Capitalism’s rape of the environment is basic to its system of exploitation

by Daniel Adam
In the last 11 months the world has been shaken by the BP oil spill and the Fukushima nuclear-plant crisis—possibly the two greatest catastrophes of oil drilling and nuclear power in history.  This moment is critical for the formation of a successful environmental movement.
The anti-ecological nature of the prevailing social order is being exposed more sharply and openly than ever before. The Fukushima disaster demonstrates the desperation of the capitalist class in an especially clear light, as nuclear power has been one of its most favored remedies for climate change.
The avowed attempt to slow climate change with nuclear power is yet another scheme thrown up by capitalism to partially ameliorate environmental crises in the short term by creating ever greater, less manageable crises in the long term—at best. It is a “solution” that metes out the bulk of its destruction against working and oppressed people.  It is not the first such “solution” of this kind, and it is not the only such “solution” proposed in relation to climate change.
For example, capitalist factory-style agriculture, which relies on vast monocrop farms, tends to rapidly deplete the soil. As a “solution,” huge amounts of chemical fertilizer are applied. However, the phosphorous and nitrogen that this pumps into the ecosystem wreaks havoc, especially in lakes and oceans, where it has created vast dead zones. Scientists such as James Hansen and Johan Rockstrom have projected that the continued dumping of nitrogen or phosphorous from fertilizers into the oceans could result in ecological disasters on a similar scale to those created by climate change.
Of course, dependence on increasing amounts of chemical fertilizer is good for capitalist profits. It has aided corporate farms against the small ones while providing a lucrative outlet for chemical manufacturers.
And in comparison with nuclear power, chemical fertilizer is not so bad for the rest of us. It actually manages to replace some nutrients as advertised. But nuclear power doesn’t slow climate change one iota. Neither do any of the other capitalist solutions to climate change. And there’s no sound reason to believe they ever will.
Bio-fuels were never close to carbon-neutral. And there isn’t enough land on earth to supply even a fraction of present energy needs and at the same time feed everyone. But the recent spike in bio-fuel production did help drive up food prices, and help throw hundreds of thousands more into starvation.
Other proposed solutions include dumping massive amounts of iron slurry into the oceans in an attempt to promote plankton growth, and blasting the moon with nuclear weapons in order to envelop the earth in light-reflecting dust.
But what about renewable energy based on wind, solar, water, and geothermal sources?  A November 2009 Scientific American article, for instance, more or less demonstrated that it is entirely possible to fuel all present human activity with these energy sources using present technology, and that it could be accomplished within 20 years.
Still, there’s no reason to expect fossil fuel use to cease if the present governments and corporations were somehow forced into building such a renewable energy system. Without closing down the existing fossil fuel infrastructure, the supply of energy would simply increase. This would lower the price of energy until energy-based economic activity expanded to absorb the greater energy pool. Indeed, this is the only material impact building such technology has in the immediate term. What else could be expected from an economic system based on perpetual growth?
If the available energy is doubled with renewable technology, what will happen when the oil runs out and the world economy has developed to require twice as much energy as is supplied by renewable sources? There aren’t enough rare earth minerals on this planet to provide all the parts and batteries necessary for such an enormous amount of power. What would people do then? Turn to nuclear energy?
The problem is not merely technological; it is in fact fundamentally social. The present profoundly anti-ecological technological structure is only one manifestation of this social crisis. The self-identified environmental movement is brimming with strategies to curb fossil fuel use within the bounds of capitalism: Create small eco-friendly businesses that out-compete polluting corporations; cap-and-trade agreements; institute government rationing of consumer goods that create or require green-house gas emissions.
While these proposals are very likely to degrade the condition of working and oppressed people (by raising the cost of living, expanding government powers over working people, or simply limiting fulfillment of needs), they pose no credible threat to the corporate and financial powers who depend on the destruction of our ecosystem for their survival.
There’s about $10 trillion in fossil-fuel infrastructure available, which is expected to last 10 to 50 more years, according to an estimate by journalist Paul Roberts. It is owned by people and institutions with even more trillions at their disposal. Without decommissioning or converting this infrastructure, climate change will not slow an inch—no matter how much fuel efficiency or renewable energy is introduced.
Small businesses, market-based solutions, and capitalist governments do not have the will or ability to take away that $10 trillion or the future profits anticipated by the companies in question.
We must be frank: Preventing imminent ecological catastrophe on a scale never before seen means taking over or shutting down a significant amount of capitalist property, seriously encroaching on their power, and ending their rule as soon as possible.
Rather than call for workers to sacrifice more, we must call for workers’ power over the economy. Instead of depending on markets and privately owned businesses to save us, we must call for public ownership and workers’ control of natural resources and the largest industrial and financial institutions.
Instead of merely regulating the purchase of environmentally hazardous commodities by working people, why not outlaw the production of such commodities in the first place? The enterprises that build such commodities should be nationalized and their production converted into something useful for humanity.
The March 26 marches against nuclear power of some 210,000 in Germany demonstrate that it is possible for masses of people to mount a serious political challenge to the capitalists’ ability to determine what technology we use. The future of nuclear power everywhere is now in question. The Japanese government, following the Fukushima crisis, is already considering nationalizing Tokyo Electric Power Company. The logic of this challenge to nuclear power must be extended to the fossil fuel industry and all other central enemies of our ecosystem.
The only force capable of leading a direct, fundamental challenge to the possessors of capital are those who create the capital—the working class. Of course, social groups like young people, indigenous people, and the middle classes can take the lead initially and play important roles throughout the struggle. But to succeed, the movement for ecological sustainability must find a basis in the interests and aspirations of workers.
And here the movement must demonstrate another central truth—development of ecological sustainability does not require the degradation of the lives of working and oppressed people, or the reversion to an earlier social system. In fact, such a transition could very well be a part of a dramatic improvement in the lives of billions, and the development of a new society.
Demands for workers’ control over workplace safety, a 30-hour workweek for 40 hours pay (to create more jobs), quality mass transit, walkable cities, the elimination and conversion of military production, fresh poison-free food, publicly provided quality home insulation, public ownership and conversion of the entire fossil-fuel industry, and a massive emergency program to reorganize the economy along ecologically sustainable lines (while employing tens of millions) all would simultaneously benefit working people and drastically improve the state of our ecosystem.
A movement built on demands like these would expose how the ecological destruction created by capitalism is tied to the exploitation and oppression of working people. It would identify the long-term goals of ecological sustainability with the immediate needs of the social forces capable of making it a reality.
> This article was originally published in the April 2011 print edition of Socialist Action newspaper.