Catastrophes: Capitalism is a threat to the survival of humanity

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Exceptionally strong cyclones (250km per hour) on the Indian coast in October; flood rains in western Africa between July and October, and in Venezuela in December; drought in the Middle East and Australia; storms hitting western Europe in late December. The list of meteorological calamities in 1999 was endless and has to be added to all the others of the past few years (Hurricane Mitch in central America, floods in China and Bangla Desh, etc etc). The year 2000 has begun in the same way with cyclones and floods wreaking havoc in southern Africa. Hundreds of thousands of people have made homeless, in South Africa, Zimbabwe, and above all Mozambique.

The death toll has yet to be established, but in addition to the hundreds and perhaps thousands swept away by the floods, many more will die from the disease and malnutrition that follow. As usual it is the proletariat and the oppressed who pay the heaviest price for these ‘natural’ disasters, in deaths, injuries, and homes destroyed. The bourgeoisie limits itself to counting up the damage and pouring out crocodile tears. Just consider, for example, Britain’s contribution to the flood relief work in Mozambique. Its a drop iwork in Mozambique. Its a drop in the ocean compared to what the British government poured into the ‘humanitarian’ job of reducing Serbia to rubble.

Is all this unavoidable? The UN’s World Meteorological Organisation has for years been issuing warnings about the evolution of global climate. In France, after the December storms, the press was filled with popularised explanations about the greenhouse effect and global warming. The boldest journalists humbly begged our government’s - because we know how concerned they with the common good – to find new policies in order to reduce the build-up of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide, CFCs, methane. It’s all a lot of noise for nothing: things just go on until the next catastrophe.

The total responsibility of irresponsible capitalism

We are not trying to deny the complexity of climatic phenomena: indeed, developing a better understanding and finding a clearer model for them is still one of the great scientific goals that humanity must strive for. We don’t claim to be able to offer the formal proof that there is a single connecting link between all these exceptional climatic events. Nevertheless it remainc events. Nevertheless it remains the case that:

  • global warming is disturbingly real. Average temperatures have gone up by 0.7oC during the last hundred years. The last decade was the hottest not only of the century but also of the last millennium. After 1998, the hottest year ever recorded, 1999 remained very hot (it was the hottest in Britain for 341 years). At this rate, the temperature will have gone up by between 1.5 oC and 4.5 oC by 2100;
  • these increases, however small they may seem, hide the considerable variations which reinforce the violence of storms and tempests of the El Nino type (the one in 97-98 left over 20,000 dead in Colombia);
  • the arctic ice cap has thinned by 40% in 30 years, and is losing 37,000 square km per year. Icebergs measured in the Antarctic (up to 3,600 metres deep, making it possible to go back 420,000 years in time) show that the present concentrations of carbon dioxide and methane "have reached a level never previously encountered" (Jean-Robert Petit, CNRS, in Le Monde 10.6.99) and that these gases play a decisive role in climatic variations;
  • the rapidly increant face="Arial">the rapidly increasing desertification of certain regions and the persistence of the ozone hole over the Antarctic are all convergent phenomena that we cannot go into any further here.

The natural catastrophes are thus not quite so ‘natural’ after all. For the first time in the history of humanity, man has been influencing the global evolution of climate at a stupefying pace. But the bourgeoisie does not want to know and above all it doesn’t want to give itself the means to know. It cannot afford to establish an irrefutable link between the destructive activities of capitalism (such as industrial pollution, but also the irrationality of transport in the megacities or the massive deforestation of the Amazon) and the climatic irregularities. But for over twenty years now the scientific community has been ringing the alarm bells about the greenhouse effect, the risks posed by the deforestation of the Amazon, etc.

At the most, the bourgeoisie will agree to take these links into account as one hypothesis in a debate of ideas, taking refuge in the argument that the scientists, in the present state of their knowledge, cannot pronounce categorically on the subject; furthermore they are rather fond of the thesis that global w of the thesis that global warming is the result of a climatic cycle that takes place on a very long term basis, i.e. longer than human history. This ‘alternative theory’ of long climatic cycles is however less credible given that following this logic, we are more likely to be heading towards a new ice age! Here we can see the irresponsibility and arrogance of a bourgeoisie which doesn’t have any ‘scientific certainty’.

But what the bourgeoisie is also trying to hide is the total responsibility of the capitalist system as regards the consequences of natural catastrophes. Whether we’re talking about storms, cyclones, floods, droughts or earthquakes, the frightful scale of material damage and loss of life derives entirely from the laws of capitalist profit: crazy rates of urbanisation (50% of the world’s population are squeezed into urban agglomerations); jerry-building of all kinds (as in Turkey where the housing hit by the earthquake turned out to have been constructed with cement that lacked enough sand); modification or destruction of natural hydraulic networks; deforestation leading to soil erosion and floods; uncontrolled demographic growth, etc. To this can be added the deficiency of the systems of prediction and aid (1).

It’s also true that capitalism doesn’t have to call on Mother Nature to provide catastrophes: it’s quite capable of producing them itself. In the space of a month, as well as the Erika, two other oil spillages have devastated coastal regions in Turkey and Brazil. Then there are the various nuclear accidents, from Three Mile Island in the US to Tokaimura in Japan via Chernobyl, the Seveso dioxin leak, numerous rail and air accidents, air pollution (causing among other things a considerable increase in allergic and infectious diseases), massive or gradual food poisoning resulting from the uncontrolled use of pesticides, herbicides, inappropriate animal feed, etc. Even in the industrialised countries, drinking tap water is becoming increasingly risky.

