What every environmentalist needs to know about capitalism

August 5, 2011

John Bellamy Foster, the keynote speaker at the upcoming World At A Crossroads: Climate Change Social Change conference — to be held in Melbourne from September 30 to October 3 — is the co-author (with Fred Magdoff) of a newly published book: What Every Environmentalist Needs to Know About Capitalism.

Foster is a renowned US economist and ecologist. He is the Monthly Review editor and author of The Ecological Rift, The Ecological Revolution, The Great Financial Crisis (with Fred Magdoff), Marx’s Ecology, Ecology Against Capitalism; and The Vulnerable Planet.

In their new book, Foster and Magdoff write: “The economic system that dominates nearly all corners of the world is capitalism. For most of us, capitalism is so much a part of our lives that it is invisible, like the air we breathe. We are as oblivious of it as fish are oblivious of the water in which they swim.

“It is capitalism’s ethic, outlook, and internal values that we assimilate and acculturate to as we grow up.

“Unconsciously, we learn that greed, exploitation of laborers, and competition (among people, businesses, countries) are not only acceptable but are actually good for society because they help to make our economy function ‘efficiently’.”

Most of us are so enmeshed in capitalism that we are barely aware of this. Certainly, those in the climate change movement today who repeat the mantra that a “market solution” is the best response possible to climate change seem to have a very poor understanding of how capitalism works.

This new book, in the context of the global challenge of climate change, expands on how capitalism is a social-economic system driven by the ruthless pursuit of capital accumulation.

It quotes the late Marxist economist Paul Sweezy, who said the capitalist system “is forever changing, adopting new and discarding old methods of production and distribution, opening up new territories, subjecting to its purposes societies too weak to protect themselves.

“Caught up in this process of restless innovation and expansion, the system rides roughshod over even its own beneficiaries if they get in its way or fall by the roadside.

“As far as the natural environment is concerned, capitalism perceives it not as something to be cherished and enjoyed but as a means to the paramount ends of profit-making and still more capital accumulation.”

The “moving and motivating force of capitalism”, Foster and Magdoff say, “is the never-ending quest for profits and accumulation” and “because of competition, companies are impelled continually to increase sales and to try to gain market share”.

Capitalism’s champions claim the egoism that drives the system makes it the most efficient and fair system possible. But Foster and Magdoff argue this is manifestly untrue.

“Capitalism is unplanned and anarchic, at one point resembling a drifting boat, at another a runaway train,” they say.

“Social regulations and controls are at a minimum. Inevitably, many unintended consequences occur in the production and distribution of goods and services.

“Mainstream economists call these ‘externalities’; to them, they are side effects of an otherwise rational and socially benign system. They include pollution of water, air, and soil, as well as disparities of wealth, significant periods of high unemployment, and failure to meet the basic needs of all people.

“They occur because they are excluded from the structure of economic costs and profits of the system, although they represent social and environmental costs.”

Foster and Magdoff take the US coal industry as an example “to illustrate the significance of externalities”.

“Coal is the cheapest fossil fuel when expressed as dollars per amount of energy obtained — the cost to electric generating plants in mid-2010 was less than $3 per million British Thermal Units for coal versus around $5 for natural gas and $16 for oil.

“In 2007 about 70% of the electricity generated by fossil fuels in the United States came from coal (coal generates about half of the electricity from all sources, including nuclear, hydro, etc.).

“However, the cost paid for coal does not include the ecological damage done when mining the coal (how could you even begin to calculate the cost of destroying a mountaintop and filling in the valleys?), the cost of lives lost in mining and of health effects (especially black lung disease) later in life, the cost of the mercury pollution of our lakes and the ocean — the cost of the contamination of fish and humans by that mercury, the greater acidity of the oceans, runoff from waste coal storage, the global warming effects of the carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere and methane released during mining, and so on.

“Though electric companies can be forced to shoulder some direct pollution costs (such as sulfur removal from coal smoke), the price paid in money for generating electricity from coal can never come anywhere near the full cost of the damage done to the earth and its inhabitants.”

All this applies very well to Australia, another coal-addicted capitalist economy.

The book’s publisher Monthly Review Press has given permission to Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal, to publish a chapter in this new book. To download the chapter visit links.org.au.

“World At A Crossroads” is the second Climate Change Social Change conference to be held in Australia. The first was held in Sydney in 2008.

It aims to contribute to understanding and collective action, in Australia and internationally, to urgently address the climate and social emergencies that must be overcome if humanity and the planet are to not only survive, but thrive.

Three days of feature talks, panel discussions and more than 20 workshops will discuss climate change, social change and the intersections of the movements for pro-people and pro-ecological sustainability solutions for a world in crisis.

Themes and topics will include:

• capitalism, socialism and ecology,
• people’s power and democracy,
• the climate debt and the Global South,
• refugees, racism and internationalism,
• food security and survival,
• building movements that can stop climate change,
• the global nuclear threat,
• indigenous resistance, land and sovereignty,
• feminism and climate change,
• imperialism, war and oil,
• the market versus social ownership,
• the dirty record of carbon trading,
• population and the planet,
• agribusiness and sustainable alternatives, and
• the movement against coal seam gas mining.

The conference is organised by Green Left Weekly, Resistance and the Socialist Alliance.

It is sponsored by the Office of Environmental Programs at the University of Melbourne and is cosponsored by Friends of the Earth (Melbourne), Links Journal for Socialist Renewal, Labor Party Pakistan, the Sydney University Political Economy Society, the Socialist Party of Malaysia (PSM), the Party of the Labouring Masses – Philippines, Australia-Asia Worker Links, Left Unity Adelaide and the Climate Emergency Action Network South Australia.

[To register for the conference or to find out more about it visit climatechangesocialchange2011.wordpress.com.]

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