Why the Corporate Rich Oppose Environmentalism  

Posted by Big Gav

For a change of pace, here's a Marxist view of the extractionist form of capitalism.

In 1876, Marx's collaborator, Frederich Engels, offered a prophetic caveat: "Let us not . . . flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human conquest over nature. For each such conquest takes its revenge on us. . . . At every step we are reminded that we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing outside of nature--but that we, with flesh, blood, and brain, belong to nature, and exist in its midst. . . ."

With its never-ending emphasis on production and profit, and its indifference to environment, transnational corporate capitalism appears determined to stand outside nature. The driving goal of the giant investment firms is to convert natural materials into commodities and commodities into profits, transforming living nature into vast accumulations of dead capital.

This capital accumulation process treats the planet's life-sustaining resources (arable land, groundwater, wetlands, forests, fisheries, ocean beds, rivers, air quality) as dispensable ingredients of limitless supply, to be consumed or toxified at will. Consequently, the support systems of the entire ecosphere--the Earth's thin skin of fresh air, water, and top soil--are at risk, threatened by global warming, massive erosion, and ozone depletion. An ever-expanding capitalism and a fragile finite ecology are on a calamitous collision course.

It is not true that the ruling politico-economic interests are in a state of denial about this. Far worse than denial, they have shown utter antagonism toward those who think the planet is more important than corporate profits. So they defame environmentalists as "eco-terrorists," "EPA gestapo," "Earth Day alarmists," "tree huggers," and purveyors of "Green hysteria" and "liberal claptrap."

I think the idea of a monolithic plutocracy is probably unfounded - sometimes people who stand far enough outside of a system tend to come up with abstractions that don't really hold up under close observation. The richer segments of society aren't all stupid and malicious - its just that the political system tends to fall captive to those most motivated to subvert it (as I muttered about earlier in the week when I talked about "The Corporation").

The examples of criticism of anyone who cares about the environment being slandered by wing nuts with all sorts of ridiculous nonsense certianly resonates with me though - I got labelled an "eco-fascist" last year when trying to talk some sense into some global warming deniers which was pretty much the final straw for me with large segments of the right - encouraging morons to give in to their basest impulses really isn't a political tactic that should have been encouraged.

Too late now though.
The plutocracy’s position was summed up by that dangerous fool, erstwhile Senator Steve Symms (R-Idaho), who once said that if he had to choose between capitalism and ecology, he would choose capitalism. Symms seemed not to grasp that, absent a viable ecology, there will be no capitalism or any other ism.

Why do rich and powerful interests take this seemingly suicidal anti-environmental route? We can understand why they might want to destroy public housing, public education, Social Security, and Medicaid. They and their children will not thereby be deprived of a thing, having more than sufficient private means to procure whatever services they need for themselves.

But the environment is a different story. Do not wealthy reactionaries and their corporate lobbyists inhabit the same polluted planet as everyone else, eat the same chemicalized food, and breathe the same toxified air?


In the long run they indeed will be sealing their own doom, along with everyone else’s. However, like us all, they live not in the long run but in the here and now. What is at stake for them is something more immediate and than global ecology. It is global capital accumulation. The fate of the biosphere seems a far-off abstraction compared to the fate of one’s immediate investments.

Furthermore, pollution pays, while ecology costs. Every dollar a company spends on environmental protections is one less dollar in earnings. It is more profitable to treat the environment like a septic tank, to externalize corporate diseconomies by dumping raw industrial effluent into the atmosphere, rivers, and bays, turning waterways into open sewers.

Moving away from fossil fuels and toward solar, wind, and tidal energy could help avert ecological disaster, but six of the world's ten top industrial corporations are involved primarily in the production of oil, gasoline, and motor vehicles. Fossil fuel pollution means billions in profits. Ecologically sustainable forms of production directly threaten those profits.

The Energy Bulletin editors have some worthwhile comments at the end - to which I'd add that the Marxist forms of government we've seen in the past haven't tended to treat the environment any better than capitalist ones have - certainly the Soviet Union seemed to have a track record of environmental destruction that any other country would be hard pressed to beat.
The relevance of Marxism to dealing with the issues raised by Peak Oil is a matter of contention within some parts of the Peak Oil community (and to an extent the editors of this site). Despite the remarkable quote from Engels, there's the question of whether ecological values are sufficiently at its core. Some aspects of Marxism, such as the Adam Smith derived definition of 'value' as equivalent to the amount of worker-hours invested in a service or product, don't gell with a Peak Oil perspective, which would also take into account the embodied solar energy as a form of value. (So some Marxists might say that a barrel of oil is overvalued because of the low amount of worker-hours invested in it, and we would say it is undervalued - even with today's higher prices, because of the massive amount of stored energy within it).

Marxism, like capitalism, developed in a time of long term energetic growth, which suggests that it may share certain underlying assumptions which need to be re-assessed, or else may prove disfunctional in an post-peak era of energy descent.

However the one country we have to look towards which has dealt fairly effectively with it's own artificial oil peak is Cuba, which has made a rapid transition to a low impact, low energy society. Whether a reactive, competition oriented market economy can convert itself as quickly and effectively to 'small farms and bicycles', especially without addressing issues of private land ownership and use, and especially when it is based on a growth-dependent monetary system, is of course yet to be proven.

I'm no expert on Marxism (having read neither "Das Kapital" nor "The Communist Manifesto") and I always tend to be wary of large government and centralised control, although I accept that a measure of this is required to deal with some problems (global warming being a classic example).

Marx does seem to be popping up a fair bit lately though - with The Observer recently publishing an article called "Why Marx is man of the moment - He had globalisation sussed 150 years ago".

While I like communism no more than I like fascism, I think Marx was fairly accurate observer of the world, even if his visions of the future proved a bit dodgy. In a way, you could say he was the father of capitalist theory, given his efforts to document how it worked.

Marx has also popped up in discussions in the wingnut world lately, with top billing in the "Ten Most Harmful Books of the 19th and 20th Centuries" competition - which is almost enough to make me want to read both works.

I think the lesson to be learned from the whole communism experiment was that if you grind people down far enough, you'll get a reaction. Communism was a reaction to the inequalities created by Feudalism and the Gilded Age - and its a shame those who seem determined to take us back to that sort of society haven't learnt it.


Symms sets up the Capitalism vs. Ecology canard. Everytime I see this false choice, I replace extractionism for capitalism, and it makes sense in a very troubling way.

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Whenever I see a false choice, I extractionism to replace capitalism, and it is logical in a very troubling.

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