Why It’s Impossible for a Capitalist Society to Cope With the Extinction Crisis


The following is an excerpt from the new book Extinction by Ashley Dawson (OR Books, 2016):

If capitalism is based on the illusory hope that a mysterious “invisible hand” will reconcile ruthlessly self-interested competition with the common good, modern capitalist society is correspondingly organized around antagonistic nation-states whose competing interests, it is vainly hoped, will be attuned through various international forums. Yet, wracked by the periodic crises of over-accumulation that are a structural feature of capitalism, the bourgeoisie is impelled to seek markets abroad. Since their peers in other nations are driven to cope with system-wide crises through similar expansionary policies, the result is increasing inter-imperial competition and endemic warfare. Capitalism thus generates a chaotic world system that compounds ecological crises.

In some cases, ecocide is a conscious strategy of imperialism, generating what might be termed ecological warfare. For example, the destruction of the great herds of bison that roamed the Great Plains of North America was a calculated military strategy designed to deprive Native Americans of the environmental resources on which they depended. When Europeans first arrived, the plains were inhabited by tens of millions of bison, providing indigenous peoples with resources that allowed them to maintain their autonomous, nomadic lifestyle. Commercial hunting of bison began in the 1830s, soon reaching a toll of two million animals a year.

By 1891, there were less than 1,000 bison left on the continent, and the Native Americans had been crushed— defeated militarily and forced onto a series of isolated, barren reservations. Many of these reservations were subsequently turned into “national sacrifice zones” during the Cold War, when nuclear weapons were exploded in sites such as Nevada in order to perfect the US’s military arsenal. Similar ecological violence was meted out by the US military to other parts of the planet. During the Vietnam War, for instance, nearly twenty million gallons of pesticides were sprayed on the tropical forests of Vietnam in an effort to destroy the ecological base of the revolutionary Vietnamese forces. This virulent campaign of ecological warfare eventually generated a revolt among US scientists, who balked at what they called the systematic ecocide being carried out by the military in Vietnam. Despite this history of war resistance, the US military, with more than 700 bases worldwide, remains the single most polluting organization on the planet.

In many cases, however, animals and plants simply suffer as collateral damage in the inter-imperial rivalries generated by capitalism. In a system of competing capitalist nations, no individual state has the power or responsibility to counteract the system’s tendencies toward ecological degradation. Indeed, inter-imperial competition impels individual states to shirk responsibility, seeking to score points by blaming their competitors for failing to address the environmental crisis. This fatal contradiction of capitalist society has been abundantly evident in the rounds of United Nations-sponsored climate negotiations during the last two decades. During these negotiations, advanced industrialized countries such as the United States and Great Britain have refused to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions significantly until developing nations such as China, India, and Brazil offer to cut their emissions as well. The industrializing nations respond by pointing out that their per capita emissions are still far lower than those of the wealthy nations of Europe and North America, and argue that these countries have benefited from two hundred years of industrial growth, effectively colonizing the atmosphere to exclusion of formerly colonized nations. As a result of these antagonistic positions, no binding international agreement on emissions reductions has been reached, despite years of desperate pleas from scientists and civil society. It is not simply that the climate and extinction crises have arrived at a uniquely unpropitious moment when neoliberal doctrines of financial deregulation, corporate power, and emaciated governance are hegemonic. Rather, the deadlocked climate negotiations are a reflection of the fundamentally irrational, chaotic, violence-ridden, and ecocidal world system produced by capitalism.

Can capitalist society reform itself sufficiently to cope with the extinction crisis? This is not simply unlikely. It is impossible in the long run. While it is true that the environmental movement did manage to push corporations and the state into cleaning up local crises from the late 1960s onwards, climate change and extinction suggest that the capitalist system is destroying its ecological foundations when viewed on a longer temporal scale. Recall that capital’s solution to periodic systemic crises is to initiate a new round of accumulation. Capital essentially tries to grow itself out of its problems. But, as we have seen, the extinction crisis is precisely a product of unchecked, blinkered growth. In such a context, conservation efforts can never be more than a paltry bandage over a gaping wound. As laudable as they are, conservation efforts largely fail to address the deep inequalities that capitalism generates, which push the poor to engage in deforestation and other forms of over-exploitation. Many of today’s major conservation organizations were established in the last half of the twentieth century: the Nature Conservancy (1951), World Wildlife Fund (1961), Natural Resources Defense Council (1970), and Conservation International (1987). Yet during this same period, a new round of accumulation based on neoliberal principles of unrestrained hyper-capitalism has engulfed the planet. The neoliberal era has seen much of the global South become increasingly indebted, leading international agencies such as the World Bank to force debtor nations to harvest more trees, mine more minerals, drill for more oil, and generally deplete their natural resources at exponentially greater rates. The result has been a steeply intensifying deterioration in global ecosystems, including a massive increase in the rate of extinction.

Despite this dramatic collapse of global ecosystems, the climate change crisis has unleashed a fresh round of accumulation, obscured by upbeat language about the investment opportunities opened up by the green economy. Neoliberal solutions to the climate crisis such as voluntary carbon offsets are not only failing to diminish carbon emissions, but are also dramatically augmenting the enclosure and destruction of the global environmental commons. Such programs allow polluting industries in wealthy nations to continue emitting carbon, while turning the forests and agricultural land of indigenous people and peasants in the global South into carbon dioxide “sinks” or biodiversity “banks.” Under the green economy, vast numbers of people, plants, and animals are being sacrificed as collateral damage in the ecocidal exploitation of the planet. Capitalism, it is clear, cannot solve the environmental crises it is causing.

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