What Every Environmentalist Needs to Know About Capitalism
Fred Magdoff and John Bellamy Foster
Another Economic System Is Not Just Possible—It’s Essential
The foregoing analysis, if correct, points to the fact that the ecological crisis cannot be solved within the logic of the present system. The various suggestions for doing so have no hope of success. The system of world capitalism is clearly unsustainable in: (1) its quest for never ending accumulation of capital leading to production that must continually expand to provide profits; (2) its agriculture and food system that pollutes the environment and still does not allow universal access to a sufficient quantity and quality of food; (3) its rampant destruction of the environment; (4) its continually recreating and enhancing of the stratification of wealth within and between countries; and (5) its search for technological magic bullets as a way of avoiding the growing social and ecological problems arising from its own operations.
The transition to an ecological—which we believe must also be a socialist—economy will be a steep ascent and will not occur overnight. This is not a question of “storming the Winter Palace.” Rather, it is a dynamic, multifaceted struggle for a new cultural compact and a new productive system. The struggle is ultimately against the system of capital. It must begin, however, by opposing the logic of capital, endeavoring in the here and now to create in the interstices of the system a new social metabolism rooted in egalitarianism, community, and a sustainable relation to the earth. The basis for the creation of sustainable human development must arise from within the system dominated by capital, without being part of it, just as the bourgeoisie itself arose in the “pores” of feudal society.54 Eventually, these initiatives can become powerful enough to constitute the basis of a revolutionary new movement and society.
All over the world, such struggles in the interstices of capitalist society are now taking place, and are too numerous and too complex to be dealt with fully here. Indigenous peoples today, given a new basis as a result of the ongoing revolutionary struggle in Bolivia, are reinforcing a new ethic of responsibility to the earth. La Vía Campesina, a global peasant-farmer organization, is promoting new forms of ecological agriculture, as is Brazil’s MST (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra), as are Cuba and Venezuela. Recently, Venezulean President Hugo Chávez stressed the social and environmental reasons to work to get rid of the oil-rentier model in Venezuela, a major oil exporter.55 The climate justice movement is demanding egalitarian and anti-capitalist solutions to the climate crisis. Everywhere radical, essentially anti-capitalist, strategies are emerging, based on other ethics and forms of organization, rather than the profit motive: ecovillages; the new urban environment promoted in Curitiba in Brazil and elsewhere; experiments in permaculture, and community-supported agriculture, farming and industrial cooperatives in Venezuela, etc. The World Social Forum has given voice to many of these aspirations. As leading U.S. environmentalist James Gustave Speth has stated: “The international social movement for change—which refers to itself as ‘the irresistible rise of global anti-capitalism’—is stronger than many may imagine and will grow stronger.”56
The reason that the opposition to the logic of capitalism—ultimately seeking to displace the system altogether—will grow more imposing is that there is no alternative, if the earth as we know it, and humanity itself, are to survive. Here, the aims of ecology and socialism will necessarily meet. It will become increasingly clear that the distribution of land as well as food, health care, housing, etc. should be based on fulfilling human needs and not market forces. This is, of course, easier said than done. But it means making economic decisions through democratic processes occurring at local, regional, and multiregional levels. We must face such issues as: (1) How can we supply everyone with basic human needs of food, water, shelter, clothing, health care, educational and cultural opportunities? (2) How much of the economic production should be consumed and how much invested? and (3) How should the investments be directed? In the process, people must find the best ways to carry on these activities with positive interactions with nature—to improve the ecosystem. New forms of democracy will be needed, with emphasis on our responsibilities to each other, to one’s own community as well as to communities around the world. Accomplishing this will, of course, require social planning at every level: local, regional, national, and international—which can only be successful to the extent that it is of and by, and not just ostensibly for, the people.57
An economic system that is democratic, reasonably egalitarian, and able to set limits on consumption will undoubtedly mean that people will live at a significantly lower level of consumption than what is sometimes referred to in the wealthy countries as a “middle class” lifestyle (which has never been universalized even in these societies). A simpler way of life, though “poorer” in gadgets and ultra-large luxury homes, can be richer culturally and in reconnecting with other people and nature, with people working the shorter hours needed to provide life’s essentials. A large number of jobs in the wealthy capitalist countries are nonproductive and can be eliminated, indicating that the workweek can be considerably shortened in a more rationally organized economy. The slogan, sometimes seen on bumper stickers, “Live Simply so that Others May Simply Live,” has little meaning in a capitalist society. Living a simple life, such as Helen and Scott Nearing did, demonstrating that it is possible to live a rewarding and interesting life while living simply, doesn’t help the poor under present circumstances.58 However, the slogan will have real importance in a society under social (rather than private) control, trying to satisfy the basic needs for all people.
