The Environmental Crisis – ‘Living in the Capitalocene’

Standing Rock
Paramiltary policing at the Standing Rock Protest. Photo credit Ryan Vizzons


The Environmental Crisis.

‘Living in the Capitalocene’

The environmental harms of capitalism do not simply result from greed and lack of effective environmental regulation, or indifference, on the part of capital, though these undoubtedly exacerbate the situation. Environmental degradation and destruction through pollution of the atmosphere, oceans, fresh waters, and land, the disruption and destruction of ecosystems, loss of biodiversity, and the threats to species persistence posed by the current ongoing mass extinction event, are not incidental to the running of a globalised capitalist economy. Environmental destruction is inherent to the functioning of globalised capitalism. There can be no ‘Green’, ‘environmentally benign’ capitalism (the efforts of ‘Greens’ to bring this fantasy to fruition notwithstanding), just as there can be no ‘kinder, softer’ socially and economically benign capitalism: capitalism threatens the functioning of global ecosystems due to the nature and functioning of the system itself.

Recognition of this has led to the coining of the term ‘Capitalocene’ – juxtaposed to the widely accepted term ‘Anthropocene’ – coined to highlight the human origins of the latest and current ‘mass extinction’, and the dominance of human activity in defining a new geological era. Capitalism threatens the global ecosystem through harms of addition (industrial pollution, consumption related waste, carbon and other ‘greenhouse’ gas emissions from transport, energy generation, industrial production and intensive ‘industrialised’ agriculture), and withdrawal (extractive industries such as mining, logging and hydrocarbon extraction, both ‘conventional’ and extreme). Capitalism’s need for constant growth and expansion is inbuilt.

These processes of ecological withdrawal and addition disrupt and disorganise ecological systems at every level, from the local to the global. Much of the waste and pollution generated, and almost all the harmful environmental effects, are treated as ‘externalities’ – somebody else’s problem. For much of the history of capitalism, the consequences of this were not readily apparent but now, at the start of the 21st century, they cannot be ignored, despite being often denied.

Atmospheric pollution and global warming, due mainly to gross overuse of fossil fuels, has reached the stage where even professional government and corporate liars admit that a world catastrophe involving the destruction of whole countries and populations is now inevitable, unless overall emissions reduce by at least 80%, from 1990 levels. Yet capitalism’s drive to growth, and resultant demand for energy, is intensifying ‘unconventional’ or ‘extreme’ energy production (e.g. tar sands, hydraulic fracturing, coal seam gasification).

We are told we are about to run out of usable stocks of silver, indium, platinum, antimony, zinc and many more essential elements. As the ‘New Scientist’ puts it: “Virgin stocks of several metals appear inadequate to sustain the modern ‘developed world’ quality of life for all of Earth’s people under contemporary technology.” This has already led to wars in the Congo and to a new ‘scramble for Africa’ involving China and other imperialist powers.

Especially in the context of neoliberalism and it’s destruction of even the meagre environmental regulation developed in the latter half of the twentieth century, the consequences for ecosystem functioning, biodiversity, species survival, and the quality of ‘environmental goods and services’ (e.g. clean air and water, stable and fertile soils etc.) upon which human society relies, look increasingly dire. Global climate change presents a real and present threat to the lives and livelihoods of millions, and will increase to affect billions. It seems likely that several crucial ‘tipping points’ have already been passed which will now, whatever inadequate responses are cobbled together, inevitably result in significant sea level rise, and possibly irreversible changes in weather patterns and climate regimes. Projections for sea level rise by the end of the century continue to be revised upwards, with current estimates based on a 3o average temperature rise showing at least 275 million people worldwide living in coastal cities liable to be flooded (the impact is very uneven, with 4 in 5 of these people in Asia). Migration of climate belts and rainfall patterns will result in more severe and more frequent extreme weather events (such as droughts, and flooding) and disruption to food production. Forced migration of people resulting from the effects of climate change is with us now and, along with climate related conflict, is set to increase, even if carbon emissions could be reduced to zero immediately.


Coal powered the industrial revolution, and oil powered its ‘highest stage’: imperialism. Oil reserves are of course limited, and reaching the point where extraction becomes increasingly uneconomic. The ‘Peak Oil’ concept, often credited to oil geologist M. King Hubbert, who presented the idea as far back as 1956, is in essence a simple one – after reserves are discovered, extraction commences. Technologies for extraction improve and both supply and demand increase in ‘runaway’ exponential growth. However, oil is a finite reserve regionally and globally, so eventually there is a peak, in both the discovery of new reserves and economic and technical viability of extraction, and so extraction rate and total extraction peaks, then enters terminal decline. Based on consumption rates, reserves and technology available at the time, Hubbert accurately predicted the US would hit ‘peak oil’ in the 1970s – production has only exceeded these predictions significantly with the advent of unconventional technologies this century. Worldwide, the rate of discovery of new deposits peaked in the 1960s, falling in 2017 to the lowest level since the 1940s. Technologies for detection of deposits advanced more quickly than for economic extraction, so known reserves have still expanded. In its short reign, oil has been responsible for untold human misery: the key to world economic and military domination. Enmeshed with banking, the military, espionage and industry, it has been at the root of two world wars and innumerable ‘minor’ wars and imperialist escapades, inflation and economic collapse, right up to the present.

The constant drive of capitalism for increased production, economic globalisation and the rapid development of ‘emerging’ economies such as China and India, combined with renewed drives for ‘strategic energy self-sufficiency’ in the ‘global north’, have resulted in pressures to develop new ‘unconventional’ extraction technologies to exploit ever more marginal resources.  ‘Extreme Energy’ describes resource exploitation increasingly on the margins of hitherto economic extraction – Tar Sands, Deep Water Drilling, Coalbed Methane and Shale Gas – to meet these increasing demands of economies for energy, and states for strategic energy security. In addition to the kilotons of additional greenhouse gasses generated by this increased production of fossil fuel better left in the ground, each of these technologies carry with them intensified direct environmental impacts. The Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, the worst environmental disaster in US history for example, was no ‘accident’. In a drive to increase both production and revenue by merging the services responsible for regulating the safety of offshore drilling (US Geological Survey), and raking in the revenue generated by it (Bureau of Land management), thereby creating the hopelessly ineffective Minerals management Service, the US government paved the way. The criminal failure by the effectively unregulated BP and Transocean to implement safety measures and maintain equipment, all to save money while drilling at the very edge of technical capability, simply provided the immediate cause. The environmental degradation associated with Extreme Energy technologies and their associated infrastructure, has sparked global resistance, in Australia and the USA (notable recently, the DAPL protests at Standing Rock), Britain and across Europe. The response of capitalism has been criminalisation of environmental protest, and para-militarisation of its policing.

Steered by the massive wealth, power and political influence of the fossil fuel industry, global capitalism is taking a colossal and complacent gamble on developing sufficient renewable energy production to replace hydrocarbons, while still maximising profit from exploiting remaining fossil resources. Yet there is no shortage of alternatives to fossil fuels. Science journals regularly report new breakthroughs in carbon reduction or capture, alternative forms of electricity generation etc.: cars that run on compressed air or hydrogen, ultra-rapid charging and high storage batteries, sewage to fertiliser and ethanol fuel etc. Every day it becomes clearer that the problem does not lie in technology, but in the ability of the economic and social system to manage it. A massive worldwide infrastructure and a range of powerful global industries has crystallised around oil. Climate change and peak oil are beginning to suggest even to the capitalist class that such alternatives may be the only way they can survive and continue profiteering. The benefits to society of efficient modern public transport systems have never had serious consideration by the capitalist class and much information about their potential is ignored or suppressed. The question remains whether a system based on private profit is capable of handling an energy delivery programme where the interests of the whole of society and of future generations have to be the decisive factors, above private profit.

There are a plethora of studies which present global solutions to climate change based solely on combinations of proven or immediately developable technologies, and on actual practical business experience of countless small-scale (and some very large-scale) operations across the world. Apart from minor disagreements about the effectiveness of this or that particular solution, they are in broad agreement. For example, they confirm spectacular claims that with the use of existing modern CSP solar panels a mere 0.3% of the North African desert could supply all the energy needs of Africa, the Middle East and Europe. A cross-continental grid could store and carry this together with wind- and wave-generated electricity from Britain and Scandinavia across high voltage DC undersea cables. They agree on the viability and surprising effectiveness of thorough home-insulation and emission-neutral housing, on combined heat and power plants, electric vehicle development, carbon capture and storage, reforestation and anti-deforestation, cellulose ethanol fuels and much else.

From the end of 2004, renewable energy capacity grew globally at rates between 10% and 60%. Global investment in renewables (excluding hydro-electricity) accounted for 53% of all new power capacity in 2015, outstripping non-renewables for the first time. Renewable technologies are becoming cheaper with economies of scale and technical improvements. Also for the first time in 2015, investment in renewables was highest in ‘developing’ countries – mainly China, India and Brazil. Even under capitalism, barriers to 100% renewable energy generation are primarily political – the influence of the fossil fuel lobby and short term security considerations – rather than technical and economic. Increasingly, the ‘one million climate jobs’ campaign, based on the report produced by the Campaign Against Climate Change Trade union Group seems an eminently achievable, even minimalist, demand. The creation of a million jobs in the production of renewable energy technology and energy generation, increasing the energy efficiency of homes and public buildings, hugely expanding and improving the quality of cheap public transport and developing skills in these areas is a demand that Socialist should be taking up and expanding upon. Exceeding this minimal demand, and addressing realistically the needs of both energy production and demand, and of climate change reduction, will require, however, massive investment and planning. This in turn demands the (re)nationalisation, under new models of social ownership and control, involving worker and consumer democracy, of the energy generation and  transport  sectors, and a massive planned building and renovation program.

Capitalism could deliver these industrial, economic and technical reforms. In fact, they represent a central interest of a new layer of big eco-business. Sophisticated and detailed global cost-analyses have been commissioned. The business journal, McKinsey Quarterly, for example, in 2007 published “a cost-curve for greenhouse gas reduction” which lists many alternatives such as those above and provides assessments for which of these would provide net savings and which losses. If all were used to their fullest potential they calculated the cost, by 2030, as just 0.6% of world GDP ($54.62 trillion at 2007 estimates) and if less efficiently, no more than 1.4% – perhaps 1.8% for ‘rich countries’. For comparison, this represents the approximate worth of the world’s top 100 billionaires, or the cost to the USA of the Afghan and Iraq wars. The returns on investment, however, are not immediate or guaranteed, and the benefits tend to be spread among people too poor to create any effective demand, or extended to future generations only. The authors were also canny enough to recognise that a time-span of 21 years to take us to 2030 is perhaps too long for capitalism even to contemplate in its present degenerate state. So they suggest looking at such investment as a form of life insurance, comforting the ruling class with the thought that, after all, the global insurance industry’s turnover amounted to more: 3.3% of world GDP.

Even this, however, seems to be more than the system can take. The Stern report described climate change as “the greatest market failure the world has ever seen.” Some suggested a tax on carbon emissions, but no agreement on the rate to be charged could be achieved. Attempts to impose a universal rate failed as an impossible step towards an unthinkable world government. Hence, the well-known cap and trade schemes whereby high polluters can buy excess pollution-rights from those under the set limit. In 2006 this collapsed, since the market demand for carbon emissions had been over-estimated and the price plummeted! (However, ‘good’ news was announced the following year when CO2  emissions rose, allowing the market to climb back up from $10 billion to $30 billion). Rising emissions have created a flourishing global business in carbon offset trading, and new ‘carbon crimes’ in fraudulent trading and accounting.

Agriculture and Food

Food production is largely divorced from the human need for sustenance, and driven almost entirely by profit.  Intensive agriculture and globalised agri-business dominate food production – four companies control 58% of all seed production, 62% of Agri-chemical production, 24% of fertiliser production, 53% of animal pharmaceuticals, 97% of poultry and 66% of pig genetic research. Across the food industry, six companies (including the four above) control 75% of all plant breeding research, 60% of the commercial seed market and 76% of global agrochemical sales.

There is enough food produced, and enough land available for agricultural production, to feed the world’s population, and feed it well. The problem is not one of food production, but of food distribution and availability. The food crisis is predominantly a problem of the market. As recently as 2005, the WHO was warning of the dangers of overproduction! It is the result of measures taken to reduce past surpluses such as the famous European ‘grain mountains’, to reduce subsidies and to open agribusiness to ‘free market forces’, to domination by  supermarkets and by traders and speculators. The consequence is food surplus and massive waste in the rich developed world, and shortage and famine in the ‘mal-developed’ world. Industrialised, intensive agriculture has resulted overgrazing, deforestation, desertification, over-ploughing, over-reliance on petroleum-based fertilisers and pesticides – causing soil erosion and depletion. All of this is a boon to the speculators.

The only values capitalism recognises are monetary values. Measured by energy input and output, pre-capitalist farming methods yielded 10kcal for each 1kcal spent: present day over-mechanised agribusiness gives just 1kcal for each 10kal. In other words, in energy terms – in rational terms – it is 100 times less economic!  Colin Tudge, made the same observations as Marx: “All progress in capitalistic agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the labourer, but of robbing the soil; all progress in increasing the fertility of the soil for a given time, is a progress towards ruining the lasting sources of that fertility.” (Capital Vol I). Some NGOs and the United Nations still talk in terms such as these:  “Turning resource access into wealth requires good commercial models. The poor need assistance in commercializing their ecosystem assets. This means better marketing.” Yet more and more people are coming to the same conclusions as Marx: “The capitalist system works against a rational agriculture,” and that “a rational agriculture is incompatible with the capitalist system (although the latter promotes technical improvements in agriculture), and needs either the hand of the small farmer living by his own labour or the control of associated producers.” (Capital, Vol III). Increase in agricultural productivity since WW2 has outstripped increases in productivity in every other area – but at the cost of the destruction of whole societies, the driving of millions from the land into poverty and precariousness on the edges of megacities in the mal-developed ex-colonial global south.

Tudge is not the only one to point out that “the economic system that is now so enthusiastically embraced by the world’s most powerful governments and corporates cannot work in the field of agriculture, which is where it matters most: and it would very bad indeed if it did work. Meanwhile the efforts to make it work are destroying what’s there.” He says that, to survive “we have to re-invent democracy, or rather to make it work almost for the first time in the history of civilisation.” Meanwhile “nothing except farming can even begin to employ….the majority of the human species,” (while even industrialised Britain continues to lose more than 1000 farmers a month!). Apart from the depredations of world agribusiness, a combination of high fuel prices, low farm gate prices, and soil depletion has forced many small farmers off the land, and 20% of US wheat farmers to turn to more productive no-till farming. Tudge’s “enlightened agriculture” would use the human resources at hand and combine the knowledge gathered over countless generations with continued efforts at enhancing soil productivity through scientific advances. Today’s scientific method is more holistic than the mechanistic science of the era of Imperialism: one that takes account of the dialectical interplay of existing natural processes and distant consequences. Within agronomy, such an approach can allow for many systems of arable, horticultural and pastoral agriculture – from large-scale wheat and rice fields to smaller varied forest horticulture and ‘permaculture’. Such diversity of systems could restore lost micronutrients and guarantee the diet of “plenty of plants, not much meat, and maximum variety” which corresponds to the nutritional needs humans acquired during their million-year evolution (and, as it happens, to the world’s great traditional cuisines!).

Meat production is a major contributor to global environmental degradation. Fossil fuel use in animal agriculture is vast, and meat production, particularly intensive indoor production such as that of poultry and pigs, is one of the leading causes of greenhouse gas production. Pollution arising from animal waste is a common problem on land, of fresh waters, and coastal areas. High density mono-culture in ‘factory farm’ units, of poultry, pigs and cattle demands preventive use of pharmaceuticals and particularly of antibiotics if disease is not to rip through entire populations, as has been demonstrated with Swine fever and ‘Bird Flu’. Over use of antibiotics in animal agriculture has been the major contributor to the problem of antibiotic resistance, which is seriously imperilling the continued usefulness of antibiotics as a whole. Over consumption of meat, and particularly animal fats, is a driver of obesity and associated diseases and health disorders. This over intensification is as well only possible on the basis of massive compromise to animal welfare and the ethical treatment of animals in agriculture. The way a society views and treats animals, in agriculture as in daily life, is a fair indicator of the nature of that society. High on the ‘hit list’ of regulatory measures in the Tory government’s Repeal Bill was all of the regulation relating to animal welfare in agriculture. In particular, Article 13 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU), stating that member States “ shall, since animals are sentient beings, pay full regard to the welfare requirements of animals” was removed, with Tory MPs whipped to vote against an amendment which would have incorporated an equivalent statement into UK law. In the UK, 80% of animal welfare legislation derived from the EU. How this will develop with Brexit remains unclear, but it seems likely that to enable trade deals with the US and other producers, restrictions on imports produced under lower animal welfare standards may well be lifted, although this would be at the risk of UK producers being undercut – another downward pressure on UK animal welfare standards.


Marxism has always looked at nature as a network of dynamic processes of which human life was a part. It arose partly in answer to Malthus’ gloomy calculations that food production could never catch up with population growth. The UN Food & Agriculture Organisation’s predictions of population growth are often misquoted. They state specifically: “Perceptions of a continuing population explosion are false. In fact it is more than 30 years since the world passed its peak population growth rate.” They predict that world human population will grow and by 2050 or so stabilise at around nine billion.

‘Overpopulation’ is a relative term. There are ecological limits to the population a given area can support within a certain technology, however, from the Palaeolithic age onwards, the development of society is precisely defined by the new technologies it devises to modify such limits. The development of agriculture (the Neolithic ‘revolution’) brought with it a relative explosion in population. Urbanisation, industrialisation and developments in agricultural technology in the era of capitalism produced the explosion in population which we have seen particularly since the early 20th Century. Yet with developed economies, education, increasing likelihood of any individual reaching maturity, and particularly access for women to the means to control their own fertility, has come release from the drive for a high birth rate to compensate for high death rates. The birth rates among populations of developed economies tend naturally to stabilise at around the rate of replacement. High national birth rates are today a sign of poverty and mal-developed economies. ‘Over population’ is not a Malthusian absolute, but a symptom of capitalisms unequal distribution of the benefits of productive society. For a society to view new members as an additional burden is a sure sign of its degeneration and imminent collapse.

‘Sustainability’, ‘Democracy’ or Socialism?

Capitalism would not be the first society that had exhausted its resources, ruined its environment and moved on or perished. Under capitalism though, there is nowhere for humans to move on to.

flood“We must act quickly” the ‘experts’ say, “Can we afford to do what it takes?” they ask. “Can we afford not to?” they answer, using the ‘we’ word as though they not only accepted the need to ‘reinvent democracy’ but imagined that it had already been done! If they were prepared to follow the consequences of their own thoughts to their conclusion, they would ask themselves just who they mean by “we” ? Who it is that has to ‘act now’? In their various ways they have drafted rational plans for the drastic measures that have to be taken for the survival of civilisation. In doing so they are, more than they know, testing the system to its limits. The global market place has its own laws. Profit-maximisation is the life-force of capitalism. None of the measures governments have taken to rescue the system for the capitalists can be expected to take away their life-support. Already in 2004, 0.13% of the world’s population had gained control of 25% of the world’s financial assets. It is not reasonable to expect that any knowledge and science placed at the disposal of a class which only exists by force of the profits it can extract from others is ever going to be used in the interests of the remaining 99.87%, who for them cannot possibly be anything more than customers, rivals or workers.

A system founded on individual profit-maximisation was, in its time, the only conceivably effective motivating force to set up extraction and production industries, and create the worldwide infrastructures to accommodate them. This system not only transformed the world; it gave rise to a technology and science of transformation, which is not only part of education, but has become assimilated into our general human culture. There are more scientists alive today than there have been in the rest of human history. However, the system of private profiteering cannot complete the process. It cannot even secure human survival. To ask it now to clear up the mess it has left us all in – to start all over again and to implement humane and rational plans in the interests of the whole world – is asking it to do something it was never designed to do.

proclaim loudlyFor there to be the slightest hope of avoiding a catastrophic global rise in temperature, will require a coordinated global energy plan on a scale never before seen, which crosses national boundaries and is applied consistently over a considerable period of time. This needs to be launched right now. Some steps have been taken, but the profits are too uncertain or too distant in time, or the outlay too gigantic; or else the level of international cooperation appears to be beyond the reach of nation states and world institutions which are themselves crystallisations of the worldwide onslaught of capitalism. At a time when companies cannot look beyond the next bail-out, any such grand plan looks unlikely. To succeed, the plan would have to be able to call upon the combined knowledge, initiative, skill, imagination and enthusiasm of the countless millions of people who have no material interest in profiteering and world despoliation: the working class. The capitalists, as a class, are no longer on the side of the future. They are now a threat to the future of humanity.

The great achievements of bourgeois science have been perverted into pseudo-science and outright superstition. Capitalism’s rationalisation of its catastrophic environmental consequences is that it is ‘our’ folly in over-consuming and over-reproducing which has brought the world to the brink of disaster, rather than the wastefulness, destructiveness and venality of the capitalists, and of capitalism itself. In its youth, bourgeois science took delight in the discovery of nature’s operating mechanisms. This was to be a tool of human liberation. How crabbed, shabby and mean the great age of reason has become now, in its senility! Capitalism is now fighting all that is progressive in modern dialectical and materialist science. The formerly somewhat remote warning “socialism or barbarism” – perhaps better said now as “socialism or barbarism and environmental destruction” is now closer to hand than ever.


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