The Ongoing Environmental Disaster and the Capitalist State’s Inability to Respond

Derek Lewis

Summary: Discusses state capitalism and its inability to deal with climate change – Editors.

On Friday, September 23, eleven climate activists were arrested for a sit-in protest spurred by West Virginian Senator Joe Manchin’s bill, which has the support of Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and President Biden. This bill would speed along federal energy reviews, fast-track new pipeline construction, and limit community impute or review of future fossil fuel projects, according to Democracy Now. The bill itself, and those who arrested for protesting it, illustrates the bourgeois state’s loyalty to capital and the true limits of civil rights under a capitalist state.

Prior to this, on August 16, the U.S. President Biden signed into law the Inflation Reduction Act, which was hailed for including key provisions that would tackle climate change. While the bill does contain provisions limiting methane emissions and imposing taxes and royalties on oil production, these effects will likely be minimal in offsetting the rise of global temperatures. Worse still, the bill requires the Department of the Interior to lease public lands to the fossil fuel industry for oil production prior to setting aside such land for clean energy.

Many speculate that this portion of the bill was included in order to bring to the table Senator Manchin of West Virginia, who is the largest recipient of donations from the oil lobby and has weakened environmental legislation in the past. Further, due to the connection of his state to coal mining, he is often at odds with the environmentalist wing of the party. However, the failure of the U.S. state, or any state, to preserve the environment while under a capitalist mode of production is neither incidental nor reducible to the result of Senator Manchin’s involvement.

Big Oil has, thus far, refrained from opposing the bill, largely because it does not actually reduce carbon emissions; rather, the bill provides considerable funding for “carbon capture.” While this may appear to be environmentally friendly, it is actually a form of government subsidization of the extraction of even more crude oil from underperforming wells. This is an expression of our stage of capitalism – State Capitalism – dressed up as an environmental protection bill. Rather, as Lenin describes in State and Revolution, the state serves the interests of the dominant economic class.

Understanding that capitalist production is based on exchange value or making a profit rather than use value or production based off need, and that the state is bound to the capitalist class, it becomes clear that the state is incapable of going as far as necessary to regulate production and the ongoing degradation of the environment. Further, as theorized by Raya Dunayevskaya, during this stage of State Capitalism, the state assumes the role of a financier to the capitalist class, keeping it fiscally afloat whilst fulfilling its normal, repressive functions. The release of public lands to oil producers, coupled with the Biden Administration’s prior executive orders to expand drilling on public land, illustrate a state keener on growing capital than mitigating climate change. Minimal effort is taken while maximal lip-service is paid.

Yet, every day we see the environment degrade more. The U.S. South-West is currently experiencing massive flash floods throughout due to an intense shift between hot, dry soil and severe storms. While the rain may help the drought, the drought is nowhere near over as the soil is unable to absorb all the water, leading to excess water that causes flooding. Such floods are all the more likely to intensify in the U.S. and all over the world as the environmental crisis intensifies.

Last month, Kentucky and several other states experienced flash floods which severely damaged homes, small businesses, and the natural landscape. Such floods are not only the result of emissions from coal or oil plants, but the floods in Kentucky were also likely intensified by the negligence of coal mining companies’ care of the land. Some residents are even suing. If they win, the corporation owning the plant will pay a settlement and be held responsible for this specific incident of damage despite playing a much larger, systemic role in the disaster. The state may hold them liable here, similarly as with the limited environmental provisions in the Inflation Reduction Act, but it will not impose significant regulations.

These floods and other environmental catastrophes will continue under capitalism. For example, on July 19th London experienced its hottest day, 104.4 F or 40.2 C. The insatiable quest to grow capital requires not only the obvious exploitation of humans, but the abuse and degradation of the environment. If it is true that labor, when combined with elements of the natural environment, creates value, then the irrational necessity of capitalism to produce profit (or else stagnate and die) requires the constant destruction of the environment in addition to the worker’s body and psyche. While the state is perhaps the only vehicle capable of stopping this monstrous hunger, this current state is unable to, as it is itself an arm of capital.


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