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Capitalism creates climate chaos

Bradley Hughes

October 5, 2012

Over the last 10,000 years our planet has had a very nearly idyllic climate with few extreme weather events. Capitalism’s drive to profit is undermining the planet and the climate on which we as a species depend, but a better world is possible.
In an article in the August 6 edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, climate scientist James Hansen looked at world-wide weather data from 1951 to 1980 and compared it to more recent data. He concluded that between 1951 and 1980 in any given summer, extremely hot summers would occur over about 0.1 per cent of the world’s land area. Now we live in a climate where extreme summers occur over around 10 per cent of the world’s land. Due to climate change 75 per cent of our summers will be hotter than the old average.
We are seeing extreme weather events all around us—from the drought that covered over half the US this year, the increased strength of typhoons and hurricanes, the larger and more frequent forest fires, floods and snow storms. These changes—which threaten the planet and all life that depends on it—are an inevitable result of an economy based on competition for profit.
Treadmill of production
Capitalism is based on the treadmill of production. Think of a treadmill at your local gym only with the controls speeding up the belt. You need to run faster and faster just to stay in one place. If you slow down, or just stay at the same speed, you will be swept away. This is a metaphor for how capitalism operates.
Capitalism is made up businesses competing for profit. So each year, or even each quarter, each business must try to take more market share than they had before, if only to just keep making profit from their current investment. Therefore they need to sell more and make more profit every year. This means trying to sell more than their competitors, but it also means trying to increase the total market, and even creating new needs.
In the process, capitalism treats nature only as a source of raw materials and a place to discard wastes. As Marx wrote, “For the first time, nature becomes purely an object for humankind, purely a matter of utility, it ceases to be recognized as a power for itself, and the theoretical discovery of it autonomous laws is merely a ruse so as to subject it under human needs, whether as an object of consumption or as a means of production.”
This is not due to people’s desire for goods—in fact, people’s inability to consume all that capitalism produces contributes to periodic economic crises—but because each business must make more next year than it did this year, just to stay afloat.
Competition leads to improvements in manufacturing that make it possible for fewer and fewer people to make more and more stuff. This could be cause for rejoicing—we could make the work-day shorter, make work easier, and have more time for social activities and leisure. Instead this increased mechanization leads only to increases in production—like the 73 million new cars produced each year.
If any capitalist, or any nation, restricts their profits in order to consider waste, or pollution or the health of their workers, they are at a disadvantage, and will lose profits to those that don’t. This is why no political party in Canada has suggested shutting down the tar sands, or put forward a plan to deal with green house gases that will reduce Canada’s emissions to the level that might allow us to avert a catastrophe.
Metabolic rift
Marx argued that humans are not separate from nature, we are a part of it. We breath in and eat, and breath out and excrete. Our bodies are entwined in this way with the world around us. Through our metabolism we are connected to the external world, so much so that Marx referred to nature as our external body.
But capitalism severs this metabolic relationship, creating a metabolic rift. Capitalism drove, and continues to drive, people off the land and into cities to work as labourers in the production of commodities. As a consequence, capitalist agriculture depletes the soil to fuel the cities, the waste pollutes the water instead of returning to the soil, and the soil fertility is only maintained by artificial fertilizers that contribute to pollution while prolonging the rift.
This happens not because it’s the most rational way, or most humane way to farm, but because it is the best way to make profit for the 1%—which undermines nature and humanity. As Marx wrote,
“Capitalist production…disturbs the metabolic interaction between humans and the earth, i.e. prevents the return to the soil of its constituent elements consumed in the form of food and clothing; it therefore violates the conditions necessary to lasting fertility of the soil…All progress in capitalist agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the worker, but of robbing the soil; all progress in increasing the fertility of the soil for a given time is a progress towards ruining the more long-lasting sources of that fertility. Capitalist production, therefore, develops technology…only by sapping the original sources of all wealth—the soil and the worker.”
Carbon Rift
John Bellamy Foster has written extensively on Marx’s theory of the metabolic rift, and has extended it to explain how modern capitalism produces a carbon rift.
In order to extract the most labour and hence profit from workers, capitalism relies on the factory system, initially powered by wind and water. The treadmill of production requires a constant search for more reliable, portable and cheaper sources of power. This led to the invention of steam power in the early 1800s, fueled first by wood and then by coal. Now it also includes the other fossil fuels, natural gas, gasoline, and oil—including tar sands.
This means that we have abandoned the currently available forms of natural energy, wind and water and now also solar and geothermal. In lieu of those, we are harvesting the sun’s energy that was absorbed in plants over millions of years and eventually converted into fossil fuels. Each year we use up thousands of years of stored solar energy that will never be replenished. As we burn these fuels, they release air pollution, and green house gases—mainly carbon dioxide. This carbon dioxide is much more than can be absorbed in forests, the ocean and other carbon sinks, and so the greenhouse effect gets greater and greater and the planet is getting warmer.
We have plentiful amounts of wind, solar and geothermal energy, and we have the technology to capture them, but capitalism gets in between our needs and our abilities and produces this carbon rift.
Ecological revolution
The real climate crisis is the continued existence of an archaic economic system that can’t meet our needs, and is ruining our climate. But a better, ecological world is possible—not through consumerism or reformist parties that tinker with the market, but through radically changing our relationship with nature by radically democratizing the economy. The weakness of capitalism’s war on nature is that it requires the labour of working people who would be much better off restoring their collective metabolic relationship with nature than continuing to be exploited by an ecocidal system.
As Engels wrote in The Dialetics of Nature, “We by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing outside nature—but that we, with flesh, blood, and brain, belong to nature, and exist in its midst, and that all our mastery of it consists in the fact that we have the advantage over all other beings of being able to know and correctly apply its laws…We are more and more getting to know, and hence to control, even the more remote natural consequences at least of our more ordinary productive activities. The more this happens, the more will humans not only feel, but also know, their unity with nature…To carry out this control requires something more than mere knowledge. It requires a complete revolution in our hitherto existing mode of production, and with it of our whole contemporary social order.”

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