Grow or Die: The Death of the Earth by Capitalism

Capitalism and a healthy environment cannot coexist together because of the economic theory behind capitalism and it is consistent need for new frontiers of exploitation.

Environmental damage has reached alarming proportions. Almost daily there are new upwardly revised estimates of the severity of global warming, ozone destruction, topsoil loss, oxygen depletion from the clearing of rainforests, acid rain, dioxins in our body, pesticides residues in our food and water, the accelerating extinction rate of natural species, and so on. Or, as Kirkpatrick Sales puts it, “the planet is on the road to and perhaps on the verge of global ecocide”.

So how have we reached this point of almost ecological disaster? Many anarchists view the ecological crisis as rooted in the psychology of domination that emerged with the rise of patriarchy. Over time as these institutions took form and social domination became commonplace, these ideals were carried over into humanity’s role with Nature. The patriarchal belief system places higher value on linear, mechanistic, analytical, and rational qualities. Under patriarchy the intuitive, emotional, anarchic, and earthy are negatively perceived as passive, weak and irrational within patriarchy. Within the realms of this definition, nature became increasingly regarded as a mere resource, an object exploited and ruthlessly enslaved.

Capitalism is the vehicle through which this psychology of domination finds its most ecologically destructive outlet. Capitalism causes the wasteful use of energy and material far beyond that needed for everyday living at a comfortable level. When one adds up all the raw materials and energy that go into the goods and services consumed over a lifetime, the toll on the environment is staggering. When this cost is multiplied out over the lifespan of families, cities and countries, the proportions are incredible.

An example of wasted natural resources are the 200 Billion cans, bottles, plastic cartons and paper cups, are thrown away each year in the “developed” world. Corporate production focuses on “disposable” items rather than on quality or reliability, products are made for a one-time use because it ensures greater profits.

Many eco-anarchists give the highest priority to dismantling capitalism. Bookchin states that capitalism “in its endless devouring of nature will reduce the entire biosphere to the fragile simplicity of our desert and arctic biomes. We will be reversing the process of organic evolution, which has differentiated flora and fauna into increasingly complex forms and relationships, thereby creating a simpler and less stable world of life. The consequences of this appalling regression are predictable enough in the long run — the biosphere will become so fragile that it will eventually collapse from the standpoint human survival needs and remove the organic preconditions for human life.”

Capitalism must be eliminated because it cannot reform itself to become “environmentally friendly”, despite what many green individuals believe. One might more easily persuade a green plant to desist from photosynthesis than to ask the bourgeois economy to desist from capital accumulation.

Industrial production has increased fifty fold since 1950. Since capitalist corporations must continuously grow and expand, it can only mean disastrous consequences in a finite environment. Therefore, it is not practical to look for a solution to the ecological dilemma within the workings of capitalism, because “grow or die” is inherent in its nature.

What is the principle of grow or die?

Capitalism is based on production for profit. In order to stay profitable, a firm must be able to produce goods and services cheaply enough to compete with other firms in the same industry. If one firm increases its productivity (as all firms must try to do), it will be able to produce more cheaply, thus undercutting its competition and gaining more market share, until eventually it forces less lucrative firms into bankruptcy. Moreover, as companies with higher productivity/profitability expand, they often realize economies of scale (e.g. getting bulk rates on larger quantities of raw materials), thus giving them even more of a competitive advantage over less productive/profitable enterprises. Hence, constantly increasing productivity is essential for capitalist survival.

There are two ways to increase productivity, either by increasing the exploitation of workers (e.g. longer hours and/or more intense work for the same amount of pay) or by introducing new technologies that reduce the amount of labor necessary to produce the same product or service. Due to the struggle of workers to prevent increases in the level of their exploitation, new technologies are the main way that productivity is increased under capitalism (though of course capitalists are always looking for ways to increase the exploitation of workers on a given technology by other means as well).

But new technologies are expensive, which means that in order to pay for continuous upgrades, a firm must continually sell more of what it produces, and so must keep expanding its capital (machinery, floor space, workers, etc.). Indeed, to stay in the same place under capitalism is to tempt crisis – thus a firm must always strive for more profits and thus must always expand and invest. In other words, in order to survive, a firm must constantly expand and upgrade its capital and production levels so it can sell enough to keep expanding and upgrading its capital — i.e. “grow or die,” or “production for the sake of production.”

Thus, it is impossible in principle for capitalism to solve the ecological crisis, because “grow or die” is inherent in its nature.

As long as capitalism exists, it will necessarily continue its “endless devouring of nature,” until it removes the “organic preconditions for human life.” We do not have to wait until after the revolution to save the earth. Saving the earth is the revolution.

Good Books to Read:

Morris, Brian. Ecology and Anarchism: , Images Publishing (Malvern) Ltd, Malvern Wells, 1996.

Bookchin, Murray, Toward an Ecological Society, Black Rose, Montreal, 1980.

The Ecology of Freedom: The Emergence and Dissolution of Hierarchy, Cheshire Books, Palo Alto, California, 1982.

Which Way for the Ecology Movement? AK Press, Edinburgh/San Francisco, 1994.

The Philosophy of Social Ecology, Black Rose Books, Montreal/New York, 1990.