way to being overcome
when the reality is quite different. The overwhelming environmental
problems facing the world and its people will not be effectively dealt
with until we institute another way for humans to interact with
nature—altering the way we make decisions on what and how much to
produce. Our most necessary, most rational goals require that we take
into account fulfilling basic human needs, and creating just and
sustainable conditions on behalf of present and future generations
(which also means being concerned about the preservation of other
III. Characteristics of Capitalism in Conflict with the Environment
The economic system that dominates nearly all corners of the world is
capitalism, which, for most humans, is as “invisible” as the air we
breathe. We are, in fact, largely oblivious to this worldwide system,
much as fish are oblivious to the water in which they swim. It is
capitalism’s ethic, outlook, and frame of mind that we assimilate and
acculturate to as we grow up. Unconsciously, we learn that greed,
exploitation of laborers, and competition (among people, businesses,
countries) are not only acceptable but are actually good for society
because they help to make our economy function “efficiently.”
Let’s consider some of the key aspects of capitalism’s conflict with environmental sustainability.
A. Capitalism Is a System that Must Continually Expand
No-growth capitalism is an oxymoron: when growth ceases, the system
is in a state of crisis with considerable suffering among the
unemployed. Capitalism’s basic driving force and its whole reason for
existence is the amassing of profits and wealth through the accumulation
(savings and investment) process. It recognizes no limits to its own
self-expansion—not in the economy as a whole; not in the profits desired
by the wealthy; and not in the increasing consumption that people are
cajoled into desiring in order to generate greater profits for
corporations. The environment exists, not as a place with inherent
boundaries within which human beings must live together with earth’s
other species, but as a realm to be exploited in a process of growing
Indeed, businesses, according to the inner logic of capital, which is
enforced by competition, must either grow or die—as must the system
itself. There is little that can be done to increase profits from
production when there is slow or no growth. Under such circumstances,
there is little reason to invest in new capacity, thus closing off the
profits to be derived from new investment. There is also just so much
increased profit that can be easily squeezed out of workers in a
stagnant economy. Such measures as decreasing the number of workers and
asking those remaining to “do more with less,” shifting the costs of
pensions and health insurance to workers, and introducing automation
that reduces the number of needed workers can only go so far without
further destabilizing the system. If a corporation is large enough it
can, like Wal-Mart, force suppliers, afraid of losing the business, to
decrease their prices. But these means are not enough to satisfy what
is, in fact, an insatiable quest for more profits, so corporations are
continually engaged in struggle with their competitors (including
frequently buying them out) to increase market share and gross sales.
It is true that the system can continue to move forward, to some
extent, as a result of financial speculation leveraged by growing debt,
even in the face of a tendency to slow growth in the underlying economy.
But this means, as we have seen again and again, the growth of
financial bubbles that inevitably burst.24
There is no alternative under capitalism to the endless expansion of the
“real economy” (i.e., production), irrespective of actual human needs,
consumption, or the environment.
One might still imagine that it would be theoretically possible
for a capitalist economy to have zero growth, and still meet all of
humanity’s basic needs. Let’s suppose that all the profits that
corporations earn (after allowing for replacing worn out equipment or
buildings) are either spent by capitalists on their own consumption or
given to workers as wages and benefits, and consumed. As capitalists and
workers spend this money, they would purchase the goods and services
produced, and the economy could stay at a steady state, no-growth level
(what Marx called “simple reproduction” and has sometimes been called
the “stationary state”). Since there would be no investment in new
productive capacity, there would be no economic growth and accumulation,
no profits generated.
There is, however, one slight problem with this “capitalist no-growth
utopia”: it violates the basic motive force of capitalism. What capital
strives for and is the purpose of its existence is its own expansion.
Why would capitalists, who in every fiber of their beings believe that
they have a personal right to business profits, and who are driven to
accumulate wealth, simply spend the economic surplus at their disposal
on their own consumption or (less likely still) give it to workers to
spend on theirs—rather than seek to expand wealth? If profits are not
generated, how could economic crises be avoided under capitalism? To the
contrary, it is clear that owners of capital will, as long as such
ownership relations remain, do whatever they can within their power to
maximize the amount of profits they accrue. A stationary state, or
steady-state, economy as a stable solution is only conceivable if
separated from the social relations of capital itself.
Capitalism is a system that constantly generates a reserve army of
the unemployed; meaningful, full employment is a rarity that occurs only
at very high rates of growth (which are correspondingly dangerous to
ecological sustainability). Taking the U.S. economy as the example,
let’s take a look at what happens to the number of “officially”
unemployed when the economy grows at different rates during a period of
close to sixty years (Table 1).
For background, we should note that the U.S. population is
growing by a little less than 1 percent a year, as is the net number of
new entrants into the normal working age portion of the population. In
current U.S. unemployment measurements, those considered to be
officially unemployed must have looked for work within the last four
weeks and cannot be employed in part-time jobs. Individuals without
jobs, who have not looked for work during the previous four weeks (but
who have looked within the last year), either because they believe there
are no jobs available, or because they think there are none for which
they are qualified, are classified as “discouraged” and are not counted
as officially unemployed. Other “marginally attached workers,” who have
not recently looked for work (but have in the last year), not because
they were “discouraged,” but for other reasons, such as lack of
affordable day care, are also excluded from the official unemployment
count. In addition, those working part-time but wanting to work
full-time are not considered to be officially unemployed. The
unemployment rate for the more expanded definition of unemployment (U-6)
provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which also includes the
above categories (i.e., discouraged workers, other marginally attached
workers, and part-time workers desiring full-time employment) is
generally almost twice the official U.S. employment rate (U-3). In the
following analysis, we focus only on the official unemployment data.
What, then, do we see in the relationship between economic growth and unemployment over the last six decades?
- During the eleven years of very slow growth, less than 1.1 percent per year, unemployment increased in each of the years.
- In 70 percent (nine of thirteen) of the years when GDP grew between 1.2 and 3 percent per year, unemployment also grew.
- During the twenty-three years when the U.S.
economy grew fairly rapidly (from 3.1 to 5.0 percent a year),
unemployment still increased in three years and reduction in the percent
unemployed was anemic in most of the others.
- Only in the thirteen years when the GDP
grew at greater than 5.0 percent annually did unemployment not increase
in any of these years.
Although this table is based on calendar years and does not follow
business cycles, which, of course, do not correspond neatly to the
calendar, it is clear that, if the GDP growth rate isn’t substantially
greater than the increase in population, people lose jobs. While slow or
no growth is a problem for business owners trying to increase their
profits, it is a disaster for working people.
What this tells us is that the capitalist system is a very crude
instrument in terms of providing jobs in relation to growth—if growth is
to be justified by employment. It will take a rate of growth of around 4
percent or higher, far above the average growth rate, before the
unemployment problem is surmounted in U.S. capitalism today. Worth
noting is the fact that, since the 1940s, such high rates of growth in
the U.S. economy have hardly ever been reached except in times of wars.
