Note: Although over two decades old, this article's summary of the ecological case against capitalism hasn't become outdated. First published in Collide-O-Scope #1 (Berkeley, CA) in May 1989, reprinted in Anarchy: a Journal of Desire Armed #22 (Columbia, MO), November-December 1989.
"[We] were soon steaming across the great sound in warm sunshine...past islands and headlands, then over the immense expanse of the open water with a circle of snowcapped mountains far off along the horizon, then winding through arms and straits, close to the tree-tufted islands and steep spruce-clad mountains...with glimpses of open meadow-like glades among the trees....We were afloat in an enchanted circle; we sailed over magic seas under magic skies; we played hide and seek with winter in lucid sunshine over blue and emerald waters—all the conditions, around, above, below us were most fortunate."(1)
The wake has begun. People throughout North America are mourning the loss of precious life in Prince William Sound. John Burroughs' description of the sound at the turn of the century captured the breathtaking quality of its beauty, a quality which by all accounts lasted until March 24, 1989, when one oil-tanker too many tried to make the passage with its dangerous cargo. Now the blue and emerald waters are black with a thick, sticky crude oil.
The abundant birds, mammals and fish supported by the waters are now dead or dying, their carcasses unrecognizable, so thick is the oil, until the "rescue" crews scoop them up and probe to see what's at the core of the goo. Two weeks after the spill, at the University of California at Berkeley, a funereal procession of students, staff and faculty, led by a single, slowly-sounding drum, quietly showed their deep sense of loss and anger over the death of one of the world's richest coastal ecosystems.
The earth is dying—it is being killed—and many of us sense it. The cutting of the forests, accelerating extinctions of plants and animals, destruction of the ozone layer, pollution of the oceans—the list seems endless, frightening and demoralizing. Life goes on, but the problems only get worse. People don't seem to be able to do much about them. Perhaps we choose one issue and work to correct it—the "single-issue approach"—while inevitably leaving the other problems for other people. Many of us know that the real, underlying problem is a much larger one, that all the forms and types of environmental destruction are related, that they are caused by how we humans live on the earth, and that to correct them we have to change our way of life. But a strange silence reigns. Few people are talking about the basic problem or the basic solution.
In the recent presidential campaign, discussion by the parties and the press of the fragile state of the oceans, lands and atmosphere was limited to hypocrisy and lip-service. George Bush got away with claiming he is an "environmentalist". Since his election he has appointed another environmentalist, William Reilly, to head the EPA; after visiting the disaster at Prince William Sound, Reilly announced that nothing can be allowed to interfere with the exploitation of U.S. oil reserves. As the presidential campaign showed, the Republican and Democratic parties have no interest in the environmental crisis beyond its utility in garnering votes. The major media have also treated the issue superficially, and for the same reason: any serious discussion of environmental destruction will unavoidably lead to a recognition of the need for a radical change of the most fundamental institutions of our society. We have to begin this discussion ourselves, at the grass-roots.
The purpose of this article is to contribute to this new, real dialogue by providing an overview of the current state of the global ecological crisis, and an analysis of the roots of this condition in the human productive activities and social relations that dominate the earth today. The article concludes with a sketch of some of the attributes of a future society that nurtures the ecological health of the earth, and with suggestions for ways in which we can begin to bring that society into being before it is too late.
The narrow range of political debate that exists in the U.S. today has caused a lot of worry lately among "progressives" about the obsolescence or changing connotations of the "L-word" and the "S-word". Bush very effectively hammered Dukakis with the accusation that his policies were "liberal". Mikhail Gorbachev's current efforts to restructure the Soviet economy have "proven" that "socialism" is an experiment that has failed; the major media today are engaging in all-out offensive to drive this point home. The biggest taboo of all, however, the word that really scares the so-called "left" in the U.S., is the "C-word"—capitalism. While the right-wing sings its praises, the left does no more than politely suggest a small reform here and there to make the system work better. With its superficial "critique" (witness its quibbling about the Democratic Party's election platform), the U.S. left disguises the real nature of our society and supports the system that is destroying the earth. The candidate of U.S. "progressives" and liberals, Jesse Jackson, is now appearing in television commercials with Barry Goldwater, trying to sell "space technology" to the public. The pot of gold at the end of Jesse's rainbow is now out in Space, the exciting new "last" frontier—for more profit-making.
Capitalism—the pursuit of profit—is a global system; the entire world is under its control. Before examining its operations and impacts on the physical and biological components of the living earth or "biosphere," it is necessary to explain how it is that all nations, even the supposedly socialist ones, are really capitalist, and to say a few words about capitalism's impacts on people.
The term capitalism encompasses a range of economic systems differing in the degree to which the state intervenes in the affairs of the market. At one extreme would be "private capitalism" with no state involvement, often called "free enterprise" by enthusiasts; at the other pole would be the "planned economy" of total state control of all economic activity. In reality today these extremes do not exist anywhere on earth, and all national economies fall somewhere in the midrange of the continuum, with greater or lesser amounts of private or state control of economic decision making. The U.S., the European Community and Japan reside on the "private" side of the spectrum, with factories, resources, and transport and communication systems largely in private hands. In the case of the "state capitalist" economies of the U.S.S.R., China and their clients, the means of production are in the hands of the tiny elite of decision-makers in the state bureaucracies. For some time now, both the East and West blocs have been converging toward a common hybrid form, as markets and investment opportunities in China and the Soviet Union have been opened to the West and as the United States and its industrial "allies" (actually, its principal competitors) have maintained or expanded state investment in the private economy.
In both blocs the means of providing basic necessities are owned or controlled by a few, while the vast majority of people have no way to survive without "exchanging" their ability to work for money with which to buy food, clothing, etc.. In other words, they are wage-slaves. From the point of view of the average people in either place, the systems are indistinguishable in certain basic senses: they work for someone else for a wage or salary and have no control over many major decisions that affect their work and social lives. The tiny controlling elite, private or state, collectively exploits the workers by appropriating the "surplus value" contained in what they produce (that is, the value of their product that is in excess of the value of their wages), and with this profit expands the system of production, strengthening its control over them and extending it over other people and places.
The recognition that there are basically just two conditions for all people living within capitalist social relations—that of the exploiter and the exploited—is the foundation of Karl Marx's "class analysis" of modem society. Everyone who works for someone else, everyone who earns a wage or salary, is a member of the exploited "working class." Modern sociological "class" categories such as "lower class," "middle class," "upper-middle class," etc are obfuscatory terms that really only describe social status or income levels within Marx's working class. (Marx's "middle class", composed of small businessmen, independent professionals such as doctors and lawyers, and peasants and small farmers, has been dwindling, as he foresaw, through the process of "proletarianization", i.e., the constant trend toward bigger and bigger economic units through competition. The losers in the battle for profits and markets become the employees of the winners.) All workers are employed either to create profit or to maintain the smooth functioning of the profit-making system for the owners or ruling class. The level of the salaries they earn does not change the qualitative fact of exploitation. Furthermore, all workers are expendable, even the highly paid ones. Middle-level management and technical personnel who fail to perform at the requisite level of personal dedication to the enterprise will be replaced as surely as an assembly-line worker who fails to produce the required number of products in a given period of time.
The satisfaction of human needs is not the purpose of the capitalist system; rather, its sole function is to make as much profit as possible ("maximize the creation of new capital"), to expand continuously. This process takes the form of the accumulation of wealth by the owners of capital ("capitalists"); the purpose of the wealth is to acquire and maintain social control. This compulsion toward continuous growth is clearly impossible in a world with built-in limits such as the earth—limits to the "resources" which can be extracted and to the abuses which can be tolerated. In short, the system is irrational, doomed not only by its own inner contradictions but by planetary tolerances as well. The present destruction of the earth is just the inevitable result of this irrational form of social relations.
The capitalist "system" is in reality nothing more than the sum of human activities within the existing social relations of ownership or control of all the means of production by a tiny few. For the great mass of humanity, however, this collective social activity takes on the appearance of a vast, immensely powerful external "system" that faces them wherever they may look. As workers, individual people are separated or "alienated" from each other; they do not relate freely but only through the medium of their occupation of positions in the "system" of profit-making. The reification of capitalism, its appearance of invincibility, however, is an illusion. Social relations between people can be changed by people themselves when conditions become unbearable, as past revolutions have demonstrated.
The Forms of Ecocide
In their futile pursuit of a steady or rising rate of profit, capitalists worldwide exploit the environment in every way possible—as a source of energy, food, raw materials and sites for production, and as a dumping ground for wastes of all types. States, the political expressions of the will of capital, engage directly in ecocide through warfare. The process of relentless exploitation and destruction has now reached the point where large-scale negative impacts are clearly visible in all three of the divisions of the biosphere, the oceans, lands and atmosphere.
An overview of the current situation, necessarily curtailed for reasons of limited space, follows. The information presented here comes from easily accessible sources—newspapers and magazines, publications of well-known environmental organizations, popular ecological literature such as the World Watch Institute's State of the World series, and introductory environmental science textbooks. The image of a dying earth is reflected everywhere we look, and is unavoidable. Most of us have developed ways of protecting ourselves from the reality around us—forms of denial and suppression of our subconscious awareness. To save the globe, we have to stop denying and start facing our true situation.
Global capitalism is currently subjecting the oceans to two simultaneous types of damage, "overfishing" and pollution. Overfishing here refers to more than just the uncontrolled extraction of fish, and is meant to include shellfish, whales and many other marketable species. Modem commercial fleets have used a variety of high-technology, capital-intensive approaches to fishing (including helicopters and sonar to spot schools, bright lights and electrodes to attract them, and vast, fine nets to "vacuum" them out of the sea) so successfully that the global fish (and shellfish) catch leveled off in 1970 after more than twenty years of continuous increase. It has never recovered its upward trend as numerous formerly common species have become "commercially extinct."
Whales have declined from a worldwide population of 4.4 million in 1900 to about one million today, with many species near real extinction, including the blue, the bowhead, the humpback, and the right whales. The great bulk of the remaining whale population consists of just two species, the sperm and the minke. Hundreds of thousands of dolphins are killed "accidentally" every year in tuna nets. Much of the annual ocean harvest, including the major portion of each year's whale-crop, is sold as pet-food.
Pollution of the oceans takes a huge toll of marine life as well. The seas are the ultimate dump for many types and vast quantities of human wastes—urban runoff, pesticide- and fertilizer-laden agricultural runoff, industrial (read: toxic chemical) discharges, contaminated dredge spoils, urban sewage, garbage from merchant ships and pleasure yachts, municipal refuse, and oil spills. Ocean pollution is concentrated near coastlines (where marine life is most abundant as
well): at the mouths of large rivers, in harbors and estuaries, in wetlands, near large cities and industrial areas, and in inland seas such as the Mediterranean and the Baltic. (The Great Lakes, although freshwater bodies, are typical of polluted inland seas.)(2)
A National Academy of Science report in 1975 estimated that 7 million tons of municipal garbage are dumped in the oceans each year. Much of this material, by volume, is non-biodegradable plastic—merchant ships alone are estimated to discard a half-million plastic containers into the sea each day. American fishermen dump 160,000 metric tons of plastic into the oceans annually. Each year millions of seabirds and hundreds of thousands of sea-turtles and marine mammals (dolphins, whales, seals, and manatees) are killed by plastics through ingestion or entanglement, which cause strangulation, starvation or drowning.(3) No one can estimate how many fish are killed from the same cause.
The disaster at Prince William Sound provides an unneeded reminder of the destructiveness of the oil-habit of modern industrial capitalism. The deaths of sea-birds and other pelagic and coastal life-forms resulting from oil-spills is a continuing "operational cost" of the international oil industry—except that the plants and animals pay it, not the corporations. In 1985 alone, 3.6 million metric tons of crude oil spilled into the ocean, considered a low total compared to prior years. Actually, much of the marine oil pollution is intentional; only 10 to 15 percent comes from tanker accidents. Approximately 30 percent of the annual total of oil discharged into the ocean takes place during routine loading, unloading and cleaning of tankers. Offshore wells habitually release crude oil during their operations. Chronic oil pollution of the North Sea and the North Atlantic Ocean causes deaths of between 150,000 and 450,000 marine birds each year. As a result the puffin, the guillemot and the razorbill are now near extinction. Heavy oil components that sink to the bottom or drift into estuaries have long-term impacts on marine ecosystems, killing off crabs, oysters, clams and mussels.
The destruction of marine life caused by ocean pollution serves only one purpose: to increase profits by avoiding the costs of proper disposal of wastes or rigorous control of operations. It results from the everyday, business-as-usual ideology that nothing should be allowed to stand in the way of a corporation and its freedom to make the highest return the market will bear. But what the market may bear, the oceans cannot. And, when to the current stresses on the marine ecosystem is added the likely destruction of the basis of the marine food-chain, phytoplankton, caused by the loss of stratospheric ozone and the resulting increased exposure of surface life to ultraviolet radiation (see below, section on atmosphere), the ecological health of the oceans looks very fragile indeed.
The land surface, where people live and produce surplus value for capital accumulation (also called "economic growth" or "development") is the locus of the most extreme and varied forms of ecological destruction. It is not possible to do more here than say a few words about some of the most critical of these: habitat destruction, soil erosion, and war.
Habitat Destruction: Habitat destruction is occurring in many parts of the globe, from high latitudes to low, and affects many habitat types--deforestation of tropical rainforests for hardwood production and cattle ranching, clear-cutting of conifers in North America for lumber, desertification of huge areas of semi-arid savanna in the subtropics and rangelands in the midlatitudes for cattle raising, destruction of coral reefs and draining and filling of wetlands, and the continual sprawl of cities into the countryside. The most serious direct effect of habitat loss is the elimination of plants and animals—species extinction.
