Environmental Destruction, Capital Accumulation, and the Quest for a New Form of Life

Marcelo Mendez

Summary: A student activist contrasts the anti-capitalist writings of Naomi Klein and Joel Kovel by discussing the roots of environmental destruction in the drive for capital accumulation, also exploring the need for an eco-socialist alternative — Editors

The term “ecological crisis” refers to the increasingly probable decimation of the human race, part of an on-going “Great Die-Down” of life that signals the disintegration of previously intact ecosystems. This is very abstract language. In no way does it capture the immense suffering of beings subject to industrial agriculture (primarily in the “consumed” part of the relationship as animals and laborers but also consisting of the “consumer” part, a meat-centered diet leading to a host of diseases[1]), the fury and desolation following habitat destruction (persons, even at home, experiencing alienation known as “solastalgia”[2]), the force of environmental disasters like Super Typhoon Haiyan and Hurricane Katrina, or the levels of hunger, disease, species extinction, violence, and other instances of unjust struggle forming what we call the ecological crisis. I think acknowledgement and consideration of such dire, traumatic instances so different from our own helps us appreciate our own lives, but, more importantly, it gets to the question: what is to be done about the crises affecting the 21st century?

Our relatively fortunate circumstances in the First World allows us to absorb the lessons of history and take a moment’s respite to reflect and analyze past and present matters; in doing so we move from what has been done, what can be done, to what MUST be done. And in tackling the ecological crisis, undoubtedly will we look for persons to blame, which is needed, of course. But let that not detract us from the main point of uniting and concentrating our energies against the forces, the processes that led to these acts by specific people in the first place. As I will discuss below, the grand force uniting all of these processes [the processes overcoming physical natural limits] is that of relentless self-expansion: capital.

Tim Jackson: The scope of the Ecological crisis

Tim Jackson’s Prosperity Without Growth is a book that takes a qualitative, economic approach to the ecological crisis. Jackson advocates for a prosperity in which it is “possible for human beings to flourish, to achieve greater social cohesion, to find higher levels of well-being, and yet still to reduce their material impact on the environment” (35). He places blame for our social and ecological maladies on the continuation and the increases of economic growth.

To achieve a lasting prosperity, Jackson calls not for a “new engine of growth” (which is impossible under capitalism), but for a shift to what he calls the “Cinderella economy.” This would be based upon “low-carbon economic activities that employ people in ways that contribute meaningfully to human flourishing” (131) such as local farmer’s markets, gardening, community fitness centers, and so on, with total work shared evenly across the population. Such a sustainable economy will rely on three types of investment: investments that enhance resource efficiency, substitute conventional technologies with clean or low carbon technologies, and investments for ecosystem enhancements. To stave off capitalism’s “iron cage of consumerism,” Jackson advocates the promotion and realization of collective values. In sum, to reach a lasting prosperity, we need to: establish ecological limits, fix the economic model, and change the social logic. For Jackson, it is up to us to enact such bold change via grassroots efforts.

Naomi Klein: Taking on Neoliberal Capitalism

Let’s take a look at these climate-centered grassroots efforts with Naomi Klein’s THIS CHANGES EVERYTHING. This is a very accessible book, the language being simple enough for a high-schooler to read, with a nice book cover as well. But appearances are deceiving! So a reader might be surprised to find out that capitalism isn’t all its hyped up to be, that, under Klein’s striking prose, it may actually be a bad thing. By having “Capital vs the Climate” on its cover and as its subtitle, the book inserts into public discourse the idea that capitalism is something we need to fight against. A recent companion film has only added to the popularity of the book; thus, at least a superficial anti-capitalist mood is growing.

Elements of the paratext place the reader on seemingly polemical ground against capitalism, but to what degree is the content of the work anti-capitalist? And how does Klein’s vision for a sustainable, democratic society fit the needs of the 21st century? Reworking her own “Shock Doctrine” term that describes neoliberalism’s liquidation of the public sphere through austerity measures, Klein views the ecological crisis threatening civilization as an event that could be turned into a “People’s Shock.” This “People’s Shock” is a chance to give power to the people and expand the commons. Before going into detail on these populist measures, Klein’s begins frontline reporting on the conservative side of the climate debate.

What gives right-wing climate-change-denying groups like the Heartland Institute (a conservative think-tank) so much power in a time when the world’s populations struggle for basic necessities like clean air[3], land, and water? Klein finds that free-market ideology plays a cohesive role. Laissez-faire capitalism is seen and espoused by these groups as the ultimate American freedom, any efforts to curtail these “freedoms” earning comparisons ranging from “the Catholic Inquisition to Nazi Germany to Stalin’s Russia” (28). Indeed, free-market ideology is a deep root in the right wing’s stance on climate change; Klein writes that “the climate change denial movement is entirely a creature of the [neoliberal] ideological network on display here, the very one that deserves the bulk of the credit for redrawing the global ideological map over the last four decades” (33).

However, it is more than this. These “public proxies for far more powerful corporate interests” (34) are well aware that “ours is a global economy created by…the burning of fossil fuels and that a dependency that foundational cannot be changed with a few gentle market mechanisms” (34) such as carbon trading, substantial measures like “sweeping bans on polluting activities, deep subsidies for green alternatives, pricey penalties for violations, new taxes, new public works,” (34) being the nails for keeping fossil fuels underground. Hence groups like Heartland are going to great lengths in denying the scientific consensus affirming global warming’s anthropogenic causes.

