The Greening of Capitalism?

In the 1980s, when U.S. schoolchildren were asked how they thought they would die, the most common answer was “in a nuclear holocaust,” which many believed to be imminent. This fear found echoes within the broader population, and a numerically significant, though politically questionable, peace movement developed. A decade later, the economic and political collapse of the Soviet Union and its allies eased the world away from imminent destruction, and the nation’s children briefly slept in peace. Nuclear war gave way to the war on drugs, which in turn made way for the war on terror: the fear has returned. But it is not destruction by jihad that tops the terror charts, but rather a growing awareness and despair about the environmental conditions affecting the planet.

It is impossible to escape the media focus on the issue of the environment. Hardly a day goes by without the publication of a study or a front page newspaper report on melting polar ice caps, expanding deserts, or diminishing rain forests, and the vast amount of human trash that seems to grow larger every day. Like the peace movements of the 1980s, “green” social and political movements have arisen. The question is are these movements actually able to challenge the dawning environmental holocaust, or are they tragic repetitions of previous failed social reform movements?

Although the concerns are similar, it is necessary to distinguish between the current environmental consciousness and activism and previous mass movements for environmental protection. In the 1960s, a broad yet seemingly more politically radical movement developed; the current green movements, while larger, are politically softer. Earlier environmental movements often advanced a radical political critique of the destruction of the planet and its root causes. Environmentalists were open about their “anti-capitalism” and about capital’s role as the primary cause of environmental destruction. (It’s important though, not to be too pollyannaish about these critiques – Inspired by the misanthropic Malthusian environmentalism of Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang, organizations like EarthFirst! saw humanity as the problem, and in some cases welcomed diseases like AIDS as necessary population checks.)

The new environmentalism is of an altogether different sort. Being an environmentalist means participating in recycling programs and using green bins. Elementary schools practice litter-less lunches, and the world celebrates Earth Day. All contribute to green social practice. A person is far less likely to litter because of social pressure than as a deep commitment to a green environment. If pollution has become socially unacceptable why is the problem getting worse?

The greening of capitalism has not been limited to the social arena. Green political movements, themselves the outgrowth of earlier extra-parliamentary movements, have successfully entered the political stage. In the 1990s, Green parties in Europe in Finland, Belgium and Germany, among others, were part of governing coalitions. In other countries, while not contenders for power, Green parties are now a part of the mainstream bourgeois political process.

In addition to this electoral success with new parties, an apparent green consciousness has developed within some of the older political organizations. The best known spokesperson for a Green capitalism is former U.S. Vice president and now Nobel Prize winner, Al Gore, whose voice provides the narration for the award-winning film An Inconvenient Truth.

Released in 2006, An Inconvenient Truth won the best documentary Academy Award in 2006, and stands as the fourth most popular documentary in the U.S. In the film, Gore presents a chilling picture of the effects of global warming and climate change on the planet, and at the end of the film, calls on viewers to become involved in the struggle to save the planet. The film has been widely shown across the globe to the young and the old alike.

Yet, while the problem the film presents is undeniable, the viewer still needs to follow the standard movie trick of suspending his or her disbelief about the source of this information and the solutions it presents. It is difficult to watch An Inconvenient Truth without recalling that for eight years, Al Gore was the second most powerful man in the world. And yet, in the two terms of Bill Clinton’s presidency, Gore was to do less than nothing. Numerous critiques exist of Gore and Clinton’s environmental policies, but it should be sufficient to note Gore’s role in Kyoto. Gore makes reference to the Kyoto Protocol throughout the film, but fails to mention that the U.S. government he represented was successful in limiting its range and blocking its implementation. The exclusion of countries such as China, India, Brazil, from the “limits” set by Kyoto, guaranteed that pollution would continue unchecked, and that Western investors could move their plants to these countries, unaffected by the regulations imposed at “home.”

The solution presented by Gore and his eco-capitalist friends is a very capitalist one. Under capitalism, every problem is presented as a problem of choice in production and consumption. Freedom for capital means the freedom of the consumer to choose between different brands of toothpaste, bread, or politicians, while each is essentially the same.

In the case of environmental protection, the solution is also deemed to be a problem of choice and consumption patterns: If only companies could pollute a little more reasonably, things would be fine. For individuals, the solutions range from turning the thermostat down, or the lights off in a room no one is in (Hillary Clinton’s solution) to driving hybrid cars. In other words more responsible consumption: If we all pull together the problem can be solved.

Capitalism does not function this way. Or rather, it does not allow functioning in this way. Regardless of the desire to avoid an environmental holocaust, the capitalist system, based as it is on ruthless and relentless competition does not permit it. While some developed countries have taken small steps to clean up their own backyards, it has usually meant moving their most significant polluters to places like China. This allows developed capital to benefit from cheap imports while posing as good citizens as their factories poison residents overseas.

Capital has even been able to turn concern over the environment into a way of increasing profits. As an alternative to fossil fuel dependency, bio-fuel is promoted as a green alternative. Grain and sugarcane are used for fuel (ethanol) instead of food. This has created profits for global agribusiness, but has led to skyrocketing prices on the world market, and actually contributes to global warming. According to Benjamin Senauer and Ford Runge of the University of Minnesota, this conversion will push hundreds of millions into hunger, especially landless labourers and subsistence farmers (New York Times, Sept 29 2007). In addition, as resources shrink, the potential for armed conflict, with the inevitable accompanying atrocities, increases. Even in the case of ecological concerns, capital stands ready to subjugate all to the cause of profit.

Why does capital function this way? As Keynes once joked, in the long run we’re all dead. We might add, if capitalism continues, “and our children too.” While capitalism is capable of planning and undertaking long terms projects, the increasing focus on the “short run” demonstrates the increasing incapacity of capital to offer solutions. Capitalism has no future.

Capitalism is obsolete. It is utterly incapable of managing the productivity it has engendered. Operating within the law of value, capitalism cannot avoid overproduction and a falling rate of profit; too many capitals claim a relatively shrinking pool of profit. In order to continue, value must be destroyed.

Destruction of value, and here we mean people and property, is a hallmark of the phase of capitalist “development” we live in. This destruction, through wars and man-made ecological disaster is nothing but a taste of what capitalism will lead to, if it is allowed to continue.

Capital has a rapacious appetite. From the rain forests of Central and South America, to natural wilderness throughout Asia and Africa, capital sees only untapped potential for development, transforming the natural world into a commodity. Green capitalism can never be. The only solution is the destruction of this cycle of capital and its law of value.

In a future issue of Internationalist Perspective, we intend to publish a longer critique of the relationship between capitalism, technology and the environment.

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