Perhaps the Community Councils of Venezuela—where local people decide the priorities for social investment in their communities and receive the resources to implement them—are an example of planning for human needs at the local level. This is the way that such important needs as schools, clinics, roads, electricity, and running water can be met. In a truly transformed society, community councils can interact with regional and multiregional efforts. And the use of the surplus of society, after accounting for peoples’ central needs, must be based on their decisions.59
The very purpose of the new sustainable system, which is the necessary outcome of these innumerable struggles (necessary in terms of survival and the fulfillment of human potential), must be to satisfy the basic material and non-material needs of all the people, while protecting the global environment as well as local and regional ecosystems. The environment is not something “external” to the human economy, as our present ideology tells us; it constitutes the essential life support systems for all living creatures. To heal the “metabolic rift” between the economy and the environment means new ways of living, manufacturing, growing food, transportation and so forth.60 Such a society must be sustainable; and sustainability requires substantive equality, rooted in an egalitarian mode of production and consumption.
Concretely, people need to live closer to where they work, in ecologically designed housing built for energy efficiency as well as comfort, and in communities designed for public engagement, with sufficient places, such as parks and community centers, for coming together and recreation opportunities. Better mass transit within and between cities is needed to lessen the dependence on the use of the cars and trucks. Rail is significantly more energy efficient than trucks in moving freight (413 miles per gallon fuel per ton versus 155 miles for trucks) and causes fewer fatalities, while emitting lower amounts of greenhouse gases. One train can carry the freight of between 280 to 500 trucks. And it is estimated that one rail line can carry the same amount of people as numerous highway lanes.61 Industrial production needs to be based on ecological design principles of “cradle-to-cradle,” where products and buildings are designed for lower energy input, relying to as great degree as possible on natural lighting and heating/cooling, ease of construction as well as easy reuse, and ensuring that the manufacturing process produces little to no waste.62
Agriculture based on ecological principles and carried out by family farmers working on their own, or in cooperatives and with animals, reunited with the land that grows their food has been demonstrated to be not only as productive or more so than large-scale industrial production, but also to have less negative impact on local ecologies. In fact, the mosaic created by small farms interspersed with native vegetation is needed to preserve endangered species.63
A better existence for slum dwellers, approximately one-sixth of humanity, must be found. For the start, a system that requires a “planet of slums,” as Mike Davis has put it, has to be replaced by a system that has room for food, water, homes, and employment for all.64 For many, this may mean returning to farming, with adequate land and housing and other support provided.
Smaller cities may be needed, with people living closer to where their food is produced and industry more dispersed, and smaller scale.
Evo Morales, President of Bolivia, has captured the essence of the situation in his comments about changing from capitalism to a system that promotes “living well” instead of “living better.” As he put it at the Copenhagen Climate Conference in December 2009: “Living better is to exploit human beings. It’s plundering natural resources. It’s egoism and individualism. Therefore, in those promises of capitalism, there is no solidarity or complementarity. There’s no reciprocity. So that’s why we’re trying to think about other ways of living lives and living well, not living better. Living better is always at someone else’s expense. Living better is at the expense of destroying the environment.”65
The earlier experiences of transition to non-capitalist systems, especially in Soviet-type societies, indicate that this will not be easy, and that we need new conceptions of what constitutes socialism, sharply distinguished from those early abortive attempts. Twentieth-century revolutions typically arose in relatively poor, underdeveloped countries, which were quickly isolated and continually threatened from abroad. Such post-revolutionary societies usually ended up being heavily bureaucratic, with a minority in charge of the state effectively ruling over the remainder of the society. Many of the same hierarchical relations of production that characterize capitalism were reproduced. Workers remained proletarianized, while production was expanded for the sake of production itself. Real social improvements all too often existed side by side with extreme forms of social repression.66
Today we must strive to construct a genuine socialist system; one in which bureaucracy is kept in check, and power over production and politics truly resides with the people. Just as new challenges that confront us are changing in our time, so are the possibilities for the development of freedom and sustainability.
When Reverend Jeremiah Wright spoke to Monthly Review’s sixtieth anniversary gathering in September 2009, he kept coming back to the refrain “What about the people?” If there is to be any hope of significantly improving the conditions of the vast number of the world’s inhabitants—many of whom are living hopelessly under the most severe conditions—while also preserving the earth as a livable planet, we need a system that constantly asks: “What about the people?” instead of “How much money can I make?” This is necessary, not only for humans, but for all the other species that share the planet with us and whose fortunes are intimately tied to ours.
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