Class and Ecology

by Richard York, University of Oregon, USA and Brett Clark, University of Utah, USA

Capitalism is a system predicated on the endless pursuit of accumulation by and for the capitalist class. The capitalist system accomplishes this goal through rampant expropriation and exploitation, inevitably generating environmental degradation and social inequalities.

Expropriation – a process of robbery – has involved the destruction of customary rights and dissolution of non-capitalist productive relations, as well as enslavement. Colonial violence and land seizures helped privatize the means of production, creating a class and racialized system of accumulation. This process allowed for the plundering of natural resources and peoples throughout the world, which in part served as the foundation for the rise of industrial capitalism. Dispossessed peoples were then forced to sell their labor power in order to earn wages to purchase the means of subsistence. In low-wage countries, the rate of exploitation of labor power is extremely high. Here super-exploitation results in the massive transfer of surplus to core capitalist nations. Capitalists control the social surplus – produced by society as a whole, in its interaction with the larger biophysical world – and accumulate capital. Additionally, they expropriate unpaid social reproductive work, which helps sustain life. This work is disproportionately done by women, which produces additional social inequalities.

Given the growth imperative of capitalism, this system runs roughshod over planetary boundaries. Each expansion in the production process, in order to sustain economic operations on a larger, more intensive scale, generates additional resource (i.e., matter and energy) demands, and creates more pollution. This progressively results in environmental degradation of a scale and category never seen previously in human history, exceeding the regenerative capacity of ecosystems, flooding ecological sinks, rupturing natural cycles, and exhausting resources. Capital’s alienated social metabolism – the relationship of interchange between society and the larger biophysical world – is evident in climate change, the amplification of biodiversity loss, and ocean acidification, just to name a few of the most pressing environmental concerns.

In the logic of capital, all of the world – people, non-human animals, plants, rocks, air, water, and so forth – serves as a means to facilitate the accumulation of private profit. When the workings of capitalism are properly understood, the intimate connections between class exploitation and environmental degradation are clear. This also illuminates the importance of class struggle, including the fight for social justice, and radical environmental movements.

However, the dominance of capitalism around the world has distorted popular understandings of not only the causes of environmental problems and social injustices, but even what it means to improve the human condition. For two centuries – and increasingly so, following the Second World War – it has been widely accepted across most nations that economic growth is synonymous with “social progress” and “development.” Therefore, it is taken for granted that societies should pursue endless economic growth (as measured by monetized exchange value). These approaches are supposed to increase consumer demand and enhance the quality and quantity of goods and services, providing benefits for everyone, if unevenly. This type of development is touted by business and government leaders as the solution to poverty and as the way to improve conditions for workers. It is also identified as the appropriate path to address environmental problems by spurring innovation and technological fixes. In other words, it is argued that all improvements depend on continuous economic growth. This popular depiction completely ignores the fact that the modernization program of capitalism has caused a long series of accumulating environmental problems, while leaving hundreds of millions in poverty and creating extraordinary inequalities within and among nations.

Nevertheless, due in part to the ideological dominance of capital, its structural organization, its global power, and its alienated system of production, many workers, unions, and even left-leaning governments around the world accept all or part of the capitalist development agenda as the way to improve quality of life. One especially malicious aspect of this is that many people who are harmed by capitalism do not blame the capitalists or the economic system for their woes, but rather blame environmentalists, immigrants, socialists, feminists, people of other races, and a variety of other groups – who are not enemies but potential allies.

The workings of capitalism create numerous challenges and obstacles to broad mobilization in opposition to the system. The stratified global economic system leads to uneven development, whereby cheap labor in the global South is used to produce goods destined for the North. Under these conditions, economic surplus is transferred to capitalists in the latter, while the environmental degradation and industrial pollution associated with commodity production is disproportionately concentrated in the former. To make matters worse, the immediate consequences of climate change, such as flooding and severe drought, have already had devastating effects in the global South, especially among the most vulnerable populations. Capitalist operations have resulted in an array of environmental injustices, which disproportionately burden people of color and the poor, resulting in additional divisions and inequalities within populations. At the same time, capital exerts its power and influence to maintain its operations and to prevent serious civic debate and political action to address environmental problems, such as climate change. In all of this, the capitalist system generates numerous social and ecological contradictions. It is clear that a broad, unified revolt, comprised of diverse classes, with distinct experiences of expropriation and exploitation, is necessary. However, how this opposition organizes and transcends geographical boundaries and the various social divisions is an emergent process in the making.

This global uprising offers the possibility to create a better world. Some of the general foundations of this revolutionary transformation include challenging how capitalism frames the meaning of development, standard of living, quality of life, and wealth. The workings of capitalism are antithetical to fulfilling human needs, advancing social justice, and preventing environmental degradation. The radical, but eminently sensible, alternative to capitalism is to build societies where the central aim is not to expand production and consumption so as to facilitate the accumulation of private wealth. It is to make people’s lives better by building communities grounded in equality and justice, whereby all people have not only their basic needs met but also have creative outlets, leisure time, and aesthetic pleasures, including a beautiful environment. Building this alternative world does not entail fossil fuels, more cars, more planes, more plastic, more electronic goods, more shopping malls, or more factory farms. Therefore, it does not necessitate more environmental destruction. It requires social, political, and economic change.

In short, breaking capital’s control over the world is necessary for building a society that sustains diverse ecosystems, a stable climate, and a non-toxic environment while also providing a good quality of life for all humans. In light of this verity, neoliberal approaches to addressing environmental problems, which look for market solutions and technological fixes, are doomed to fail. What is needed is a radical environmental movement that challenges power and works for a restructuring of socioeconomic relations, creating meaningful, non-alienating work. This involves confronting how the legacy of colonialism and imperialism has served to perpetuate racial and economic injustice across and within nations, and eliminating the rapacious assault on ecosystems by corporations, governments, and development organizations.

Likewise, if we are to build a better world, socialists, feminists, anti-colonialists, and others working for social justice must recognize that the environmental crisis is not simply one issue among many, but rather is intertwined with the oppression of peoples and is at the core of the contradictions of capitalism.

Direct all correspondence to Richard York <rfyork@uoregon.edu> and Brett Clark <brett.clark@soc.utah.edu>

United States, Volume 9, Issue 1

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