Ecology, Capitalism and The State
Modern civilisation as we know it faces a number of major threats. Escalating economic inequality and an increasingly atomised society could lead to large-scale social breakdown. The depletion of natural resources is having a profound effect on the environment. As climate change continues to worsen, the ecosystems upon which human and non-human life depend are subjected to intolerable conditions. States across the globe have long since acquired the means by which to exterminate the species several times over, and given the continued plundering of natural resources in the pursuit of profit, the possibility of a nuclear war over what’s left doesn’t seem too unlikely.
These crises are often portrayed in the mass media as though they are separate from one another. They have different causes and thus, they can be dealt with in isolation. However, this approach is proving itself to be inadequate, given that these crises are continuing to deteriorate, and accumulating evidence suggests that, far from being separate, these crises are linked to one another, culminating in a ‘perfect storm’.
A study published in a journal called ‘Ecological Economics’ recently suggested that human civilisation is headed for an irreversible collapse as a result of unsustainable resource exploitation and the increasing stratification of society between the rich and the poor. Equally alarming is a more recent study, which argued that a sixth mass extinction event is likely to occur due to human activities. Furthermore,a widespread scientific consensus exists in support of the position that global climate change has been caused by human activities, as a result of fossil fuel-burning processes that release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. This position has endorsements from almost 200 scientific organisations worldwide.
Finite fossil fuels are heavily relied upon as a source of energy across the globe, with coal, oil and natural gas accounting for 86.9% of world primary energy consumption in 2012, whereas hydroelectricity, renewables and nuclear energy only accounted for 13.1%. Even methods of energy production that appear to be more ecologically sustainable often suffer from the same drawbacks, requiring the intensive use of fossil fuels in different parts of the production process.
Climate change and energy scarcity also have a direct impact on food production. Climate change creates harsh conditions for organisms to survive, resulting in more crop failures due to extreme weather, while current methods of agricultural production are heavily reliant on fossil fuels for fertilisers, pesticides, and the maintenance of global supply chains. Conventional perspectives on industrial carbon emissions in general often fail to account for emissions that occur during distributive stages of production.
A possible way of dealing with this would be to establish decentralised, participatory forms of economic organisation, putting resource allocation under the democratic control of local communities. However, under the existing political and economic system, the vast majority of the population lack access to the world’s productive resources, which are instead held in the hands of a minority of statesmen and capitalists.
The depletion of finite resources such as fossil fuels, and the consequent energy and food scarcity, might owe itself to the fact that capitalism is predicated on the idea that economic growth can and should continue indefinitely. This leads to a dynamic of production for the sake of production, which, in a world of finite resources, simply cannot be sustained.
Another component of the problem is international terrorism. Because we are largely dependent on finite fossil fuels, the dominant political and economic institutions in our society have become accustomed to supporting terrorist groups (or engaging in terrorism directly). This is because doing so helps to destabilise regions, making it easier for elites to access natural resources, consequently advancing their own strategic and economic interests.
Recent years have also seen a number of state attacks on civil liberties, especially from the US government. The criminalisation of whistleblowers such as Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning, the signing of the National Defence Authorisation Act in 2012, and the refusal to shut down Guantanamo Bay are all reflections of a state which has become increasingly authoritarian and militaristic in its attempts to protect elites from the domestic population and prevent dissident movements from gaining traction. This tendency for greater militarisation and the maintenance of a system of US global dominance requires further exploitation of natural resources.
What seems to be the case is that far from being an aberration from an optimised global system that can be solved with minor or even major policy changes, this chain of crises seems to be occurring as a result of business as usual – so long as our political and economic system remains intact, they will continue, because it is in the interests of prevailing institutions to engage in the processes driving these crises. To quote Murray Bookchin,
This is an anti-ecological society. It is an anti-ecological society because it forces the great majority of people to function in an anti-ecological way. The very morphology of life today, its very structure, its very architecture, pits human against human, isolates human from human, and creates a law of survival in which ‘grow or die, I’m all right Jack, to hell with you’,becomes the way in which we orchestrate our everyday lives.
To address these crises sufficiently requires meeting a certain set of conditions. Simply ‘using fossil fuels less’ doesn’t solve the problem. Any ‘solution’ that retains the idea that the earth can be treated like an inexhaustible mine merely passes the burden on to future generations. If we’re looking for a lasting solution, we need to consider what an ecologically sustainable economic system might look like, and move beyond the idea that infinite growth is a possibility. This will require something other than the capitalist system. To quote Murray Bookchin again,
Capitalism can no more be ‘persuaded’ to limit growth than a human being can be ‘persuaded’ to stop breathing. Attempts to ‘green’ capitalism, to make it ‘ecological’, are doomed by the very nature of the system as a system of endless growth.
With historical evidence in mind, the idea of a state-planned economy also seems out of the question. States have an inherent tendency to represent their own interests, and thus it is unsurprising that attempts to ‘replace’ capitalism with a system of central planning have failed in the past- central planning is carried out by and for central planners, merely reproducing the same hierarchies under a different name. It thus seems crucial that an anti-capitalist movement ought to take an anti-statist form, if it is the case that the state is inseparable from some form of class society.
To overcome this current ecological crisis, the Earth’s productive resources need to be placed in the custody of the community, and neither the capitalist system nor the state are fit to carry out this task. It can only be done through the free self-organisation of the masses, and the creation of non-hierarchical workplace and community federations.
Visions of a liberated, egalitarian society can’t be seen as being hundreds of years away in the distant future, because at this rate we don’t know if we’ll be around by then. The alternative needs to be created here and now, through building the new society in the shell of the old. If not now,we can only wonder if anybody will be left to contemplate the ruins in a hundred years time. Enough of illusions – the Earth’s productive resources will not be given to us from above through the gentle kindness of well-intentioned elites. If we are to survive, they must be seized from below!
1. Safa Motesharrei, Jorge Rivas, Eugenia Kalnay; Human and Nature Dynamics (HANDY): Modeling Inequality and Use of Resources inthe Collapse or Sustainability of Societies.
2. S. L. Pimm, C. N. Jenkins,R. Abell, T. M. Brooks, J. L. Gittleman, L. N. Joppa, P. H. Raven, C. M.Roberts, J. O. Sexton; The biodiversity of species and their rates of extinction,distribution, and protection.
3. State of California – Governer’s Office of Planning and Research; Scientific organisations that hold the position that climate change has been caused by human action.
4. BP – Statistical Review of World Energy, June 2013.
5. University of Leeds – “Crop failures set to increase under climate change.” ScienceDaily.
6. Noam Chomsky: Obama’s Attack On Civil Liberties Has Gone Way Beyond Imagination; interview with Mike Stivers
7. Murray Bookchin: Economics and the Moral Order; Schumacher Centre, New York, 1976.
8. Murray Bookchin: Remaking Society – Pathways To A Green Future.