CAPITAL AND ECOLOGICAL DESTRUCTION.
As a result of its profit-driven production processes, the capitalist system produces masses of commodities, which it markets and sells in order to realise the surplus labour embodied in them. Wealth creation, for the capitalist class relies predominantly upon the continuous production of commodities, in which surplus value is embodied. It does not take a great deal of knowledge of the mass market to note that the vast majority of these commodities are produced irrespective of their long-term usefulness or even their individual durability.
Commodities and services under the capitalist system are merely the convenient ‘vehicles’ used to obtain the embodied surplus value supplied by working people and which when sold deliver profit for the owners of capital. Since capitalist profit comes from paying working people, less than the value they create in production, all the products they create cannot be purchased by them and this leads, sooner or later, to a crisis of overproduction.
In other words, there comes a point where there are far more goods and services created, than can be sold at a profit and so an economic downturn and decline, followed by a financial crisis, occurs. This in turn, through unemployment, leads to the intentional impoverishment of millions of people, their lives sacrificed to allow time for the system to slump, re-structure and then re-start. There have been many such crises, in the short history of the capitalist system and we are presently situated in another – which has still to run its full course.
But there is also another crisis of capitalist inspired overproduction which leads to the parallel impoverishment of the planetary resources. This ecological form of crisis, as with the inevitable economic and financial ones, was anticipated in the extensive economic studies of the revolutionary-humanist Karl Marx. Under the capitalist form of production he noted that;
“For the first time, nature becomes purely an object for humankind, purely a matter of utility…the theoretical discovery of its autonomous laws appears as a ruse so as to subjugate it…whether as an object of consumption or as a means of production.” (Marx. Grundrisse. Page 410. Penguin 1973)
The frenetic creation of commodities and services, under capitalist mode of production, therefore, creates an ecological crisis. Capitalism not only generates surplus products, but products with built in obsolecence and also by-products of the production process. In the vast majority of cases, all these are sooner or later, treated merely as waste. In the majority of cases these ‘waste’ products are not profitable and the safe disposal of them would require a deduction from the profits, so they are simply dumped at the nearest and/or least costly place.
In the pursuit of ever more profits, the productivity of industry increases and the scale of global production develops. This leads to the ruthless extraction and exhaustion of raw materials provided by nature and to the negligent dumping of waste. Many of these unwanted waste products of industry and agriculture are highly toxic. Some, in the form of gases, are allowed to disperse into the air, and as we know, the quality of the air we breathe is vitally important to our health.
For example; the average human being could probably last about seven weeks without food and perhaps seven days without water but could not last seven minutes without air. In fact most adults inhale about 30 pounds weight of air per day or approximately 5 tons of air per year. Yet it is reliably estimated that the existing process of production and transport now mixes into the air 15 million tons of soot and dust per year.
In addition, two hundred hazardous chemicals are also regularly vented by industry into the atmosphere. Many of these chemical pollutants are cancer causing carcinogens, which permeate the air and wait to be sucked into our lungs with each breath. According to the World Almanac of 2011, over 3 billion lb. of toxic chemicals are allowed to escape into the air each year in America. America is only one of many advanced industrialised countries of the world which daily add their respective contributions to this huge amount. This airborne pollution is breathed in by the young, old, sick and the well.
Those particles which fail to reach our lungs, fall onto land or sea or remain suspended until they are washed out by rain. Chlorine monoxide levels in the air are now calculated to be 100 times the previous normal level. This together with the Chlorofluorocarbons (CFC’s) being released are reliably considered to be causing the holes in the vital layer of ozone which protects the planet’s inhabitants from dangerous levels of stellar radiation. Some of the 200 chemicals mentioned above are undoubtedly in the form of sulphur dioxides and trioxides which can produce sulphuric acid and nitric acid. This is the noxious substance which falls to the ground as acid rain. Carbon Dioxide emissions alone in 2008 were in the region of 30 billion metric tons.
Water is another essential of life which is constantly and increasingly being polluted as a by-product of the capitalist system of production. It is not just the chemical rain which finishes up in rivers and the sea. Many of the chemicals used in food production (pesticides herbicides and fertilisers) are drained from agricultural land by rain, and finish up in the rivers, groundwater, and the sea. There they join the billions of tons of crude oil which are regularly dumped into the sea and the billions of tons of solid waste from the kitchens and toilets of the worlds seaside towns and cities. The United States of America alone disposes of over 160 million tons of solid waste per day and much of it finishes up in the sea.
These US totals may be higher than any other capitalist country, but you can rest assured there will be a similar amount, or greater, from the combined capitalist countries of Europe. Millions of people rely upon underground water supplies such as wells and springs but the ground water which supplies these wells is more and more polluted by toxic chemicals, as pesticides, fertilisers, heavy metal, solvents, and petrochemical compounds seep into the ground water system. In America 235 million lbs of toxic chemicals per year are dumped underground and 136 million lbs per year are drained into surface waters. The main perpetrators of this pollution are the chemical industry, primary metal production industries, paper making mills and plastics factories.
The UK disposes of over 400 million tons of waste products each year on land. The U.S.A., has a total of 1,340 hazardous waste sites within its boundaries and stores approximately 275 million lbs of toxic chemicals on land sites. Landfill waste sites have been used not only to dump solid household waste – bad enough you may think – but also toxic chemicals, petroleum products, and solvents. Dangerous hospital and contaminated medical products have joined the millions of tons of domestic garbage dumped annually. This has been done both officially and unofficially by industry and government departments.
Land fill dumping, because it is cheapest in the short term, is also the preferred method for storing the hundreds upon hundreds of tons of nuclear waste products, some of which will take thousands of years to decay to a point at which they are no longer dangerous. Despite the reassurances of the nuclear industry, it is clear that the containers used for this nuclear waste will not last that amount of time. The drums used may be somewhat more robust than the cheap steel ones used for chemicals, but we know that storage which would be guaranteed safe for a thousand years would be too costly for an industry based upon profitability. The management and scientists of the nuclear industry know very well they won’t be there when the final cost is presented to the future generations. They will have taken their profits and high salaries for their lifetimes and cynically, not to mention selfishly, left the problem for others, including their own children and grandchildren.
For over two hundred years this capitalistic process of dumping ‘waste’ products into the air, the sea, the land and the rivers has continued unabated and despite the size of the planet, the effects are beginning to tell. The pressure placed on industry by the owners of capital and commerce to take shortcuts in production processes to maximise profits, is now causing lasting biological and ecological damage and shows no sign of abating.
The combined effects of the many sources of pollution are bringing about climate change and alterations in weather patterns. These in turn are having devastating effects upon the worlds human and non-human population. Global warming, itself a result of the effects of pollutant ‘greenhouse’ gasses released by capitalist dominated industry, does not simply make everywhere warmer, but dislocates the patterns of weather and raises sea levels. This in turn upsets the delicate balance of seasonal weather patterns which are essential for food production. Rising rivers, hurricanes and alternative droughts and heavy rainfall occurring at times when they are not normal, or in places where they do not normally occur, cause damage to villages, towns and cities by floods or fires. They destroy crops, livestock and wild life. Many low-lying human communities throughout the world are in real danger of repeated floods making their lives miserable and dangerous. There are currently a further 1,667 species endangered or threatened ranging from mammals through birds and reptiles, to fish, insects, conifers and ferns.
Added to the results of global warming are the other direct effects of the capitalist pre-production process itself. This process requires large consignments of raw materials, which because of the motive to maximise profits, are obtained as quickly and cheaply as possible. Trees are sawn down for timber in large quantities irrespective of the short and long-term effect upon the environment such as species loss, soil erosion and depletion of the oxygen-generating nitrogen cycle. 170,00 square kilometres of forest and woodland is eliminated annually and 150,000 of arable land is lost to desertification. Minerals are extracted from the ground in the quickest and cheapest, often open-cast way, again irrespective of the detrimental effects upon the surrounding environment. The waste materials are often just left piled up around the site. Forests are cleared to create short-lived profit-led capitalist plantations, which soon exhaust the land and where the soil, lacking the previous binding power of tree roots, is soon washed away. Soil erosion of 5 – 10 tonnes per year is taking place in Europe, Africa and Australia and to a larger extent elsewhere. Thousands upon thousands of small, and large, ecosystems are being destroyed annually and their wildlife robbed of their habitat and food sources as global capitalism searches every nook and cranny – even the deep sea trenches – to exploit the planet’s resources in order to turn in a quick profit. In a very real sense the planet cannot sustain a further epoch of capitalist exploitation.
The capitalist system of production must be superseded or the planet will no longer be able to support human life in a credible way. Capitalist economics is the political economy of only one class in society – the capitalist class. As such it reflects only the parasitic needs and concerns of the capitalist class. Accordingly it takes the earth (raw materials, minerals) the environment (forests, water, air) and living natural resources (animals, birds, fish) for granted as cost-free assets for its own plunder and profit. Yet these resources are not free. They are of immense value, developed over millions of years, and in many cases they are priceless. Not only have they taken long periods of time to develop and evolve, in many cases they are irreplaceable. Yet;
“…we can conclude that on a global scale the ecological base of our activities is being narrowed, so that the ecological stability and sustainability of the resource-procurement systems on which human-kind depends for its survival are being undermined.” (Stuart McBurney. ‘Ecology into Economics won’t go.’ Pub. Green Books. Page 171)
The resource-systems upon which humans and all other forms of life depend are precisely, good food, fresh water, and clean air, all of which are in danger of becoming degraded, polluted or terminally exhausted by the process of capitalist production. Essential natural resources such as fish stocks are critically depleted due to over-fishing and insect pollination of crops is declining toward catastrophic levels. The dynamic ‘balance’ of natural ecosystems which over long periods of time is able to correct natural disturbances, is being progressively weighted in the direction of large-scale environmental degradation and mass extinction’s. And the capitalist class as a whole remains largely unconcerned. Their field of vision, along with their intellect, is focused almost exclusively upon their bank balances and, apart from token gestures, it is only new opportunities to enlarge these balances or spend them, are allowed to enter their peripheral vision. Issues such as safety, sustainability, extinction’s etc. are of little or no concern to them. On humanist, environmental and ecological issues the capitalist class seems content to imitate a field of ostriches faced with a danger from which they cannot escape.
“It is no accident that at the very moment when the danger of irreparable damage to the planet becomes clear, the political and economic institutions of the West should be celebrating the universal acknowledgement of the superiority of the market system that is at the root of that damage….An elaborate apparatus is required to prolong the illusion that the ‘real world’, in which we are constantly being exhorted to live, really is represented by that artificial construct defined by capitalism.” (Jeremy Seabrook. ‘The myth of the Market’. Pub. Green Books. Page 168.)
The greed of the capitalist class for more and more wealth will never allow a voluntary ending of the present levels of ecological destruction. As a class they know no shame, no humanity broader than their own, and no conservation outside the conservation of their own inflated, wealth saturated lifestyles. One way or another, sooner or later, they will have to be compelled to change their ways if the planet is to be saved from permanent ecological destruction. Such compulsion will inevitably entail the revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist system for they are skilled in subverting and overcoming any formal legal barriers which the present system cares to place in their way. Just as with their avoidance of tax payments and health and safety legislation, capitalists will find ways to continue their exploitation of people and places, until their system is superseded.
R. Ratcliffe (July 2011)