B. Expansion Leads to Investing Abroad in Search of Secure Sources of Raw Materials, Cheaper Labor, and New Markets
As companies expand, they saturate, or come close to saturating, the
“home” market and look for new markets abroad to sell their goods. In
addition, they and their governments (working on behalf of corporate
interests) help to secure entry and control over key natural resources
such as oil and a variety of minerals. We are in the midst of a
“land-grab,” as private capital and government sovereign wealth funds
strive to gain control of vast acreage throughout the world to produce
food and biofuel feedstock crops for their “home” markets. It is
estimated that some thirty million hectares of land (roughly equal to
two-thirds of the arable land in Europe), much of them in Africa, have
been recently acquired or are in the process of being acquired by rich
countries and international corporations.25
This global land seizure (even if by “legal” means) can be regarded
as part of the larger history of imperialism. The story of centuries of
European plunder and expansion is well documented. The current U.S.-led
wars in Iraq and Afghanistan follow the same general historical pattern,
and are clearly related to U.S. attempts to control the main world
sources of oil and gas.26
Today multinational (or transnational) corporations scour the world
for resources and opportunities wherever they can find them, exploiting
cheap labor in poor countries and reinforcing, rather than reducing,
imperialist divisions. The result is a more rapacious global
exploitation of nature and increased differentials of wealth and power.
Such corporations have no loyalty to anything but their own bottom
C. A System that, by Its Very Nature, Must Grow and Expand Will
Eventually Come Up Against the Reality of Finite Natural Resources
The irreversible exhaustion of finite natural resources will leave
future generations without the possibility of having use of these
resources. Natural resources are used in the process of production—oil,
gas, and coal (fuel), water (in industry and agriculture), trees (for
lumber and paper), a variety of mineral deposits (such as iron ore,
copper, and bauxite), and so on. Some resources, such as forests and
fisheries, are of a finite size, but can be renewed by natural processes
if used in a planned system that is flexible enough to change as
conditions warrant. Future use of other resources—oil and gas, minerals,
aquifers in some desert or dryland areas (prehistorically deposited
water)—are limited forever to the supply that currently exists. The
water, air, and soil of the biosphere can continue to function well for
the living creatures on the planet only if pollution doesn’t exceed
their limited capacity to assimilate and render the pollutants harmless.
Business owners and managers generally consider the short term in
their operations—most take into account the coming three to five years,
or, in some rare instances, up to ten years. This is the way they must
function because of unpredictable business conditions (phases of the
business cycle, competition from other corporations, prices of needed
inputs, etc.) and demands from speculators looking for short-term
returns. They therefore act in ways that are largely oblivious of the
natural limits to their activities—as if there is an unlimited supply of
natural resources for exploitation. Even if the reality of limitation
enters their consciousness, it merely speeds up the exploitation of a
given resource, which is extracted as rapidly as possible, with capital
then moving on to new areas of resource exploitation. When each
individual capitalist pursues the goal of making a profit and
accumulating capital, decisions are made that collectively harm society
as a whole.
The length of time before nonrenewable deposits are exhausted depends
on the size of the deposit and the rate of extraction of the resource.
While depletion of some resources may be hundreds of years away
(assuming that the rate of growth of extraction remains the same),
limits for some important ones—oil and some minerals—are not that far
off. For example, while predictions regarding peak oil vary among energy
analysts—going by the conservative estimates of oil companies
themselves, at the rate at which oil is currently being used, known
reserves will be exhausted within the next fifty years. The prospect of
peak oil is projected in numerous corporate, government, and scientific
reports. The question today is not whether peak oil is likely to arrive
soon, but simply how soon.27
Even if usage doesn’t grow, the known deposits of the critical
fertilizer ingredient phosphorus that can be exploited on the basis of
current technology will be exhausted in this century.28
Faced with limited natural resources, there is no rational way to
prioritize under a modern capitalist system, in which the well-to-do
with their economic leverage decide via the market how commodities are
allocated. When extraction begins to decline, as is projected for oil
within the near future, price increases will put even more pressure on
what had been, until recently, the boast of world capitalism: the
supposedly prosperous “middle-class” workers of the countries of the
The well-documented decline of many ocean fish species, almost to the
point of extinction, is an example of how renewable resources can be
exhausted. It is in the short-term individual interests of the owners of
fishing boats—some of which operate at factory scale, catching,
processing, and freezing fish—to maximize the take. Hence, the fish are
depleted. No one protects the common interest. In a system run generally
on private self-interest and accumulation, the state is normally
incapable of doing so. This is sometimes called the tragedy of the
commons. But it should be called the tragedy of the private exploitation
of the commons.
The situation would be very different if communities that have a
stake in the continued availability of a resource managed the resource
in place of the large-scale corporation. Corporations are subject to the
single-minded goal of maximizing short-term profits—after which they
move on, leaving devastation behind, in effect mining the earth.
Although there is no natural limit to human greed, there are limits, as
we are daily learning, to many resources, including “renewable” ones,
such as the productivity of the seas. (The depletion of fish off the
coast of Somalia because of overfishing by factory-scale fishing fleets
is believed to be one of the causes for the rise of piracy that now
plagues international shipping in the area. Interestingly, the
neighboring Kenyan fishing industry is currently rebounding because the
pirates also serve to keep large fishing fleets out of the area.)
The exploitation of renewable resources before they can be renewed is
referred to as “overshooting” the resource. This is occurring not only
with the major fisheries, but also with groundwater (for example, the
Oglala aquifer in the United States, large areas of northwestern India,
Northern China, and a number of locations in North Africa and the Middle
East), with tropical forests, and even with soils.
Duke University ecologist John Terborgh described a recent trip he
took to a small African nation where foreign economic exploitation is
combined with a ruthless depletion of resources.
Everywhere I went, foreign commercial
interests were exploiting resources after signing contracts with the
autocratic government. Prodigious logs, four and five feet in diameter,
were coming out of the virgin forest, oil and natural gas were being
exported from the coastal region, offshore fishing rights had been sold
to foreign interests, and exploration for oil and minerals was underway
in the interior. The exploitation of resources in North America during
the five-hundred-year post-discovery era followed a typical
sequence—fish, furs, game, timber, farming virgin soils—but because of
the hugely expanded scale of today’s economy and the availability of
myriad sophisticated technologies, exploitation of all the resources in
poor developing countries now goes on at the same time. In a few years,
the resources of this African country and others like it will be sucked
dry. And what then? The people there are currently enjoying an illusion
of prosperity, but it is only an illusion, for they are not preparing
themselves for anything else. And neither are we.29
D. A System Geared to Exponential Growth in the Search for Profits Will Inevitably Transgress Planetary Boundaries
The earth system can be seen as consisting of a number of critical
biogeochemical processes that, for hundreds of millions of years, have
served to reproduce life. In the last 12 thousand or so years the world
climate has taken the relatively benign form associated with the
geological epoch known as the Holocene, during which civilization arose.
