How to Stop Capitalism’s Deadly War With Nature

So far, 2016 is the hottest year on record. So was 2015. So was 2014. (John McColgan / U.S. Department of Agriculture)

Earth scientists now know that the history of our planet has been set for some time in our current geological age, the Anthropocene. According to leading experts Will Steffen, Paul Crutzen and John McNeill, in this era, “human activities have become so pervasive and profound that they rival the great forces of Nature and are pushing the earth into planetary terra incognita. The Earth is rapidly moving into a less biologically diverse, less forested, much warmer, and probably wetter and stormier era.” We are living in a “no-analogue state” in which “the Earth system has recently moved well outside the range of natural variability.”

The new earth epoch bearing its species’ mark and name is nothing for Homo sapiens to hold up with pride. The unprecedented changes introduced by humanity are ecologically unsustainable for decent life on the planet. Thanks to the Anthropocene, the world is now in the middle of “its sixth great extinction event, with rates of species loss growing rapidly for both terrestrial and marine ecosystems. The atmospheric concentrations of several important greenhouse gases have increased substantially, and the Earth is warming rapidly,” according to Steffen et al., bringing us ever closer to the precipice of ecosystem collapse and putting prospects for a decent future at grave risk. The signs are clear to those willing to look: the melting of polar ice and Arctic permafrost, the acid bleaching of global coral reefs, the pronounced warming of the oceans, the drying out of the Amazonian rain forests. All this and more are moving at an unexpectedly rapid pace. Marked by now-predictable epic forest fires and floods, 2016 is the hottest year on record. So was 2015. So was 2014.

The terrible trends and data have led the venerable progressive political scientist and social-justice advocate Susan George to introduce what she calls “a new phenomenon in the history of humankind.” In a recent lecture to the International Centre for the Promotion of Human Rights in Buenos Aires, she names it “geocide,” meaning “the collective action of a single species among millions of other species which is changing planet Earth to the point that it can become unrecognisable and unfit for life.” Humanity, George says, “is committing geocide against all components of nature, whether microscopic organisms, plants, animals or against itself, homo sapiens, humankind.” George is unstinting in her denunciation of the human species: “Homo sapiens has only existed for roughly 200,000 years. The time we’ve spent on this planet compared to its total age is infinitesimally short, just the tiniest sliver of geological time. It amounts to a mere 0.00004 percent of Earth’s existence. And although any given species of plant or animal—vertebrate or invertebrate—tends to last on average about 10 million years, our species seems determined to cause its own extinction, along with the rest of creation, long before its allotted time.”

It’s a hard to imagine a more terrible crime. Geocide is bigger than genocide.

The “Capitalocene”

But is the culprit really Homo sapiens as a whole? The concept of the Anthropocene has rich scientific validity. It holds welcome political relevance in countering the carbon-industrial complex’s denial of humanity’s responsibility for contemporary climate change. Still, we must guard against lapsing into the historically unspecific and class-blind uses of the term “anthros,” and project the recent age of capital onto the broad 100,000-year swath of human activity on and in nature. As the brilliant and prolific environmental historian and political economist Jason Moore reminded Sasha Lilley during a KPFA radio interview in 2015: “It was not humanity as a whole that created … large-scale industry and the massive textile factories of Manchester in the 19th century or Detroit in the last century or Shenzhen today. It was capital.” It is only during a relatively small slice of human history—roughly the last 500 years, give or take a century or so—that humanity has been socially and institutionally wired from the top down to wreck livable ecology.

A compelling case has been made by Moore and other left environmentalists that it is more historically appropriate to understand humanity’s earth-altering assault on livable ecology as “the Capitalocene.” Capitalism has ruled the world since 1600 or thereabouts (by academic calculations), and only during this relatively brief period of history has human social organization developed the capacity and compulsion to transform earth systems. “Geocide” is a capitalist crime, not a transgression of humanity over its long and mostly noncapitalist history.

The Not-So-Golden Age: Capitalism at Its Regulated Best

But when did the Capitalocene really begin? The Industrial Revolution (the starting point for most Anthropocene thinkers) launched in the early 19th century, and capitalism (Moore’s deep culprit) is 500 years old. But it was during the post-World World II era of U.S.-led global corporate monopolies and emergent multinational capitalism that humanity forever altered earth systems in ways that pose grave and fundamental threats to life on the planet. The latest research indicates massive quantitative acceleration of human economic activity around 1950, including “an explosive growth of fossil fuel use,” according to environmental-sciences professor James Hansen and co-authors in an article in Science. This created a qualitative transformation in Homo sapiens’ impact on earth system trends: levels of carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, methane, stratospheric ozone, surface ocean temperature, ocean acidification, marine fish capture, coastal nitrogen, tropical forest depletion, land domestication and terrestrial biosphere degradation. Leading earth scientists increasingly see what they call this “Great Acceleration” in the post-World War II era as not a new stage but instead as the actual onset of the Anthropocene.

“The brutal truth,” the dauntless ecocide chronicler Robert Hunziker writes in Counterpunch, is “that the prevailing tenure of political, economic neoliberalism, which revolves around profits, is screwing things up.” But the underlying malefactor behind geocide isn’t merely the neoliberal, deregulated and so-called free market capitalism of the last four decades. It’s the profit system itself. The years of U.S.-led global capitalism that locked in the geocidal Anthropocene emerged from a high-growth, mass-consumerist profits system operating at its regulated, high-functioning, middle class-expanding and vaguely social-democratic, Keynesian best. That not-so-Golden Age brought us to the onset of a grave ecological crisis, what the great left eco-socialist Barry Commoner warned about in his book “The Closing Circle,” written at the end of the postwar boom. It pushed us into an environmental calamity that some leftists, even today, treat as the dysfunctional obsession of doomsday “catastrophists” and as “just one of many concerns and possibly a diversion from the ‘real’ class struggle”—the incisive Australian eco-socialist Ian Angus’ accurate and critical characterization of such horrible reasoning.Neoliberalism and Closing Frontiers

We might deepen our understanding of the historical relationships among capitalism, world ecology and neoliberalism by considering the significant extent to which neoliberal aims are a reflection of longstanding tensions between capitalism and ecology. One reason to not see environmental issues as “a diversion from the ‘real’ class struggle” is the viciousness of the top-down capitalist class war. This struggle lies at the heart of the contemporary neoliberal-capitalist project and is rooted in what we might call capitalism’s eternal nature problem. In his seminal study “Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital,” Moore shows that capitalism has always depended on its capacity to discover, chart, conquer and appropriate new “resource frontiers” for its “long waves” of accumulation and expansion. Moore specifies a big-four nexus of interrelated “Cheap Natures”: cheap food, cheap labor (human power), cheap energy and cheap raw materials. These four natures always have been essential to capital’s ability to manufacture commodities and exploit great masses of wage earners at a sustainable rate of profit, unburdened by excessive capitalization (Marx’s famous organic composition of capital). “For every Amsterdam,” Moore writes, “there is a Vistula basin [cheap grain/food]. For every Manchester, a Mississippi Delta [cheap cotton/raw material] … twentieth century Fordism was unthinkable without the North American and Middle Eastern oil frontiers [cheap energy].”

