On December 25th, 1991, the hammer and sickle flag was lowered over the Kremlin, and the Soviet Union came to an end. The communist system that had controlled much of the world imploded and the whole construct simply collapsed.
The door was now open for the flip side of the global economic coin, capitalism, to strut its stuff and show us all what it was made of.
Communism had promised a “workers’ paradise” to all who sacrificed personal gain for the greater good of the State – a state that proved itself to be nothing more than a dead weight around the necks of its people. Capitalism held out the promise of “freedom” and happiness through the acquisition of more stuff and without personal sacrifice.
One generation later, we have seen the fruits of unfettered capitalism, and we can sum up those fruits in two words: mass extinction.
In the name of freedom, we are all locked in to a system that takes freely from the Earth but gives nothing back, whose articles of faith are the twin doctrines of “growth” and “progress”, and where anyone who questions this belief system is viewed as a heretic, even a traitor. That’s because capitalism depends on continuing growth – i.e. making stuff and selling it. And growth depends on the ever-expanding rape of the Earth and all its living creatures (or, as the system describes them, “resources”).
As a result, we find ourselves in a world of global climate change, the poisoning of the oceans and the atmosphere, the destruction of the forests, and now a Sixth Mass Extinction that will almost certainly include our own species.
We can sum up the fruits of unfettered capitalism in two words: mass extinction.Certainly capitalism has provided more people with more stuff. And yes, it has lifted millions of them out of poverty. But a better world? Hardly.
When communism collapsed, there was a safety net ready and waiting in the form of capitalism. Now capitalism is faltering, and it, too, will fail. But this time there’s no safety net. When the music (endless growth and progress) stops, the party’s over.
In a paper that he wrote four years ago, Richard Smith argued that even “green capitalism” – industries like solar and wind, and companies like Whole Foods, Patagonia and Body Shop that presented themselves as models for how to save the planet while still raping it – cannot remotely save capitalism and the world.
The project of sustainable capitalism was misconceived and doomed from the start because maximizing profit and saving the planet are inherently in conflict and cannot be systematically aligned even if, here and there, they might coincide for a moment.
That’s because under capitalism, CEOs and corporate boards are not responsible to society, they’re responsible to private shareholders. CEOs can embrace environmentalism so long as this increases profits. But saving the world requires that the pursuit of profits be systematically subordinated to ecological concerns: For example, the science says that to save the humans, we have to drastically cut fossil fuel consumption, even close down industries like coal. But no corporate board can sacrifice earnings to save the humans because to do so would be to risk shareholder flight or worse.
… Profit-maximization is an iron rule of capitalism, a rule that trumps all else, and this sets the limits to ecological reform – and not the other way around as green capitalism theorists supposed.
Smith’s paper has now been updated and republished as an article entitled “Green Capitalism, the God that Failed“. It’s long (17,000 words), but easy to read and well worth reading – maybe more than once.
Smith explains how capitalism, however green it may honestly attempt to be, can never be the solution to the catastrophe we now face. Rather than the solution, it is and can only ever be part of the problem. The only way to stop the destruction of the planet, if at this late date a way still exists, would be to put a huge brake on the industrial economy. (Conservation biologist Guy McPherson goes even further, calling civilization itself fundamentally just a heat engine and saying we’d need, at very least, to bring the entire thing to a screeching halt.)
Under capitalism, however, that’s just not an option: the train not only has to be kept speeding down the track; it has to keep accelerating. It has no way to shut down a polluting coal mine, for example, and at the same time keep paying the shareholders and find new jobs for all its employees.
So CEOs, workers and governments find that they all “need” to maximize growth, overconsumption, even pollution, [and] to destroy their children’s tomorrows [in order] to hang onto their jobs today. If they don’t, the system falls into crisis, or worse.
… Corporations aren’t necessarily evil. They just can’t help themselves. They’re doing what they’re supposed to do for the benefit of their owners. But this means that so long as the global economy is based on capitalism and private property and corporate property and competitive production for market, we’re doomed to a collective social suicide, and no amount of tinkering with the market can brake the drive to global ecological collapse.
We can’t shop our way to sustainability, because the problems we face cannot be solved by individual choices in the marketplace. They require collective democratic control over the economy to prioritize the needs of society and the environment. And they require local, regional, national and international economic planning to reorganize the economy and redeploy labor and resources to these ends.
… If humanity is to save itself, we have no choice but to overthrow capitalism and replace it with a democratically planned eco-socialist economy.
Eco-capitalists have argued that “green capitalism” can save the situation with “sustainable investing”, “green certification”, and ecologically sound business practices. But none of these devices have shown themselves remotely capable of turning the situation around. Smith notes that “we can’t even get a lousy 5-cent bottle deposit bill passed in more than a handful of states, let alone a serious gasoline tax anywhere”, and he shows how many of these initiatives actually make it worse.
Aquaculture was supposed to save wild fish. But this turns out to be just another case of green-gone-wrong because, aside from contaminating farmed fish (and fish eaters) with antibiotics to suppress disease in fish pens … feeding ever-more farmed fish requires capturing ever-more wild forage fish to grind up for fishmeal for the farm-raised fish, which leaves ever-fewer fish in the ocean, starving those up the food chain like sharks, seals, dolphins and whales. So instead of saving wild fish, fish farming has actually accelerated the plunder of the last remaining stocks of wild fish in the oceans.
In another example, he explains that most of the pollution caused by cars is emitted before they ever arrive at the showroom “in the production of all the steel, aluminum, copper and other metals, glass, rubber, plastic, paint and other resources that go into every automobile, and in the manufacturing process itself.” Lighter and more fuel-efficient cars sound good but “so long as they are free to produce automobiles without limit, more cars will just mean more pollution, even if they are hybrids or plug-in electric cars.”
In any case, electric cars are only as clean as the fuel that’s used to produce the electricity they run on. So the average electric car is, in fact, running on coal, the dirtiest of all fossil fuels. And the use of coal is increasing, not decreasing, around the world. And then there’s the cost to the planet of all the other components of a modern, “energy saving” car, like the lithium and other rare-earth minerals that are mined in fragile ecologies from the savannahs of Africa to the forests of Brazil. And then there’s the nickel:
Each of the one million Priuses that Toyota sells in the United States has a battery that contains 32 pounds of nickel. Just the production of that one car, at current rates, is said to consume fully one percent of all the world’s annually produced nickel. And the mining and smelting of nickel is one of the most polluting of all industrial operations.
All of these are just single examples among thousands of how locked-in our industrialized economy is, and how it’s not in the interest of a corporation to change it. According to the WorldWatch Institute, “Preventing the collapse of human civilization requires nothing less than a wholesale transformation of dominant cultural patterns. This transformation would reject consumerism … and establish in its place a new cultural framework centered on … individual and societal choices that … restore Earth’s ecological systems to health.”
Smith argues, however, that even the WorldWatch Institute, with its scary-sounding analysis of the situation, is confused:
They think it’s consumerist culture that drives corporations to overproduce … But it’s not the culture that drives the economy so much as, overwhelmingly, the economy that drives the culture. It’s the insatiable demands of shareholders that drive corporate producers to maximize sales, therefore to constantly seek out new sales and sources in every corner of the planet.
In other words, the massive onslaught of capitalist propaganda is driving us to keep buying so the system can keep producing and selling and growing and “progressing”. Sure, we can make small individual choices, but there’s barely a respite, whatever you try to do, from the unceasing barrage of messages telling you that buying more stuff and wasting more of the planet is the only path to happiness.
By the time we reach just 4°C, it will be like nothing we’ve ever experienced in human history.
Meanwhile, the point of no return for how much carbon gas – 350 parts per million – we can have in the atmosphere before we hit the tipping point has long been passed. We’re already way over 400 ppm, and on some months we’ve topped 450. We’re already over the cliff and headed toward 1,000 ppm by the year 2100. That will translate into average temperatures rising by up to 5°C (9°F). And by the time we reach just 4°C, it will be like nothing we’ve ever experienced in human history. Smith again:
Heat waves of undreamt-of-ferocity will scorch the Earth’s surface … Sea levels will rise 25 meters, submerging Florida, Bangladesh, New York, Washington DC, London, Shanghai, the coastlines and cities where nearly half the world’s people presently live.
Freshwater aquifers will dry up; snow caps and glaciers will evaporate, and with them, the rivers that feed the billions of Asia, South America and California … the collapse of agriculture around much of the world … The Sahara will have crossed the Strait of Gibraltar and be working its way north into the heart of Spain and Portugal … Food supplies crashing …
And the melting will have begun thawing the permafrost of the Arctic, releasing vast quantities of methane buried under the Arctic seas and the Siberian and North American tundra … and sealing our fate as a species.
For the last 100 years, our world has been dominated by two entirely artificial constructs: the twin gods of communism and capitalism. One of them has already imploded; the other is now on the verge of collapse – a vast bubble of debt waiting to pop, desperately shoring itself up by plundering the Earth for more resources to produce more goods to sell to more people.
Global warming is merely a symptom of the underlying myopic mentality.
Smith argues that the only way out is for governments “to reorganize the world economy … to enforce limits on consumption and pollution, to fairly ration and distribute the goods and services we produce … and to conserve resources so that future generations of humans and other life forms also can live their lives to the full.”
That’s probably not possible. Nevertheless, he concludes:
The abolition of capitalist private property … [and of] global economic inequality is the greatest moral imperative of our time, and it is essential to winning worldwide popular support for the profound changes we must make to prevent the collapse of civilization.
And that, of course, is what Pope Francis is saying, too, in his encyclical Laudato Si. According to Paul Vallely, professor of public ethics at the University of Chester, the Pope has told his closest advisers that the encyclical is not really an environmental document since global warming is merely a symptom of the underlying myopic mentality and that “market economics has taught us that the world is a resource to be manipulated for our gain.”
Capitalism, the Pope says, has tricked us into confusing technological advance with true progress.
As Prof. Vallely reads the Pope, the only answer is “a profound change at all levels — political, economic, social, communal, familial and personal. This is not Marxist, for it lacks a materialist view of history. But it is revolutionary — and deeply disturbing to those with a vested interest in the status quo.”
It may already be too late to turn around a mass extinction that’s already unfolding. But it’s never too late to turn away from the system of “violence, exploitation and selfishness” that’s fueled by the insatiable appetites to which we’re in thrall and that’s causing so much suffering to our fellow animals.