Understanding capitalism’s drive to destroy the environment

Printer-friendly version

Book Review:- A new green history of the world: the environment and the collapse of great civilizations

In the light of the recent concerted propaganda campaigns undertaken by large industrial concerns, some politicians, Christian fundamentalists and various capitalist apologists against the science of global warming, and given Conoco Phillips, Caterpillar and BP's recent defection from Obama's token US Climate Action Partnership, Clive Ponting's book, which underlines the threats to our very existence, provides a welcome antidote.

This is a revised edition of a book of Ponting from 1991. Why has the author felt the need for a new edition in which every chapter, apart from the first, has been revised, rewritten and expanded? The answer lies in the deterioration and increasing destruction of the planet and capitalism's inability to even begin to deal with it. Ponting says that in the first edition he struck a balance between pessimism and optimism. Having continued to diligently and thoroughly research the changing situation and the growing dangers for mankind, Ponting was forced to return to the question as most changes during that time were "changes for the worst", as he says in his 2007 preface. There are a billion more people on the planet. Billions more tonnes of CO2 have been pumped into the atmosphere. We have seen the manifest failure of ‘international cooperation'; states offering "no remedy" and the complete failure of the world's leading power, the USA, to seriously address the question. Indeed, the major concern of the USA to maintain and develop its military capacities against all rivals leaves it not only incapable of focussing on the dangers but actively contributing to them. Ponting also notes the question of ‘positive feedback' and irreversible changes, where global warming affects the elements that further exacerbate global warming and threaten to spiral out of control. Though most of these effects are, they do not necessarily have to be man-made. Take the example of the release of methane from under the Siberian tundra, a natural phenomenon far more dangerous for global warming than CO2, but one that capitalism will do nothing about. This second edition is much more pessimistic about capitalism's ability to solve any of the problems facing the global environment.

A process unwinding through history

The strength of this book is in its broad historical sweep, starting with hunter-gatherer societies, through to what Ponting calls "the first transition" of agriculture and the rise and fall of civilisations up to his "second transition" around 1800 to the systematic use of fossil fuels during capitalism's ‘industrial revolution.'

He describes the general harmony of hunter-gatherers with their environment and points to evidence of their conservation methods. Ponting posits some large-scale extinctions of animals by hunter-gatherers, but what scientific evidence there is around this issue contradicts the idea. He sees sedentism, i.e. settlement, as a consequence of agriculture rather than the other way round which explains the development of agriculture better than anything. He details the rise of civilisation (what Marx agreed with Fourier was "the war of the rich against the poor") and details the rise and the fall of many of these civilisations as due to man-made environmental consequences.

The lessons of the destruction of Easter Island, right at the beginning of the book, set the tone for Ponting's detailed research and analysis: that civilisation is not only a war of rich against poor, but of ruling classes against the planet itself. On Easter Island, an analogy for the whole period to come, ideological and economic short-termism literally destroyed the ground under these people's feet, reducing these once great sea-farers to paddling about in the shallows in reed boats in a pathetic and unsuccessful bid to survive.

Within a thousand years of the advent of agriculture proper, the environment was being damaged by deforestation and soil erosion. Soil doesn't just get displaced - it can easily be destroyed as a productive medium (Marx talks of capitalism destroying the soil and the workers in the same sentence). Disease jumping from domesticated animals was also a negative factor from agriculture.

Tracing the decline of its agricultural base, the great Sumerian Empire collapsed into an impoverished backwater. Some centuries later, the same thing happened in Central Mesopotamia and again, a few centuries later, around Baghdad. Similarly, due to extended irrigation and the consequent salinisation of the soil and deforestation, the civilisation of the Indus Valley collapsed around 4,000 years ago. China, the most advanced civilisation by 1200, was also affected by man-made environmental factors and most of its peoples lived in a permanent state of near-starvation. The civilisations around Syria were similarly affected and the great Mayan Empire collapsed into starvation, increased mortality, warfare, disease and decay due to deforestation, soil erosion and declining crop yields. In China, Japan, Ethiopia, Mesoamerica, the Central Andes, Western Asia, the elites and their entourages had to be supported by the masses engaged in food production, though this did engender major scientific advances at many levels - while not lessening the suffering of the masses. These states more and more coerced their populations and a consequence was large-scale warfare, great massacres, starvation, deprivation and deportations. Many of these states brought about their own collapse.

The book details the global independent development of agriculture and the independent development of states ruled by religious, political and royal elites with different environmental issues playing a part in their rise and fall. In the 6th century, Solon was arguing against cultivation on steep slopes of Greece and Engels points out the role of over-grazing in the decline of Greece. Environmental factors played a part in the fall of the Roman Empire, particularly its provinces and especially North Africa.

The rise of capitalism

Christianity decreed the superiority of man over flora and fauna and, though there was some dissent from this within Christianity and Judaism, this was God-given, eternal and part of the Divine Plan. Even in the eastern religions, where man was more at one with nature, unlike the Judaeo-Christian and Islamic religions, the economic and political forces in these areas also plundered the earth. The classical civilised idea in rising capitalism was that everything in nature is there for the provision of man and, though this idea was strongly undermined by Darwinism, it remains the blind ideology and driving force of capitalism today in its rapacious destruction of the planet and its unquenchable thirst for profits.

The reinforcement of God's order of the supremacy of man over nature well-suited what Ponting calls the ‘second transition', the rise of capitalism where the contradiction of rise and fall is brought to its apogee. However he sees the rise of capitalism, he doesn't distinguish it from the previous modes of production of civilisation. Whereas these previous societies were characterised by underproduction, capitalism is marked by overproduction - not in relation to need but in relation to profits. Indeed, the ecological problems are greatly exacerbated by capitalism's frenzied quest for profits, ever greater production and growth.

Ponting clearly details the horrors of the rise of capitalism and its destruction of life through work, disease, pollution, urban sprawls, short-termism, poverty and its wanton destruction of the structure of the planet. He also points out that, contrary to previous societies, under capitalism it's not the shortage of food itself but the shortage of money to buy food that causes starvation and malnutrition. He details the massive wastages of shipping commodities around the world, built-in obsolescence and advertising. One telling example that he gives in relation to capitalism's ability to deal with global warming (for which he underlines the evidence) is the way it dealt with the depletion of the ozone layer. This is a relatively easy problem to deal with involving scrapping one cheap, easy to produce chemical and replacing it with another, safer one. Capitalism fought against this tooth and nail because profits were at risk and, to date, at least a million people have died from cancers due to this problem. It took years of denial and years of endless meetings until the problem was addressed, and then only when profits were assured. Ozone levels will be back to 1974 levels by 2065 at the earliest, so many more will still die. Global warming is a much more extensive and complex problem that goes to the heart and soul of capitalism and its necessity for profits. We can have no illusions that capitalism will seriously address this question.

Rejection of marxism

The book tends to ignore the development of imperialism which is intimately linked to the destruction of the environment and a potential threat to humanity in itself. It also tends to see the problem lying with ‘liberal' deregulated capitalism, which itself collapsed just after the book's publication, making not a bit of difference to the perspective. But our main criticism is the book's rejection of marxism. Ponting maintains that marxism "disregarded the environmental consequences" because of the necessity for increased production by the working class. He further distorts Marx by seeing his early Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts (EPM) as "more idealistic". He quotes an ambiguous statement by Marx: "Nature taken abstractly, for itself, and fixedly isolated from man, is nothing for man" out of context, along with other quotes that Marx relates to capital and nature. But Ponting sees communism as a particular part of capitalism, a totalitarian expression of it where there is a direct line: Marx and Engels, Lenin, Stalin, the abomination of the Soviet Union. In this respect, he's a straight purveyor of bourgeois ideology.

More significant for the views of Marx on nature is the work of John Bellamy Foster and particularly his Marx's Ecology, Materialism and Nature, where he demonstrates the centrality of ecology for a materialist understanding of history from a marxist point of view. This expands on Marx's thought, showing that Marx understood alienation to include human estrangement from the natural world and demonstrating that capitalism is the main problem. Foster clearly links capitalism to the destruction of the ecosystem. Capitalism's framework is from the irrational perspective of profits and productive growth at all costs from which no solution can come and global warming is just one (major) problem that shows the need for massive social reorganisation. Foster quotes Marx: "Man lives from nature, i.e. nature is his body and he must maintain a continuing dialogue with it if he is not to die." Capitalism is incapable of working with nature and its very operation violates nature as the drive to accumulate profits intensifies its destructiveness.

A last word from Marx (Capital, volume 3, chapter 46): "From the standpoint of a higher socio-economic formation, the private property of individuals on the earth will appear just as absurd as the private property of one man in other men. Even an entire society, a nation, or all simultaneously existing societies taken together, are not the owners of the earth. They are simply its possessors, it beneficiaries, and have to bequeath it in an improved state to succeeding generations, as boni patres familias" (‘good heads of the household' in terms of working for future generations).  

Baboon 19/02/10

see also:

Copenhagen shows that capitalism has no solutions

General and theoretical questions: 


Recent and ongoing: