Skip to Content

Capitalism versus nature

Capitalism is bound to come into conflict with nature. It cannot go green because it cannot change its spots.

It is by no means unknown for a society to collapse for ecological reasons, which is to say, because it did not treat its environment with care. By ‘collapse’ here is meant a drastic reduction in living standards and population, not that everybody who lives in a certain place dies. One example would be Easter Island in the Pacific, where the population had fallen to just a few thousand by the time it was discovered by Europeans in the eighteenth century. Deforestation had led to soil erosion and a consequent cut in crop yields, so that the isolated island could no longer support the numbers it had previously. Another would be the Mayan civilisation of central America, which declined gradually through the ninth century, leaving great ruined temples and cities behind. Though it is more arguable in this case, the probable reason was a combination of drought and deforestation leading to a big drop in agricultural production.

The collapse of present-day society, then, might involve far fewer people surviving and at a far lower standard of living, but it would not result in the end of humanity and certainly not of the planet on which we live. Yet how likely is it that there will be a societal collapse caused by climate change or other ecological factors?

In answering this question, we need to look not mainly at technical questions such as how energy is produced and how crops are grown, important though these of course are. Rather, we need to examine the economic basis of society and see the implications of the ways in which production as a whole is organised and of how priorities are considered.

For present-day society is capitalism, which means that it is based on ownership of the earth and the mines, factories, offices and so on by a small part of the population, leaving most people to rely on selling their labour power to an employer in return for a wage. Unless you’re one of the small minority of owners, you cannot live under capitalism without working for a wage, or living with someone who does so. Moreover, production takes place because of the need of the owners to make a profit, and they have no choice but to strive to maintain and increase their position of power and wealth. Since production is guided by the profit motive, it inevitably comes into conflict with the rest of nature.

As a small example, many high-street shops leave their doors open because it looks more inviting to potential customers, even though it increases their heating bills and the amount of energy consumed. An instance on a grander scale was the recent decision by Shell to withdraw from developing an offshore wind farm in the Thames estuary. The sizeable initial investment needed and rising costs — including the impact of raw material prices on the production of the turbines themselves — mean that oil is currently more profitable than wind. Shell noted that reviewing existing projects and focussing on efficiency were simply normal business practice, and sadly that’s just what they are: ecological concerns take very much a back seat.

Perhaps the worst single occasion of capitalism’s priorities coming into conflict with the health of the planet and its people is the explosion at the Union Carbide factory in Bhopal, India in 1984. This saw toxic gas released on a wide scale, with up to eight thousand people dying immediately and many more in the aftermath, to say nothing of those made seriously ill. In The Enemy of Nature, Joel Kovel looks at the background to this disaster. The factory was losing money, so Union Carbide took various steps to reduce costs. Among other things, valves were not repaired, alarms were not maintained, and in general safety installations were inadequate. It may not have been ‘an accident waiting to happen’ exactly, but pursuing profit increased immeasurably the chances of an explosion taking place.

Equally, deforestation in the Amazon is caused primarily not by subsistence cultivators but by commercial interests clearing land for pasture. Cattle ranches occupy vast areas of cleared land and result in huge profits for the owners. The devaluation of its currency, the real, made Brazilian beef more competitive on the world market and increased the profits of the ranchers. The loss of animal and plant species and of renewable timber resources are simply not part of the profit-and-loss calculations.

Moreover, writers on energy constantly refer to economic considerations in discussing whether their technological proposals are viable. James Lovelock, for instance, regards renewable energy as ‘inefficient and expensive’, hence his support for nuclear power. The Severn Barrage, meanwhile, is ‘an attractive business proposition’. In discussing ways to combat global warming, George Monbiot says he is looking for ‘the cheapest way to cut carbon emissions’.

It must be admitted that there are counter-arguments to the effect that capitalism and the profit motive can after all solve ecological problems. Companies which are more efficient in terms of energy use than their competitors will have lower costs and so are likely to have higher profits. Thus simple economic arithmetic will lead to more sensible uses of energy. And more generally, there is profit to be made in industries which are ecologically-oriented, from the manufacture of reusable energy sources to biofuel companies and even the humble bicycle repair shop. It might be argued, too, that international measures have been and can be taken to solve the worst environmental problems, from the banning of the pesticide DDT in the 1970s to the more recent Montreal Protocol that reduced the use of CFCs.

However, energy production and global warming are far different, being integrated as closely as they could be in capitalist production in general. Combatting them would not be a mere matter of disrupting the manufacture of aerosols or weedkillers, but of changing something which is part and parcel of the capitalist system and on which all companies depend. No company will take action which endangers their profits, just as no government will pass legislation that puts the capitalists whose interests they represent at a disadvantage. Capitalism is about competition and profit-making, and this is something which can never be done away with as long as it lasts.

Capitalism, then, is bound to come into conflict with nature. It cannot go green because it simply cannot change its spots. Jonathan Porritt once reflected in an interesting way on what a green society would be like. Among other things, it would involve production for use and work as an end in itself. He’s not a socialist, but in speculating on the meaning of greenness he did in effect realise that a society which lived as far as possible in harmony nature would be a socialist one, and that such a possibility cannot be realised under capitalism.