Whereas some parts of the Left don’t take seriously the arguments of conservatives, Klein’s immersion in right-wing circles reveals that, to take the first chapter’s title, “The Right is Right”; that is, conservatives are well aware that the sustainable, progressive policies populations around the world demand would sound the death knell for fossil fuels, a foundational component of today’s global economy, meaning profits tied to fossil fuels would vanish, unthinkable for the capitalist heads of these companies. In many ways, conservatives see — more clearly than liberal environmentalists who believe that individual measures and reforms, tweaks to the economic system will solve the climate crisis – that combating climate change successfully would mean a radical change in the economic system. Hence the protection of dominant business interests through vicious attacks on the scientific community, obfuscation of climate science by think-tanks like Heartland, Cato, and the Ayn Rand Institute, and increasingly the callous ideology proposed by the conservative Right, these groups drawing political, cultural, and economic clout from fossil fuel interests.

Moreover, some conservatives even view the ecological crisis as a business opportunity. Channeling free-market ideology, Klein advises: “Screw the poor. Suck it up; everyone for themselves” (54). Turning to a more compassionate state, she worries that “unless we radically change course, these are the values that will rule our stormy future, even more than they already rule our present” (54). Klein’s reporting reveals the right-wing forces, the enforcers of the “business as usual” status quo, from the board meetings at Exxon to the ideological billboards likening people who accept anthropogenic climate change as terrorists, that stand in the way of a progressive, sustainable future.

If not market mechanisms then perhaps a man, a super-man. The chapter “No Messiahs” dispels the fanciful idea of finding economic and ecological salvation in an individual, usually perceived as a wealthy entrepreneur turned Green tree-hugger, who, by outstanding virtue and a high degree of competence, reins in the “bad apples” and negative aspects of market mechanisms and unleashes the true power inherent in the free-market, allowing for Earth to develop on a path of sustainable, profitable harmony all while having technology advance at its current rate.

Klein provides a case-study of Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin Group, who converts to “Gaia Capitalism” (231) after hearing a presentation from Al Gore. Diverting funds from the fossil fuel sector of his company, Branson pledged “$3 billion over the next decade [in 2006] to develop biofuels as an alternative to oil and gas, and on other technologies to battle climate change” (231), as well as a $25 million Virgin Earth Challenge prize. “Branson…seemed to confirm the notion, cherished in many green circles, that transforming the economy from fossil fuels is not about confronting the rich and powerful but simply about reaching them with sufficiently persuasive facts and figures to appeal to their sense of humanity” (233). “’Carbon is the enemy’” for Branson, but capitalism is a good, inscrutable friend indeed. Klein’s investigation into other billionaires such as Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, and Michael Bloomberg, reveals that, despite rhetoric concerned with climate change, these billionaires still purchase, hold stakes in, and look to profit from fossil fuels like coal, gas, and tar sands. Tom Steyer is Klein’s sole example of a billionaire who sees his sustainable vision through by divesting from the fossil fuel company he founded.

Returning to captain of industry Richard Branson and his pledge to steer the disastrous course of climate change to a sunnier outcome, he fails to see it through, turning his pledge into what he calls a “’gesture’” (241), investing about “$230 million” (240) over seven years out of the proposed $3 billion over ten years; in addition his Virgin Challenge was redesigned to use saved, captured carbon for even more fossil fuel extraction (247-248). Even worse, investments in his company that could have been spent sustainably were not, as seen in Branson starting Virgin America with a fleet of carbon-spewing aircraft. Richard Branson went from “promising to help get us off oil to championing technologies aimed at extracting and burning much more of it” (248). Klein warns: “If we spend the precious years between now and then dramatically expanding our emissions as Branson is doing with his airlines, then we are literally betting the habitability of the planet on the faint hope of a miracle cure” (254). If not salvation through false profits (prophets), then perhaps through technology.

But even technology is no deus ex machina in the ecological crisis. The 8th chapter, “Dimming the Sun,” begins with Klein attending a “geo-engineering” conference hosted by the British Royal Society, whose past members include Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, and Stephen Hawking. Proposed solutions for the corrosive levels of pollution plaguing our planet today include the addition of iron into oceans so as to pull carbon towards them, machines that suck carbon out of the air, and, “attracting the lion’s share of serious scientific interest” (258), Solar Radiation Management (SRM), lies “various means of injecting particles into the atmosphere in order to reflect more sunlight back into space, thereby reducing the amount of heat that reaches the earth” (258). SRM, according to Klein, does “nothing to change the underlying causes of climate change, the buildup of heat-trapping gases, and instead treats only the most obvious symptoms – warmer temperatures” (259). In some cases, SRMs are worse than no use of SRM due to its effects of decreasing precipitation in the Global South (260-261). Geo-engineering, the technology most believed in at this conference for getting us out of the ecological crisis, requires “that we keep doing what we have done for centuries [that is, trying to completely control nature], only much more so” (267); however, geo-engineering is exceptional in that it may “be the last tragic act in this centuries-long fairy tale of control” (267) because of its application of climate-changing forces without a sufficient understanding of the complex ecologies on which it is imposed and thus, a misunderstanding of its “world-altering,” irreversible, likely catastrophic consequences.       Our technology is simply incapable of dealing with a system as chaotic as our atmosphere.

