The Green Transformation

By Skip Barry

This article is from the May/June 1997 issue of Dollars and Sense: The Magazine of Economic Justice available at

This article is from the May/June 1997 issue of Dollars & Sense magazine.

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The Vulnerable Planet: A Short Economic History of the Environment, by John Bellamy Foster (Monthly Review Press, 1994)

Is Capitalism Sustainable?: Political Economy and the Politics of Ecology, Martin O'Connor, editor (Guilford Press, 1994)

Amid cries for more environmental regulation and for more environmentally friendly technologies come these two books which say, that's fine -- but it is not enough. Without a revolution at the roots of our history and society, the ecological crisis may soon destroy human society as we know it.

For proof, says John Bellamy Foster in The Vulnerable Planet, just take a quick look at history. Many of the world's greatest civilizations crumbled largely due to ecological collapse. Throughout history, all forms of social organization damaged the environment even as they tried to reduce their subservience to it. But capitalism speeds up the process in two ways. It pushes what were previously regional catastrophes to planetary levels. And in evaluating all nature by whether it boosts profit margins, capitalism's exploitation becomes all-encompassing. Foster's historical approach exposes the limits of mainstream thinking, which stresses technology, overpopulation and consumption as the primary agents of ecological decline. These factors only play a role, Foster argues, because of the destructive dynamics of global capitalism.

Whereas The Vulnerable Planet is a readable chronicle aimed at a general audience, the essays gathered in Is Capitalism Sustainable? are more abstract. Originally published in the journal Capitalism, Nature, Socialism, their Marxist-leaning authors give us the theoretical tools to understand the complexities of ever-mutating forms of capitalism, as well as the former Soviet bloc. One essay, for example, evaluates how liberal environmental reforms—like having the government issue a fixed number of pollution "credits" that businesses can trade among themselves, or using cost-benefit analysis to gauge whether it is financially worthwhile to save a species from extinction—further solidify the ideological hold of global capitalism and prevent us from questioning the uncontrolled plundering of nature.

Both books stress the marketplace's utilitarian approach to the environment. Nature is a source to be "tapped" for both raw materials and energy which then get used by the economy before being dumped as waste into nature as a "sink" at the other end. Predictably, the craving for profits depletes resources and overflows the sinks. The Vulnerable Planet's outstanding feature is the graceful and accessible way it traces this pattern within capitalism's three major stages. Foster characterizes the first, mercantilist, stage as involving cash-crop production—primarily of cotton and tobacco—and the rapid slaughter of wildlife by fur traders invading the Americas. This dependence on a few crops replaced the diversified farming methods of indigenous people, led to rapid soil depletion and, as more forests were cleared, to soil erosion. In this first stage, Native America was plundered to meet the need for new land even as a slave system was devised to meet the need for cheap labor.

Next came the machine capitalism of the Industrial Revolution in the mid-19th century, which stepped up the pace of ecological destruction. With the invention of the steam engine and as timber became scarce, coal mining began in earnest with corresponding increases in pollution. The factory system helped form the modern city as we know it, along with local, regional and global environmental hazards.

With the rise of monopoly capitalism in the 20th century, more intensive destruction takes place. Giant corporations come to global prominence and science becomes integrated within the capitalist system. Big business now has greater abilities to extract resources and develop synthetic products (fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides) that increase crop yields in the short run. Its destruction of habitats, replacement of native species with a few transplanted ones, and genetic engineering have led to the loss of biodiversity and the destruction of ecosystems and local economies worldwide. With farm mechanization and the automobile, demand for petrochemicals increases along with its associated pollutants. But as a consequence, finding fresh supplies of fossil fuels and uncontaminated farmland becomes difficult.

Consequently, two problems arise for big business: rising environmental costs and the need for social control. Both are what Is Capitalism Sustainable? calls capitalism's "second crisis." The first, or "demand," crisis arose when the thirst for profits led business to lower wages to the point of stirring workers to action, and of interfering with their ability to purchase consumer goods. This hurt profits, and a new mode of thinking developed that turned workers from exploitable things into "human capital" in control of their own destinies. At least in part of the world, their absolute exploitation became relative, their standards of living rose, and businesses reaped the profits.

Now capitalism faces a second, or "supply," crisis as natural resources dwindle. Both costs and the environmental awareness of the public are rising. All this threatens the smooth operation of the capitalist enterprise. It can't be helped; capitalism constantly destroys the very social and natural environment that it depends upon to sustain itself. In response, corporate and government agencies now tell us that we must treat the environment not as an object to be tapped or dumped into, but as "capital" to be protected by "rational management." Better resource and waste management, though a bit costly, helps to keep the public and environmental groups in check. But while the rate of resource extraction slows down, in reality depletion continues and business goes on relatively unimpeded. The improved living standards won by workers following the "first" crisis eventually began to deteriorate; similarly, efforts to control the "second" crisis fail to halt the decline of environmental conditions.

Overall, these books warn against being duped by corporate/government green rhetoric and liberal solutions to the environmental crisis. They stress that appeals to personal restraint in childbearing or green consumerism or more environmentally friendly technologies or more government regulation are necessary, but can also divert attention from the real culprit. Solutions involving cost-benefit analysis or other market-infused jargon only reinforce the very system responsible for environmental destruction. New ecological and economic alternatives that transform the way we produce and distribute goods need to be devised by a wide-ranging coalition not under the control of market interests.

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