Sunday 19 January 2014

Capitalism and Nature

It's not customary for me to do a reply to a reply, but Boffy made a couple of comments on this piece looking at the progressive creds of the Greens that begged replies requiring more elaboration than the character count comments boxes allow for.

Boffy's first point replied to my observation that, "Wealth and power insulates the owners of capital from the consequences of climate change to a degree. As human beings their long-term interest lies in a post-capitalist future. But, in a society such as ours, while people own capital, in a very real sense capital owns people and they are compelled by the dynamics of accumulation to follow their short-term interests as investors." He noted that capital can act in the interests of capital-in-general on occasion, and cited examples of Wedgwood's campaigning for limits on working hours. The NHS is another example of an institution that benefits both those who use it and capital-in-general through the provision of services that allows living labour to, well, live longer.

Of course, it's obvious that capital can act in the interests of capital-in-general, and that these might on occasion coincide with the "universal" interest. Businesses currently active in the green energy and energy efficiencies market, by pursuing their self-interest, also carry as a germ the interests of wider capital. After all, it does need a planet. The problem is that presently capital-in-general is not pursuing a green course. Global investment in renewables (which, of course, are not all carbon neutral sources) fell to $254bn last year, from $288.9bn in 2012 and $317.9bn in 2011. Meanwhile, investment in fossil fuels stood in excess of $600bn in 2012 (source). The invisible hand is clapped over capital's eyes. Add to that the fracking gold rush, tar sands and North Pole oil we have a clear case of capital getting pulled along by its short-term interests. The state in its capacity of the manager of capital's common affairs could intervene, as it has in Germany (though not without its problems) but it too has to look out for the fortunes of "its" individual capitals. The UK is home to two big oil concerns. It has a financial interest in the taxes they return, the people they employ and the various UK pension funds invested in them. Only a successful mass movement, a technological breakthrough or an unmitigated, unambiguous climate change disaster in capital's heartlands could shift its monomaniacal pursuit of fossil fuels.

Boffy's second point referred to the second antagonism of capital, that exists alongside the ultimate irreconcilability of capital and labour. I wrote "Capitalism is despoiling the environment. We as human beings, as thinking animals, are as part of that biosphere as any other organism. The extreme weather, the droughts, the water and food shortages, all these nightmares stalk our future as capitalism interferes with and imperils our ability to reproduce ourselves as a species. Capitalism therefore is hacking away at its roots, at the human bodies that make its existence possible." Boffy responded by suggesting this typified a 'balance of nature' approach, that the environment is a static entity we humans should guard at our peril; and that capitalism is quite capable of improving the environment too.

Well, no. The environment, like social systems, is a dynamic, shifting entity. And it goes without saying that we're talking environments here. Humans grew out of natural evolutionary processes and, inadvertently, attained a (blind) mastery over its subsequent development as a species. And yes, this bit of Engels does stand up to modern anthropological evidence. We are as much social as we are labouring animals. In fact, they're both sides of our "species being". To survive humans have had to labour and cooperate with each other to eke out an existence, and as human communities evolved into permanent settlements and then class-based civilisations, there has been a tendency over time to harness greater quantities of natural wealth to human need by actively changing the environment. The relationship we have with the natural world is always mediated by a particular mode of production. What you might call "natural necessity" - the extent to which human communities are dependent on the vagaries of the environment - diminishes as our capacity to transform our surroundings and make it productive grows. The development of granaries, for example, meant civilisations wouldn't necessarily meet disaster in the event of a drought. This only became possible at a certain point in our history when we had developed the requisite social knowledge gained from hard experience. Long-term storage became less of a necessity as more land was ploughed up, and trading relationships established with regions enjoying a different climate.

As the technology in our possession at any point in our history varies, and because our "metabolic" relationship with the environment is always structured by the character of our organisation of production, the natural world has had variable "carrying capacities". The six billion or so human beings alive now are made possible by the application of modern agricultural techniques, shelter and heating. For most of us, who now live in towns and cities, our relationship to nature is very heavily mediated by a web of social relations. Very few people in Britain have a direct productive relationship with crops and animal husbandry. A vanishingly tiny amount still rely on the food they grow or raise to survive "off-grid". The overwhelming majority of us are dependent on food produced and sold for profit on the market. In feudal times, the tying of the peasants to the land and the complete lack of any social dynamic pointing to greater food productivity meant an economy barely capable of of supporting a tenth of the population of the present day UK. Go back further still before the discovery of agriculture and at the mercy of natural necessity, the Earth's human carrying capacity was measured in the hundreds, if not the tens of thousand.

Hence natural limits, what the environment can sustain is always socially conditioned. But just as capitalism has so far proven the most successful mode of production in terms of the numbers of humans it can support, that doesn't mean its transformation of the environment is entirely beneficial. Capital has taken natural wealth and transformed it. But the waste - the pollution, the discards, that has nowhere else to go but back into the environment. Historically these issues have been relatively localised. Poisoned rivers, filthy air, hazardous materials, these have tended to damage ecosystems on local scales. This can and has impacted on human health and blighted certain regions throughout capitalist industrialisation. But these can be cleaned up and restored, albeit at often great cost. The problem now, however, is that climate change as a result of almost three centuries burning of fossil fuels has thrown vast quantities of carbon into the atmosphere. The Earth is now warming in a way that is out of kilter with its natural cycles of warm and cool periods. As the oceans heat, storms become more likely. As the ice caps melt, sea levels rise. As the temperature goes up, droughts get more common. The directionless, chaotic character of capitalism is changing the environment unintentionally, and changing it for the worse. Climate change can only but affect the carrying capacity of the natural world in regard to us and the other species we share the planet with. Capitalism might come up with ways of mitigating its impact, such as the proliferation of vertical farms or replacing submerged land with floating cities. It all depends whether the markets are there.

Among other things, capitalism is a frustrating mode of production. It has brought us to the threshold of a permanent golden age for our species, where not only can the individual needs of each and everyone of us be met by existing technology but also gives us the potential to live truly good lives according to our inclinations. It has allowed us to develop scientific technique to such an extent that we can develop detailed knowledge about the natural world and the human societies that inhabit it. And capitalism has enabled us to identify a creeping disaster that could imperil the lives of billions. Yet the rudderless character of capitalism, short of devastation and/or massive pressure from below means its stuck. Until that happens, we're stuck too.


Boffy said...

My main point was that in its effect on the environment, as in all other aspects,Capitalism is contradictory, and that was missing from your original thesis. Moreover, that thesis seemed rather stuck in the kind of dogmatic interpretation of Marx's economic analysis, which emphasises the role of capitalist competition that was prevalent in the first part of the 19th Century, but fails to note that both Marx and Engels set out that even by the end of the 19th Century, the monopoly of private capital had been replaced by socialised Capital - the "expropriation of the expropriators" as Marx put it - by the rise of the Joint Stock Companies etc. Along with it, as Engels describes in his Critique of the Erfurt Programme, with the rise of the trusts comes the "end of planlessness".

after all is why global Capital can do things like have a series of conferences on the question of global warming, even if those contradictions earlier mean that it can't agree or act decisively.

Moreover, while you say you are not working with a "Balance of Nature" approach you later talk about Man;s activity causing global warming outside the Earth's "natural rhythm". What is that natural rhythm that does not include Man's activity. If we want to raise the who the Earth's population up to some kind of decent standard that natural rhythm will be upset even because it will require a lot more production including energy production.

Seeing a reduction in carbon fuel use is too narrow. In fact, Capitalism has improved energy efficiency considerably so that global growth has increased by 7 times the increase in oil use, for example. But, the point is whether the best solution is a probably futile attempt to reduce global warming an efficient way to proceed, or to enable poorer countries to be able to deal with the inevitability by themselves becoming richer through development.

Another contradiction. Food prices have risen because global living standards have risen. But, a consequence is that a of African countries like Angola are becoming global agricultural producers. In fact, over the next decade or so, Africa instead of being plagued by continual famines, is likely to become the world'sbread basket!

Boffy said...

I had to cut short the previous reply because of having Internetty problems, and I have a lot of work to do. I'll try to write a further reply later.

But, a short further two points. On carbon, the US has cut its carbon emissions, and its fuel costs drastically as a result of switching to shale gas. Secondly, some of the worst pollution and environmental damage was not caused by capitalist competition, but arose in the "planned economies" of eastern Europe.

In fact, particularly in east Germany, it is the affluence of the capitalist economy that has cleaned it up!

Chris said...

A very good article I would suggest.

Boffy cannot possibly know the social cost of leaving the planet to burn in it's own atmosphere. The idea that this problem is ignored and we merrily bring the rest of the world up to our level of production without worrying about the consequences is utopian and wrongheaded. Who could argue with recycling and some other basic advances brought about from our understanding of the impact of human activity on the environment? An environment, like the human body, that needs to work within parameters in order to sustain life. You might call that a balance of nature.

We should be arguing that capitalism indulges in speculative production, wastes vast amounts of resources on useless articles and at a macro level is staggeringly inefficient. This is the case because capitalism is planned in a very peculiar way, it is planned within each enterprise, and each enterprise plays within set rules but no amount of transnational tweaking at the edges can escape the inherent contradictions.

If we imagine a society where workers decide what gets produced can we really imagine that care for the elderly and disabled would be a lower priority than a million gadgets that basically all did the same thing but had different logos and colours? If you believe that the use values produced by capitalism would be exactly the same as those produced in a socialist society, then I would have to wonder why on earth you were a socialist.

Karl Crawford said...

Using Erich Fromm as a starting point,one could argue that the capitalists are still using and manipulating the world of things (resources /energy etc) and not respecting them. They do things in the name of the 'environment' but economic concerns are not that far away. We need an overhaul of the economic system which divorces the environment from economics.