Black sludge stains the intentions and efforts of the scientific community. Some scientists, due to their ties to fossil fuel interests (263-265, 282), continue to push geoengineering as a viable solution to the ecological crisis. Klein writes: “Anything is preferable to regulating ExxonMobil, including attempting to regulate the sun” (283). Comically enough, SRMs are schemes that parallel that of Mr. Burns’s literal sun-block in the Simpsons. Piercing past this level of absurdity, Klein asks: “Have we really tried Plan A?”; that is, geo-engineering and its unknown, global consequences leaves us with the “urgent need for a real plan A – one based on emission reductions” (283) and reparations from corporations for the environmental and social destruction they have wrought in their pursuit for ceaseless profit, some companies being astronomically more responsible than others[4] We are not at the point of urgency where we must damn parts of Latin America or China as “sacrifice zones” (286) for our own salvation, these being “impossible choices…that indeed deserve to be described as genocidal” (284).

Klein up to this point has discredited free-market logic and mechanisms, billionaires, and technology in saving us from the climate crisis. The fossil-fuel behemoth extends tar-dripping tentacles across the planet so as to suck land and communities dry of their life-force, but this not without oppositional force, from the lukewarm to scathingly revolutionary.

Klein whizzes us across the planet to witness these explosive scenes of resistance. This counter-force is “a new movement rising…one deeply rooted in specific geographies but networked globally as never before…this generation of activists unwilling to gamble with the precious and the irreplaceable” (290). Klein’s journalism on grassroots struggles goes over the indigenous Ogoni in Niger, a civilian, military-like Greek outpost in Haldiki, and Greenpeace in the Russian arctic, among other community efforts. She welcomes comes us to “Blockadia,” “a roving transnational conflict zone that is cropping up with increasing frequency and intensity wherever extractive projects are attempting to dig, drill, etc.” (294). In Inner Mongolia, “the spirit of Blockadia” (300) manifests through locals blocking off coal trucks and open mines so as to stave off coal-polluted winds and declining water levels, with this kind of “anti-extraction activism” (305) also occurring in New South Wales, Australia, in the fight against the Keystone XL tar-sands pipeline in Alberta, Canada, and in protests against coal plants all over China, where “pollution is now the single greatest cause of social unrest in the country, even more than land disputes” (303). In Western universities, student-led movements have led substantial divestment from universities’ fossil fuel holdings[5].

Before this popular outburst, fossil fuel companies extracted primarily from sacrifice zones, areas derided as uninhabited wastelands with “whole subsets of humanity categorized as less than fully human” (310) despite community presence. Klein declares that the fossil-fuel industry’s insatiable need for profit has left “all in the sacrifice zone” (emphasis mine) (310). Previously safe, relatively wealthy communities are now subject to oil spills wreaking unthinkable damage to oceans, tar-sand pipelines, explosive rail projects, noxious gas leaks, mountain-top removal, contaminated waters, in short, the destructive effects of the fossil fuel industry that have until recently gone largely unnoticed and unfelt by mainstream society. These painful tragedies of both the slow and immediate remind us of the transformation of this blue planet into pitch.

Neoliberalism’s expansion of sacrifice zones has proven “something of a gift to political organizing” (315), with the extension of sacrifice zones to privileged areas leading to coalition-building between persons traditionally shut off from mainstream society and those with more social power. Communities ignored on account of their heritage, race, and class thus come into view.

Klein devotes a fine chapter to indigenous struggles against extraction in their communities, groups at the forefront against fossil-fuel invasion. Unfortunately, she notes, their cries, shouts, chants and demands are often left unheard. Centuries of colonial violence have left indigenous populations in political, economic, and social shambles, escalating fossil-fuel encroachment degenerating the environments surrounding these communities on a level that exterminates their conditions for life. Although “Indigenous land and treaty rights have proved a major barrier for the extractive industries in many of the key Blockadia struggles” (370), government and industry continue to exploit the disparity between indigenous rights and treaties, on the one hand, and the resources needed for enforcement of such treaties on the other. Indigenous rights and treaties are in some cases “the last line of defense” (370) against corporate trade deals. Some of the most marginalized groups then, are fighting for the entire planet by going up against the fossil fuel industry, a behemoth with gargantuan social, political, legal, and economic clout; “that these communities are bearing it with shockingly little support from the rest of us in an unspeakable social injustice” (379). Community mobilization by the Beaver Lake Cree in Alberta, the Ogoni and Ijaw in Nigeria, the Heiltsuk in Bella Bella, the more recent Sioux in North Dakota[6] and other strained indigenous populations mend fragmented social bonds, with ills like alcoholism, depression, and drug abuse declining as community members gather and reclaim their identities and rights. But the forces at play here are too strong for one community to bear alone.

As Klein notes in moving fashion, “When what is being fought for is an identity, a culture, a beloved place that people are determined to pass on to their grandchildren, and that their ancestors may have paid for with great sacrifice, there is nothing companies can offer as a bargaining chip” (342). This “ferocious love” (342) is Blockadia’s defining feature, a defiance of the fossil-fuel industry’s attempt to encroach and extract from beloved places in the name of cheap, dirty, quick profits. And it is this coming together, this “movement of movements” grounded in democracy and long-term sustainable planning that will, Klein believes, allow us to beat capitalism.