When enough of the four core cheap inputs are in place, capitalist accumulation proceeds on the “normal” path captured in the first volume of Karl Marx’s “Capital”: M (initial investment capital) – C (means of production) – C’ (labor power, priced at less than its total value-creation as a condition of its hire) – M’ (initial investment augmented by profit fed by surplus labor [surplus value] beyond the price of labor power). This “productive circuit” permits capital to continue reinvesting back into the manufacture and sale of commodities big and small. Inevitably, however, “frontiers of appropriation” contract relative to capital’s need for higher levels of “unpaid work” from humans and nature. The new commodity frontiers are always one-off affairs. Capital’s ability to counter the tendency for its rate of profit to decline by tapping new commodity frontiers hits spatial, biophysical, technical, geological and/or political and social-historical limits (including limits imposed by the inability of the investor class to refrain from “capitalizing nature”). Surplus capital accumulates, devoid of outlets for profitable (re)investment in material expansion. This induces capitalists to reallocate capital from production to more purely parasitic finance. Capital reverts to its pure money form and accumulates more directly as indicated in Marx’s formula M-M’.

The end of the frontiers and hence the productive circuit also induce the investor class to seek to redistribute wealth upward through vicious offensives on workers, the public sector and the common good (replete with assaults on trade unions and the welfare state), and accelerated movements for dispossession and privatization—a return of sorts to primitive accumulation. Top-down financialization and class war—with free-market fundamentalism, delegitimization and a savage assault on the public sector and notions of social justice and the common good—are two overlapping and mutually reinforcing hallmarks of the neoliberal era.

The End of Cheap Nature?

By Moore’s account, the dark onset of the neoliberal age is at one with the exhaustion of Golden Age capitalism’s “cheap nature” strategy, which resulted in an excess of surplus capital by the early 1970s. At the root of the problem lay the relative decline of resource frontiers both within and beyond rich capitalist nations—relative to the profit needs of capital, not human needs. “The savage nature of [the] neoliberal counter-revolution,” Moore writes, “surely owes something to the relative contraction of opportunities for appropriation,” making the neoliberal age symptomatic of “the ongoing transformation of capitalism as it confronts the long duree exhaustion of the Great Frontier.” The “free-market,” hyper-financialized and arch-regressive neoliberal age—so savagely unequal that 62 billionaires now possess among them as much wealth as half the human species—cannot be properly grasped without reference to capitalism’s deep and many-sided enmeshment in the web of world ecology.

In Moore’s analysis, capitalism now faces something far graver than its usual recurrent crises of accumulation—periods when it is waiting for fresh frontiers of free and cut-rate land, labor, materials and energy. Moore says the current crisis is “epochal”—that is, systemic. For roughly two decades, from the early 1980s through the opening three years of the current millennium, the neoliberal order has prolonged the profit system’s existence and fed the global capitalist elite’s spectacular wealth with a combination of archparasitic financialization and radical dispossession. The U.S.-led global “austerity” regime used predatory lending and debt service requirements—a “new system of international debt peonage”—to extract a massive “export glut” of inexpensive food, materials, energy and even labor power from the vast impoverished world periphery to rich nations. American and other capitalists also responded to “the falling rate of profit in American industry—induced both by labor’s class power and the rising organic composition of capital” by “mov[ing] rapidly toward the ‘global factory’ in the 1970s. This was “a tectonic shift in world history that entailed the simultaneous de-industrialization of core zones [rich capitalist nations] and the rapid industrialization of the Global South.” The shift was enabled by a “great global enclosure” (a term used by sociologist Farshad Araghi) in the title of one of his books) that doubled the size of the global proletariat by moving hundreds of millions of migrants—including 300,000 newly proletarianized peasants in China alone—from rural areas to cities by the last decade of the 20th century. But since 2003, food, energy and material costs have risen and stayed stubbornly high in ways that reflect “capitalism exhausting its long duree ecological regime,” Moore explains. Rising costs and high-capital intensity of production and extraction have become entrenched across world agriculture, mining and energy sectors. It’s not just that capital’s cheap nature requirement is hitting spatial and sociopolitical limits (including great working-class struggles in China and India) relative to its daunting, ever-rising profitability requirements. It is also that capitalogenic global warming (CGW) has done fundamental and irreversible damage to agricultural productivity—primarily through more pervasive and crippling global droughts, along with help from the development of herbicide-resistant and CGW-friendly “super weeds” and antibiotic-resistant livestock diseases—so that a return to cheap food, a requirement for a re-expansion of cheap labor, may be impossible. (See this recent Worldwatch Institute report on how climate change is driving up world food prices and this one on the long trend of 21st century energy prices).

