The Orange County Oil Spill and Human Alienation from Nature

Derek Lewis

Summary: Oil Spill off the Coast of Orange County, California, USA — Editors

144,000 gallons of oil flooded the channel between Huntington Beach, California and Santa Catalina Island as I was driving home to visit. A pipeline associated with the Port of Long Beach burst, resulting in the further degradation of our earth in the name of capital.

“Accumulate. Accumulate. That is Moses and the Prophets.” Marx’s epithet could not be more applicable. The dogmatic way in which the capitalists destroy our earth, in the hopes of amassing riches and ensuring security, ultimately impoverishes us all and makes our species’ existence insecure. Even when it is irrational, capitalism demands – perhaps as the arbitrary dogmas of old did – that we deplete the soil, cut down the trees, or mine the mineral in the name of progress. We do this not in the name of humanity nor in the interest of sustaining ourselves and the earth; rather, we are compelled to degrade the earth – and to an extension, ourselves – by the capitalist system’s relentless drive for value and surplus value.

Dead birds are washing up onto the shores I used to play on as a child. The ocean is no longer the crisp blue it was – it may never be again. The sandy shores will now be rife with tar for decades to come. And why, I ask? “Accumulate. Accumulate…” That is why. I have long thought that environmental protection and capitalism are incompatible, but now that an environmental catastrophe has reached my home shores, I hold this to be truer than ever.

It is not simply because the capitalists at the top are holding us back from preserving nature; it is because we as a society have become alienated from nature due to the process of production. In Marx’s First Manuscript on Alienation, he writes, “The devaluation of the human world increases in direct relation with the increase in value of the world of things.” Very early in the essay, Marx points out that the environment will be destroyed as the number and types of commodities to be exchanged increases. Further still, Marx outlines how this product comes to dominate the worker. The worker cannot create anything without nature. The union of their labor and the natural world creates products that, ultimately, stand in opposition to the worker who no longer controls them; rather, these products are “antagonistic” to the working class.

These commodities, such as oil, would not exist without human labor but have consequences that threaten the human race itself. These commodities are proclaimed to be the peak of human civilization but usher in never-before-seen catastrophe. The oil spill illustrates a way in which capitalist production directly threatens the environment through collateral damage. Further still, Marx writes, “This relationship [the workers to their products] is at the same time the relationship to the sensuous external world, to natural objects, as an alien and hostile world…” The antagonism is not just physical through degradation like pollution or overuse – it has taken root within the human psyche.

The oil spill perfectly encompasses human alienation from our products and from the natural world. The commodity which now stands opposed to the worker – the oil flooding the coast of California – was drilled, refined, and transported by workers. These same workers who partook in the manufacturing process are now dominated by the oil, unable to use the beaches it pollutes. In this way, oil, a commodity, physically dominates our ability to meaningfully engage with nature. Our externalization of nature as “other” rather than as our origin, our home, allows capitalists to get away with unfettered degradation. If the oil spill killed thousands of people, the outcry would surely be greater than it is now, though thousands of birds were choked with oil. Our capitalist way of life is not sustainable, then. Not only does the production process result in the appropriation of products by the capitalist, who then stands these commodities in opposition to the worker, but it also alienates humanity from the earth – our natural home. Whether this alienation is a feeling of detachment or a physical impasse, it is the result of capitalism. This alienation is not the result of poor management, too-lax environmental protections, a lazy worker who made a mistake, or a leaky pipe that burst. This alienation – both internal and external – begins and ends with the capitalist mode of production. Our survival as a species, then, is dependent upon our ability to overthrow an unsustainable system.

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