On Extinction by extraction.
When the period known as the Industrial Revolution, commenced in England during the 18th century, extraction, production and consumption of raw material and goods accelerated rapidly. Huge factories powered by steam (later by electricity) soon became the template for all countries to adopt and adapt. Mass production techniques became the foundations upon which modern societies, with their huge industrial workforces and mass consumption habits were erected. Yet those early dark satanic mills of Britain polluting and disfiguring the rural landscapes of Lancashire, Yorkshire and the Midlands, gave only a hint of what was to come.
For a brief period, the diseased rivers and scarred countrysides of rapidly industrialising England were isolated cases in a world still only slightly different than it had been for millennia. Elsewhere on the planet, air, seas, rivers and land remained as they had for many centuries. Pre-industrial, hand tools, wind, water and animal power sources, did limited damage to air, sea and land. They left little non-biodegradable residue in their wake. Yet within the space two generations industrial mass-production was replicated on many continents along with smoke, pollutants and rubbish dumps.
Even during my grandparents time, (the first generation of industrial mill-workers) great swathes of the planet still remained unpolluted, undeveloped and largely unaffected by industry and commerce. My parents (the second generation of industrial workers) directly experienced mass unemployment, poverty and between 1939 and 1945, an industrialised and mechanised war. Those two previous generations of ours also witnessed the origin and development of many marvels of modern technology.
Perhaps the most exhilarating and the most polluting developments were in the mass production of air, sea and land transportation. It was the post-Second-World-War generation (my generation) which enthusiastically seized the benefits of private motor vehicles, recreational ocean liners and inter-continental aircraft, with scant regard for the actual and potential harm associated with them.
For every so-called improvement to life on the planet was gained by the application of fossil fuels to capitalist industrialized production. Although touted as ‘progress’ by those who stood to make profits and accumulate wealth, the last 60 years of progress have actually seriously undermined the very foundations of all life on earth. In only three generations, capitalism has super-enriched an elite minority, yet dispossessed ancient peoples, impoverished millions, disfigured the global environment and tragically eliminated species essential to our air quality and food chain.
My own generations elites, basing themselves on the war-promoted technological foundation of the previous generation, has done more damage to planetary balance and humanities future than all the previous generations before it. Motor-vehicles, fridges, tv’s, washing machines (by the multi-millions) aircraft, factory fishing, ocean liners, (by the many thousands) and more, all whirling around continuously spewing out contaminants 24-7, adding more to the already massive volumes of chemicals and pollutants created during the manufacture of these ‘goods’.
If we make an analogy between the game of Jenga and what is happening to the global eco-system this may help understand the problem and expose the difficulties of a solution. [Jenga is square tower built of many closely fitting wooden blocks] Once the Jenga tower has been built of these blocks it is quite stable. The game commences when the first piece is pushed and pulled out and placed on top of the tower. Nothing happens.
Even when the second, third, fourth and fifth pieces are removed and placed at the top, the tower remains stable. This removal and repositioning parts of the basic whole does not yet add up to a serious problem. However, at some advanced stage of the game a piece will be removed that will trigger the accumulated instability from earlier extractions – and the whole block will collapse.
If we consider the planet as representing a huge block of interconnected (and evolved) pieces from which humanity extracts what it needs, the analogy roughly holds. However, no one has continually destroyed a planets eco-system before so there is no previous example of life on a planet actually collapsing. Also, the planet is such a gigantic edifice that taking bits away and altering them can go on for a very long time. Yet, as we are witnessing from animal extinctions and climate change, continual extractions that exceed the natural cycle of reproduction and replacement, create serious climate and ecological instability.
The most enthusiastic players of this planetary game of continuous extraction are the capitalist and pro-capitalist elites. The profit motive harnessed to technology has led to the accelerated removal of vast swathes of the planets resources. Not just the odd field, woodland or part of a forest, as the medieval generations managed to destroy, but by using mechanised and motorised tools of extraction entire forest and ocean regions are being daily stripped out. And it is here we need to make use of the Jenga analogy as it applies to the real world.
For, there are three classes of people who are currently actively committed to extracting/destroying the essential elements which are leading toward detrimental climate change and ecological collapse. First, those whose capital is invested in extracting raw materials, along with those whose capital is used to have those materials made into commodities and sold (the capitalist classes). These two groups have no desire to stop the very process which creates their wealth.
Second, those who organise commerce, transport and governance and live off a part of the proceeds of production for profit (the upper and middle-classes). They too have no incentive to stop the process of extraction, production and consumption for the payments and percentages which currently circulate their way via taxes, profits and ‘interest’ would then cease.
Third, the vast majority, who are trained and vicariously employed by the two elite classes to do the actual extraction and commodification of planetary material (the working classes). This group cannot cease to destroy the elements of planetary stability and diversity at the moment, because without being paid a wage or salary by the elites to do these elite-determined tasks, they would starve and lose their homes. In one way or another, (preference or existential survival) almost everybody is locked into the current economic system which is doing primarily what it has been designed to do – return a profit to the owners of capital.
So when most people suggest doing something about preventing the eventual collapse of our planetary eco-sustenance, all they can realistically consider is making tiny (inconsequential) adjustments. To go back to the Jenga analogy. It would seem that large sections of the planetary block we inherited (the earths socio-eco-system) will have to catastrophically collapse before enough people conclude that a different ‘game‘ (a new form of social production and consumption) is absolutely necessary.
Since the existing extensive, floods, wild-fires, droughts, hurricanes, heat waves etc., increasing every year, are not yet enough, it seems some much larger collapse will be necessary to shake people out of their current commitment to over-production and over-consumption and a critical-mass of them start to radically question the existing capitalist mode of production.
Meanwhile, those who are currently concerned should at the very least accept that we are all part of the problem – albeit disproportionately – and recognise that the solution is not just recycling our own rubbish, or reducing our own plastic use but a radical and revolutionary transformation of the motive for (and control of) production and consumption. Also that a future of sustainable production – for communally decided need – not privately decided greed – needs to be envisioned and championed in advance of any far-reaching catastrophe – and if not too late – implemented.
R. Ratcliffe (February 2020)
[For those not familiar with the Jenga game, examples can be found on the Internet. Eg: m.youtube.com/watch?v=Rg_KYuE99E ]
[For a detailed consideration of the many consequences of climate change and ecological damage see; ‘The Uninhabitable Earth’ by David, Wallace-Wells. Pub Penguin]