D.4 What is the relationship between capitalism and the ecological crisis?

Environmental damage has reached alarming proportions. Almost daily there are new upwardly revised estimates of the severity of global warming, ozone destruction, topsoil loss, oxygen depletion from the clearing of rain forests, acid rain, toxic wastes and pesticide residues in food and water, the accelerating extinction rate of natural species, etc., etc. Some scientists now believe that there may be as little as 35 years to act before vital ecosystems are irreparably damaged and massive human die-offs begin [Donella M. Meadows, Dennis L. Meadows, and Jorgen Randers, Beyond the Limits: Confronting Global Collapse, Envisioning a Sustainable Future, Chelsea Green Publishing Company, 1992]. Or, as Kirkpatrick Sale puts it, "the planet is on the road to, perhaps on the verge of, global ecocide" ["Bioregionalism -- A Sense of Place," The Nation 12: 336-339].

Many anarchists see the ecological crisis as rooted in the psychology of domination, which emerged with the rise of patriarchy, slavery, and the first primitive states during the Late Neolithic. Murray Bookchin, one of the pioneers of eco-anarchism (see section E), points out that "[t]he hierarchies, classes, propertied forms, and statist institutions that emerged with social domination were carried over conceptually into humanity's relationship with nature. Nature too became increasingly regarded as a mere resource, an object, a raw material to be exploited as ruthlessly as slaves on a latifundium." [Toward an Ecological Society p. 41]. In his view, without uprooting the psychology of domination, all attempts to stave off ecological catastrophe are likely to be mere palliatives and so doomed to failure.

Bookchin argues that "the conflict between humanity and nature is an extension of the conflict between human and human. Unless the ecology movement encompasses the problem of domination in all its aspects, it will contribute nothing toward eliminating the root causes of the ecological crisis of our time. If the ecology movement stops at mere reformism in pollution and conservation control - at mere 'environmentalism' - without dealing radically with the need for an expanded concept of revolution, it will merely serve as a safety value for the existing system of natural and human exploitation." [Ibid., p. 43]

Since capitalism is the vehicle through which the psychology of domination finds its most ecologically destructive outlet, most eco-anarchists give the highest priority to dismantling capitalism. "Literally, the system in its endless devouring of nature will reduce the entire biosphere to the fragile simplicity of our desert and arctic biomes. We will be reversing the process of organic evolution which has differentiated flora and fauna into increasingly complex forms and relationships, thereby creating a simpler and less stable world of life. The consequences of this appalling regression are predictable enough in the long run -- the biosphere will become so fragile that it will eventually collapse from the standpoint human survival needs and remove the organic preconditions for human life. That this will eventuate from a society based on production for the sake of production is . . .merely a matter of time, although when it will occur is impossible to predict." [Ibid., p. 68]

It's important to stress that capitalism must be eliminated because it cannot reform itself so as to become "environment friendly," contrary to the claims of so-called "green" capitalists. This is because "[c]apitalism not only validates precapitalist notions of the domination of nature, . . . it turns the plunder of nature into society's law of life. To quibble with this kind of system about its values, to try to frighten it with visions about the consequences of growth is to quarrel with its very metabolism. One might more easily persuade a green plant to desist from photosynthesis than to ask the bourgeois economy to desist from capital accumulation." [Ibid., p. 66]

Thus capitalism causes ecological destruction because it is based upon domination (of human over human and so humanity over nature) and continual, endless growth (for without growth, capitalism would die).

D.4.1 Why must capitalist firms "grow or die?"

Industrial production has increased fifty fold since 1950. Obviously such expansion in a finite environment cannot go on indefinitely without disastrous consequences. Yet, as the quotation above suggests, it is impossible in principle for capitalism to kick its addiction to growth. It is important to understand why.

Capitalism is based on production for profit. In order to stay profitable, a firm must be able to produce goods and services cheaply enough to compete with other firms in the same industry. If one firm increases its productivity (as all firms must try to do), it will be able to produce more cheaply, thus undercutting its competition and capturing more market share, until eventually it forces less profitable firms into bankruptcy. Moreover, as companies with higher productivity/profitability expand, they often realise economies of scale (e.g. getting bulk rates on larger quantities of raw materials), thus giving them even more of a competitive advantage over less productive/profitable enterprises. Hence, constantly increasing productivity is essential for survival.

There are two ways to increase productivity, either by increasing the exploitation of workers (e.g. longer hours and/or more intense work for the same amount of pay) or by introducing new technologies that reduce the amount of labour necessary to produce the same product or service. Due to the struggle of workers to prevent increases in the level of their exploitation, new technologies are the main way that productivity is increased under capitalism (though of course capitalists are always looking for ways to increase the exploitation of workers on a given technology by other means as well).

But new technologies are expensive, which means that in order to pay for continuous upgrades, a firm must continually sell more of what it produces, and so must keep expanding its capital (machinery, floor space, workers, etc.). Indeed, to stay in the same place under capitalism is to tempt crisis - thus a firm must always strive for more profits and thus must always expand and invest. In other words, in order to survive, a firm must constantly expand and upgrade its capital and production levels so it can sell enough to keep expanding and upgrading its capital -- i.e. "grow or die," or "production for the sake of production."

Thus it is impossible in principle for capitalism to solve the ecological crisis, because "grow or die" is inherent in its nature:

"To speak of 'limits to growth' under a capitalistic market economy is as meaningless as to speak of limits of warfare under a warrior society. The moral pieties, that are voiced today by many well-meaning environmentalists, are as naive as the moral pieties of multinationals are manipulative. 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." [Murray Bookchin, Remaking Society, pp. 93-94]

As long as capitalism exists, it will necessarily continue its "endless devouring of nature," until it removes the "organic preconditions for human life." For this reason there can be no compromise with capitalism: We must destroy it before it destroys us. And time is running out.

Capitalists, of course, do not accept this conclusion. Most simply ignore the evidence or view the situation through rose-coloured spectacles, maintaining that ecological problems are not as serious as they seem or that science will find a way to solve them before it's too late. Right libertarians tend to take this approach, but they also argue that a genuinely free market capitalism would provide solutions to the ecological crisis. In section E we will show why these arguments are unsound and why libertarian socialism is our best hope for preventing ecological catastrophe.