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Capital and the Earth

09.15.1998 | POLITICS

In the closing chapter of The End of History and the Last Man, Frank Fukuyama makes brief mention of environmental collapse as a possible problem for the stability of the New World Order in the 21st century. And in a move he himself has done much to popularize, he then downplays the acknowledged threat with reference to the cure-all powers of technology to overcome whatever snags dare hinder the march and conquest of global capitalism.

Implicit in this all too common refrain is the assumption that the free-market—conceived of as a transcendental force to be unleashed like a bull from a cage—is the mechanism by which this wonder technology will be developed, honed and implemented. It is assumed that destruction of the Earth can be mitigated, if not eradicated, if only the invisible hand is given free reign. Capitalism, we are reassured, unlike its discredited Other, is equipped to save us all from our own bad selves

Despite the tempting simplicity of this rationale, and the near total public acceptance of this position as a truism, it disintegrates upon exposure to the clear light of common sense. For, contrary to the well subsidized guarantees found in CATO Institute propaganda, capitalism is no better equipped to stave off hyper-industrial Armageddon than was Soviet style socialism. The reason is simple enough: both systems are premised upon a growth metaphysic which is further premised upon an assumption that the environment nothing more than a subset of the economy. The problem with this outlook in a finite world should be fairly obvious: since our little Earth does not provide infinite resources, then there are clearly, as the Club of Rome famously put it, limits to growth.

But Capital, by its very definition, must grow if it is survive. It has no real intelligence, no sense of what it does. It simply has an internal logic—ordered only slightly by the people it enslaves—which moves toward the expansion of markets and the machine of urban-industrialism. Capital is about a bigger GNP or it is about nothing at all. Only the expansion of this machine, with oil as its life fluid and wholesale slaughter of ecosystems as its precondition, must necessarily entail its own collapse. Thus Marx was correct in predicting that the western model would dig its own grave, but wrong as to who would be placed six feet under and why: not the bourgeoisie, but all classes, not capitalism per se, but industrial society as a whole.

But surely, you ask, the wise ones in charge of this great standard of living improving colossus would not allow such a thing to occur? Surely they have a strong interest in saving the earth and putting the world economy on a sustainable track? Surely they must realize that brakes must be applied and a scaling down of the world economy effected, if we are to avoid a ghastly finish? Unfortunately for us all, they do not. For there are very real structural limitations placed upon the people and institutions who operate under the current paradigm, limitations that are built into the very nature of the market, where short term gain and the ferocious consumption of resources constitute the Alpha and Omega of success and survival. For success and survival is not thought of in terms of millennia or even centuries, but in years and often months. Remember that old game show where the finalist was placed in a glass booth and had a one minute to scramble for the c-notes? Now imagine Zyklon B being piped in through the bottom. That's us. Better yet: We are James, high off our own vanity, devouring the entire peach in an orgy of suicidal munchies.

Capitalism is near-sited in the extreme. Just listen to the logging CEO who says forests are nothing more than millions of dollar bills on stumps, and that old growth forests are nothing more that millions of dollar bills on older stumps. Or read the auto industry trade journals to learn how they are scrambling desperately to get in on the emerging markets of Vietnam and India, despite the fact that we have computer models showing that if India develops the driver/citizen ratio similar to the West, the entire world would die of asphyxiation almost instantly. Or look at the dangerous maneuverings currently taking place around the newly found Caspian Sea oil fields, where corporations are jockeying for position and fueling national antagonisms and competition: all over an energy source that should be an anachronism at this point.

But oil is of course not an anachronism for the system that depends upon it as a full blown junky might depend on his own soul sucking vitamins. Not only is the current system tightly bound up with fossil fuels, but the oil industry successfully acts to keep questions about our peril off the agenda. For Oil is the single most powerful interest group on the world historical stage, and is fighting tooth and nail against any legislation that my curb, however slightly, its grip over the nature and constitution of the world economy. Its power has been key in insuring that almost none of the the $40 billion in (US) energy subsidies goes into research and production of alternative energy sources. Despite the threat of global climate change, the most pressing concern for these behemoth corporations is the steady rate of profit. Any strategizing about the future these leading citizens might engage in simply involves questions of how to maximize market share in the coming decades and how to publicly combat growing awareness of the environmental crisis. Other industries, equally dependent upon the status quo arrangement—with the major exception of the insurance industry—are all to happy to cruise along at current speeds and enjoy the benefits of our calculated earth rape. No worries there, things are going just fine until, well, you know...and then it will be too late anyway. Those that don't know by now, never will; those that do, don't care. The point is that they are all caught up in a system with no intelligent agency of its own and no ultimate logic other than race suicide.

For a demonstration of what it looks like when capitalist states get together and try to address the environmental crisis, one need look no farther than the Kyoto conference last December. Here the urgency of greatly curbing greenhouse emissions (which is now supported by incontrovertible evidence and is not just a theory) took a back seat as countries squabbled over what a given agreement would do to their temporary position in the world economy. If the outcome did not effect the near future of the human race, it might have made a great sitcom. Uncle Sam drives in with a Grand Cherokee and a cigarette boat in tow, tells Africa its going to have to starve if it expects the Greatest Country on Earth to cut back 1%, while Europe, humbler but no less committed to the basics of growth, tries to mediate a somewhat bolder, but no less meaningless protocol, all the while posturing as Responsible Leader leader of a Green Globo-capitalism. You really almost want to laugh, as if this is must be the final irony. But its not funny.

Ultimately the protocol, like any other deal we can expect under the current neo-liberal paradigm, is akin to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. The reality is we must begin to slow this momma down, turn her around, find the nearest port, and take her apart piece by piece by piece; then rebuild another ship more appropriate to the world which we inhabit. Otherwise its Iceberg City baby, and don't expect a sequel.

About the Author
Jonah Weiss has written about arms control for Freezerbox and is a frequent contributor to numerous small magazines.
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