Capitalism incapable of reversing environmental crisis

After decades of international conferences like Rio and Kyoto, despite local victories and major protests, the destruction of humanity’s environment continues. The land, air and seas are getting more polluted, forests are shrinking, coral reefs are dying and climate change is accelerating.

Don’t the capitalists who control most world production care about human survival — even their own? Can’t they see where this is leading? Or are they incapable of stopping it? This column, second of three, argues that for profound social, economic and political reasons, they are incapable of reversing course.

One major reason is deepening poverty under capitalism. The tripling of oil prices since 1998 alone has significantly worsened poverty and environmental damage. Too poor to afford oil and gas, hundreds of millions of people around the world have no choice but to cut trees for heating and cooking. This damages the biosphere, while wasting humanity’s time and health.

A few Wall Street families in control of oil and banking are suffering with “too much money,” while expensive oil negatively impacts most businesses and governments. Businesses stressed by rising oil prices and debts inevitably take more shortcuts, dumping waste and introducing untested chemicals, seeds and drugs into the environment.

Governments are reducing or privatizing their already skimpy environmental oversight of businesses, and cutting back on infrastructure, education and research. Experts speak of the “collapse” of global public health. In most capitalist countries, the physical infrastructure, including waste treatment, is declining. Functional illiteracy is leaping even in the U.S. Hurricane Katrina lifted the veil on social and individual poverty and inequality in the richest capitalist country.

Deepening poverty also precipitates wars, and wars destroy environments. There were some 40 wars and significant armed conflicts in the world last year.

According to a major mid-1990s study by economic historian Angus Maddison, income per person fell about 1 percent per year in 143 (capitalist) countries between 1973 and 1995. This result, so damning of a system, has been hushed up even by Maddison.

Many indicators point to worsening global poverty. Agricultural producers are committing suicide in India in unprecedented numbers, while its “economy” is supposedly booming. Wages fell over 10 percent in Sri Lanka last year, while GDP grew 7.5 percent.

Capitalism is incapable of halting the damage for other basic reasons. Unprecedented long-term planning, organization and implementation are essential to address environmental damage and deal with the dislocations humanity faces in coming decades.

For such planning to be effective, profound control and interest from below is essential. Capitalism, however, is a top-down system. (The Pentagon is promoting top-down proposals to cool the earth by further polluting it.) Capitalist crises also overturn plans, halting necessary scientific studies, public works projects, etc.

Pollution does not stop at borders. Capitalism must maintain borders to divide and rule the masses, while it insists on international freedom for capital movement. The number of borders worldwide grew sharply after capitalist restoration in the USSR. Borders are major blocks to effective international planning and execution of environmental remediation.

Debt service is another reason for capitalism’s paralysis. Debt service — primarily income security for the richest of the rich — is claiming an ever-growing share of the worker-created surplus, blocking its use to meet human needs, including environmental needs. Interest payments by federal and local governments in the U.S. alone claimed $388 billion in 2006 — enough to end all malnutrition worldwide. As Marx explained, under capitalism the weight of the past suffocates the present.

Furthermore, capitalism will not “invest” in environmental remediation if it is not profitable. But many essential environmental projects will not be profitable. Projects that may be profitable in the U.S., which consumes over 85 percent of the world’s savings, are not possible in poorer capitalist countries.

Private insurance, that other arm of finance capital, simply will not insure many necessary projects. Yet such insurance is required against inevitable mistakes and failures. Private ownership of land and speculation in land are profoundly hostile to environmental health.

Leadership by the working class is necessary for environmental remediation. For those who may disagree with this general condemnation of capitalism, let us work together on necessary environmental tasks. We will rejoice where we succeed. When we hit immovable walls, let us work together to replace capitalism.

economics @cpusa.org

Marc Brodine, Richard Levins and Beatrice Lumpkin contributed to this column.