How do we stop capitalism from killing the planet?

August 22, 2018

The destruction of the environment has its roots in a market system that puts profit ahead of people and the planet. Ragina Johnson writes about what we can do about it.

CALIFORNIA IS burning — again. Sights that were once only imaginary scenes in post-apocalyptic movies are now a regular occurrence.

On July 26, firefighter Jeremiah “Jeremy” Stoke died when he was engulfed by what the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection described as a “massive fire tornado,” about the size of three football fields at its base, with winds up to 165 miles an hour.”

“[T]he tornado was so ferocious it pulsed with 2,700 degrees of heat,” the San Francisco Chronicle reported. “It ripped roofs off houses and flung cars, power line towers and a steel shipping container into the air.”

Not only was this “raging cyclone of flame” the worst tornado of any kind in California history, but Stoke is the latest of six firefighters who lost their lives this year attempting to contain the most intense wildfires in California history.

An entire neighborhood in the city of Santa Rosa was wiped out by the California fires
An entire neighborhood in the city of Santa Rosa was wiped out by the fires in 2017

One of the fires spanned a record-breaking 300,000 acres. That’s the size of Los Angeles. Another first: Since last year, the fires have increasingly swept through more populated areas — like the Napa and Sonoma County blazes last year that killed at least 41 people and destroyed parts of the city of Santa Rosa.

The disasters aren’t confined to California. Greece has been battling raging wildfires near Athens that have killed almost 100 people. The drastic austerity measures imposed on the country led to cutbacks in spending on firefighting and fire prevention.

But there is another not-at-all-natural factor that is a constant from Greece to California and beyond: global warming and the extreme weather patterns that result from it. Each day’s news seems to bring new examples and evidence:

The five warmest years in history have all come in the 2010s.

Glaciers are melting and causing sea levels to rise faster than scientists’ predictions.

Species are dying off at a pace that has led scientists to conclude that the earth’s sixth mass extinction is already underway.

An algae bloom along the Gulf Coast of the U.S. has killed 267 tons of marine life, with carcasses washing up on beaches and causing respiratory problems for residents.

Massive floods sweeping through Kerala, a state in southern India, have killed more than 350 people and displaced 800,000.


JUST AS there can be no doubt that a climate change disaster is already taking place, there can be no doubt about its cause: capitalism.

The source of environmental destruction, spreading pollution, immense waste and the failure to address the long-term effects of all of these is an economic and social system that prioritizes the profit and power of a few over the needs of the many.

But when you read mainstream news reports about the capitalism-made disaster in California, you’re much more likely to see blame heaped on individuals — those who might have set a fire, others who accidentally dropped a lit cigarette, or even a flat tire on a car that caused sparks in a dry area.

Even when news reports mention “climate change,” they don’t focus on any kind of thoroughgoing critique of the free-market system and its in-built dynamics that lead to environmental destruction.

On the contrary, all too many mainstream media features reduce even system-wide climate change to a problem “we all caused” through our consumption patterns.

If we are ever going to reverse course for the sake of the world’s people and the planet, we have to name the system of capitalism in order to understand what we’re struggling against. Only from here can we start to put forward real solutions to the ecological crisis we face today — and begin to envision what a different world we could live in if human and ecological needs were put ahead of profits.


THE ECOLOGICAL crisis we face is rooted in the way the capitalist system works.

Capitalism is driven by the endless pursuit of profit. It is a system that has no consideration for the long-term health and well-being of the vast majority of people on the planet, let alone the natural world — the land we live on, the water we drink, the air we breathe.

Expropriation and exploitation of both land and labor are vital to capitalism. They are turned into commodities to be bought and sold on the market. As Chris Williams writes in his book Ecology and Socialism, Karl Marx described how capitalism’s robbery of both the worker and the soil together was the “original source of all wealth.”

The history of the U.S. demonstrates this violent truth. Capitalism in the U.S. was born out of a colonial settler state that stole, expropriated and accumulated Indigenous communal lands, and that kidnapped Africans and forced them to provide labor. The U.S. also relied on one of the world’s most exploited working classes to create the wealth needed to become the number-one economic and military power in the world.

The early history of the “world’s greatest democracy” was one of conquest, genocide, enslavement and imperial war. The exploitation and oppression continue to this day, in different forms, because they are built into the system.