The communities Klein describes in Blockadia are organizing on transnational scales and levels like never before, but this isn’t to say that these communities aren’t divided. Sadly, many communities are prone to racism, sexism, homophobia, and other divisions that hinder, stagnate, and block grassroots organizing altogether, sometimes even perverting grassroots mobilization against persons or groups within the community as well as ecosystemic health. Klein’s placement of Blockadia, indigenous communities especially, as defenders of the earth on grounds of cultural identity allows for the buildup of arguments for “defense” against intruders to be justified by group identity. Such a defense of homeland on cultural grounds carries its own dangers.

Klein’s romanticization of the bond between people and place could be developed further situating the entire planet as a commons, rather than having multiple, dispersed localities as the end point of governance. This leads us to the question of the nature of these global institutions, how they function, etc., a topic untouched in Klein’s analysis, as well as Jackson’s but one necessary for global egaliberté. In addition, a deep focus on grassroots organizing has left Klein to say little on the state, which is a substantial force in stopping Blockadia organizing, but also one capable of strengthening the movement.

As for Klein’s purpose of strengthening the left, the omission of a critical component for revolutionary action, communism, leaves her repeating many progressive arguments that underestimate and overlook the force of capital in the ecological crisis. She states: “And let’s take it for granted that we want to do these things democratically and without a bloodbath, so violent, vanguardist revolutions don’t have much to offer in the way of roadmaps” (450). There is a rich history of organizing coming from socialists and communists, from which Blockadia probabaly draws inspiration. From the lukewarm to the violently incendiary, the working-class struggles of the 20th century have much to offer as we look for ways outside of capitalism. Klein needs to integrate these struggles into the discussion for a fuller realization and redefinition of collective struggles for a sustainable planet.

The fact remains, however, that the book is very popular, its degree of anti-capitalism notwithstanding. Compassionate, striking prose illustrates the realities of the climate crisis today, from the fossil fuel executive meetings to the installation of solar panels in indigenous communities. Klein’s own personal account of a miscarriage is moving, the final chapter displaying receptivity that takes in the suffering from failed births occurring across species around the world. Such passion is found throughout the entire book, and with the extensive research and footnotes, as well as the accessible, funny, hopeful, engaging language; we have here a most welcome literary addition in our fight for a sustainable planet.

Joel Kovel: Uprooting Capitalism as the Enemy of Nature

But leaving us at Klein’s conclusions omits something much more revolutionary, something far more fulfilling. Klein’s embrace of populism does not necessarily factor out opposition to capitalism. Her solutions to overcoming capitalism could be a starting point, pointing in the direction cracking capitalism’s walls and leading us on a path to a sustainable future. However, her ambiguity over the question of the abolition of capitalism and her dismissal of communist alternatives and history leaves the book, in the final analysis, trapped inside capital’s labyrinth, which as Joel Kovel argues, is, ne plus ultra, the enemy of nature. Kovel’s The Enemy of Nature: The End of Capitalism or the End of the World?, shares a polemical stance with Klein’s Capitalism vs the Climate; however, Kovel is far more thoroughgoing in his critique of capital and capitalism. Such an in-depth critique of capitalism, Kovel believes, is necessary for human liberation and an ecologically stable planet. His purpose is to “clarify what capital is and what nature is, to understand capital’s enmity to nature, to understand it not just as an economic system but in relation to the entire human project, to see its antecedents, and more importantly, to fathom what can be done about it” (4). These are the very arguments and layout of the book.

Kovel begins by taking us through the grim realities forming the ecological crisis (1-3), the “evolution of an ancient lesion in humanity’s relation to nature” (14). Seemingly disconnected events, from the 25 million displaced environmental refugees in 1999 to the $140 trillion in money-as-capital in 2005, are, in sociological terms, products of society. This is because nature “is an aspect of our being, absolutely essential over if not the whole of it” (14). Moreover, civilization and nature are inextricably linked, though nature can and has existed without human civilization.  Any societal action bears impact on the immediate environment, these environments in flux with other environs, and so forth.

But never before has the planet had to bear overproduction and overconsumption on such a scale as today’s. When we connect the fragmented events from society, we witness a “nightmare in which the demons released in the progressive domination of nature come back to haunt the master” (16). To sum up: “The current stage of history can be characterized as structured by forces that systemically degrade and finally exceed the buffering capacity of nature with respect to human production, thereby setting into motion an unpredictable yet interacting and expanding set of ecosystemic breakdowns” (23).

For Kovel, a case-study of the 1984 Bhopal, India methyl isocyanate (MIC) chemical leak is enough to find the efficient cause, the initial force with the “property of being able to set other causes into motion” (27), of the ecological crisis. The Union Carbide chemical factory was responsible for unimaginable suffering and fatalities, but leaving blame solely at the site misses the larger picture. The factory made a chemical that was to be sold and the entire purpose of the factory was to create value. The quest for surplus value and profit, then, is the efficient cause in the Bhopal incident. The indictment against capital thus begins.

The “established view” sees as a rational investment, “a way of using money to fruitfully bring together the various functions of economic activity” (38). Instead, Kovel shows that capital tends to degrade the existence of its own production, that it must expand without end in order to exist, and that this leads to a chaotic world-system increasingly polarized between rich and poor that cannot adequately address the ecological crisis (38). Capital has a restless dynamism that drives innovation, efficiency, and new markets. Though capital acts like a virus, “it is humanity living as capital, people who become capital’s personification, that destroys ecosystems” (39). And capital is made possible, realized, by the commodity, the conjunction of use-value and exchange value.

Summarizing very simply, the use-value of a thing can be described as its sensuous qualities (smell, touch, taste, etc.) whereas the exchange value is generalized equivalence (X many oranges are worth X many apples), expressed as quantity and money (for further explanation, see: Capital, Vol. I). Exchange-value is abstract, much like an idea or a number. Now, exchange value points towards value creation, on the road toward profit, and maximizing value requires high prices and low costs. Costs are lowered by cutting the conditions of production (cost of machinery, wages, etc.), of which humans and nature are included. Thus, for something to become surplus value, the qualities of a thing, human and nature included, dissipate as they give way to exchange value, often to what we recognize as money.

As Kovel notes forcefully, this is contrary to the laws of nature. “The actual laws of nature exist in the context of ecosystems whose internal relations are violated by conversion to the money-form” (40). Capital often takes the form of money made to make more money, and stops being capital when it moves from this ceaseless expansion. Any original profit is a starting point for departure.  And every quantitative increase of capital “becomes a new boundary, which is immediately transformed into a new barrier” (42). Capital needs and seeks barriers as a site of growth.  Anything that isn’t valorized (used to create surplus value, some of which becomes profit) is left as externalities that “become repositories of pollution” (41), this notion very similar to that of Klein’s sacrifice zones.

Capital penetrates and degrades both environmental and human life-worlds (52-60) and does so in ever-decreasing circulation time (60), resulting in a time-obsessed, overworked, stressed, and frantic existence (62). We move “from a world regulated by the complex and interrelated temporalities of ecosystems to one in which a single, uniform and linear standard is imposed upon reality and comes to rule it” (62). “The de-synchronization between natural time and workplace time devolves, therefore, into a disarticulation of human being and nature, and is foundational for capital’s efficient causation of the ecological crisis” (62). This consumptive net enmeshes the world with no “virtuous and all-knowing capitalist” (78) capable of saving the economy and ecology, there being a whole sect of people who live and die for capital accumulation, ready to move up the ladder as the humble and compassionate are booted below.

An understanding and analysis of ecology grants us vision of a universe, of an existence with amazing possibility, shorn away by capital. As Kovel writes: “the systematic introduction of an ecological vision [relationships and the structures that flow between them] commits us to positing reality as an interconnected web whose numberless nodes are integrated into holistic beings of ever exfoliating wonder” (98). If there were “no-thing,” then there would be “none of the differentiation that is the lot of the cosmos in the eons between its alpha and omega points” (99). Therefore, reality is full of “some-things,” integral parts of Wholes and these Wholes being integral to more Wholes, and so on. This is not a harmonious relationship – nature proceeds through negation.

As for ecosystems, their integrity relies on differentiation, “the state of being that preserves individuality and connectedness” (115). Ecosystemic disintegration is the separation of elements from the ecosystem, what Kovel denominates as splitting. For example, the Bhopal chemical leak caused a splitting from bodily integration. This splitting leads to alienation from integrity.

The capital relation is by definition a splitting system, a process of unceasing accumulation turning use-value into exchange value. It is not an innate outcome, something fundamental to human nature, since great violence was needed for its establishment. Capital is the “evolution of an ancient lesion in humanity’s relation to nature” (3) stemming from the gendered bifurcation from nature, the control of female bodies, then festering into an establishment of private property and class relations, from which racial and ethnic prejudices emerge and feed upon. Capitalism is different from earlier modes of production in that it converts the sensuous world into abstraction for the purpose of value (135). “The ecological crisis and capital’s exploitation of labor are two aspects of the same phenomenon” (141).

Capital is a spectral apparatus that integrates earlier modes of domination, especially that by gender, and generates a gigantic force field of profit-seeking that polarizes all human activity and sucks it into itself. It produces enormous wealth and poverty, eternal strife, insecurity, ecodestruction, and nihilism.  In order to overcome capital we must undergo basic changes in ownership and control of productive resources and our productive powers have to be self-determined, liberated. An understanding, analysis, and scathing critique of capital allows for its indictment as the efficient cause of the ecological crisis. Of course, one needn’t know these figures and principles to fight against capital, as necessity is forcing persons to fight for their survival. But capital is all the more nefarious in that it usurps change and revolutions and utilizes them for its own purposes; an anti-capitalist ground must be established. For this reason, Kovel examines eco-politics, struggles for a sound ecology without an anti-capitalist basis.

The courts and other apparatuses of the capitalist system can produce real and much needed gains, but as a case-study of Al Gore’s liberal environmentalism reveals, industry proves too powerful in its hold on the establishment. Volunteerism, while noble, is too often isolated and focused on individual acts rather than turning to systemic change. It is a piece in our fight for a stable planet, but ultimately it is an eco-politics without struggle. Moreover, technology won’t be the sole element that will save us from the ecological crisis, even if there were some technological miracle (172), but it is part of the way to a better planet. It is currently deeply rooted in profit accumulation; this must change, Kovel argues.

Green economics and other efforts that espouse the recuperative powers of capitalism are too prone to capital; it is a reformist solution that repeats the commodification of nature in all aspects (“these trees are worth this much,” etc.). The Kyoto Protocol relied heavily on the trading of pollution credits, which essentially allowed rich countries to pay the poor so that they may continue polluting; this measure allowed profits to remain untouched.

Co-operatives are an integral component of an ecological socialist future because they allow for employee-ownership of production. Unfortunately, co-ops too suffer under the vicissitudes of capital, making it impossible for co-ops to be reproduced on a large scale today (182). “The problem is to get to that [eco-centric], freely associated ground, in the course of which present ways of production need to be traversed and transformed” (184). But in order to envision this eco-centric future, we must step back from our present ways, we need ecophilosophies.

Ecophilosophies represent comprehensive orientations that combine the understanding of our relation to nature, the dynamics of the ecological crisis, and the guidelines for rebuilding society in an eco-centric way (187).

Deep ecologies attempt to de-center humans from our lordship over nature. Kovel values deep ecology, but notes that it can be “bastardized” by capitalist elites (189) and that it often avoids the question of immigration (as does Klein). Deep ecology does not fully take into account that humanity is a part of nature and that human nature expresses “nature’s transformative power” (188). Deep ecology, Kovel argues, needs to be more human, not less.

Within deep ecology, there is the idea of “bioregionalism,” a sort of “back-to-the-land” movement emphasizing local ecologies. The difficulty in this relies on its definition and management of areas for a global population, some areas insufficient to support populations. In addition, operations by fossil fuel and other toxic industries are wreaking complete havoc on geographies, persons finding their native lands inhabitable. Where would people without their native, now-blighted homes go? The idea is too limiting for a global population.

Eco-feminism is grounded in women’s liberation and ecological justice.  Any path out of capitalism must be eco-feminist, since capitalism is a system rooted in patriarchal relations where control of the female body especially leads to property and class relations. Capitalist relations entail gender domination. Some ecofeminisms, however, are not anti-capitalist, and they also sometimes essentialize women’s closeness to nature, a repetition of the “eternal feminine” in a seemingly positive form. It seems that Kovel is calling for explicit anti-capitalism as philosophical movement. The leading proponents of ecofeminism, such as Vandana Shiva, stress the unequal economic situation of our times (Shiva focusing on control of food),

Kovel has little faith in contemporary notions of liberal democracy, since it is bourgeois (upholding capitalist interests) in origin and nature. True democracy is “the power of men and women beyond the notion of property” (200). Progressivism in its expansion of social welfare programs is a step towards , but it isn’t enough, especially when considering that it is capable of turning to fascism (201) or reverting back to capitalist hands. All the efforts thus far provide us with a wealth of knowledge, but much more lies ahead.

Ecosocialism, Kovel believes, is the ecophilosophy needed for our times. “It must be that an important reason co-ops, organic farms, etc., succumb to capital’s force field is the lack of an offsetting belief system which enables them to renounce profitability” (211). The “deployment of values” (212) allows the Amish-like Bruderhof community to live in communal fashion, “the social organization of labor [leaving] capital to die off” (209). The values of the Bruderhof are based in Christian scripture, which isn’t applicable to everyone, and therefore a moral equivalent is needed. Kovel’s solution to staving off capitalist relations is the recognition of intrinsic value, “the primary appropriation of the world for each person, in two senses: it is the way we first come to appreciate things and relationships in childhood, and it is, throughout life, the value given to reality irrespective of what we do to reality” (212).     Ecological socialism is grounded in eco-centric, intrinsic value, it is a “struggle for use-value and through a realized use-value, intrinsic value” (215); this is a struggle for the “qualitative side of things; not just the hours worked and the pay per hour and benefits, but the control over work and its product, and of what is beyond mere necessity” (216), thereby overturning the balance from exchange-value (quantity) over to use-value (quality). This shift isn’t limited to human endeavours either, since a full realization of the qualitative side of things necessitates an ecologically oriented world-view, lest we conduct ourselves as capitalists and disregard anything non-human as material objects for our gain, ruining ecosystems in the process. Ecosocialism’s emphasis not only on individual but community well-being, on how one lives with eco-centric consideration, is similar to the Quechuan idea of sumac kawsay , or, buen vivir (“good living”).

At this point, Kovel brings up an issue ignored by Klein: socialism and the state. Past socialisms failed because they relied solely on public ownership of production, not free association, which implies “the fullest extension of democracy, with a public sphere and public ownership that is genuinely collective and in which each person makes a difference” (218). 20th century socialism turned exclusionary through the introduction of one-party states and foreign pressures leaving these states peripheral and dependent on capitalist powers, and with the coupling of non-democratic traditions, left these revolutions to falter.

Rather than abandon the socialist project, Kovel looks to develop socialism into ecological socialism, a socialism for our ecologically-fraught times. Releasing the affirmative, integrative power that is the birthright of every person, that is, freely associated labor, will be “sensuous, deeply gratifying, and non-repressive” (243). In a leap of faith, Kovel wagers that freely associated labor will “generate eco-centric ends” (244), and vice versa; from of these two “mutually generative” (244) processes comes ecosocialism.  He elaborates: “The task for ecosocialism is to work consciously with ensembles as they have been thrown forth and to see in them the germ of integral ecosystems to come” (246) (this book embodies the prefigurative principles of ecosocialism in its effort to look past capitalism and restore ecologies to developing rather than deteriorating states; Kovel sees potential that is ultimately hemmed by relations of capital). Kovel situates these “ensembles” under the term “Commons” (246) so that a “notion redolent with history and betrayal” (246), the communal frameworks of previous societies and splitting of these frameworks by capital, may serve as grounds for figuring a new society. Indeed, prefiguration, “a continual process of rediscovery, a restoration of dignity to what ‘has been’ to what is ‘not yet’” (246) will serve as a principle in envisioning and creating a new anti-capitalist society (the derogatory label “has been” can give way to “not yet”).  From the Zapatistas in Chiapas to the Zulu Abahlali baseMjondolo shack-dwellers, from the “Indy-media” to Cuba’s self-organized organic farms, from bleaching coral reefs to teeming, sometimes unknown species struggling for existence, these contemporary sites of struggle across the world carry the potential to lead us towards eco-centric, free lives. Of course, capitalists being capitalists, nothing will stand in their way of profit-accumulation.

Moving Forward

Thus far, we’ve witnessed how the degree of an anti-capitalist approach can affect solutions in the struggle for a sustainable planet. On the immediate surface, both Klein and Kovel polarize capitalism and ecology. Both authors also sound a call for grassroots, local struggles to take control of their individual and communal affairs with respect to ecological processes rather than allow domination over nature, what Klein calls “the need to assert the intrinsic value of life” (463).  Klein’s book concludes on the note of a “Green New Deal,” wherein which local movements coerce the state to push for more democratic and ecologically sound policy changes. Kovel summarizes:

  • “initiatives to build public works whose impact is reduction of dependence upon petroleum, for example, light rail networks; this is not a technological fix, as the technology is already well known; it is a struggle for the state, a political struggle; similar struggles would be toward demanding of the state that it regulate fuel efficiency more strenuously; or stop airport expansion; or get rid of subsidies for fossil fuel extraction, superhighway construction, pipelines, rebates for SUVs, and so on;
  • replace these with subsidies for renewable energy development; inducing the development and purchase of high-efficiency autos such as hybrids; methods of efficiency enhancement; promotion of local community initiatives to conserve energy, etc. Ideally, these subsidies should be drawn from heavy taxation of oil superprofits (it clears the mind to realize that the five leading oil companies “earned” $375 billion in profits in 2006);
  • force the state to provide subsidies to workers laid off by the moving away from the carbon economy – a key consideration in overcoming the hostility of traditional labor organizations to environmentalism;
  • the above are demands upon the state; there is also need for direct struggles to preserve the integrity of relatively intact ecosystems, such as old growth forests, against the “Clean Development Mechanisms” (CDMs) of the Kyoto regime;
  • litigation to force corporations, especially energy corporations, to bear the costs of these transitions” (260).

Both writers also call for Northern (areas with more capital concentration, usually metropolitan) struggles to unite with the far more dire struggles of the Global South. Summarized by Kovel, some of these struggles include:

  • “the threat by Indians in Bolivia and Ecuador to commit mass suicide if big oil (including Occidental Petroleum, a company partly held by Al Gore’s family) invades their territory;
  • legal action against Chevron by Ecuadoran Indians to try and recoup damages for the terrible pollution and harm done to their lives;
  • similar challenges by Inuit from the North Slope in Alaska;
  • bans on petro-extraction won by the people of Costa Rica;
  • protests by people of the Niger River delta, ranging from militant nudity by women to armed guerrilla movements, all operating under the outrageous assumption that the wealth under the ground should be under the control of the people who live on the ground;
  • and, finally, further linking North and South and placing the struggle against petro-capital on an ecosocialist path, the antiwar and anti-imperialism movements” (261).

Klein’s solutions to the climate crisis stop at localism; that is, the climate crisis can be solved by local movements that press for democratic, sustainable policy measures across a global theatre, which is desperately needed of course. But what to do with the dominant system that quantifies anything that can be made into surplus-value, that expands without limit (the economy) and its arm that legitimizes and enforces these activities (the political sphere, the state)? Solutions to the climate crisis like the Kyoto Protocol and the recent, lackluster Conference of the Parties (COP21) resulted in a non-binding treaty[7], going to show how change of the most noble and global sort can be blocked, stampeded over, and trampled by capital. Capital’s logic has been forcefully engrained into individual psyches and corrupts institutions across the globe today. Klein is no exception, and without the deeper anti-capitalist edge that Kovel demonstrates and advocates, an ecologically destructive system is ultimately accepted. Across the world, we hear deep resounding “NO!”’s against capital’s encroachment perverted into “Yes!”’s upholding its ecodesctructive expansion. Kovel’s examination of capital’s logic allows for its mechanism of use-values turned to exchange value to be revealed and reviled. The Enemy of Nature possesses great historical reach looking at what’s been and great implications for what could be.

Closing Remarks                                                                                                                 

A gas leak in the Los Angeles-area community of Porter Ranch produced the most damaging environmental impact for a natural gas leak in history[8], according to a study published by Conley et. al (2016). Methane was the primary greenhouse gas emitted by the corroding SoCal company gas well, first picked up by the olfactory senses of Porter Ranch residents, then confirmed by workers. The gas leaks caused illness amongst the wealthy residents of Porter Ranch prompting California Governor Jerry Brown to issue a state of emergency on January 6, 2016 (two months after the first reported gas-sniffs), leading to temporary evacuation of the gated community. The gas leaks were stopped for good a month later.

South-east of Porter Ranch lies the community of Boyle Heights, a working-class community in East LA. According to an article by the LA Times[9], the “residents are still living in fear after state toxics officials warned last year that their yards and homes may be contaminated with high levels of lead that can cause disabilities and behavioral problems in children and miscarriages in pregnant women,” with “arsenic and other contaminants in the air” also contributing to a toxic environment. Of the 10,000 properties in the area, only 15 are planned to be cleaned in 2016. Both communities are living in hazardous spaces, but there is a stark contrast in the response by the state. One community receives relief, the other is given crumbs. With increasing gentrification in Boyle Heights, that is, with the displacement of low-income Latinxs, perhaps things will change…

How then, to deal with this disparity? The danger of terms like fat, muscular, smart, etc. is that they produce a worldview that doesn’t move; you and the things and persons around you remain “fixed”. Left unchallenged, this sort of thinking solidifies ever more as one passes through a crumbling education system and media bombardment. The principle of prefiguration steps in here and claims “Ok, that is what it was, what it is, but what can it be?” To witness the phenomena in our lives as fluid breaks us free from a narrow sort of thinking, and is critical to dispelling bigoted notions.

So, let’s go out and make change in all spheres of our lives, from clothing to food to positions in seats of power. But here’s the capitalist kicker, given by Karl Marx in The Communist Manifesto: “The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of society.” We should be careful not to confuse the appearance of change at a particular level with change on a total one. What appears to us today (at least in the West) as the most dynamic and fantastic changes in our collective life takes place primarily in the sphere of computer and information technologies. Yet, as Herbert Marcuse argues in One Dimensional Man, the dominant relation of capital remains, things don’t really change, they may even get worse. So what Kovel is calling for is a moment to really think about the issues of our times, and how we think about these issues, that is, thinking about thinking, so that we aren’t caught in capital’s double-bind of doing something and upholding the system or doing nothing and letting it run amok.

Eco-systems are now manifesting the overbearing and destructive force of capital. But we are not so powerless, and we in the North are fortunate that the climate crisis doesn’t come crashing down on us as it does in the Global South. We have a choice in organizing and realizing ecosocialism or falling into eco-catastrophe. Philosopher Jurgen Habermas wrote that “Behind every fascism is a failed socialism.” Today, we witness the rise of fascists from Trump to LePen in France, and the disintegration of states. One line of thought that situates freedom within disciplined social relations based on egaliberté and, now developing eco-centric living as a basis, is Marxist-Humanism.



[1] “Q&A on the carcinogenicity of the consumption of red meat and processed meathttp://www.who.int/features/qa/cancer-red-meat/en/

[2] Albrecht G. et. al, “Solastalgia: The Distress Caused by Environmental Change” Australas Psychiatry February 2007 15: S95-S98,

[3] Joanna Chiu, “Bottled Air Started as a Joke. Now China Can’t Get Enough,” May 12, 2016 http://mashable.com/2016/05/12/china-bottled-air-demand/#VS19BdPo6Eqo

[4] Douglas Starr, “Just 90 Companies are to Blame for Most Climate Change,” Science Magazine, August 25, 2016, http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2016/08/just-90-companies-are-blame-most-climate-change-carbon-accountant-says

[5] Larry Gordon, “UC Sells Off $200 Million in Coal and Oil Sands Investments,” The Los Angeles Times, September 9, 2015, http://www.latimes.com/local/education/la-me-ln-uc-coal-20150909-story.html

[6] Jack Healy, “North Dakota Oil Pipeline Battle: Who’s Fighting and Why,” The New York Times, August 26, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/27/us/north-dakota-oil-pipeline-battle-whos-fighting-and-why.html?rref=collection%2Ftimestopic%2FEnergy%20Transfer%20Partners%20LP&action=click&contentCollection=business&region=stream&module=stream_unit&version=latest&contentPlacement=1&pgtype=collection. For updates, see http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2016/10/12/497673866/protests-disrupt-pipelines-across-the-west.

[7] John Foran, “The Paris Agreement: Paper Heroes Widen the Climate Justice Gap,” Resillience.org, December 15, 2015, http://www.resilience.org/stories/2015-12-14/the-paris-agreement-paper-heroes-widen-the-climate-justice-gap

[8] S. Conley, G. Franco, I. Faloona, D. R. Blake, J. Peischl, T. B. Ryerson. “Methane emissions from the 2015 Aliso Canyon blowout in Los Angeles, CA,” Science, March 18, 2016 : 1317-1320

[9]The Times Editorial Board, “Why does affluent Porter Rach get more urgent environmental relief that working class Boyle Heights?” Los Angeles Times, Jan. 29, 2016. http://www.latimes.com/opinion/editorials/la-ed-exide-20160131­-story.html


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *