Red Earth

Red Earth 4They lived like monkeys still, while their new god powers lay around them in the weeds. ― Kim Stanley Robinson, Red Mars

For a column to be published on Earth Day, the day of the March for Science, a reporter asked me three questions: Why are capitalism and environmentalism inherently incompatible? Why is industrial farming harmful to the environment? And why are corporate sustainability and carbon footprint reduction programs so often a farce?

Drawing from previous essays, the newly emergent ecological Marx, both sides of the John Bellamy Foster and Jason Moore debate, and the clash over environmental destruction under pre-capitalist formations, I answered all three together in what follows, parts of which the columnist may excerpt.

Capitalism is fundamentally different from any other social organization in human history. There is the matter of scale, of course. The environmental destruction arising from the system’s mode of production is now global and geological.

But there’s something else. Many a previous civilization destroyed its environs largely as an unanticipated side effect of greed and imperial ambition. Now, broadly speaking, we know damn well the consequences of “infinite” compound growth on a finite planet. And yet deforestation and widespread extinction, destroying our very capacity to reproduce ourselves, continue apace.

Why? Because environmental destruction has been stitched into the fabric of capitalism’s metaphysics from its very beginning. Newly capitalist powers grabbed other peoples’ resources from day one. And when they destroyed another culture’s land, they conquered the next indigenous group one region over. Region by region. Resource by resource. Species by species. Stripping the biosphere bare.

Big picture, it’s been this same trajectory 1450 to 2017, however agribusiness, mining, and logging have updated the specifics. Except there’s nearly nowhere and no one left to freshly expropriate, save the last of the Congo and Amazon. And companies are well on their way to snuffing these two forests–Earth’s very lungs.

Exploiting people and destroying the environment are inextricably linked. And as long as economies continue to plow through people as they plow through landscapes, the compulsions a capitalism given free reign imposes on people and politics alike will drive environmental destruction right to the end of humanity as we know it.

We all see that. But the present course is too lucrative for the most powerful to correct.

Reforms proposed from within such a system are expediently pathetic. Business plans aimed at profiting off increasing environmental efficiencies would be laughable if they weren’t so damn dangerous. By green capitalism’s own premises, such efforts are doomed to failure. Better–and cheaper–extraction, increasing efficiency per unit currency invested, selects for greater exploitation, often until a resource is exhausted.

And as environments are destroyed, what’s still left becomes more valuable. The resulting competition turns only fiercer, pursued under the guise of “saving the environment.” But the likes of Bill Gates and purveyors of GMO crops, land-grabbing across sub-Saharan Africa, are only painting their pith helmets green.

If a community’s source of wealth were thought instead to be found in its landscape and the social relations people share, rather than solely in wages from externally sourced capital or a small plot’s seasonal output, taking care of the land and local wildlife turns into a prime directive even in a global marketplace.

Wealth in a commons a population shares turns back into the kind of value neoclassical economics has long abandoned. A market that rewards efforts to destroy Earth’s remaining resources can be better resolved in favor of a civilization that conserves the environments it consumes.

In other words, we’re down to ecosocialism or barbarism. There is no other way out of the existential fix capitalism has placed us.

There must be something in the air, as unbeknownst to me the last lines were already a fellow traveler’s tagline nearly verbatim. Our collective unconscious may converge upon switching up Kim Stanley Robinson to the only somewhat facetious, living like gods when we need aspire to monkeys. But that too may be too much the false dichotomy. 

Update. Here’s the Al Jazeera piece in which Belén Fernández quotes me.

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One Response to “Red Earth”

  1. Reblogged this on Beginning to End Hunger: AgroEcoPeople and commented:
    Busy times here at #BTEHbook central, mostly catching up from my first vacation in a quite a while, which consisted of an enjoyable time hosting my parents around my new(ish) digs in Britain.

    So this week I bring you a re-post of an excellent bit of writing from political phylogeographer Rob Wallace, from his blog Farming Pathogens. Rob’s incisive critical and literary sensibilities, and friendship, were of immense help while I wrote Beginning to End Hunger. Check out his post below on the problem of capitalism, industrial food, and the environment.

    Similarly, as you will see in Beginning to End Hunger, there is no ending hunger without fundamentally challenging, resisting, and changing the capitalist institutions dominating so much of our lives. But I also propose that, as we can see from the many examples like Belo Horizonte, there’s every reason to think we can move further down this emancipatory road. But it will require, as Frances Moore Lappé points out in the preface to my book, “a willingness to try on new glasses and to embrace the joy of gaining clarity on one’s next step, letting go of any certainties beyond.”

    So I hope you enjoy today’s uncertain but insightful peak farther down the path, care of a brief perch on Rob’s Brobdingnagian shoulders.

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