You could go on and on with this criminal indictment of the system. The basic point is that capitalism is totally incapable of avoiding these catastrophic scenarios. And this is because the phenomena of pollution or the various accidents are a pure product of the logic of a system based on profit at the expense of human lives.

Ecology: a reformist illusion

Those who are convinceace="Arial">Those who are convinced of the contrary have all sorts of ideas about reforming capitalism, which they label as ‘ultra-liberal’ or ‘globalised’ in order to hide the real nature of the system. The advocates of the ecological movement never stop calling on the different states – the ones who bear the main responsibility for pollution in all its forms – to become aware of the threat to the planet and to apply the resolutions adopted at the various international conferences on the environment.

This is the old reformist fairy tale about the ogre who becomes a vegetarian out of his love for children. These conferences are invariably forums where the competing capitalist states spout a lot of fine rhetoric about their concern for the planet while making absolutely sure that their own national interests come first. The bourgeoisie has yet to apply the measures voted at the Rio Convention in 1992. The conferences in Kyoto (1997), Buenos Aires (1998) and recently in Bonn (1999) merely provided the occasion for the settling of scores between the USA and the European Union over the ‘market’ of polluting emissions, over the national ceilings of emissions. But how could it be otherwise in the epoch of imperialism, of every man for himself, exacerbated by the mortal crisis of capated by the mortal crisis of capitalism?

Old tankers regularly spill their loads into the ocean. This is not a result of statistical laws, or even of ‘globalisation’, but of the laws of capitalism, which dictate that you have to exploit men and materials at the cheapest possible cost. The French state, which is happy to denounce Malta or Panama for getting around the law by sailing under different flags, is quiet about its own use of similar devises, such as the TAAF (Terres Australes et Antarctiques Francais) which enable it to get round its own legislation and carry on using floating wrecks like the Erika. The big industrial powers all use these tricks thanks to a mafia-like network of intermediaries.

The fuel being carried by the Erika was the scrapings of the bottom of the barrel, not for consumption in France according to its own rules. According to the Canard Enchaine of 5.1.00 it was going to be sold to power stations in Somalia or Ethiopia, contributing just a little more to the global pollution of the atmosphere. The French state and Total were perfectly well aware of this. The peripheral countries are in such a terrible mess that they more and more serve as dustbins for the big powers.

This shows up the hypocrisy of the measures announced by the Jospin government, typical of this class of gangsters whose concern for ecology was demonstrated by the bombing of Serbia. The much-vaunted ‘ecotax’ is a clear expression of capitalism’s total inability to fight against pollution: when it was finally authorised, it could be set against fines! And, in line with the Kyoto and Bonn conferences, the rich states can also buy their ‘quota’ of pollution form the poor ones, who anyway continue to pollute heavily because their technology is so obsolescent.

But what else can you expect from an economic system which from its very beginnings has crushed men and destroyed nature in the name of accumulating profit?

Capitalism: a story of ‘muck and blood’

Ecology is the ideology of a desperate petty bourgeoisie when it’s not a mere cover for the ruling class itself. Either way it is quite unable to understand the real source of what it sees as the ‘abuses’ of capitalism (2).

Marxism, the revolutionary theory of the only class which has a futthe only class which has a future to offer humanity, is alone able to understand capitalism in its historic dimension and not in the light of moral imperatives which either serve to perpetuate the myth of capitalism as eternal progress, or which fall into the nostalgia for the natural economies which preceded capitalism. In comparison to the latter, capitalism, in which all production is geared towards the market and in which accumulation for accumulation is the motor of economic activity, is an extraordinarily dynamic system which has developed the productive forces as never before, making it possible for mankind to go beyond it and live in a society of abundance. In its inexorable march forwards, capitalism always saw nature as a commodity to be used at will, as it did with men from its first period of primitive accumulation – as Marx put it in Capital, it came into the world "oozing muck and blood from its very pores".

And as Rosa Luxemburg added,

"it wasn’t only at its birth that capitalism ‘oozed muck and blood from its very pores’, but throughout its march across the world" (Accumulation of Capital). Everything operates as if "at the same time that mankind masters nature, man seems to become ensature, man seems to become enslaved to other men or to his own infamy…All our invention and progress seem to result in endowing material forces with intellectual life, and in stultifying human life into a material force" (Marx, Speech at the Anniversary of the People’s Paper, April 1856).

The planet-wide domination of capitalism at the beginning of the 20th century and its entry into decadence with its procession of wars, famines, massacres and misery has only accentuated this tendency.

This has been an epoch in which

"all the capitalist nations are forced to compete with each other over a saturated world market; an epoch, therefore, of as permanent war economy, with a disproportionate growth of heavy industry; an epoch characterised by the irrational, wasteful duplication of industrial complexes in each national unit, by the desperate pillaging of national resources by each nation as it tries to survive in the pitiless rat-race of the world market. The consequences of all this for the environment are now becoming crystal clear; the intensification of ecological problems can be measured according to the different phases of capitalist decadence" (‘It’s c>" (‘It’s capitalism that’s poisoning the earth’, IR 63).

Capitalism’s further slide into its phase of decomposition in the last decade of the 20th century has only exacerbated these features.

We cannot have any illusion that capitalism and its ruling class will find any escape from the suicidal path it is now on. Only the working class, through the development of its struggles, can put forward the perspective of a society of harmony between man and his environment.



(1) the Venezuelan president Chavez, who was warned on the eve of 16 December (the day of the catastrophe) of the critical situation in the state of Varga didn’t bother to raise a finger as he was more concerned with electoral preparations (see WR 231) .

(2) For a more developed analysis see ‘It’s capitalism that’s poisoning the earth’ in International Review 63

General and theoretical questions: