Capitalism the culprit in the Sixth Extinction

The journal Science Advances has published an article in which they state that the Earth’s population of mammal species is dying off at 20 to 100 times their average rate. No space rock or massive volcano to blame, the culprit is much closer to home.

The culprit is capitalism.

Dubbed “the Holocene extinction,” scientists have found that 477 species have gone extinct in the last 100 years whereas, under normal conditions derived from study of the fossil record, that number of species should have been two.

The Holocene extinction, sometimes called the Sixth Extinction, is a name proposed to describe the currently ongoing extinction event of species during the present Holocene epoch (since around 10,000 BCE) mainly due to human activity.

Scientists blame these developments on the results of human productive activity, which, at this stage, is guided by the profit motive. How many times have we read about industrial plants dumping whatever useless and toxic byproduct they produce into green spaces or waterways to save money?

It’s a trope any child would be familiar with: every cartoon having an episode where some mustachioed evildoer is sacrificing natural beauty for unnatural profit.

Energy lobbies fight tirelessly to maintain their ability to flout regulation and the entrenched car companies work to pass state level legislation to prevent clean transport alternatives like Tesla [electric car] from taking steps to make their product affordable. 

Credit where credit is due, the people’s movements have been able to move the Obama administration to implement rules at the EPA that have done things like double car mileage standards and tighten up restrictions on CO2 emissions. That being said, when the regulations on something like coal plants can be undone like they were recently at the Supreme Court because they fail to take into consideration costs (read: lost profits) we know that we face a deep seated structural problem.

When the court establishes that precedent, the legislative and executive branches can only do so much in their current form. With capitalism at the roots of all three branches of government, how can we expect them to? The passage of fast track for the environmentally irresponsible Trans-Pacific Partnership via some deft maneuvering in the face of a popular uproar led by the trade union movement we’re once again reminded that the U.S. government works on behalf of the owning class.

With the 15 largest container ships producing as much nitrogen oxide and sulphur dioxide into the air as the earth’s 760 million cars, expanding trade with Pacific Rim countries without regard to serious environmental regulation is a long term loss for the planet.

Any internal change within capitalism toward a trajectory aligned with our higher ideals, as President Obama said during his interview on WTF with Marc Maron, can only be implemented “by degrees.” Maron, the former liberal radio show host, described the U.S. president’s position as “middle management” and correctly so in this respect.

Can we wrest control?

Humans are capable of great things, but we’re a young species. We’re hurtling toward catastrophe, but it’s exciting! We’re pulling resources out of the ground refining them in a crude fashion, stocking our shelves with frivolities, come what may!

Our current stage of ethical consumerism is a trend in production responding to the harsh objective truths of climate change. It’s equivalent to those first signs that it may be time to “get help” as a species, like experiencing your first hangover that lasts all day and swearing to drink only on the weekends.

It may take rock bottom, but if life on earth is to survive then we must reorient the means by which we survive currently toward keeping a balance with nature.

Some organizations believe that change by degrees is fundamentally impossible. Though few in number, there are those that recommend total de-industrialization but I cannot square that with considerations for quality of life. Keeping with the alcoholism metaphor, withdrawals can be lethal.

The reason alcoholics enter treatment is because treatment imposes structure. Treatment led by professionals plans out the patient’s day and addresses the root of the problem, often trauma in the patient’s past. It’s an unpleasant process for a while, but it is ultimately liberating. We are experiencing the anarchy of capitalist production, sloppily stumbling and spilling our waste around the planet. Only a socialism that places nature at the center of its plan can turn us around from our self-destructive course.

One of the defined attributes of addiction is continued use regardless of consequences. Rock bottom for individuals manifests in many ways, but the most tragic way is when a person under the influence is responsible for the taking of another life. Our addiction to free market anarchy has cost the lives of 477 whole species in the last 100 years and we haven’t truly reckoned with the implications as a society.

“People and nature before profits” is a slogan for the age of the Holocene extinction, but it must be more than that. Any groups organizing around social justice should do their best to incorporate an environmental component. The solidarity between unions and environmental groups especially should be strengthened. A global society must have global responsibilities and its up to the people’s movements to lead.

Photo: A sign that perfectly demonstrated the all-inclusive nature of the People’s Climate March, October 2014. Heather Craig/Flickr/People’s


Patrick J. Foote
Patrick J. Foote

Patrick Foote writes occasionally for People's World. At the University of Central Florida, he worked with the Student Labor Action Project organizing around the intersection of student and worker issues. He would go on to work in the labor movement in such organizations as Central Florida Jobs with Justice, AFSCME Council 79, and OUR Walmart.