What Every Environmentalist Needs to Know About Capitalism

By Bryan Walker 22/12/2011

A couple of months ago when the publishers sent me a review copy I’d requested of The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth they enclosed another shorter book in case I might like to review it as well. I thought from the title it was possibly too similar to The Ecological Rift to warrant a further review. And it is similar in its broad thesis. But it’s also short and punchy, and encouraged by Naomi Klein’s recommendation of it as ’relentlessly persuasive’ and ’indispensable’ I read it through and decided to give it mention on its own account. The title is What Every Environmentalist Needs to Know about Capitalism. It’s written by Fred Magdoff, professor emeritus of plant and soil science at the University of Vermont, and John Bellamy Foster, one of the authors of The Ecological Rift.

Why aren’t we responding rationally to the enormous threat of climate change and other major environmental warnings? Why do we persist in behaviours which are clearly dangerous to the human future and already impinging negatively on the welfare of some populations? Why does reckless disregard mark so much of our economic activity? Magdoff and Foster reply that capitalism, ’so much part of our lives that it is invisible, like the air we breathe’, is unable to pursue any course other than relentless growth. Nor in its drive for profit and accumulation is it able to take into account the human and environmental cost of its exploitation of natural resources. The phenomenon of ’cheap’ coal is one example offered. ’There is nothing in the nature of the current system … that will allow it to pull back before it is too late.’ They hold out scant hope for the green capitalism that some see developing.

My heart sinks when I read such analyses. Not that I want to quarrel with the perception that the capitalist economy is unsustainable ecologically, slanted heavily in favour of the rich and simply unjust in what it provides for the poor. It’s just that waiting until it is replaced by something else is not feasible in the face of the urgent problems confronting us. It was therefore with some relief that I discovered in the final chapter that the authors recommend struggling here and now, within the existing system, to address urgent environmental problems, while at the same time creating an expectation for bigger changes to follow.

The steps they suggest worth engaging with are not unfamiliar to many of us and are demanding to champion in the current economic setting. They include: the institution of a carbon tax of the kind espoused by James Hansen, with the proceeds returned to the population on an equal per capita basis; blocking the building of new coal plants (without carbon capture and storage, which is not currently feasible) and closing old ones; blocking any development of tar sands or oil/gas shale production; energy efficiency combined with reducing energy use; renewable sources for all energy production; more sustainable agriculture; and much else. There’s plenty to be getting on with. The authors speak of it as working in the interstices of the current system ’towards a new social metabolism rooted in egalitarianism, community, and a sustainable relation to the earth’. They call it the ecological revolution and it will depend on forces from the bottom of society.

There’s much thoughtful detail along the way to buttress the central argument of the writers. The gross disparities in income and wealth, of which the book reminds us, are in themselves enough to expose the human failures of capitalism. In the US the richest 400 individuals in 2007 had a net worth equal to that of the bottom 150 million people. One fascinating sidelight for me was the reference to Plato, some 2400 years ago, writing in very specific terms of the erosion of soil from hills around Athens as a result of deforestation. There’s not much doubt about what he would have made of climate change.

Socialism and capitalism are abstract terms. They’re worth examining and debating. But wherever one falls on the political spectrum it’s hard to argue with the blunt concrete conclusion of the book that the important questions are: ’What about the people?’ and ’What about the local, regional and global ecosystems on which we all depend?’ — rather than ’How much money can I make?’

As my own country New Zealand launches into a frenetic new round of coal, gas and oil exploration, in flat contradiction of all the scientific warnings, I finished the book wondering whether those first two questions have any chance of being listened to by the foolish politicians who are so busy answering the third in glowing terms.

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