The final barrier to a new capitalist accumulation cycle may not be a matter of resource taps but rather the problem of filled-up waste sinks. It’s about the end to “cheap garbage”—a limit to the earth’s capacity to absorb wasted circulating capital (energy) without inflicting a fatal cost on the price of doing profitable business. “On the one hand,” Moore notes, the “new streams of unpaid work” (including the unpaid work of nature) that capital requires are “materializing slowly, if at all” in a world where “frontiers [are] fast closing. On the other hand, the accumulation of waste and toxification now threatens the unpaid work that is being done: this is the transition from surplus value to negative value.” Call it capitalist, global, ecological blowback.

Pascal’s Wager

Potentially, there is something to feel good about in this story. No intelligent person should mourn the demise of a “system that consumes unpaid natures as a condition of its existence.” As Moore almost casually observes in the middle of his monograph: “Calls for capital to pay the ‘true costs’ of resource use … are to be welcomed, because such calls directly contradict capital’s fundamental logic. To call for capital to pay its own way is to call for the abolition of capitalism.” Let the calls spread wide and far. A system based on private profit from the uncompensated and geocidal extraction of massive value from the earth and its inhabitants surely deserves to die.

But it’s no time for dancing in the streets. We can’t skip the barricades and the hard work of making revolutionary change. There remains the question of how to develop and spread an alternative, popular, democratic and eco-socialist model of human development to ensure human survival and to prevent a reversion to sheer barbarism amid capitalism’s pestilential burnout. There is the dark possibility that capitalism has done to livable ecology what U.S. imperialism did to Vietnam, even as Washington was “losing” its war on Indochina: inflict such great material and social damage to prevent any chance of a positive and desirable model of development—a decent future—beyond global capitalism. It’s not for nothing that the leading eco-socialist Joel Kovel gave the following subtitle to one of his books: “The End of Capitalism or the End of the World?” (although it is livable ecology, not the world itself, that is at risk).

For Marx, writing in a time when capital’s eco-exterminist nature barely had been revealed relative to what would become apparent in coming centuries, capitalism was “midwife” to a world beyond class rule—to be delivered by a revolutionary proletariat. In “Capital,” Marx dialectically anticipated a realm of true freedom with “associated producers, rationally regulating their interchange with Nature, bringing it under their common control … and achieving this with the least expenditure of energy and under conditions most favorable to, and worthy of, their human nature.”

If Marx could be transported to the current geocidal age, he might well see capitalism more as an undertaker—a social systemic cancer that is wired to destroy life and needs to be transcended as soon as possible. He would behold how late, eco-dystopian capitalist resource appropriation now carries what Moore calls “a new stench of unfathomable toxification: hydro-fracked aquifers, mountaintop removals, the overnight devastation of the Gulf of Mexico.” (We could add tar-sand oil extraction and the continuing atrocity of nuclear power in the age of Fukushima). Marx also might note that it is indigenous people, not the proletariat (many of whose members depend on wages provided by fossil-fuels industries) who stand in the vanguard of the struggle against capitalist geocide.

It’s not about the crystal ball. Maybe we already have passed the tipping points to catastrophe. “But since nobody knows for sure,” Susan George said in Buenos Aires, “we must act as if we still have a chance to halt and reverse climate change. … We have … chosen to stand against the odds and to do our best to make sure that the human adventure can continue.” It’s the earthly and environmentalist version of Pascal’s Wager: We lose nothing by believing that prospects for a decent future can be salvaged. We take the odds down to zero by believing they cannot.

Paul Street
Paul Street holds a doctorate in U.S. history from Binghamton University. He is former vice president for research and planning of the Chicago Urban League. Street is also the author of numerous books,…
Paul Street

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