Capitalism is based on a minority owning and controlling both the “means of production” (the factories and offices and land) and what the working class produces with its labor. The profits are privatized while costs are socialized. Capitalists accumulate as much wealth as possible, while taking no responsibility for the negative consequences for society, including environmental devastation.

The whole world suffers the destruction and chaos of living under extreme conditions of climate change caused by a capitalist system that chooses short-term profit over long-term sustainability.

There is also an inbuilt destructiveness to the system because of endless competition among capitalists as they attempt to capture markets and profits. One consequence of this is that the militaries of different states compete by means of arms — to win geopolitical influence and gain access to natural resources, cheap labor and markets.

Under capitalism, new technology is only used if it is profitable to do so. Its purpose is not first of all to meet more people’s needs more efficiently, but to help businesses get ahead of their competition and seize the market. As a result, overproduction and endless waste are an inherent part of capitalism.

For instance, the goal of producing homes under capitalism is not to house more people, but to make the most money for the people who own — and if that means leaving some completely built homes empty to raise the price, so be it.

The disregard of the 1 Percent for the long-term consequences of their actions is stunning. One case in point is the U.S. energy industry over the past decade.

It has been indisputable for 10 years and far longer that the extraction and burning of fossil fuels is causing rising global temperatures, which leads to all kinds of ecological destruction. But instead of reversing course — and using the technology that already exists to produce sustainable energy — the U.S. expanded its production of oil over the past 10 years.

The main reason for this is the boom in hydraulic fracturing, or fracking — a process in which a toxic mix of water and chemicals is pumped into shale rock at high pressure to release natural gas and oil deposits.

The extraction boom — which took place even as scientists were detecting ever-more alarming evidence of ecological crisis — was about getting cheaper energy for U.S. industry and also exporting oil and gas on the world market. U.S. rulers have enjoyed record profits during this decade, in part because of the extraction boom, while they continued to push austerity measures onto ordinary people.


TODAY, A lot of attention is focused on what the Trump administration is doing to the environment. And for good reason: the administration is gutting the Environmental Protection Agency, threatening to withdraw from climate change treaties, attacking the emissions control programs in California, stripping the Endangered Species Act and more.

But we shouldn’t forget that the fracking boom that helped drive the U.S. economy forward for the past 10 years began under the presidency of Barack Obama — with his encouragement.

If the Democratic Party is the champion of the environment, as it claims, then why did the Democratic National Committee (DNC) overturn a ban on candidates taking contributions from fossil fuel companies? In reality, both the Republicans and Democrats represent a ruling class agenda that prioritizes the accumulation of more and more wealth from our labor, alongside the extraction of the earth’s precious and limited resources.

Leaders of the Democratic Party like Obama and California Gov. Jerry Brown are credited as being groundbreakers against climate change. But Obama’s embrace of an “all of the above” energy policy that encouraged the extraction boom proves otherwise.

Where he took some pro-environment measures, the pressure of a movement demanding climate justice has never been far behind. For example, Obama canceled the permit for the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline only when activists committed to protest and direct action refused to be silent.

At the end of Obama’s presidency, he blocked the Dakota Access Pipeline. But this followed a historic struggle led by the Lakota (the Standing Rock Sioux), with the support of other Indigenous nations here and around the world, along with tens of thousands of non-Native activists, who all came together at Standing Rock.

In California, Gov. Brown has at least continued to press for increased use of renewable energy to meet targets for lower CO2 emissions — but one motivation is to allow for continued oil and gas extraction and production. California is the fourth-largest producer of fossil fuels among the 50 states, after Texas, North Dakota and Alaska.

Brown’s true record isn’t lost on climate justice activists and organizations. This September, during the Global Climate Action Summit that Brown will host in San Francisco, climate justice organizations are calling global days of action to “demand our elected leaders commit to no new fossil fuels and a just and fair transition to 100 percent renewable energy.”


EVERY YEAR, an environmental NGO calculates “Earth Overshoot Day” — the day when humans have consumed more resources than the planet can regenerate in a year. This year, that was August 1 — just one month past the midpoint of the year.

But you could calm your worries about this alarming statistic by reading Business Insider’s four pieces of advice for saving the planet:

1. Take the carbon out of your commute.
2. Strive for zero waste.
3. Eat less meat and more veggies.
4. Tread lightly when you travel.

Unfortunately, these individual solutions so popular with the mainstream media won’t solve the climate crisis.