Now, however, the socioeconomic system of capitalism has grown to such a
scale that it overshoots fundamental planetary boundaries—the carbon
cycle, the nitrogen cycle, the soil, the forests, the oceans. More and
more of the terrestrial (land-based) photosynthetic product, upwards of
40 percent, is now directly accounted for by human production. All
ecosystems on earth are in visible decline. With the increasing scale of
the world economy, the human-generated rifts in the earth’s metabolism
inevitably become more severe and more multifarious. Yet, the demand for
more and greater economic growth and accumulation, even in the
wealthier countries, is built into the capitalist system. As a result,
the world economy is one massive bubble.
There is nothing in the nature of the current system, moreover, that
will allow it to pull back before it is too late. To do that, other
forces from the bottom of society will be required.
E. Capitalism Is Not Just an Economic System—It Fashions a
Political, Judicial, and Social System to Support the System of Wealth
Under capitalism people are at the service of the economy and are
viewed as needing to consume more and more to keep the economy
functioning. The massive and, in the words of Joseph Schumpeter,
“elaborate psychotechnics of advertising” are absolutely necessary to
keep people buying.30 Morally, the system
is based on the proposition that each, following his/her own interests
(greed), will promote the general interest and growth. Adam Smith
famously put it: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the
brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to
their own interest.”31 In other words,
individual greed (or quest for profits) drives the system and human
needs are satisfied as a mere by-product. Economist Duncan Foley has
called this proposition and the economic and social irrationalities it
generates “Adam’s Fallacy.”32
The attitudes and mores needed for the smooth functioning of such
a system, as well as for people to thrive as members of society—greed,
individualism, competitiveness, exploitation of others, and
“consumerism” (the drive to purchase more and more stuff, unrelated to
needs and even to happiness)—are inculcated into people by schools, the
media, and the workplace. The title of Benjamin Barber’s book—Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole—says a lot.
The notion of responsibility to others and to community, which is the
foundation of ethics, erodes under such a system. In the words of
Gordon Gekko—the fictional corporate takeover artist in Oliver Stone’s
film Wall Street—“Greed is Good.” Today, in the face of
widespread public outrage, with financial capital walking off with big
bonuses derived from government bailouts, capitalists have turned to
preaching self-interest as the bedrock of society from the very pulpits.
On November 4, 2009, Barclay’s Plc Chief Executive Officer John Varley
declared from a wooden lectern in St. Martin-in-the-Fields at London’s
Trafalgar Square that “Profit is not Satanic.” Weeks earlier, on October
20, 2009, Goldman Sachs International adviser Brian Griffiths declared
before the congregation at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London that “The
injunction of Jesus to love others as ourselves is a recognition of
Wealthy people come to believe that they deserve their wealth because
of hard work (theirs or their forbearers) and possibly luck. The ways
in which their wealth and prosperity arose out of the social labor of
innumerable other people are downplayed. They see the poor—and the poor
frequently agree—as having something wrong with them, such as laziness
or not getting a sufficient education. The structural obstacles that
prevent most people from significantly bettering their conditions are
also downplayed. This view of each individual as a separate economic
entity concerned primarily with one’s (and one’s family’s) own
well-being, obscures our common humanity and needs. People are not
inherently selfish but are encouraged to become so in response to the
pressures and characteristics of the system. After all, if each person
doesn’t look out for “Number One” in a dog-eat-dog system, who will?
Traits fostered by capitalism are commonly viewed as being innate
“human nature,” thus making a society organized along other goals than
the profit motive unthinkable. But humans are clearly capable of a wide
range of characteristics, extending from great cruelty to great
sacrifice for a cause, to caring for non-related others, to true
altruism. The “killer instinct” that we supposedly inherited from
evolutionary ancestors—the “evidence” being chimpanzees’ killing the
babies of other chimps—is being questioned by reference to the peaceful
characteristics of other hominids such as gorillas and bonobos (as
closely related to humans as chimpanzees).34
Studies of human babies have also shown that, while selfishness is a
human trait, so are cooperation, empathy, altruism, and helpfulness.35
Regardless of what traits we may have inherited from our hominid
ancestors, research on pre-capitalist societies indicates that very
different norms from those in capitalist societies are encouraged and
expressed. As Karl Polanyi summarized the studies: “The outstanding
discovery of recent historical and anthropological research is that
man’s economy, as a rule, is submerged in his social relationships. He
does not act so as to safeguard his individual interest in the
possession of material goods; he acts so as to safeguard his social
standing, his social claims, his social assets.”36
In his 1937 article on “Human Nature” for the Encyclopedia of the
Social Sciences, John Dewey concluded—in terms that have been verified
by all subsequent social science—that:
The present controversies between those who
assert the essential fixity of human nature and those who believe in a
greater measure of modifiability center chiefly around the future of war
and the future of a competitive economic system motivated by private
profit. It is justifiable to say without dogmatism that both
anthropology and history give support to those who wish to change these
institutions. It is demonstrable that many of the obstacles to change
which have been attributed to human nature are in fact due to the
inertia of institutions and to the voluntary desire of powerful classes
to maintain the existing status.37
Capitalism is unique among social systems in its active, extreme
cultivation of individual self-interest or “possessive-individualism.”38
Yet the reality is that non-capitalist human societies have thrived
over a long period—for more than 99 percent of the time since the
emergence of anatomically modern humans—while encouraging other traits
such as sharing and responsibility to the group. There is no reason to
doubt that this can happen again.39
The incestuous connection that exists today between business
interests, politics, and law is reasonably apparent to most observers.40
These include outright bribery, to the more subtle sorts of buying
access, friendship, and influence through campaign contributions and
lobbying efforts. In addition, a culture develops among political
leaders based on the precept that what is good for capitalist business
is good for the country. Hence, political leaders increasingly see
themselves as political entrepreneurs, or the counterparts of economic
entrepreneurs, and regularly convince themselves that what they do for
corporations to obtain the funds that will help them get reelected is
actually in the public interest. Within the legal system, the interests
of capitalists and their businesses are given almost every benefit.
Given the power exercised by business interests over the economy,
state, and media, it is extremely difficult to effect fundamental
changes that they oppose. It therefore makes it next to impossible to
have a rational and ecologically sound energy policy, health care
system, agricultural and food system, industrial policy, trade policy,
IV. Characteristics of Capitalism in Conflict with Social Justice
The characteristics of capitalism discussed above—the necessity to
grow; the pushing of people to purchase more and more; expansion abroad;
use of resources without concern for future generations; the crossing
of planetary boundaries; and the predominant role often exercised by the
economic system over the moral, legal, political, cultural forms of
society—are probably the characteristics of capitalism that are most
harmful for the environment. But there are other characteristics of the system that greatly impact the issue of social justice. It is important to look more closely at these social contradictions imbedded in the system.
A. As the System Naturally Functions, a Great Disparity Arises in Both Wealth and Income
There is a logical connection between capitalism’s successes and its
failures. The poverty and misery of a large mass of the world’s people
is not an accident, some inadvertent byproduct of the system, one that
can be eliminated with a little tinkering here or there. The fabulous
accumulation of wealth—as a direct consequence of the way capitalism
works nationally and internationally—has simultaneously produced
persistent hunger, malnutrition, health problems, lack of water, lack of
sanitation, and general misery for a large portion of the people of the
world. The wealthy few resort to the mythology that the grand
disparities are actually necessary. For example, as Brian Griffiths, the
advisor to Goldman Sachs International, quoted above, put it: “We have
to tolerate the inequality as a way to achieving greater prosperity and
opportunity for all.”41 What’s good for the
rich also—according to them—coincidentally happens to be what’s good
for society as a whole, even though many remain mired in a perpetual
state of poverty.
Most people need to work in order to earn wages to purchase the
necessities of life. But, due to the way the system functions, there is a
large number of people precariously connected to jobs, existing on the
bottom rungs of the ladder. They are hired during times of growth and
fired as growth slows or as their labor is no longer needed for other
reasons—Marx referred to this group as the “reserve army of labor.”42
Given a system with booms and busts, and one in which profits are the
highest priority, it is not merely convenient to have a group of people
in the reserve army; it is absolutely essential to the smooth workings
of the system. It serves, above all, to hold down wages. The system,
without significant intervention by government (through large
inheritance taxes and substantial progressive income taxes), produces a
huge inequality of both income and wealth that passes from generation to
generation. The production of great wealth and, at the same time great
poverty, within and between countries is not coincidental—wealth and
poverty are likely two sides of the same coin.
In 2007, the top 1 percent of wealth holders in the United States
controlled 33.8 percent of the wealth of the country, while the bottom
50 percent of the population owned a mere 2.5 percent. Indeed, the
richest 400 individuals had a combined net worth of $1.54 trillion in 2007—approaching that of the bottom 150 million people
(with an aggregate net worth of $1.6 trillion). On a global scale, the
wealth of the world’s 793 billionaires is, at present, more than $3
trillion—equivalent to about 5 percent of total world income ($60.3
trillion in 2008). A mere 9 million people worldwide (around one-tenth
of 1 percent of world population) designated as “high net worth
individuals” currently hold a combined $35 trillion in wealth—equivalent
to more than 50 percent of world income.43
As wealth becomes more concentrated, the wealthy gain more political
power, and they will do what they can to hold on to all the money they
can—at the expense of those in lower economic strata. Most of the
productive forces of society, such as factories, machinery, raw
materials, and land, are controlled by a relatively small percentage of
the population. And, of course, most people see nothing wrong with this
seemingly natural order of things.
B. Goods and Services Are Rationed According to Ability to Pay
The poor do not have access to good homes or adequate food supplies
because they do not have “effective” demand—although they certainly have
biologically based demands. All goods are commodities. People without
sufficient effective demand (money) have no right in the capitalist
system to any particular type of commodity—whether it is a luxury such
as a diamond bracelet or a huge McMansion, or whether it is a necessity
of life such as a healthy physical environment, reliable food supplies,
or quality medical care. Access to all commodities is determined, not by
desire or need, but by having sufficient money or credit to purchase
them. Thus, a system that, by its very workings produces inequality and
holds back workers’ wages, ensures that many (in some societies, most)
will not have access to even the basic necessities or to what we might
consider a decent human existence.
It should be noted that, during periods when workers’ unions and
political parties were strong, some of the advanced capitalist countries
of Europe instituted a more generous safety net of programs, such as
universal health care, than those in the United States. This occurred as
a result of a struggle by people who demanded that the government
provide what the market cannot—equal access to some of life’s basic
C. Capitalism Is a System Marked by Recurrent Economic Downturns
In the ordinary business cycle, factories and whole industries
produce more and more during a boom—assuming it will never end and not
wanting to miss out on the “good times”—resulting in overproduction and
overcapacity, leading to a recession. In other words, the system is
prone to crises, during which the poor and near poor suffer the most.
Recessions occur with some regularity, while depressions are much less
frequent. Right now, we are in a deep recession or mini-depression (with
10 percent official unemployment), and many think we’ve averted a
full-scale depression by the skin of our teeth. All told, since the
mid-1850s there have been thirty-two recessions or depressions in the
United States (not including the current one)—with the average
contraction since 1945 lasting around ten months and the average
expansion between contractions lasting about six years.44
Ironically, from the ecological point of view, major
recessions—although causing great harm to many people—are actually a
benefit, as lower production leads to less pollution of the atmosphere,
water, and land.
V. Proposals for the Ecological Reformation of Capitalism
There are some people who fully understand the ecological and social
problems that capitalism brings, but think that capitalism can and
should be reformed. According to Benjamin Barber: “The struggle for the
soul of capitalism is…a struggle between the nation’s economic body and
its civic soul: a struggle to put capitalism in its proper place, where
it serves our nature and needs rather than manipulating and fabricating
whims and wants. Saving capitalism means bringing it into harmony with
spirit—with prudence, pluralism and those ‘things of the public’…that
define our civic souls. A revolution of the spirit.”45
William Greider has written a book titled The Soul of Capitalism:
Opening Paths to a Moral Economy. And there are books that tout the
potential of “green capitalism” and the “natural capitalism” of Paul
Hawken, Amory Lovins, and L. Hunter Lovins.46
Here, we are told that we can get rich, continue growing the economy,
and increase consumption without end—and save the planet, all at the
same time! How good can it get? There is a slight problem—a system that
has only one goal, the maximization of profits, has no soul, can never
have a soul, can never be green, and, by its very nature, it must
manipulate and fabricate whims and wants.
There are a number of important “out of the box” ecological and
environmental thinkers and doers. They are genuinely good and
well-meaning people who are concerned with the health of the planet, and
most are also concerned with issues of social justice. However, there
is one box from which they cannot escape—the capitalist economic system.
Even the increasing numbers of individuals who criticize the system and
its “market failures” frequently end up with “solutions” aimed at a
tightly controlled “humane” and non-corporate capitalism, instead of
actually getting outside the box of capitalism. They are unable even to
think about, let alone promote, an economic system that has different
goals and decision-making processes—one that places primary emphasis on
human and environmental needs, as opposed to profits.
Corporations are outdoing each other to portray themselves as
“green.” You can buy and wear your Gucci clothes with a clean conscience
because the company is helping to protect rainforests by using less
paper.47 Newsweek claims that corporate
giants such as Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Johnson & Johnson, Intel, and
IBM are the top five green companies of 2009 because of their use of
“renewable” sources of energy, reporting greenhouse gas emissions (or
lowering them), and implementing formal environmental policies and good
reputations.48 You can travel wherever you
want, guilt-free, by purchasing carbon “offsets” that supposedly cancel
out the environmental effects of your trip.
Let’s take a look at some of the proposed devices for dealing with the ecological havoc without disturbing capitalism.
A. Better Technologies that Are More Energy Efficient and Use Fewer Material Inputs
Some proposals to enhance energy efficiency—such as those to help
people tighten up their old homes so that less fuel is required to heat
in the winter—are just plain common sense. The efficiency of machinery,
including household appliances and automobiles, has been going up
continually, and is a normal part of the system. Although much more can
be accomplished in this area, increased efficiency usually leads to
lower costs and increased use (and often increased size as well, as in
automobiles), so that the energy used is actually increased. The
misguided push to “green” agrofuels has been enormously detrimental to
the environment. Not only has it put food and auto fuel in direct
competition, at the expense of the former, but it has also sometimes
actually decreased overall energy efficiency.49
B. Nuclear Power
Some scientists concerned with climate change, including James
Lovelock and James Hansen, see nuclear power as an energy alternative,
and as a partial technological answer to the use of fossil fuels; one
that is much preferable to the growing use of coal. However, although
the technology of nuclear energy has improved somewhat, with
third-generation nuclear plants, and with the possibility (still not a
reality) of fourth-generation nuclear energy, the dangers of nuclear
power are still enormous—given radioactive waste lasting hundreds and
thousands of years, the social management of complex systems, and the
sheer level of risk involved. Moreover, nuclear plants take about ten
years to build and are extremely costly and uneconomic. There are all
sorts of reasons, therefore (not least of all, future generations), to
be extremely wary of nuclear power as any kind of solution. To go in
that direction would almost certainly be a Faustian bargain.50
C. Large-Scale Engineering Solutions
A number of vast engineering schemes have been proposed either to
take CO2 out of the atmosphere or to increase the reflectance of
sunlight back into space, away from earth. These include: Carbon sequestration schemes
such as capturing CO2 from power plants and injecting it deep into the
earth, and fertilizing the oceans with iron so as to stimulate algal
growth to absorb carbon; and enhanced sunlight reflection schemes
such as deploying huge white islands in the oceans, creating large
satellites to reflect incoming sunlight, and contaminating the
stratosphere with particles that reflect light.
No one knows, of course, what detrimental side effects might occur
from such schemes. For example, more carbon absorption by the oceans
could increase acidification, while dumping sulphur dioxide into the
stratosphere to block sunlight could reduce photosynthesis.
Also proposed are a number of low-tech ways to sequester carbon such
as increasing reforestation and using ecological soil management to
increase soil organic matter (which is composed mainly of carbon). Most
of these should be done for their own sake (organic material helps to
improve soils in many ways). Some could help to reduce the carbon
concentration in the atmosphere. Thus reforestation, by pulling carbon
from the atmosphere, is sometimes thought of as constituting negative
emissions. But low-tech solutions cannot solve the problem given an
expanding system—especially considering that trees planted now can be
cut down later, and carbon stored as soil organic matter may later be
converted to CO2 if practices are changed.
D. Cap and Trade (Market Trading) Schemes
The favorite economic device of the system is what are called
“cap and trade” schemes for limiting carbon emissions. This involves
placing a cap on the allowable level of greenhouse gas emissions and
then distributing (either by fee or by auction) permits that allow
industries to emit carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Those
corporations that have more permits than they need may sell them to
other firms wanting additional permits to pollute. Such schemes
invariably include “offsets” that act like medieval indulgences,
allowing corporations to continue to pollute while buying good grace by
helping to curtail pollution somewhere else—say, in the third world.
In theory, cap and trade is supposed to stimulate technological
innovation to increase carbon efficiency. In practice, it has not led to
carbon dioxide emission reductions in those areas where it has been
introduced, such as in Europe. The main result of carbon trading has
been enormous profits for some corporations and individuals, and the
creation of a subprime carbon market.51
There are no meaningful checks of the effectiveness of the “offsets,”
nor prohibitions for changing conditions sometime later that will result
in carbon dioxide release to the atmosphere.
VI. What Can Be Done Now?
In the absence of systemic change, there certainly are things that
have been done and more can be done in the future to lessen capitalism’s
negative effects on the environment and people. There is no particular
reason why the United States can’t have a better social welfare system,
including universal health care, as is the case in many other advanced
capitalist countries. Governments can pass laws and implement
regulations to curb the worst environmental problems. The same goes for
the environment or for building affordable houses. A carbon tax of the
kind proposed by James Hansen, in which 100 percent of the dividends go
back to the public, thereby encouraging conservation while placing the
burden on those with the largest carbon footprints and the most wealth,
could be instituted. New coal-fired plants (without sequestration) could
be blocked and existing ones closed down.52
At the world level, contraction and convergence in carbon emissions
could be promoted, moving to uniform world per capita emissions, with
cutbacks far deeper in the rich countries with large per capita carbon
footprints.53 The problem is that very
powerful forces are strongly opposed to these measures. Hence, such
reforms remain at best limited, allowed a marginal existence only
insofar as they do not interfere with the basic accumulation drive of
Indeed, the problem with all these approaches is that they allow the
economy to continue on the same disastrous course it is currently
following. We can go on consuming all we want (or as much as our income
and wealth allow), using up resources, driving greater distances in our
more fuel-efficient cars, consuming all sorts of new products made by
“green” corporations, and so on. All we need to do is support the new
“green” technologies (some of which, such as using agricultural crops to
make fuels, are actually not green!) and be “good” about separating out
waste that can be composted or reused in some form, and we can go on
living pretty much as before—in an economy of perpetual growth and
The very seriousness of the climate change problem arising from
human-generated carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions has
led to notions that it is merely necessary to reduce carbon footprints
(a difficult problem in itself). The reality, though, is that there are
numerous, interrelated, and growing ecological problems arising from a
system geared to the infinitely expanding accumulation of capital. What
needs to be reduced is not just carbon footprints, but ecological footprints,
which means that economic expansion on the world level and especially
in the rich countries needs to be reduced, even cease. At the same time,
many poor countries need to expand their economies. The new principles
that we could promote, therefore, are ones of sustainable human
development. This means enough for everyone and no more. Human
development would certainly not be hindered, and could even be
considerably enhanced for the benefit of all, by an emphasis on
sustainable human, rather than unsustainable economic, development.
VII. Another Economic System Is Not Just Possible—It’s Essential
The foregoing analysis, if correct, points to the fact that the
ecological crisis cannot be solved within the logic of the present
system. The various suggestions for doing so have no hope of success.
The system of world capitalism is clearly unsustainable in: (1) its
quest for never ending accumulation of capital leading to production
that must continually expand to provide profits; (2) its agriculture and
food system that pollutes the environment and still does not allow
universal access to a sufficient quantity and quality of food; (3) its
rampant destruction of the environment; (4) its continually recreating
and enhancing of the stratification of wealth within and between
countries; and (5) its search for technological magic bullets as a way
of avoiding the growing social and ecological problems arising from its
The transition to an ecological—which we believe must also be a
socialist—economy will be a steep ascent and will not occur overnight.
