Capitalist destruction of nature heats up the need for communism

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In the first half of 2022, as in so many of the previous years, the planet was plagued by numerous wildfires in France, Morocco, South Korea, Turkey and Argentina; catastrophic flooding in Pakistan, India, South Africa, Madagascar and Brazil; tropical storms in the Philippines and Mozambique, Cuba and Florida, unprecedented heat waves in India and Pakistan. The increase of temperature has considerably exacerbated the risk of extreme weather disasters. The scale of destruction it implies is terrifying: it reveals the acceleration of the decomposition of capitalism.

One of the most devastating natural disasters of 2022 occurred in Pakistan. In the first half of 2022 the country was hit by an unprecedented heat wave with temperatures of more than 50°C while in the second half of 2022, only some months later, a third of the country was flooded and made the situation completely catastrophic. In Jacobabad, a city with 200,000 inhabitants, temperatures first reached more than 49°C, and then all streets were inundated. Pakistan is known for its vulnerability to climate change and extreme weather events. This year thousands of people have died in Pakistan, 1,400 from the floods alone. Many of the flood-hit areas are receiving the barest minimum of support from the authorities. But then, capitalism is not interested in saving human lives.

The disastrous effects of rising temperatures

The planet has never been hotter. Since 1880 Earth’s temperature has risen by 0.08°C per decade, but since 1981 the rate of warming is more than twice that: 0.18°C per decade. Averaged across land and ocean, the 2021 surface temperature was 1.04°C warmer than the last two decades of the 19th century. According to the National Centres for Environmental Information (NCEI) 9 of the 10 warmest years occurred since 2005, and the five warmest years on record all occurred since 2015. NASA confirmed this observation and found that 2010-2019 was the hottest decade ever recorded. US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) discovered that greenhouse gas pollution trapped 49% more heat in the atmosphere in 2021 than they did in 1990.

But what is the relationship between rising temperatures and the ever-increasing perturbations and extremes in weather conditions? There is not an irrefutable proof that a tornado or flood in a certain part of the world is caused by rising temperatures. But in the past 30 years the number of climate-related disasters has tripled and this increase in quantity becomes a circumstantial support for the hypothesis that the major part of the weather disasters is caused by global warming - and, in the last instance, by irresponsible and destructive “human intervention”. With a probability bordering on certainty, scientists can therefore determine that the warming of the atmosphere, the ocean and the land is at the root of the majority of the ever more devastating “natural” disasters.

The increase of air and water temperatures leads to rising sea levels and the massive melting of the icecaps, to supercharged storms and higher wind speeds, prolonged heat waves and more intense droughts, heavy downpours and massive flooding, making more and more parts of the planet uninhabitable. And as direct consequences of these crisis-ridden conditions we saw that:

  • between 2011 and 2020 the attendant destruction around the globe totalled approximately $2.5 trillion, up almost 50 percent from the 2001-2010 figure;
  • since 2008 every year more than 20 million people were forced from their homes, a number that increased year after year, reaching 30.7 million in 2020 alone;
  • from 1970 to 2019 there were more than 11,000 reported disasters attributed to natural hazards globally, with more than two million registered deaths.

The destruction of nature by mankind has a very long history, but in previous societies this destruction was so limited that nature was able to recover from it. But within capitalism that changed dramatically: it developed productive forces which were able to change the face of nature in whole regions in a relatively short time. During the industrial revolution, for instance, the exploitation of copper and coal mines led to the destruction of large forests in South Wales (Great Britain) within a couple of decades, changing the landscape forever.

But man cannot make such profound changes to nature with impunity. “At every step we are reminded that we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people. (…) For each such victory nature takes its revenge on us” [1]. Today, or rather in the last few decades, we can see how nature, after 140 years of ruthless plundering by capital, is beginning to “take its revenge” on a global scale. The processes set in motion by the destruction of nature hits back at society like a boomerang in the form of a rapid increase in natural disasters with long-lasting and increasingly devastating effects.

Global warming is inherent to the capitalist mode of production

Under capitalist conditions each unit of capital must accumulate and expand under the spur of competition with other capitals. It has to produce as efficiently as possible, with the highest productivity and the lowest possible cost. Every activity of capital is constantly aimed at the growth of profit and the increase of the exploitation of nature: labour power, soil, raw materials, etc. Profitability is the beginning and the end of every capitalist enterprise.

Within capitalism the aim is not the creation of more useful products (“use values”), but the widening of commodity production for the sake of profit. Capital has made the increasing volume of production, the expansion of the market and the reproduction of value on an enlarged scale, as an end in itself. And the more capital has accumulated, the more is it able to accumulate. Accumulation for accumulation’s sake, production for production’s sake, that is what characterises capitalism. The eternal continuation of each production cycle on an ever-larger scale becomes, in the end, in the period of decadence of capitalism, a completely irrational and even destructive logic.