Why not? Take another California example: The state has suffered an ongoing cycle of droughts, which has put freshwater aquifers in jeopardy. The solution put forward by political and business leaders is for individuals to consume less water — and many working class people have happily done so, with the state meeting community conservation targets.

But big agriculture and industry are responsible for consuming the vast majority of the world’s water: over 90 percent. Ordinary people have no control over that at all. Instead of blaming them for supposedly consuming too much, we need to question how food is produced as commodities and how these commodities are transported.

What we need is a rational agriculture system that takes into account conservation and sustainability. You can only truly do this under a social and economic system that is planned, where everyone has a democratic say in how resources are used.

It’s also impossible to have a sustainable society without ending the poverty and inequality rooted in this system. The focus on individual consumers as the source of environmental problems doesn’t account for the fact that millions of people are already living with less and struggling to survive.

It isn’t possible to build a utopian oasis in our neighborhoods when almost half of the world’s population — over 3 billion people — live on less than $2.50 a day.

Even in the U.S., one in six people live in poverty, according to the government’s vastly understated official statistics — and nearly half fall in the struggling-to-get by category of up to twice the official poverty line. If you are a woman, Native American, Black, Latino, an immigrant or LGBTQ, you are even more likely to live in poverty.

Meanwhile, the level of inequality is growing on a daily basis in the U.S. The latest calculation is CEOs and the country’s biggest corporations make 312 times the average worker’s wage every year.


INSTEAD OF individual solutions, we need to work toward systemic changes to the whole way our economy is designed and how production works. Once we understand individual solutions aren’t enough, we can discuss the social forces and struggles necessary to bring about system change.

Sean Sweeney, a leader in Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, points to the role of workers in ending climate change:

The problem is not emissions, the problem is capitalism. The climate issue is like every other issue. It’s very important to working people, poor people, people around the world. It threatens their food, their water, their lives.

Extending the political and economic influence of workers is crucial to solving the climate crisis. If workers extend their control and power over politics and economic decision-making, I very much doubt, if it goes to the full process and conclusion, that what’s left standing would be called capitalism.

Any solution to climate change requires a reasonable, democratic and planned economy that stops making products to sell for a profit, that ends wars, that radically curbs waste and pollution and that transforms all the other things keeping energy and transportation demands so high.

This would have to begin with people organizing throughout society, especially in their workplaces, to have a say in what we produce and how we produce it. We need a revolution of the vast majority in society that takes political and economic power away from the rich — and that transforms ourselves and our way of life.

Chris Williams describes our vision for a socialist future:

Every single facet of industrial life — energy production most urgently, but also transportation, housing, trade, agriculture, manufacture of commodities, and waste production and treatment — all require gigantic systemic change and complete structural reorganization. It will be nothing short of totally remodeling the world on a social, political, technological, cultural and infrastructure level...

We cannot make these changes as individuals. The reconstruction of agriculture along sustainable lines, along with the expansion of alternative energy-harnessing technologies is a social project. These are the kinds of changes that need to occur to actually make a difference on the required socio-ecological level.

With a socialist society and a planned economy, some changes would be a longer process — like reimagining the very way our cities are built, our connections to where we work, how we build shelters and produce our food.

But other changes could be made in a shorter time span — for instance, moving to full renewable energy sources like wind, solar, tidal and geothermal — if the majority of people control society to meet their needs, not for profit.


THIS IS a long-term vision of a different world, but that doesn’t mean our struggles should wait. We need to fight for reforms today that could slow the climate disaster and elevate the worst circumstances for people whose communities are deemed sacrifice zones by capitalists and corporations.

That means stopping pipeline projects, coal export terminals or the new uranium and gas extraction projects located in the Navajo and Pueblo Nations. It means fighting for clean water in Flint, Michigan, and for an expanded and efficient public transportation system everywhere. It means requiring the military clean up its immense waste and trying to stop new dam projects that steal Indigenous lands and flood communities.

We also need a movement based on solidarity that aims to address the historic injustices suffered by Indigenous peoples — by returning lands that were stolen and cleaning up those that have been polluted. In the process, we can open up the possibility of learning from Indigenous cultures, including their conservation practices.

And we have to organize for justice for immigrants and refugees who are going to continue to be on the move around the world, due to the unfolding climate crisis among other reasons.

Socialists want to build a culture around a reconnection to the land — based on the knowledge that humans are not separate from nature.

We need global solutions and coordination to combat climate change and build a sustainable world. That means working now in all the struggles taking place in society, but with the vision of a socialist future ahead.

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