This is not a question of “storming the Winter Palace.” Rather, it is a
dynamic, multifaceted struggle for a new cultural compact and a new
productive system. The struggle is ultimately against the system of capital. It must begin, however, by opposing the logic of capital,
endeavoring in the here and now to create in the interstices of the
system a new social metabolism rooted in egalitarianism, community, and a
sustainable relation to the earth. The basis for the creation of
sustainable human development must arise from within the system dominated by capital, without being part of it, just as the bourgeoisie itself arose in the “pores” of feudal society.54 Eventually, these initiatives can become powerful enough to constitute the basis of a revolutionary new movement and society.
All over the world, such struggles in the interstices of capitalist
society are now taking place, and are too numerous and too complex to be
dealt with fully here. Indigenous peoples today, given a new basis as a
result of the ongoing revolutionary struggle in Bolivia, are
reinforcing a new ethic of responsibility to the earth. La Vía
Campesina, a global peasant-farmer organization, is promoting new forms
of ecological agriculture, as is Brazil’s MST (Movimento dos
Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra), as are Cuba and Venezuela. Recently,
Venezulean President Hugo Chávez stressed the social and environmental
reasons to work to get rid of the oil-rentier model in Venezuela, a
major oil exporter.55 The climate justice
movement is demanding egalitarian and anti-capitalist solutions to the
climate crisis. Everywhere radical, essentially anti-capitalist,
strategies are emerging, based on other ethics and forms of
organization, rather than the profit motive: ecovillages; the new urban
environment promoted in Curitiba in Brazil and elsewhere; experiments in
permaculture, and community-supported agriculture, farming and
industrial cooperatives in Venezuela, etc. The World Social Forum has
given voice to many of these aspirations. As leading U.S.
environmentalist James Gustave Speth has stated: “The international
social movement for change—which refers to itself as ‘the irresistible
rise of global anti-capitalism’—is stronger than many may imagine and
will grow stronger.”56
The reason that the opposition to the logic of capitalism—ultimately
seeking to displace the system altogether—will grow more imposing is
that there is no alternative, if the earth as we know it, and humanity
itself, are to survive. Here, the aims of ecology and socialism will
necessarily meet. It will become increasingly clear that the
distribution of land as well as food, health care, housing, etc. should
be based on fulfilling human needs and not market forces. This is, of
course, easier said than done. But it means making economic decisions
through democratic processes occurring at local, regional, and
multiregional levels. We must face such issues as: (1) How can we supply
everyone with basic human needs of food, water, shelter, clothing,
health care, educational and cultural opportunities? (2) How much of the
economic production should be consumed and how much invested? and (3)
How should the investments be directed? In the process, people must find
the best ways to carry on these activities with positive interactions
with nature—to improve the ecosystem. New forms of democracy will be
needed, with emphasis on our responsibilities to each other, to one’s
own community as well as to communities around the world. Accomplishing
this will, of course, require social planning at every level: local,
regional, national, and international—which can only be successful to
the extent that it is of and by, and not just ostensibly for, the people.57
An economic system that is democratic, reasonably egalitarian, and
able to set limits on consumption will undoubtedly mean that people will
live at a significantly lower level of consumption than what is
sometimes referred to in the wealthy countries as a “middle class”
lifestyle (which has never been universalized even in these societies). A
simpler way of life, though “poorer” in gadgets and ultra-large luxury
homes, can be richer culturally and in reconnecting with other people
and nature, with people working the shorter hours needed to provide
life’s essentials. A large number of jobs in the wealthy capitalist
countries are nonproductive and can be eliminated, indicating that the
workweek can be considerably shortened in a more rationally organized
economy. The slogan, sometimes seen on bumper stickers, “Live Simply so
that Others May Simply Live,” has little meaning in a capitalist
society. Living a simple life, such as Helen and Scott Nearing did,
demonstrating that it is possible to live a rewarding and interesting
life while living simply, doesn’t help the poor under present
circumstances.58 However, the slogan will
have real importance in a society under social (rather than private)
control, trying to satisfy the basic needs for all people.
Perhaps the Community Councils of Venezuela—where local people decide
the priorities for social investment in their communities and receive
the resources to implement them—are an example of planning for human
needs at the local level. This is the way that such important needs as
schools, clinics, roads, electricity, and running water can be met. In a
truly transformed society, community councils can interact with
regional and multiregional efforts. And the use of the surplus of
society, after accounting for peoples’ central needs, must be based on
The very purpose of the new sustainable system, which is the
necessary outcome of these innumerable struggles (necessary in terms of
survival and the fulfillment of human potential), must be to satisfy the
basic material and non-material needs of all the people, while
protecting the global environment as well as local and regional
ecosystems. The environment is not something “external” to the human
economy, as our present ideology tells us; it constitutes the essential
life support systems for all living creatures. To heal the “metabolic
rift” between the economy and the environment means new ways of living,
manufacturing, growing food, transportation and so forth.60
Such a society must be sustainable; and sustainability requires
substantive equality, rooted in an egalitarian mode of production and
Concretely, people need to live closer to where they work, in
ecologically designed housing built for energy efficiency as well as
comfort, and in communities designed for public engagement, with
sufficient places, such as parks and community centers, for coming
together and recreation opportunities. Better mass transit within and
between cities is needed to lessen the dependence on the use of the cars
and trucks. Rail is significantly more energy efficient than trucks in
moving freight (413 miles per gallon fuel per ton versus 155 miles for
trucks) and causes fewer fatalities, while emitting lower amounts of
greenhouse gases. One train can carry the freight of between 280 to 500
trucks. And it is estimated that one rail line can carry the same amount
of people as numerous highway lanes.61
Industrial production needs to be based on ecological design principles
of “cradle-to-cradle,” where products and buildings are designed for
lower energy input, relying to as great degree as possible on natural
lighting and heating/cooling, ease of construction as well as easy
reuse, and ensuring that the manufacturing process produces little to no
Agriculture based on ecological principles and carried out by family
farmers working on their own, or in cooperatives and with animals,
reunited with the land that grows their food has been demonstrated to be
not only as productive or more so than large-scale industrial
production, but also to have less negative impact on local ecologies. In
fact, the mosaic created by small farms interspersed with native
vegetation is needed to preserve endangered species.63
A better existence for slum dwellers, approximately one-sixth of
humanity, must be found. For the start, a system that requires a “planet
of slums,” as Mike Davis has put it, has to be replaced by a system
that has room for food, water, homes, and employment for all.64 For many, this may mean returning to farming, with adequate land and housing and other support provided.
Smaller cities may be needed, with people living closer to where
their food is produced and industry more dispersed, and smaller scale.
Evo Morales, President of Bolivia, has captured the essence of the
situation in his comments about changing from capitalism to a system
that promotes “living well” instead of “living better.” As he put it at
the Copenhagen Climate Conference in December 2009: “Living better is to
exploit human beings. It’s plundering natural resources. It’s egoism
and individualism. Therefore, in those promises of capitalism, there is
no solidarity or complementarity. There’s no reciprocity. So that’s why
we’re trying to think about other ways of living lives and living well,
not living better. Living better is always at someone else’s expense.
Living better is at the expense of destroying the environment.”65
The earlier experiences of transition to non-capitalist systems,
especially in Soviet-type societies, indicate that this will not be
easy, and that we need new conceptions of what constitutes socialism,
sharply distinguished from those early abortive attempts.
Twentieth-century revolutions typically arose in relatively poor,
underdeveloped countries, which were quickly isolated and continually
threatened from abroad. Such post-revolutionary societies usually ended
up being heavily bureaucratic, with a minority in charge of the state
effectively ruling over the remainder of the society. Many of the same
hierarchical relations of production that characterize capitalism were
reproduced. Workers remained proletarianized, while production was
expanded for the sake of production itself. Real social improvements all
too often existed side by side with extreme forms of social repression.66
Today we must strive to construct a genuine socialist system; one in
which bureaucracy is kept in check, and power over production and
politics truly resides with the people. Just as new challenges that
confront us are changing in our time, so are the possibilities for the
development of freedom and sustainability.
When Reverend Jeremiah Wright spoke to Monthly Review’s
sixtieth anniversary gathering in September 2009, he kept coming back to
the refrain “What about the people?” If there is to be any hope of
significantly improving the conditions of the vast number of the world’s
inhabitants—many of whom are living hopelessly under the most severe
conditions—while also preserving the earth as a livable planet, we need a
system that constantly asks: “What about the people?” instead of “How
much money can I make?” This is necessary, not only for humans, but for
all the other species that share the planet with us and whose fortunes
are intimately tied to ours.
- Fidel Castro Ruz, “The Truth of What Happened at the Summit,” December 19, 2009, http://monthlyreview.org.
- Plato, Timaeus and Critias (London: Penguin, 1977), 133-34.
- James Hansen, Reto Ruedy, Makiko
Sato, and Ken Lo, “If It’s That Warm, How Come It’s So Damned Cold?”
- Hansen, Storms of My Grandchildren, (New York: Bloomsbury, 2009), 164.
- Hansen, Storms of My Grandchildren, 82-85; Richard S. J. Tol, et al., “Adaptation to Five Meters of Sea Level Rise,” Journal of Risk Research, no. 5 (July 2006), 469.
- World Glacier Monitoring Service/United Nations Environment Programme, Global Glacier Change: Facts and Figures (2008), http://grid.unep.ch/glaciers; Baiqing Xu, et al., “Black Soot and the Survival of Tibetan Glaciers,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, December 8, 2009, http://pnas.org; Carolyn Kormann, “Retreat of Andean Glaciers Foretells Water Woes,” Environment 360, http://e360.yale.edu/; David Biello, “Climate Change is Ridding the World’s Tropical Mountain Ranges of Ice,” Scientific American Observations,
December 15, 2009, http://scientificamerican.com; Union of Concerned
Scientists, “Contrarians Attack IPCC Over Glacial Findings, But Glaciers
are Still Melting,” January 19, 2010, ucsusa.org.
- Agence France Presse (AFP), “UN Warns of 70 Percent Desertification by 2025,” October 4, 2005.
- Shaobing Peng, et al., “Rice Yields Decline with Higher Night Temperature from Global Warming,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 101 no. 27 (2005), 9971-75.
- James Hansen, “Strategies to Address Global Warming” (July 13, 2009), http//columbia.edu; Hansen, Storms of My Grandchildren, 145-47.
- “Arctic Seas Turn to Acid, Putting Vital Food Chain at Risk,” Guardian,
October 4, 2009; The Earth Institute, Columbia University, “Ocean’s
Uptake of Manmade Carbon May be Slowing,” November 18, 2009,
http://earth.columbia.edu; “Seas Grow Less Effective at Absorbing
Emissions,” New York Times, November 19, 2009; S. Khatiwal, F.
Primeau, and T. Hall, “Reconstruction of the History of Anthropogenic
CO2 Concentrations in the Ocean,” Nature 462, no. 9 (November 2009), 346-50.
- Lindsey Hoshaw, “Afloat in the Ocean, Expanding Islands of Trash,” New York Times, November 10, 2009.
- United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization, http://fao.org.
- Bobbi Chase Wilding, Kathy Curtis, Kirsten Welker-Hood. 2009. Hazardous Chemicals in Health Care: A Snapshot of Chemicals in Doctors and Nurses, Physicians for Social Responsibility, http://psr.org.
- Lyndsey Layton, “Use of potentially harmful chemicals kept secret under law,” Washington Post, January 4, 2010.
- Frank Jordans, “17,000 Species Threatened by Extinction,” Associated Press, November 3, 2009.
- Monitra Pongsiri, et al., “Biodiversity Loss Affects Global Disease Ecology,” Bioscience 59, no. 11 (2009), 945-54.
- James Hansen, Storms of My Grandchildren, ix.
- Johan Rockström, et al., “A Safe Operating Space for Humanity,” Nature, 461 (September 24, 2009), 472-75.
- Donella H. Meadows, Dennis L. Meadows, Jorgen Randers, and William W. Behrens. The Limits to Growth: A Report for the Club of Rome’s Project on the Predicament of Mankind (New York: Universe Books, 1972); Donella H. Meadows, Jorgen Randers, and Dennis L. Meadows, The Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update (White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing Company, 2004).
- Erik Assadourian, “The Rise and Fall of Consumer Cultures,” in Worldwatch Institute, State of the World, 2010 (New York: W. W. Norton, 2010), 6.
- Epicurus, “The Vatican Collection,” The Epicurus Reader (Indianapolis: Haskett, 1994), 39.
- “Poverty Facts and Statistics, Global Issues, http://globalissues.org.
- Curtis White, “Barbaric Heart: Capitalism and the Crisis of Nature,” Orion (May-June 2009), http://orionmagazine.org/index.php/articles/article/4680.
- For treatments of the role of speculation and debt in the U.S. economy, see John Bellamy Foster and Fred Magdoff, “The Great Financial Crisis (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2009) and Fred Magdoff and Michael Yates, The ABCs of the Economic Crisis (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2009).
- “Fears for the World’s Poor Countries as the Rich Grab Land to Grow Food,” Guardian, July 3, 2009; “The Food Rush: Rising Demand in China and West Sparks African Land Grab,” Guardian, July 3, 2009.
- For a brief discussion of European expansion, see Harry Magdoff and Fred Magdoff, “Approaching Socialism,” Monthly Review 57, no. 3 (July-August 2005), 19-61. On the relation of oil and gas to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, see Michael T. Klare, Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2008).
- British Petroleum, BP Statistical Review of World Energy, June 2009, http://bp.com; John Bellamy Foster, The Ecological Revolution (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2009), 85-105.
