Politics and Society

Capitalism and the environment

by Ademola Anjorin

What is the problem?

Climate change has reaped irreparable levels of devastation and destruction on our environment. The climate crisis is not coming, it is here. Even if we do manage to reach the Paris Climate Agreement target of 2 degrees, we will still experience dramatic changes in our weather patterns including heatwaves, droughts, more intense storms and flooding which will only lead to the decimation of homes/habitats and food shortages that will leave people starving to death. The majority of coral reefs will be put at serious risk. Trees and different plant and animal species might not be able to migrate as fast as the climate is shifting and will therefore die out.

As we are already experiencing today, the mass deforestation of land and lack of biodiversity, the ravaging of habitats to make room for agriculture, the dumping of plastic and other non-biodegradable products into the see, large land fill sites, oil spillages will ruin the earth beyond repair.

The effects of global warming will not be experienced straight away because of a phenomenon known as ‘the latent warming effect’:

latent warming effect

Moreover, climate change is a self-perpetuating process which accelerates itself further:

feedback loop

A climate crisis is a refugee crisis.

We are at a point where we are almost completely screwed. However, as is the nature of capitalism, poor black and brown people in the global south will bear most of the repercussions of our wasteful and exploitative use of the environment in the western world. The brunt of the environmental disaster will affect countries such as Bangladesh, Sudan, and the Caribbean where (although a broad generalisation), there is not enough infrastructure to protect everyone from the impending doom. The incoming environmental refugee crisis will be the biggest refugee crisis of all time which will see up to 250 million people from around the globe displaced from their homelands. Those who did not contribute nor benefit from capitalism’s excesses will be forced to uproot their whole lives because of its consequences.

A climate crisis is a race and class issue.

Within the western world, stratification and segregation based on race and class leaves working class areas and black, brown and indigenous communities particularly vulnerable to environmental issues particularly in cities. As we know just by observing cities such as New York and London, cities are often divided up by race, and because class is heavily impacted by race, we see the poorer areas filled with brown and black people. These areas are typically densely populated, have high levels of pollution whilst simultaneously having little or no green spaces and whole food stores. Life expectancy in these areas is typically lower due to these climate-linked reasons coupled with the fact that these places are normally food deserts and littered with unhealthy food as the only affordable and quick option to eat.

In extreme cases, indigenous land is destroyed and torn apart to make way for agricultural space and oil pipelines, sometimes even cutting across sacred burial grounds. (see DAPL) The police – being the protectors of capitalism as an institution – serve as rags hired by the state to protect the interests of the ruling class by keeping ‘others’ in their place. In this case, the stand-off between indigenous people and the police showed that profit and capital expansion is valued over racial and environmental justice and that the state will use coercion and violence to uphold white supremacist capitalism.

The flint water crisis is another example of an instance where environmental issues have disproportionately affected communities of colour. This ongoing struggle for clean water in a country that is supposed to be the hallmark of the ‘free world’ and civilisation demonstrates that racism and white supremacy combined with environmentally disastrous neoliberalism, will mean black death at the hands of terrible policy will always go untreated.

We’re at a point where we are almost completely screwed.

What is capitalism’s role?

Capitalism, in very simple terms, is the private ownership of the means of production. The main goal is to gain as much profit as possible by any means necessary. This means exploitation of the means of production including labour (getting the cheapest labour as possible even if it means paying people below a living wage or hiring workers who are subject to human rights violations) and the environment. In order to reduce costs to increase profits, organisations will cut corners or actively destroy the planet via deforestation and overproduction of the environment. Coupled with this is the fact that capitalism produces things based on their exchange value rather than their use value meaning corporations produce vast amounts of things that we don’t need and then use marketing tools to sell us these things whilst things that we do need e.g. trees and oxygen and the ability to actually breathe has no value under capitalism unless it can be commodified. Competition under capitalism means that even the most responsible and environmentally conscious ‘benevolent’ capitalist will choose the cheapest option e.g. the most environmentally detrimental option.

