I wanted to like this book. The title alone is compelling. Capitalism does seem to be at war with the earth, and with the human beings living on it. But it is mainly a disappointment. Perhaps because it has three authors, it seems unsure of what it wishes to be: Is it a polemic against rapacious capitalism and the unremitted and unremitting costs it imposes on the environment? Is it an academic exercise detailing the development of Marxist thought devoted to criticizing capitalist economics? Or is it yet another chicken little, sky-is-falling, Earth in the Balance type polemic about the dangers of anthropogenic global warming? It’s hard to tell. It seemed to want to be all three, so in some measure fails in every way.
As a polemic against rapacious capitalism, it makes some fine points about the costs of capitalism to the environment, repeatedly proclaiming, almost to the point of irritation, that because capitalism must grow lest it die, it will relentlessly grow until it destroys the planetary ecosystem, making earth uninhabitable for humans. But through all its ponderings, the book never reveals why capitalism must grow or die, nor explain how it is that capitalism will necessarily destroy the planetary ecosystem. Is it capitalism that must grow or die, or is it the human beings comprising capitalist systems that must do so? It never explains.
The book is the worst when trying to fit its theories to reigning academic dogma. Perhaps the academy cares how the authors’ (it was never clear which) views comport with Marx, and all the Marx interpreters. For me, I could not care less. If Marx’s main view of capitalism—that it is inherently unstable because it is inherently inequitable—is needed as a starting point for analyzing capitalism and its impact on the environment, then use it as a template. But save the fitting of theories to Marx interpreters to others. Let the theories stand or fall on their own. And don’t ever use a ten dollar word when a two dollar word will suffice. The following sentence should never appear in a publication that is seriously concerned with communicating ideas to anyone other than the academy: “This is the essence of what has been called ‘the philosophy of praxis’.” Especially considering that the footnote for the quote doesn’t bother explaining where the quote came from, except in a general, round-about sort of way, the sentence says nothing and adds nothing, even in context. Why write it, except to impress a colleague that indeed, one of the three of you understands the meaning of “praxis” (it means, simply, “practice” or “practical application”)?
Once the evil of capitalism is established (or presumed, as in this case), must the argument against it always now resolve to the dangers of anthropogenic global warming that it purportedly causes? Is there anyone clever enough to formulate an argument against imperial, rapacious, global capitalism that does not depend on the specter of a warming earth to justify its abandonment? Foster, Clark and York are apparently not up to the task. For them, the ecological rift caused by capitalism’s war on the earth is mainly manifest in a warming planet. Is there no better justification for abandoning, or at least modulating, capitalism than that it might be causing the earth to warm?
Allow me a stab at it, but bear with me. Explaining where capitalism has gone awry will require understanding from whence it came, and in understanding from whence it came, it must always be understood that nature abhors inefficiencies; that it is always relentlessly culling inefficient organisms and organizations and organizing systems; that the abiding principles of evolution theory apply to capitalism and capitalist organizations just as much as they apply to amoebas. Capitalism is a product of nature, and therefore is relentlessly devoted to doing “the mostest with the leastest” as Civil War general Nathan Bedford Forrest put it.
Journey back 10,000 or so years ago, before the advent of agriculture. Mankind lived in closely related hunter/gatherer clans, ceaselessly wandering the countryside in search of food. These clans comprise something of the first capitalistic organization, engaging in much the same activity, if not along identical organizational lines, as the Dutch and British trading companies of the sixteenth and seventeenth century. The individuals within the clan cooperated such that each might achieve his individual goal of survival and propagation, precisely the principle around which capitalism and capitalist entities are organized. The clans did not seek profit, the hallmark of the modern capitalist organization, but were as concerned with employing the most efficient means of surviving as today’s capitalists are concerned with employing the most efficient means of acquisition and production. There was little incentive to securing resources in excess of those needed for survival because the profits that accrued to the clan when it hunted or gathered in excess of caloric needs could not be stored, except as fat on each members’ body. The clan could expand by successfully subduing competing clans, taking hostages for slaves, or perhaps by peacefully combining with other clans, but both exercises were subject to food limitations. Hostages that could not aid the clan in its survival imperatives in some way were of no use. Perhaps a great many were eaten. The impulse to expansion that inheres with capitalist organizations today was present with hunter/gatherer clans, but was limited by the inability to profitably do so in the face of natural limitations. Within the clan, a hierarchical communism obtained. There was leadership, but it was built on the consensus required of cooperative survival. “From each according to ability, to each according to need” described the abiding economic and social arrangement within the clan. The clan took no notice of preserving its environment, except in those limited instances where it was capable of understanding that a course of action affecting its environment might detrimentally or beneficially impact its survival prospects.
Enter the Neolithic revolution in agriculture. Men learned to domesticate animals and cultivate crops. No longer was survival dependent on ranging freely over the countryside, taking whatever was found, with no consideration that it belonged to anyone except the earth. The earth was reduced to possession. The idea of private property was born. Civilizations arose as a cooperative effort to reap the bounty of the soil and protect the spoils from others. Within civilization, there was still a communistic flavor. Everyone ate from the bounty of the land, though the numbers directly involved in agriculture declined. Most importantly, agricultural surpluses gave birth to the age of specialization. The progress of civilization depended on specialization, which in turn depended on agricultural surplus. As all the great civilizations of antiquity arose along rivers that provided fresh, nutrient-laden water that could simultaneously provide for hydration needs and soil replenishment, their impact upon the environments in which they arose minimally affected their survival prospects. Civilizations were as little concerned with the environment as were hunter/gatherer clans.
Fast forward to the early Modern Era, to a time when man in the West was finally awakening from a long slumber in initiative and ideas brought about by decline and fall of Rome. The first true global capitalist organizations were about then coming to fruition in the trading companies of the English and Dutch. They operated like hunter/gatherer clans, with the same perspective of ranging far and wide across the countryside seeking to reduce nature’s bounty to their possession, but their focus was not limited to acquiring enough calories that their members could survive. They sought whatever might be profitably traded with others, from beaver pelts to sugar cane, as there had by then arisen a critical mass of humanity hungrily willing to trade whatever was their specialized produce for the slice of nature’s bounty the trading companies sold. The trading companies cared not a whit about the costs they exacted upon the environment, and neither did their trading partners; so long as environmental degradation did not detrimentally impact their ability to squeeze profits from the earth, the earth was to be exploited as always it had been. Even when environmental degradation destroyed the ability to profitably exploit the earth, as when the beaver trade so decimated the beaver population that beaver could no longer be found, the trading companies just moved on to other means of exploitation.
Trading companies and the capitalists that followed depended for their survival upon an idea that would have been foreign to either the hunter/gatherer clans or the ancient agriculturalists. They required that their efforts be meaningfully awarded through trade. A ship full of beaver pelts has no intrinsic value to a group of humans that already have all the beaver pelts they could possible desire. (Illustrating something of the false dichotomy between “use” value and “exchange” value the authors mention several times in the book.) The use value of a beaver pelt for a man with more beaver pelts than he could wear in a lifetime is obviously nil. Yet if others without beaver pelts desire them, the exchange value of the pelts, in an economic regime supporting free trade, can be employed to reduce to his possession those things he needs to survive. Capitalism depends on specialization and trade. The trading companies had to sell their wares, and for less than it cost them, else they could not survive. For capitalist organizations, survival depended upon net profitability.
There are two sides to the profit equation, revenues and costs. Anything which makes costs go down, all other things being equal, means more profits are generated. If revenue-generating products can be acquired practically for free, save the transportation costs, the more profits that can be made. Thus the trading companies were at first set up to exploit nature’s “free” bounty. In time, they learned to exploit more costly products of the land, such as agricultural produce, using slave labor when possible in order to control costs. There were no practical limits as to how profitable a capitalist organization could become; so long as it could squeeze costs and maximize revenues, it could ceaselessly and relentlessly grow. And so long as its revenues exceeded its costs, it needed to grow in order to find profitable means of deploying the excess.
The profit motive being so closely tied to the survival imperative created a monster that was unlike any healthy creature living in equilibrium with its environment, which naturally expels as much as is taken in. Capitalist organizations became perpetual accumulation machines, keeping a portion of each transaction they would undertake with the environment, which would then need redeployment in furtherance of more accumulation, etc., ad nauseam. It is the nature of the beast that capitalists would be at war with the environment. They are at war with anything standing in the way of continued profit accumulations.
The principles of capitalist organization founded in the trading companies were put to good use when technological innovation initiated a further specialization in production that became known as the Industrial Revolution. The human labor necessary to operate the factory was just another input to be relentlessly exploited, and the population explosion attendant to the industrialization of agriculture meant that labor was cheap and plentiful. The massive scale of industrialized capitalism meant that, where trading companies rarely and usually only temporarily devastated the environments they exploited, industrialized capitalists could render environments completely unfit for human habitation. The ecological rift of which the authors lament became a yawning gulf.
But the capitalists did not explicitly set out to destroy the environment; they just didn’t care. Profits were all that mattered. The less spent in preserving the environment they exploited, the more profitable they were. The only possible restraint against environmental and human exploitation by capitalists resided in the governments overseeing them, and governments were as dependent on the stream of profits capitalism generated as were the capitalists themselves. Capitalists and their governments existed in symbiotic relationship. Governments enforced with military might the economic regimes that made capitalist exploitation of the human and natural environment possible, and capitalists, in turn, supplied the wealth governments required to enforce the freedom of exploitation capitalism needed to flourish.
The whole edifice nearly fell apart in the early twentieth century when it was realized that treating humans as mere inputs in the capitalist profit machinery meant that the markets for the products of capitalist production were limited by the slave wages paid to the human inputs. Capitalist production was intended for human consumption, but the system of exploitation did not provide enough humans capable of consuming what the capitalists produced. Demand collapsed. Depression, and then war, ensued. Eventually capitalists in the West were forced to pay wages more commensurate with the economic value of the labor being used to produce the goods and services being sold. For a short while in the West, after the war, capitalism’s inherently efficient means of allocating resources were employed to enrich more than just the capitalists. Adam Smith’s redemptive vision of the good of man’s inherent selfishness came to fruition. Capitalists were forced to share with their workers some of the economic value of their labor. Human exploitation mainly ceased, while environmental exploitation continued apace.
When the industrialized West finally realized in the latter half of the century the developing ecological rift between capitalism and the environment it sought to exploit, and began imposing costs upon capitalists for environmental degradation, i.e., when capitalists could no longer exploit the environment (and had already been excluded by political realities from brazen exploitation of the workers), the capitalists simply left to exploit other environments and populations. China, among others, opened its environment and people to the exploitation of Western capitalists. Capitalism did as it always has, and found the lowest cost places and people in which to produce its wares, often in locales where capitalist economic organization had ironically suffered wholesale rejection in the past.
After a few twentieth century experiments in alternative means of economic organization, mostly focused on stripping away the freedom of exploitation that capitalism enjoyed, capitalism persisted because it is relentlessly efficient, and nature abhors inefficiency; the flip side of capitalism’s exploitative nature is its ability to efficiently allocate resources. Resource allocation is best done at the resource-user level. No economic system organized around a central bureaucratic dispensation of resources can hope to compete with capitalism’s inherent efficiencies. The authors would like to see a resurgence of socialism/communism in order to save the earth from capitalistic impulses, but conveniently neglect the fact that environmental exploitation and degradation was as severe or worse under the socialist/communist experiments as they have been under capitalism, and anyway, the experiments were tried and they failed. Miserably.
Given that other means of economic organizations have been tried and abandoned as failures, there is no force capable of stopping capitalism, excepting perhaps itself, or perhaps the demographic realities upon which its growth has so far been founded. Capitalist myopia and disregard of human and environmental welfare may well be its Achilles heel. It can’t see that it depends for its existence on the very humans and the earth’s environment it attempts to exploit, which is not surprising. Capitalists are like dumb animals, driven by instinct to maximize revenues and minimize costs, not capable of using intellectual foresight to see where it all might be heading. It is for the community of man to provide them vision.
The impetus to environmental exploitation can be rather easily resolved within the structural framework of global capitalism. Capitalism would not exist without enforceable property rights. Global capitalists depend upon the recognition of their property rights, defensible by military might, in whatever it is they acquire or produce. But they pay no attention to the environmental commons, believing it belongs to no one, so can be exploited at will. In other words, environmental exploitation by global capitalists depends on there being no environmental property interest that would have to be compensated if consumed. It is the tragedy of the commons. So in days past, beaver and buffalo were hunted almost to extinction; today, tuna suffer the same fate. In days past, the soot of London caused even its moths to change color; today Chinese coal-fired electric plants belch so much pollution that traces of it remain in winds aloft that reach western North America. The decimation of ocean ecosystems due to overfishing does not make it to the capitalist fishing trawler’s balance sheet. The true cost of China’s electricity consumption is hardly captured in tallying the cost of digging the coal burned to create it. Environmental costs must be forced upon the capitalist’s balance sheet. There is no such thing as “free” tuna or air. It would take a concerted, grass-roots effort, much in the same vein as the labor movement of the early twentieth century in the West, to make capitalists realize and expense the full costs of their impulse to environmental exploitation. Capitalists, motivated as always by profitability, would have to find efficiencies elsewhere when forced to account for costs they impose upon the environmental commons.
The same is true of human exploitation. Capitalists in the West didn’t understand at the turn of the twentieth century that the cost of exploiting human beings as mere inputs to the production machinery meant that they quickly reached the point of excess production. Capitalists create goods and services to be consumed by humans, not squirrels or baboons. If they exploit the humans they deign to serve, their productive capacity will quickly exceed the demands of markets, populated by those same humans they exploited. In that regard, capitalist exploitation of humans is a problem that is naturally resolved. Eventually capitalists must pay wages that are commensurate with economic value, or the whole point for production collapses.
Capitalism has reached its last frontier. Once China and India, et al, are fully exploited, and slowly begin demanding that capitalists share some of the bounty of that the efforts of the populations have created, while also demanding they pay the costs of environmental degradation, where then will it turn for cheap labor, environmental apathy, and expanding markets for its products? Africa? Perhaps, but the same road from exploitation to equity will obtain there as well.
Capitalist organizations exist to accumulate profits, which then must be used to accumulate more profits, in a never-ending cycle. But nothing in nature can infinitely grow. Even the human population upon which capitalism so depends, both for exploitation in production (the developing world) and consumption of production (the West), has slowed its growth, and if current trends continue, will begin to decline in about 2050. Capitalism will necessarily become less profitable, if at all, and thereby less a monster of human creation, and more an expression of man’s creativity in solving the problems of human existence.
The authors of the book recommend a turn away from consumption as the answer to capitalism’s excesses. What they fail to see is that in the West and Japan, it is already happening. To be sure, the developing world has a lot of catching up to do before the idea of turning away from consumerism might have any meaningful resonance, but as the world’s population grows older—even the developing world—consumption is practically guaranteed to decrease, which will sound the death knell for exploitative capitalism. The system of exploiting the environment as if it were free, and humans as if they were mere inputs, will cease for want of profitability, whether or not the ecological rift between the earth and its exploitative capitalists has by then grown so large that the earth can barely support its human population. The authors will get their wish. Capitalism that exploits humans and the environment will fail of its essential purposes, as it repeatedly already has. No matter how warm or cold the climate turns out to be.
The book, though disappointing, is still worth reading, so long as the parts explaining how the authors’ theory fits with this or that aspect of current Marxist dogma are skipped.