To sell hardwood and hamburgers to industrialized countries, multinational logging and cattle-raising corporations are cutting the tropical forests of South America, Africa, Madagascar, and southeast Asia (where about 75 percent of all plant and animal species live) at an unprecedented rate. The total area of tropical forests prior to this century was about the size of the United States; now, it has been reduced by almost half. An area the size of Pennsylvania is cut each year. As a result of global habitat loss, the rate of extinction of all species has reached levels completely without parallel throughout evolutionary history. According to estimates made by E.O. Wilson and Norman Myers, before 1600 AD, the rate of extinction was one species every 1,000 years. By 1975 it had risen to 100 species per year. By the year 2000 the estimated annual loss of species is projected to be 20,000 (equal to one species every half-hour), with a total loss by that date of between 500,000 and one million species, one fifth of all the lifeforms on earth today.(4) This rate represents a 200-fold increase in the rate of extinction in only 25 years, and is 20 times greater than that of the great mass extinctions of the past. Another major difference between the current crisis and major extinctions in earth history is that it is affecting plant species as well as animals—the direct result of human-induced habitat destruction.
Why should people care about other species? After all, we display little regard even for each other. We should care for two reasons, one moral and one purely rational. First, every species has an equal right with humans to life and a future in which its full evolutionary potential can be expressed. Second, the plant and animal species of the earth maintain the global ecosystem—they produce and maintain atmospheric oxygen and carbon dioxide levels at stable concentrations; filter, break down and detoxify poisons and wastes; moderate climate; regulate natural fresh water systems; recycle soil nutrients and maintain soil fertility; control pests and diseases; store solar energy as chemical energy available as food and fuel; and finally, they store the earth's inheritance of genetic material that is the only possible source of all future adaptations to environmental change. Massive extinctions threaten to destroy the complex system of interactions and mutual support that maintains all life on the planet, humans included.
Soil Erosion: Soil erosion is a hidden form of habitat destruction, in this case the "habitat" of food plants for humans. Soils are the basis of plant and animal life on land, providing the nutrients necessary for plant growth and the micro-organisms that decompose dead plant material so that nutrients are recycled instead of lost. Massive global soil erosion now threatens to leave the land surface impoverished and unable to sustain current levels of food production. With hundreds of millions of people undernourished today and the world population growing, major losses of soil will inevitably result in massive starvation in the future.
Soil erosion is another result of maximized production for the market. The rate of loss is currently estimated at about seven percent of existing soils per decade; extensive losses have already occurred. Modem industrial agribusiness is directly responsible for the greatest share of soil loss through the nature of its operations, and is "indirectly" the cause of most of the rest of the soil erosion that occurs in the undeveloped world. Growers in the United States, in their need to survive in the marketplace, have had to abandon traditional practices such as crop rotation and fallowing that kept erosion to a minimum. The giant tractors and grain-combines of modem agribusiness operations have required the creation of huge, erosive fields out of many stable smaller ones that had been protected by natural boundaries or planted shelter-belts. Declines in soil productivity have been masked by increasingly heavy use of chemical fertilizers, which replace some but not all soil nutrients and do not maintain natural soil structures. The result of these highly energy-intensive and industrial techniques of soil-mining have been catastrophic erosion and steadily declining soil productivity. Recent estimates put annual excess soil erosion (i.e., soil erosion above that amount which would occur under natural vegetation) in the U.S. at 1.53 billion tons, from 413 million acres of cropland (an average of 3.7 tons per acre per year). One third of U.S. topsoil has been lost to date—in some parts of the Midwest with the nation's richest soils, up to one half is gone.
Although the USSR and China do not produce food for the export market, they also attempt to maximize production to cut down their food import requirements. Thus the same industrial approach to agriculture is used. The USSR may be losing more topsoil than any other country, because it has the greatest acreage in production in the world. The annual rate of excess soil loss is at least 2.3 billion tons (and is probably much higher); wind erosion has already caused over a million acres to be abandoned. China loses soil at a rate of 3.3 billion tons per year. Together with India, the three superpowers account for annual soil losses of 11.8 billions tons, about half of the global loss of 23 billion tons.
A standard reason given both for the devastating annual losses of soil and lowering productivity, as well as for the malnutrition and starvation which affects one fifth of the world's people, is the rapidly growing world population. However, even this population growth is the result of the penetration of the capitalist market system into all countries. As the early political economists were aware, the true "wealth of nations" is the population, the labor force which makes profit possible. Michel Foucault has pointed out that long before Malthus governments in Europe began to
"grapple with the phenomena of population, ...to undertake the administration, control and direction of the accumulation of men (the economic system that promotes the accumulation of capital and the system of power that ordains the accumulation of men are, from the seventeenth century on, correlated and inseparable phenomena...)."(5)
As capitalist market relations have spread globally through colonialism and other forms of imperialism, peasant societies and indigenous peoples have been systematically forced out of their demographically stable modes of life and off their lands so that large-scale operations for food export could taker over. George Bradford has described the process of "agricultural modernization" well:
"Colonialism wrecked subsistence in most countries, bringing with it an emerging capitalist economy, wage system, cashcrops and monoculture, destruction of traditional economies [and] forms of sustainable agriculture, as well as the destruction of people's basic land skills with their reduction to plantation workers. ...This recipe for disaster accounts, for the world crisis we are now witnessing."(6)
With the capitalist growers now occupying the best land, people throughout the Third World have had three options: sell themselves as labor to the plantation owners, move to the shanty towns around the cities and hope for work, or move onto marginal lands in the countryside to try to eke out a living on poor soils and steep slopes. All three options have generally meant hunger and skyrocketing family sizes; the third alternative has also led to increased deforestation and soil erosion.
Almost needless to say, soils are being damaged or ruined in other ways as well, for example by salinization (the accumulation of salt at the soil surface) in arid and semi-arid regions of irrigated agriculture, and by contamination with poisonous chemicals (pesticides, herbicides, PCBs and other industrial contaminants). It is estimated that by the year 2000 some 65 percent of global irrigated lands will have suffered damage, expressed in reduced crop growth, just from salinization. The human impacts of chemical poisoning of food grown in pesticide-laden soils has hardly been studied at all, but the outlook is hardly good.
War: The irrationality of the global capitalist system is best seen when the competition inherent to it is expressed most directly, in war. War in our age is qualitatively different from its pre-capitalist forms, and nowhere is this more visible than in its effects on the natural environment. At the broadest level, war is a necessary aspect of the global process of concentration of capital in fewer and fewer hands, i.e., it is a particularly direct form of competition. The capitalists of each nation, especially of the weaker ones, try to erect barriers to protect their own capital; these can only be broken down by war. Trade wars tend to become shooting wars.
Waged by factions of capital over access to the "bounties of nature," modern wars paradoxically take the form of the destruction of those very resources. Under capitalism, war and peace are qualitatively identical in environmental terms—they are two forms of the same process of ecocide—and differ only in the rate at which the process proceeds. The famous statement of von Clausewitz, that war is simply politics by another means, can be turned on its head: "peace" today is just the "low-intensity" form of the war continually waged by profit-seekers against the earth and its inhabitants.
Economic conflicts between different sectors of global capitalism—for example between the "private" and the "state" blocs—create and are expressed by political and ideological conflicts, which may become themselves the dominant forces leading to war. The ideological differences, however, derive from the economic competition between the nations. Again, in the cases of the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. the basic tension lies in the fact that the monopolistic control exerted by the "socialist" system over its sphere of influence has deprived (until recently) the American "free market" interests of any access to this potential (and vast) market, thus inhibiting private capital expansion. This economic conflict has therefore been expressed as an ideological one—the Soviet Union as an Evil Empire—with proxy wars repeatedly fought to prevent the expansion of the area of state capitalism.(7)
In addition to forcing access to markets and resources, war is employed as the occasion merits by ruling elites for a number of other reasons: to destroy the accumulated capital of competitors, thus eliminating them directly from competition; to benefit dominant sectors of capital, such as the arms industry, through government contracts for war production, and thus to stimulate industry as a whole (it was World War II which "ended" the Great Depression;
since then global capitalism has had to establish the "permanent war economy" to maintain its profitability); to destroy the means of livelihood (forests, farms, fields, waters, etc.) of self-sufficient peoples, forcing them to work for capitalist exploiters; and to eliminate resistance movements trying to establish their own concentrations of power and capital organized on nationalist lines instead of as directly exploited colonies of foreign powers.
As an illustration of the use of environmental destruction specifically to serve the purposes of war, consider what was done to the upland forests and agricultural lands of Vietnam during the so-called Vietnam War. (The war should properly be called the Indochina War, because it extended far beyond the borders of Vietnam into Cambodia, Laos and Thailand as well.) The term "ecocide" was coined to describe the extreme attack on Vietnam's ecosystem, effected by the use of chemical weapons (herbicides, principally Agent Orange; napalm; white phosphorous) as well as "conventional" bombing. According to a recent summary,
"The US government employed a 'scorched earth' policy that deliberately destroyed the natural environment in an effort to separate guerillas from the local population. US Armed Forces denuded entire forests to detect guerrilla encampments and troop movements. They chemically destroyed rice fields both to force non-combatants into 'strategic hamlets' and to deprive guerillas of food. Between one-fourth and one-half of Vietnam suffered defoliation at some point during the war....Rallying beneath the motto 'Only We Can Prevent Forests,' US herbicide teams dumped about 6 lbs. of chemicals for every South Vietnamese citizen, destroying vegetation and poisoning the land with dioxin. Today 17,000 [sq km] of land are still affected....The war denuded as much as 41% of the mangrove forests in South Vietnam...Planes dropped 13 million tons of bombs that pockmarked the land with 25 million craters, displacing 3 billion cubic meters of soil....0ther US tactics included clearing forests, agricultural land, villages and even cemeteries with giant bulldozers called 'Rome Ploughs'. Bulldozers chewed up 500,000 acres of land to establish base camps, build roads and clear villages... [The] IUCN [International Union for the Conservation of Nature] reports that 'the forests have never recovered, fisheries remain depleted...wildlife has not regenerated, cropland productivity is still below former values and a great increase in toxin-related diseases and various kinds of cancer' exists."(8)
The same "scorched earth" methods are currently used by the US and its proxies in Central America, supposedly the latest arena of the "East-West ideological conflict." (Since the Soviet Union has virtually no influence in the region, it is clear that ideological rationales for war are extremely flexible and serviceable in their application. The real threat for U.S. elites in Central America is the development of a regional form of capitalism that actually could compete with U.S. corporate interests there.) The use of the "Soviet threat," however, as of the "American threat" in Afghanistan, serves to maintain the confusion, fear and loathing within and between the populations of the two powers, thus directly furthering the interests of the dominant sectors of the respective capitalist blocs, especially the arms industries, through massive state spending on weapons arsenals. The utter neurosis of the "arms race," clearly evident to all in its potential for global destruction, is the inevitable outgrowth of the profit motive. Nuclear war differs from the "peaceful" cutting of the tropical rainforests only in the scale and rate of damage; the root cause of the two forms of ecocide is the same.
It would not be possible to conclude this survey of the most severe forms of environmental degradation without mentioning what is happening to the atmosphere, the delicate halo of gas that protects and nourishes life on the planet. The atmosphere retains heat (the "greenhouse effect") and lowers the range of temperature changes at the earth's surface. More than this, it supplies the gases necessary for plant and animal respiration, carbon dioxide and oxygen, making life as we know it possible. Further, ozone in an upper layer of the atmosphere, the stratosphere, protects us from damaging forms of solar radiation. For millions of years the concentrations of these gases have been stable. Today, however, human activity is causing a rapid and potentially devastating increase in the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide and other "greenhouse gases," causing the average temperature of the atmosphere to rise. At the same time, human production of air pollution is causing destruction of the stratospheric ozone layer. If these processes continue, catastrophic impacts on natural habitats, plant and animal life, and human society are bound to occur.
The main causes of the rise in CO2 concentrations are the burning of fossil fuels (coal, oil and natural gas) in industrial nations and the cutting of forests worldwide, especially in the tropics. Current estimates put the rate of annual increase in CO2 concentrations at 0.5 percent per year; the average global CO2 level is now at least 25 percent above pre-industrial levels. Concentrations of other greenhouse gases such as methane (principally from industrial cattle raising), nitrous oxides (industrial and auto exhausts), and chlorofluorocarbons or CFCs, are increasing even faster than CO2 and will soon become, collectively, as important a cause of increasing temperature. The concentration of all greenhouse gases is expected to reach twice the pre-industrial level by the end of the coming century.
Current best estimates of the magnitude of global warming, based on computer models of the climate system, range from 4 to 9 degrees Fahrenheit. Even the lesser increase would bring about the highest average global surface temperatures of the last 100,000 years, and at an unprecedented rate. The larger increase would create surface temperatures unknown for many millions of years.
The rate of temperature change may be as critical a factor as the total amount of increase. An intermediate scenario, with a total temperature change of 6.5°F by the year 2100, would require a rate of change of 0.5°F per decade. To put this in perspective, consider how plant and animal communities would have to respond. To maintain their integrity as associations of mutually adapted species, under this "moderate" scenario entire natural communities would have to migrate poleward at a rate of six miles per year, an impossibility. In other words, further massive extinctions of species and destruction of broad areas of natural life would result.
Temperature increases of the projected magnitudes can also be expected to create synergistic effects in the atmosphere, oceans and on the land. Such effects include increases in smog, acid rain, ozone depletion, and urban heat waves; reduced water supplies; increases in the use of pesticides to respond to proliferating insect species; and major changes in landuse patterns, especially in agriculture, with possible declines in productivity. Sea levels will rise, both because water expands as it warms and because polar ice-caps will melt. Current projections are that expansion will raise sea levels by 1.5 feet by 2050, and melting will raise them as much as four feet more. As a result, most of the world's rice production will be destroyed, many major cities will be inundated, and biologically productive marsh, mangrove and other coastal habitats will be wiped out. San Francisco Bay, for example, will expand to three times its present surface area.
Added to these effects will be the continued loss of stratospheric ozone. The ozone layer in the upper atmosphere screens 99 percent of deadly solar ultraviolet radiation, reducing it to non-harmful levels at the earth's surface. Loss of ozone will inevitably damage most forms of plant and animal life. The principal cause of ozone destruction is the use of CFCs, such as freon, by industry (as propellants in spray cans, as refrigerants, solvents, and in the production of plastic foams such as styrofoam). CFCs, once produced, require more than a century to degrade. They move from release at the surface to the stratosphere over a period of several decades; as a result, 95 percent of the CFCs released between 1955 (when their use became common) to the present are still on the way. NASA predicts a global average ozone depletion of ten percent by 2050. At present, the "ozone holes" over Antarctica and the Arctic exhibit a thinning of the ozone layer of 40 percent. Major southern hemisphere cities, in Australia, Chile and Argentina, have already experienced "ozone alerts" as portions of the Antarctic hole have moved over them for weeks at a time.
Present estimates suggest that a 5 percent increase in reception of ultraviolet radiation at the earth's surface would cause about 940,000 cases of non-melanoma cancer and about 30,000 cases of melanoma. Other expected effects on humans include major increases in the incidence of cataracts, sunburn and suppression of the immune system. Cattle will be stricken by eye cancers, and terrestrial plants (including agricultural crops) will be damaged. The phytoplankton dwelling at the surface of the oceans, the base of the entire marine food chain, could be wiped out. The more scientists study the problem, the worse things look. New data on the rate of ozone depletion show former estimates to have been much too low.
Selective quotation from the works of Adam Smith has been the vogue recently among the newly-dominant neoconservative intellectuals decorating the fringes of power in the Reagan Age. The basis of his and their ideology is that "man is born to truck and barter." This ridiculous concept of human nature is the cornerstone of their belief that the greatest social benefit arises from the personal pursuit of profit by each individual. To anyone who is not totally indoctrinated this is a blatant ideological rationale for greed and exploitation, and makes no sense. The greatest good for all can only come from a social system based on mutual cooperation and caring. And as we are able to see now, our ability to provide for and support one another must extend to the biosphere as a whole and all its inhabitants equally. Together we live, divided we perish.
The data and trends presented in this review clearly show that we are faced with the prospect of incalculably severe, even catastrophic, destruction of virtually all components of the global biosphere. The cause of this annihilation of life and even of the earth's capacity to support life is the capitalist social system. Superficial critics claim that modern industrial modes of production and inherently harmful forms of technology are the problem, and that a sustainable capitalist economy could be based on "alternative" or "appropriate" technologies. They do not understand why modern industrialism has developed as it has, and why it will not be abandoned willingly, for example through legislation, by those who control it—corporations and states. The reason is profit. Only through increasingly high-tech, industrial methods of production can capitalists continue to maintain profitability. To abandon their earth-killing activities is, for them, to abandon power, social control, indeed, their very identities as "capital personified and endowed with consciousness and a will."(9)
Reforms of the capitalist system have no possibility of successfully saving the planet. The Greens' policy of "ecological capitalism" is one of despair and delusion; the market system depends upon environmental destruction for its very existence. Owen Byrd, for example, proposes measures such as allowing corporate directors to "bypass investment opportunities without being held liable for losing their shareholders' profits if the directors think a project would have too adverse an impact on the environment."(10) What Byrd does not understand is that the directorships of individual corporations (of whatever size) cannot afford to make decisions on this basis because of the advantage such voluntary restraint would give the competition. Corporate directors do not operate out of fear of the stockholders, from whom the law might protect them. All capitalist enterprises are compelled to maximize their rates of profit and accumulation of new capital, lest they be eliminated by their competition. Thus a "slow-growth" form of capitalism is out of the question. A "no-growth" form is impossible by definition; if capital is not expanding it is not capital. And there is no room for expansion left.
The most basic change required is the shift from today's insane production for profit to a rational system in which human productive activity is based upon genuine needs. These real needs, however, cannot be thought of as strictly human ones—instead, we have to have equal concern for the "ecological needs" of the earth, of all the plants, animals and physical components of the biosphere that together, and only together, guarantee a secure future for each other, humans included. Global ecological health and stability have to be the highest priority of human society. We must become responsible "stewards of the earth."
Such a change will require a global social revolution, in which the class structure of capitalism is replaced by a classless society of freely associated people living responsibly and wisely. An ecologically-viable mode of society can only be based on complete social equality. Private control of land and social resources, the money system, and wage labor, all of which are bases of capitalism, must be eliminated. Human activity must be guided by an understanding of the tolerances of the ecological foundations of each city, town, or village (we can do without many of the luxuries and poisons of today), and social products must be freely distributed as needed. Genuine community must be restored. We must care for each other and work together for common ends in a non-hierarchical society without controlling elite groups. People must be responsible for and make decisions themselves on all the matters that affect their lives.
It is time for people who care about the earth to come together in an effort that goes beyond mere single-issue activism. Environmental activists who do not understand the deep, underlying root cause of the problems they devote their efforts to solving will never recognize why they always fail to reverse the trend toward destruction. And they will never succeed unless they link together, not only with other environmental activists but with other people fighting to eliminate capitalist exploitation in all of the forms—economic, sexual, racial, or familial—which now permeate every corner of the earth and all aspects of our daily lives. For environmentalists, this means making active, real links with other forms of genuine popular struggle wherever they exist, be they wildcat strikes, squatting movements by homeless people, rent strikes, efforts to get food to the hungry, actions to protect people from industrial poisoning, efforts to liberate women from domination, or struggles to free inner-city and rural poor people from lives of degradation and sickness. It means educating ourselves and each other so that we all understand the true nature of the so-called "society" we live in, and what our real, common interests are. It means working together in a new, united, powerful attack against the interests of the rulers we slave and die for, so that we can create a real society of equals.
Deepening our understanding of the roots of the current global crisis and linking our struggles to those of other people will entail thinking and acting in new ways. We need to read deeply and widely to develop this understanding, and we need to come together in discussion groups to share it and to forge links. We have to stop allowing (or asking) others to make decisions for us; we need to take action ourselves. We can only act effectively together, therefore we have to break down the isolation in which our collective strength is lost.
Karl Marx and many others have emphasized the terrible human impacts of the capitalist system—poverty, misery, madness, suicide, alienation of the individual from himself and from others—and its injustice. Calls for and movements toward social revolution against the capitalist system have historically been based on this moral fact of injustice—capitalism is an evil system which benefits a few by exploiting the rest.
Today there is a new reason to destroy capitalism. If we don't destroy it, it will destroy the earth we (and millions of other species) live on. Recognition of the ecological need for revolution does more than simply provide another motivation. It supplies an element of urgency, a time limit that never existed before. We know that the earth's ecological tolerances have built-in limits, and that we are rapidly approaching them. Soon we will reach the point of no return. How long will it take before the oceans are irrevocably poisoned, the soils lost, the ozone layer gone? How much time do we have to construct a new, ecologically viable mode of human society? One thing is certain: if we have a future, it will not be a capitalist one.
1 John Burroughs, "Narrative of the Expedition", in Alaska: the Harriman Expedition, 1899. By John Burroughs, John Muir, et al. , Dover Publications, 1986 reprint, pp. 64-67
2 Andre Carrothers, "A Desert of Waters: toxic pollution and the Great Lakes", Greenpeace, July/August 1988; pp. 10-16
3 Michael Weisskopf, "Grim Harvest", San Francisco Examiner/ Chronicle, This World Magazine, October 9, 1988
4 Data from E.O.Wilson and Norman Myers quoted in G. Tyler Miller, Jr., Living in the Environment, 5th ed., Wadsworth Publishing, 1988; p. 295
5 Michel Foucault, "Truth and Power", in Power/Knowledge, ed. by Colin Gordon, Pantheon, 1980; p. 125
6 George Bradford, "How Deep is Deep Ecology?", Fifth Estate , Fall 1987; p. 19
7 Paul Mattick, "The United States and Indochina," in Root & Branch: the rise of the workers' movements, ed. by Root & Branch, Fawcett, 1975; pp. 174-179
8 Robert Rice and Joshua Karliner, "Militarization: the environmental impact," Environmental Project on Central America (EPOCA) Green Paper no. 3, 1986; pp. 3-4. IUCN quoted from IUCN, "Vietnam:
national conservation strategy," World Wildlife Fund, 1985; p. 18
9 Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 1, trans. by Ben Fowkes, Vintage (Pelican Marx Library), 1977, p. 254
10 Owen Byrd, "Green Capitalism: more than the color of money", Earth Island Journal, Fall 1988, pp. 47-48 •