For capital nature is a “free gift”, it has no price for except, for the discovery and extraction, it has no cost. From the capitalist point of view, nature is a storehouse of raw materials that can be plundered to its heart’s content. Therefore, in the accounts of capitalist companies, all costs are precisely noted (transport, machines, labour, etc.), but not the damage caused to nature by capitalist production process. Sometimes damage to nature is restored, but most of the time not by the company that caused it.

In the period of the decadence of capitalism, and in particular because of the needs of the war economy, each national state is obliged to strengthen its grip on society and to subject more and more parts of economic life to its direct control. State capitalism became the dominant characteristic and has more and more imprisoned private capital in its straitjacket. Today the entirety of capital in a nation is concentrated around the state apparatus. In this way the merciless competition between private companies is for the great part absorbed by and turned into the cutthroat competition between the nation states.

What has this to do with the problem of global warming? It means that the main decisions in the struggle against global warming do not depend on the decisions of private capitals, but on the policy of national states. And the balance-sheet of the policy of the national states in protecting the climate is not positive. On the contrary, in the period of the imperialist blocs, until 1989, when the nations were under the yoke of the bloc leader and compelled to work together, the bourgeoisie already proved to be incapable to do anything substantial to prevent the further destruction of nature. But in the present phase of decomposition of capitalism, when the cohesion of the blocs no longer exists and the relations between the nations are dominated by “each for himself”, increasing centrifugal forces and growing military chaos, things only have become worse: any effort to decide a joint policy to safeguard the climate from warming and to prevent ever more dramatic weather disasters have become illusory. Nowadays all tendencies point towards an increasing political chaos in which any attempt to build a global consensus between nation states, even when they present themselves as “socialist”, the dream of the leftist factions of the bourgeoisie, is doomed to fail. And all the international conferences for the “protection” of nature over the last thirty year testify to this failure.

The destruction of nature to the point that it can no longer really recover, is directly linked to capitalism. Capitalism is absolutely unable to change the economic laws (the urge to expand, to concentrate and to make more profits) that are responsible for the ever-increasing damage to nature. Bourgeois society shows itself “like the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells”[2]. Rising temperatures and global warming are inherent to the capitalist mode of production.

This means that in order to stop this catastrophic dynamic it is necessary to get rid of the capitalist mode of production.

It is not necessary here to dwell on the numerous bleak but realistic forecasts or on the various doom-laden scenarios that await us if the rise in temperature is not halted. There is plenty of material on the internet, in magazines and books and of course on our website, for example the article The world on the eve of an environmental catastrophe (International Review no. 135) However there is one thing which should be mentioned, and that is the fact that we are fast approaching the point of no return. We are dangerously close to the emergence of “feedback effects”, where carbon and methane emissions from defrosting peat lands and the arctic permafrost, which can warm the atmosphere 20 times more than carbon, increase so rapidly as to be unstoppable, causing global warming to continue even if all human emissions were to stop.

Climate change and war

The war industry is highly polluting. It is estimated that the emissions from armies, and the industries that supply them, are responsible for about 5% of global emissions, more than air and shipping combined. The US military alone emits more greenhouse gases per year than countries like Spain, Portugal or Sweden, and as much as the yearly emission of 257 million cars. The Cost of War Research Project in Boston calculated that the emissions for all US military operations from 2001 to 2017 are estimated to be about 766 million metric tons of CO2.

In February 2022 the US Army released its first climate strategy (ACS), which aims to slash its emissions in half by 2030, for instance by electrifying its combat and non-tactical vehicles, by powering its bases with carbon-free electricity and by developing clean global supply chains.

For an institution that regularly releases tens of thousands of kilotons of carbon dioxide a year and that is responsible for the most poisonous environmental contamination through materials such as Agent Orange, rocket fuel, and toxic fire-fighting foam, this plan is utterly hypocritical. It is a perfect illustration of the green washing campaign of the US Army: completely inadequate, and wholly diversionary.

Militarism continues to poison the planet and to contribute to global warming. The impact of the war in Ukraine on the environment is already disastrous. There is evidence of severe air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions resulting from the intense and permanent battles. Russian missiles attacked a number of oil and gas facilities in Ukraine. The resulting fires gave rise to heavy emissions. In the first five weeks of the war already alone 36 Russian attacks on fossil fuel infrastructure were recorded, leading to prolonged fires releasing soot particulates, methane and carbon into the atmosphere. The Ukraine army struck back and set oil infrastructure ablaze on the Russian side.

And that is not all. Both sides do not hesitate to use the nuclear power plant of Zaporizhzhia, the largest in Europe, as a target for their military clashes. The four high-voltage lines, which must supply the plant with offside power to run its safety and cooling system, etc., are systematically cut by shelling. Thus the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency said at 9 September that the risk of a nuclear accident at the power plant has “significantly increased”. Any further destruction of the infrastructure around the power plant could already have immense consequences, even a nuclear disaster on the scale of Fukushima.

Western European countries have agreed to get rid of fossil fuels from Russia. Wouter De Vriendt of the Green Party spoke in the Belgian parliament about a great opportunity “to get rid of fossil fuels”. But the reality is completely different. The war in Ukraine will not mean a breakthrough in the conversion to cleaner energy. Russian gas and oil will be replaced by fossil fuels, some of which are even more polluting, such as shale gas mining and lignite mining. Germany, Austria, and the Netherlands hypocritically announced the lifting of restrictions on fossil-fuel power plants and have extended the lives of a dozen coal plants that were scheduled to close by 2030. In fact, the Western countries are using the war in Ukraine as an alibi to strengthen their own fossil energy industry.

“Degrowth”: a false solution for increasing climate disasters

The word degrowth was formulated for the first time in 1972 when André Gorz posed the question about the relation between growth and capitalism. The degrowth movement itself started about 30 years later. In 2002, the French magazine “Silence” published a special issue on the topic of degrowth, which received lots of public attention. The first international degrowth conference for Ecological Sustainability and Social Equity took place in Paris in 2008. This gave a real impetus to the movement and thereafter several important publications were issued.

There is no one clearly defined degrowth ideology. One point that is endorsed by the whole movement is that there are limits to growth and so its aim to replace quantitative growth by qualitative growth or development. Degrowth, we are told, can be done in many ways, but common suggestions are to stop the production of useless consumer goods, of the goods with built-in obsolescence or goods that cannot be repaired, to phase out fossil fuels, to replace private transport by public transport, dismantling the arms industry and the military-industrial complex, etc.

These suggestions make much sense in themselves. The question is whether they could ever be carried out in the framework of capitalism. They are “based on a very accurate observation: in the capitalist system, production is not carried out to meet the needs of humanity but for profit, and in so doing not only does it not generate well-being (far from it) but also destroys the planet. The solution, for the proponents of degrowth, is therefore to consume better and less. [But ] the theory of degrowth only touches on one part of the problem and in a superficial way; it does not get to the heart of the matter”[3].

Within the ecological movement there are also currents who have understood this, arguing that capitalism is causing the climate crisis and that “any true alternative to this perverse and destructive dynamic needs to be radical - that is, must deal with the roots of the problem: the capitalist system. (…) Ecosocialist degrowth is one such alternative”[4]. Of course, we agree that capitalism cannot solve the problem of global warming; because it is inherent to the logic of its system. Thus, capitalism itself has to be abolished.

But the actual proposals by these “ecosocialists” to create the necessary conditions for the abolition of capitalism are far from radical. While arguing for the “social appropriation of the main means of (re)production”[5], we remain completely in the dark about who should appropriate these means of (re)production. The people, as is suggested? But in class society, the “people” as a category does not exist, or only as an abstraction. And it is impossible to attribute the means of production to an abstraction. The only conclusion that remains is that they are to be taken over by the state, whose destruction the “ecosocialists” do not envision.

Thus, the formulation that “the main decisions on the priorities of production and consumption will be decided by people themselves” is mainly a cover-up for the fundamental democratic leanings of the authors, which do not go beyond the confines of the capitalist mode of production. Despite its “radical” language, the ideology of ecosocialism is an excellent instrument for guiding genuine concerns about the climate crisis away from the need for a fundamental change in social relations into the dead-end of the impossible reform of the existing order.

But worse, the idea of “degrowth” under a state capitalist regime can also function as an ideological justification for further attacks on the living conditions of the workers. It could be used to appeal to workers to reduce their consumption on behalf of state-run “pro-environment” policies. In the end it would only mean more austerity.

Capitalism cannot be reformed. It is a moribund system of exploitation and it is taking humanity into the abyss with it. Therefore, any real fight against the further destruction of nature will be impossible as long as capitalism rules the planet. The real change in the relationship between man and nature can only start to take effect under the dictatorship of the proletariat. The balance between man and nature “can only consist in socialised man, the associated producers, rationally regulating their interchange with Nature”[6].

Dennis, October 2022



Ecological crisis