Capitalism and the Environment

Global warming and other environmental issues are always in the news. The Green Party in the UK claims to be neither right wing nor left wing as, they say, environmental issues transcend the traditional issues of class and the division between rich and poor that define conventional political discussions and divisions. This is poppycock. The environmental problems, and the potential environmental catastrophe, we face are creations of the capitalist system.

Global warming – the ‘population time bomb’ – nuclear energy – pollution – environmental issues are always in the news. There is even a party – the Green Party – that claims to put the environment at the centre of its concerns. The Green Party claims to be neither right wing nor left wing as, they say, environmental issues transcend the traditional issues of class and the division between rich and poor that define conventional political discussions and divisions.

This is poppycock. Environmental issues are vitally important to us inhabitants of the planet earth. But the environmental problems, and the potential environmental catastrophe, we face are creations of the capitalist system.

Anyone who has read a standard account of the problem of global warming, for instance, will realise that it is possible, apparently through carelessness, to wipe out human life on earth. Hold on, and take a deep breath! Don’t capitalists also live on the planet? Is it in their interests that human life, including not just their profits but even their very existence, should be extinguished?

Of course it’s not in their interests. But things that happen under capitalism don’t just reflect the interests of the individual capitalist. Events follow the logic of the system.

This is how Marxism explains environmental degradation, “As individual capitalists are engaged in production and exchange for the sake of immediate profit, only the nearest, most immediate results must first be taken into account…What cared the Spanish planters in Cuba, who burned down the forests on the slopes of the mountains and obtained from the ashes sufficient fertiliser for one generation of highly profitable coffee trees – what cared they that heavy tropical rainfall afterwards washed away the unprotected upper stratum of soil, leaving behind only bare rock! In relation to nature, as to society, the present mode of production is predominantly concerned only about the immediate, most tangible result, and then surprise is expressed that the more remote effects of actions directed to this end turn out to be quite different, are mostly quite opposite in character.” (Engels – Part played by labour in the transition from ape to man).

We know the Greek islands supported a much bigger population in antiquity than they do know. We know they were once covered in trees that prevented soil erosion. “We have seen how the goats prevented the regeneration of forests in Greece” (Engels op. cit.) The people who cut down the trees and introduced grazing animals were not stupid. They cut the trees down to make ships or just burned them to clear the land. They introduced goats because that was an easier way to make a living on their thin soils than ploughing the land. Short-term ‘rational’ decisions produced environmental disaster in the longer term.

We have seen that environmental degradation is not confined to capitalism. Marx explained why. In a letter to Engels discussing a book by Fraas, he observes, “The whole conclusion is that cultivation … when it progresses in a primitive way and is not consciously controlled (as a bourgeois of course he does not arrive at this) leaves deserts behind it – Persia, Mesopotamia, etc., Greece. Here again another socialist tendency!” (Marx letter to Engels 25th March 1868) The problem is that there is no planning on and no concern for environmental issues in an unplanned economy. The difference is that now capitalist anarchy produces environmental disaster on a much bigger scale than that of antiquity.

Environmental problems are usually presented as a clash between humans and nature. The greens argue that growth is bad because it always harms the environment, and the basic problem is to stop people from plundering the environment that they ultimately depend upon. Actually growth isn’t always ‘dirty’, it doesn’t always use up more resources. For instance over ten years Japan increased its output by 46%, but used 6% less energy to do so. (Boyd and Ardill – The greenhouse effect, New English Library, 1989)

The greens have actually missed a vital link in the chain of causation. The problem is not people versus the environment as if we are all isolated Robinson Crusoes. People interact with the environment by way of a specific mode of production, the way they organise themselves to get their daily bread. The capitalist mode of production is unplanned. Environmental degradation is quite simply off the balance sheet for the individual capitalist. Yet the sum total of individual ‘rational’ calculations can threaten human life on earth with environmental disaster.

“Man can be distinguished from animals by consciousness, by religion or anything else you like. They themselves begin to distinguish themselves as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence, a step is conditioned by their physical organisation.” (i.e. the mode of production – MB) “By producing their means of subsistence men are indirectly producing their material life.” (Marx and Engels, German Ideology, Collected Works Vol. 5 pp. 31-32) By progressively mastering nature in the labour process rather than passively adapting to it humans can alter nature and therefore harm the earth in doing so. But this is the only home we shall ever have! Economists talk about externalities. Externalities are things that don’t affect the balance sheet and therefore firms don’t worry about. The firm produces iron and steel. It gets paid for these outputs. It also produces smoke. It’s a nuisance, but the firm is not charged, so it doesn’t bother how much smoke it belches out. Who pays? We pay. We pay through lung and chest diseases. The National Health Service pays in treating us, so we pay twice. But the firm doesn’t pay.That is why the idea that the market treats the environment ‘efficiently’ is ridiculous. Firms minimise costs because that is the best way to make money. But they don’t minimise costs that others have to pay – externalities. Why bother? But these are real costs, just like pig iron and coking coal. They are just costs that have to be born by the rest of us.

So what if human life on earth expires in a welter of its own waste products? That would be quite an ‘externality’!

Global warming

Let’s get specific. Probably the biggest danger facing the world today is global warming This is better called climate change since, according to the predictions, not all parts of the globe will become universally warmer. There is a consensus among scientists that climate change is happening. This consensus is overwhelming.

It is true that if you google in “global warming” you may get a contrary impression. Prominent among the hits is, which rubbishes the notion of climate change. It is promoted by the Cooler Heads Coalition and updated by the Competitive Enterprises Institute. We know where they’re coming from! The carbon fuel industries are spending vast sums of money to muddy the water on this issue. They just buy scientists like you might buy a KitKat. And their influence extends to the White House, inhabited by a man who made his fortune from oil and who instructs his understrappers to ignore or falsify the scientific evidence.

Back to the facts. First the earth as a whole is getting warmer. Secondly, this is partly because of human action – we don’t know how much. OK, the earth has always gone through hotter and colder periods (ice ages), but more and more greenhouse gases (the most important of which is CO2 (carbon dioxide) are being pumped out into the upper atmosphere. These operate like a greenhouse or blanket in that they let warmth from the sun in, but then trap it in the atmosphere. So the earth gets hotter. The science is complex. As the critics say, if all the warmth escaped from the earth no life would be possible. But, particularly since the 1980s, the earth has been warming up at a faster rate than ever before. And emissions from us, in the form of burning fossil fuels that give off greenhouse gases, are to blame.

The US National Academy of Sciences has issued a report, ‘Climate change science: an analysis of some key questions’ which concludes, “the changes observed over the last several decades are most likely due to human activities.” The earth as a whole is now warmer than it has been for the past 400,000 years. It is an observable fact that glaciers and polar ice are melting. This has a knock-on effect in that the ‘dark water’ of the ice caps is melted and no longer traps heat. The permafrost on the tundra melts and no longer locks in CO2.

Other human activity makes the situation worse. At present capitalists are gnawing away at the Amazon rain forest, burning it away just like the Spanish planters in Cuba but on a much larger scale. The aim once again is short-term gain in the form of soya crops, logging or cattle ranching. Already some of the denuded land has become exhausted. The Amazon rain forest is home to an estimated half of the world’s species. And biodiversity is a good thing in itself. How many unknown medicinal plants have we already exterminated? On top of that the forest is a ‘sink’, as the trees hold CO2. As they are cut down or burned off that CO2 adds to climate change.

The statistics don’t seem so extreme – an overall increase in temperature of 0.6-7% in the twentieth century. But over half of this increase has happened in the past thirty years and is in part attributable to human activity. Already it has led to droughts, extinctions of species and rising sea levels leading to localised flooding. It’s going to get worse.


“Imagine what people would say if a band of hunters strung a mile of net between immense all-terrain vehicles and dragged it at speed across the plains of Africa. This fantastical assemblage, like something from a Mad Max movie, would scoop up everything in its way: predators, such as lions and cheetahs, lumbering endangered herbivores, such as rhinos and elephants, herds of impala and wildebeest, family groups of warthog and wild dog. Pregnant females would be swept up and carried along, with only the smallest juveniles able to wriggle through the mesh….There are no markets for about a third of the animals they have caught because they don’t taste too good, or because they are simply too small or too squashed. The pile of corpses is dumped on the plain to be consumed by carrion. This efficient but highly unselective way of killing animals is known as trawling.” (Charles Clover – The end of the line: how overfishing is changing the world and what we eat, Ebury Press, 2005).

It shouldn’t be allowed, but it’s happening. When the Grand Banks fishery off Newfoundland was discovered it was said (with just a little exaggeration) that you could walk across the water on the backs of the fish without getting your feet wet. Now the Grand Banks are closed and Atlantic cod is an endangered species. It’s happened to the blue marlin. It’s happening to the bluefish tuna. And dragnets destroy the whole food chain at the bottom of the sea. So the Grand Banks, closed in 1992, have never recovered as a fishery. Overfishing is a prime example of how capitalist greed confronts us with environmental disaster.

Clover is a journalist for the Daily Telegraph, so don’t expect a socialist analysis. But he’s spot on when he tells how European countries subsidise the building of trawlers to make the overfishing worse; how the fishing industry begs for handouts because of the crisis in fish stocks which is of its own making; and how, having raped our own fisheries these trawlers sail to the coast of Africa to repeat the whole sorry business of overfishing. In the process they destroy the livelihood of local fishermen who have fished sustainably off their coasts for generations.

Where do we go from here?

Does the green analysis and programme help us to deal with environmental issues? Though the greens don’t have a unified body of ideas, (some would regard themselves as socialists) two common threads in their propaganda come up over and over:

"There are too many people on the planet." 

"There are not enough resources."

These ideas come from a reactionary economist called Thomas Malthus who wrote at the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. He wrote of nature providing us a feast, which was spoiled when too many people turned up to ruin the party. Malthus thought that Britain was overpopulated. At the time he was writing there were probably less than ten million people living in this country. Half of those were engaged in agriculture and related activities. Now the island supports sixty million and less than 5% are needed to grow our food. OK, we don’t actually grow all our own food. But we export manufactured goods and, increasingly, financial and other services to pay for food, and other countries do the reverse as part of an international division of labour. The basic variable Malthus was missing out was productivity. That means the earth can support a growing population of humans over time. Malthus’ ideas were widely discredited with the steady improvement in working class living standards in the second half of the nineteenth century (which his theory suggested was impossible). Productivity rose and, through class struggle, the working class gained some benefit form the increased wealth they were producing.

Malthus’ basic theory on population still gets wheeled out again by doomsayers every so often.
Note what else Malthus was doing. As a representative of the landlord class, he was deliberately ignoring the fact that society is divided into classes and some people get a much bigger share of resources than others. He was blaming the poor for their poverty.

But isn’t it true that resources are finite? Of course it is. But we don’t know what they are. Take the case of oil. It’s not even clear what the reserves owned by the big oil companies are. BP ‘wrote down’ a large chunk of its reserves a while back. In other words it declared that oil, which people thought had been in the ground for the last 300 million years, did not really exist! Did this mean the world’s potential supply of crude had really shrunk? BP shareholders regarded the write down as just financial shenanigans. Certainly share prices were hit. But assessing global resources, whether owned or just lying in the ground waiting to be tapped, is much harder than adding up oil companies’ guesses at reserves. Nobody can agree a figure as to what the world’s resources are.

Here’s the reason. If the price of oil doubles to $77 a barrel (which it is at the time of writing), a whole lot of oil reserves suddenly become economically viable – profitable – to exploit. At half the price (oil was $35 a barrel not so long ago) they are not reserves at all. That’s capitalism for you! For decades scientists have known how to extract oil from bituminous shale. But under capitalism it’s not economic to extract it.

Even if we accept the argument that we are up against limited resources now, what should be our response? Malthus, as an apologist for the rich, cleverly eliminated the inequalities in our society from his analysis. Surely the first thing we should do is to eliminate the luxury spending of the rich, which gobbles up a disproportionate amount of earth’s resources? The second thing we should do is run a worldwide inventory to establish exactly how much we have of all these resources.

Then we should look into producing and adopting alternatives. We need to sit down and think very hard about the alternatives to burning fossil fuels as an energy source. We can’t do this under capitalism, partly because of the vested interests, such as the hydrocarbon capitalist in the White House, that dominate decision-making in most capitalist states. Dominant sections of the capitalist class are actually CO2-burning junkies. The other problem is that wind and wave power and other sustainable energy sources are not taken seriously by capitalists who can’t find a way of making money out of them. Therefore not enough research has been done on their viability. Finally, if absolutely necessary, we should implement a fair system of rationing until the alternatives come on stream.

How can we do this under capitalism? We can’t. The price mechanism praised by economists is essentially reactive. When the price of petrol goes up, people will buy more fuel-efficient cars. But the fact that oil prices have gone up is actually a signal that capitalism has been squandering the earth’s resources. Our action plan on the environment is really a plan for world socialism.

Won’t world capitalism do something about the mess it has created in the meantime? Even the imperialists under siege in Mafeking introduced rationing (communism in consumption) for the duration in order to survive.

They might. But the example of overfishing shows the problems. The capitalist state is captive to capitalist vested interests: the shipbuilding industry and the fishing industry cry out for subsidies. Competition, which involves the weakest going to the wall, is fine in the textbooks, but it’s not for the likes of them. Capitalist countries fight each other more viciously as resources become more difficult to grab. African countries have little muscle against the European Union’s trawling fleet.

Outside the flat-earthers in the White House, there is a consensus that global warming is a big problem – actually the biggest environmental problem the world faces by far. The capitalist powers met at Kyoto and came to an agreement. The USA opted out. But America, with less than 5% of the world’s population, is responsible for a quarter of all carbon emissions. So that makes the Accord pretty much meaningless. But a lot of those countries that agreed to the Kyoto targets to cut the increase in emissions (not cut emissions) have failed to meet them. It is actually quite difficult for a capitalist state to control the activities of tens of thousands of capitalist firms who are responsible for giving off CO2. And everybody agrees that Kyoto will not solve the problem. It is usually described as a ‘first step’, and that first step has never really been taken.

So world socialism really is the only way we can protect the environment, in other words our home, the planet earth.

See also:

Join us

If you want more information about joining the IMT, fill in this form. We will get back to you as soon as possible.