- David A. Vaccari, “Phosphorus Famine: A Looming Crisis,” Scientific American, June 2009:54-59.
- John Terborgh, “The World is in Overshoot,” New York Review of Books 56, no. 19 (December 3, 2009), 45-57.
- Joseph A. Schumpeter, Business Cycles (New York: McGraw Hill, 1939), vol. 1, 73.
- Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, (New York: Modern Library, 1937), 14.
- Duncan K. Foley, Adam’s Fallacy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006).
- “Profit ‘Is Not Satanic,’ Barclays Says, after Goldman Invokes Jesus,” Bloomberg.com, November 4, 2009.
- Frans de Waal. “Our Kinder, Gentler Ancestors,” Wall Street Journal, October 3, 2009.
- J. Kiley Hamlin, Karen Wynn, and Paul Bloom, “Social Evaluation by Preverbal Infants,” Nature 50, no. 2 (November 22, 2007), 557-59; Nicholas Wade. “We May be Born with an Urge to Help,” New York Times, December 1, 2009. Some recent research in this regard is usefully summarized in Jeremy Rifkin, The Empathic Civilization (New York: Penguin, 2009), 128-34.
- Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation (Boston: Beacon, 1944), 46.
- John Dewey, Selections from the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences (New York: Macmillan, 197), 536.
- See C. B. Macpherson, The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1962).
- For a fuller discussion of these issues see Magdoff and Magdoff, “Approaching Socialism,” 19-23.
- For a discussion of the power of finance in the U.S. political system, see Simon Johnson, “The Quiet Coup,” Atlantic Monthly, May 2009.
- Julia Werdigier, “British Bankers Defend Their Pay and Bonuses,” New York Times, November 7, 2009.
- For a contemporary view of the reserve army, see Fred Magdoff and Harry Magdoff, “Disposable Workers,” Monthly Review 55, no. 11 (April 2005), 18-35.
- Matthew Miller and Duncan Greenberg, ed., “The Richest People In America” (2009), Forbes,
http://forbes.com; Arthur B. Kennickell, “Ponds and Streams: Wealth and
Income in the U.S., 1989 to 2007,” Federal Reserve Board Working Paper
2009-13, 2009, 55, 63; “World GDP,” http://economywatch.com, accessed
January 16, 2010; “World’s Billionaires,“ Forbes.com, March 8, 2007;
Capgemini and Merrill Lynch Wealth Management, World Wealth Report, 2009, http://us.capgemini.com, introduction.
- “How Many Recessions Have Occurred
in the U.S. Economy?” Federal Reserve Board of San Francisco, January
2008, http://frbsf.org; National Bureau of Economic Research, Business
Cycle Expansions and “Contractions, January 17, 2010,” http://nber.org.
- Benjamin Barber, “A Revolution in Spirit,” The Nation, February 9, 2009, http://thenation.com/doc/20090209/barber.
- Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins, and L. Hunter Lovins, Natural Capitalism (Boston:
Little, Brown and Co., 1999). For a detailed critique of the ideology
of “natural capitalism,” see F.E. Trainer, “Natural Capitalism Cannot
Overcome Resource Limits,” http://mnforsustain.org.
- “Gucci Joins Other Fashion Players in Committing to Protect Rainforests,” Financial Times, November 5, 2009.
- Daniel McGinn, “The Greenest Big Companies in America,” Newsweek, September 21, 2009. http://newsweek.com.
- Fred Magdoff, “The Political Economy and Ecology of Biofuels,” Monthly Review 60, no. 3 (July-August 2008), 34-50.
- James Lovelock, The Revenge of Gaia (New York: Perseus, 2006), 87-105, Hansen, Storms of My Grandchildren,
198-204. On the continuing dangers of nuclear power, even in its latest
incarnations, see Robert D. Furber, James C. Warf, and Sheldon C.
Plotkin, “The Future of Nuclear Power,” Monthly Review 59, no. 9 (February 2008), 38-48.
- Friends of the Earth, “Subprime Carbon?” (March 2009), http://foe.org/suprime carbon, and A Dangerous Obsession
(November 2009), http://foe.co.uk; James Hansen, “Worshipping the
Temple of Doom” (May 5, 2009), http://columbia.edu; Larry Lohman,
“Climate Crisis: Social Science Crisis,” forthcoming in M. Voss, ed., Kimawandel (Wiesbaden: VS-Verlag), http://tni.org//archives/archives/lohmann/sciencecrisis.pdf.
- See Hansen, Storms of My Grandchildren, 172-77, 193-94, 208-22.
- See Aubrey Meyer, Contraction and Convergence (Devon: Schumacher Society, 2000; Tom Athansiou and Paul Baer, Dead Heat (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2002.
- Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works (New York: International Publishers, 1975), vol. 6, 327; Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 3 (London: Penguin, 1981), 447-48.
- “Chávez Stresses the Importance of
Getting Rid of the Oil Rentier Model in Venezuela,” MRzine,
http://mrzine.org (January 11, 2010).
- James Gustave Speth, The Bridge at the Edge of the World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008), 195.
- On planning, see Magdoff and Magdoff, “Approaching Socialism,” 36-61.
- See Helen and Scott Nearing, Living the Good Life (New York: Schocken, 1970). Scott Nearing was for many years the author of the “World Events” column in Monthly Review.
- See Iain Bruce, The Real Venezuela (London: Pluto Press, 2008), 139-75.
- On the metabolic rift, see Foster, The Ecological Revolution, 161-200.
- C. James Kruse, et al., “A Modal
Comparison of Domestic Freight Transportation Effects on the General
Public, Center for Ports and Waterways,” Texas Transportation Institute,
2007; http://americanwaterways.com; Mechanical Database website, Rail
vs. Truck Industry, accessed; http://mechdb.com January 17, 2010.
- William McDonough and Michael Braungart, Cradle to Cradle (New York: North Point Press. 2002).
- See Miguel A. Altieri, “Agroecology, Small Farms, and Food Sovereignty,” Monthly Review 61, no. 3 (July-August 2009), 102-13.
- Mike Davis, Planet of the Slums (London; Verso, 2007).
- Interview of Evo Morales by Amy Goodman, Democracy Now, December 17, 2009, http://democracynow.org/2009/12/17/bolivian_president_evo_morales_on_climate.
- See Paul M. Sweezy, Post-Revolutionary Society (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1980).
About the Authors
Fred Magdoff (firstname.lastname@example.org) is professor
emeritus of plant and soil science at the University of Vermont and
adjunct professor of crop and soil science at Cornell University. He is
the author of Building Soils for Better Crops (with Harold van Es, third edition, 2009), and The ABCs of the Economic Crisis (with Michael Yates, Monthly Review Press, 2009). John Bellamy Foster (email@example.com) is editor of Monthly Review and professor of sociology at the University of Oregon. His most recent book is The Ecological Revolution (Monthly Review Press, 2009).
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