Capitalism is not sustainable because the endless eternal pursuit of profit can never be reconciled with the finite resources that we have on this planet. It is increasingly evident that we are trading in long-term sustainability for the benefit of shareholders and their desire to amass wealth along with a population that refuses to reduce its wasteful lifestyle by overhauling this unsustainable economic and political order.

Case Study: Built to be Destroyed

The fact that modern smartphones and other (typically expensive electrical) appliances are designed to NOT be durable should give you some idea into how illogical and unsustainable capitalism is. Built-in obsolescence is a manufacturing tool that can only be justified under capitalism, it is completely nonsensical in every other sense. This is when companies intentionally build products that have an “artificially limited useful life, so it will become obsolete (that is, unfashionable or no longer functional) after a certain period of time. The rationale behind the strategy is to generate long-term sales volume by reducing the time between repeat purchases (referred to as “shortening the replacement cycle”).” The profit incentive necessitates innovation to a degree but ultimately will regurgitate the same product with a modern design to trap consumers which eventually creates a pervasive consumerist attitude along the lines of ‘I need the latest’. This does the work of capitalism: it keeps people buying crap. An example being Apple with its latest iPhone X; there is no justification for a glass phone (on both sides), Face ID, ‘new’ design features yet zero durability, easily breakable device, and poor battery life that ends up packing up within 2 years. Capitalism does not necessarily lead to more innovation because it has other tools at its disposal to keep you buying ‘new’ things…… And these tools can (and often do) directly oppose the ‘free market leads to innovation’ dogma which capitalism uses to justify itself. This does not solely apply to the smartphone industry but also other industries can give an insight into the contradictions within capitalism.

In other words, capitalism profits off our insecurities to keep us buying products that we do not need and this has detrimental impacts on the environment because it keeps production and consumption much higher than they need to be.

Is more unfettered capitalism the solution?

The very lax approach world governments and the general population are taking towards environmental issues is disappointing (but not surprising). It is clear that no-one cares, and even those who do are willing to prioritise the interest of capital over the interests of public health and humanity. The current efforts we are taking to stopping climate change are miniscule in comparison to what we need. Our reductions would have to be significant and ridiculously fast if we want to have a fighting chance of saving the future. It is estimated that we would have to cut our emissions by up to 90% by 2100.

We cannot leave it up to neoliberal capitalism to fix its own internal contradictions. We cannot fight capitalism with capitalism. An example of trying to fix the issue of climate change using a market-centred approach is the tradable permits system based on a ‘make the polluter pay’ principle. However, this system is ineffective. (Dickenson, 2003) This is ineffective because even if businesses had to pay off the cost of their environmental damage, big monopolies have enough money to pay off their fines and if not, the employees will suffer pay cuts or layoffs to reduce the costs. Moreover, we have to ask, how do we put a price on environmental degradation? Why should we commodify something that is priceless?

Apart from these, all of the other methods and ‘green campaigns’ are examples of a shallow ecology approach to saving the planet e.g. turning off the light when you leave a room, trying to recycle paper, not over-buying food that one would have to throw away later. In all these approaches there is no real effort to get to the root of the issue of climate degradation “based on the same consumption-oriented values and methods of the industrial economy. The long-range deep approach involves redesigning our whole systems based on values and methods that truly preserve the ecological and cultural diversity of natural systems” *

Capitalism is never able to fix its internal contradictions. Production cannot administer a limit, it ends up destroying the hand that feeds is.

Is it true that ‘there is no ethical consumption under capitalism’?

The issue with capitalist solutions to environmental issues is that criticising individual instances of environmentally-detrimental consumerism does not deal with the issue of capitalist production. Shallow ecology measures are exactly what they say on the tin, shallow. Angela Davis says that “radical simply means grasping things at the root”, so we can say unequivocally that shallow ecology is not radical.

However, many anti-capitalists who live in the global south would argue that ‘there is no ethical consumption under capitalism’ is a cop out made by westerners who do not want to interrogate their own consumption habits. Hanging on to a very romanticised idealised future revolution that will topple capitalism and magically restore the environment whilst being complicit in the exploitation of the environment is futile. Ultimately, as explained earlier, it is people in the global south who will bear the brunt of the destruction caused by the western lifestyle. Siggon Kristov, an anti-imperialist and communist, argues that production in the global north can and does change based on consumption habits. If westerners change the things they consume and the way they consume things, production will change too. It is dishonest to separate the consumption process from the production process in order to disassociate ourselves from the processes of capitalism. This does not mean that capitalism does not still need to be abolished, but that saying ‘there is no ethical consumption under capitalism, therefore I will consume recklessly’ is not good practice. How can we guarantee that after the abolishment of capitalism westerners will be able to adapt their consumption to be more ethical and sustainable? Why should people in the global south suffer due to westerners relying on the idea that ethical consumption cannot exist?

siggon kristov

So, what are the solutions?

The things the state could do, if it wasn’t so invested in protecting capital, are: investing in switching to renewable energy, compulsory biodegradable and/or recyclable packaging, energy-efficient transport, getting all high emission vehicles off the road, capping electrical use, reducing waste and completely reforming the way we dispose of waste. We recently saw the state introduce a compulsory 5 pence charge on all plastic bags which saw a large reduction in plastic bag usage and an increase in re-usable bags. I feel like the state could go further in the efforts that they are taking especially in the western world. We are constantly being fed with discourses of ‘western superiority’ and ‘western development/competence’ and yet none of these states have managed to channel these things into building a truly sustainable future.

Of course, all of the above methods are measures from the perspective of the consumer rather than corporations. Capitalist ways of thinking are so dominant in society that aside from heavier penalisations on big corporations I can’t think of many ways to tackle environment issues from the perspective of the producer. This is how capitalism works and how it goes unchallenged.

(Neoliberal) Veganism as a cure to capitalism’s destruction?

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Meat-production has tripled in the last 4 years. The dairy-meat industrial complex is a very unsustainable and environmentally inefficient industry. You have to clear land space (carbon sinks), make huge factory farms, then cut down forests to grow crops to feed animals and these animals themselves release methane.

Veganism can save the environment, animals, world hunger, and our health but veganism pursued under a neoliberal capitalist agenda will not solve these issues. It cannot be repackaged as a consumer or market-based concept. Neoliberalism is a specific type of capitalist ideology where markets are seen as the framework for all economic and political decisions. The only driver of the neoliberal economic framework is to generate profit, it does not care what is morally/environmentally wrong.

Veganism must be anti-imperialist as well because it is under imperial capitalism that colonisers brought animal consumption to ethnic groups that had diets that were plant-based. Veganism being absorbed by capitalism rather than changing it would be detrimental to the movement. Veganism which is pursued under the profit model reproduces inequalities that were already in place rather than disrupting them. Veganism also contributes to gentrification. Veganism when executed under agenda this allows the continuation of the current economic and racial hierarchies of power. It does not matter whether their vegetables were picked by underpaid farm workers in the US or slave labour in Cambodia. Did that vegan restaurant pop up due to the displacement of people of colour?

It important to not be one-track minded around the topic. We can pursue food justice, accessible veganism and trying to make more environmentally-conscious decisions whilst doing grassroots organising, disrupting oil companies and pushing through a green revolution.

Where do we go from here?

I think changing narratives is quite important. This is quite cliché, but I guess challenging the hegemony of capital and neoliberal environmentalism is important.

Secondly, I think finding ways of targeting capitalists rather than solely focusing on consumers is important.

I can’t speak as well as I want to on the topic, so I will plug a video by my favourite environmental-based YouTube channel on activism and food justice:


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