The Red and the Green I: Capitalism and Ecology

It is, or ought to be, by now a familiar fact that the world is in a state of great environmental crisis. While there is no need to believe in the myth of the perfectly virtuous native living in complete harmony with his environment, it is clear that the development of capitalism and the Industrial Revolution so-called have drastically and fundamentally altered the relationship of man to his biosphere. In fact, so much so that it is estimated this century may see the greatest single increase in man-made global warming in all of the memory of humanity as a species, as a result of processes begun only two centuries ago at most. Our impact upon the global network of ecosystems is now so great that the current period of civilization is now by biologists considered to be a Great Extinction Event, one of the very few in our planet’s entire history – the last one took place approximately 65 million years ago. Moreover, the current Extinction Event is also the fastest ever recorded. A consensus predicts a future scenario in which between 20% and 50% of all species on Earth may go extinct.1

The loss of biodiversity will be enormous. This is not just a loss of its own accord, but it also means that it throws the biosphere of the planet as such wholly out of balance, disrupting a great number of ecosystems to such an extent that it is difficult to predict what the results will be, other than them being extremely unfavorable for humans. The planet’s ecosystems are dynamic equilibria, and any great disruption is likely to have positive feedback effects. One such effect is a cycle of increasing heat, which will make human life in large parts of this planet exceedingly difficult, through flooding and desertification as well as loss of agricultural productivity and of other animal and plant species. Such a planet cannot sustain any human population as large as we have today. As James Lovelock pointed out, it would be “easily described as Hell: so hot, so deadly that only a handful of the teeming billions now alive will survive.” 2

This is indeed a wry irony. It will mean that man is destroying himself by having attempted to usurp so much of the Earth for production that Earth is now incapable of sustaining our species where it was less burdened by it before. Human civilizations have, indeed, in the past contributed to their own downfall in similar manners. The Mayans, the Romans in North Africa, the Sumerians, the people of Easter Island: greater and smaller empires have collapsed when they, like the worm Ouroboros, ate themselves in their unsatiable hunger for production. Yet these were still local incidents, caused as much by isolation from a wider world as by overproduction per se, and in particular caused by excessive deforestation. Only with the introduction and universalization of the world market, which “batters down all Chinese walls”, has any particular social relation of production the chance of affecting the whole world at once. What then allowed this to happen? What way of relating to the earth is leading us to this doom?

At around the year 1500, the planet had under 500 million people on it, almost all of whom lived in the countryside (over 90%), and whose ‘ecological footprint’ was very small indeed.3 Yet this was soon to change. The great European powers sent out so-called explorers into the West, who arrived after many trials and tribulations in the Americas, and claimed it for their lords. They were quickly followed by all manner of settlers, adventurers, soldiers and planters. Within the span of a mere century, the indigenous populations of the Americas had been all but wiped out, in particular in the North, which suffered losses of up to 90%. Yet the death of these peoples would mean life for Europe. The American populations had been mostly slash-and-burn cultivators and small-time agriculturalists and hunters; they were replaced by slaves imported from Africa, supporting large-scale plantation agriculture for the benefit of European landlords, whereas in the northernmost parts, Europeans settled as intensive farmers. The great riches the plunder of the Americas brought Europe allowed it not just to surpass all the rest of the world in technology and power, but also to expand its urban population significantly. Europeans, and the settlers elsewhere descended from them, increased their share of the world population from 18% in 1650 to 30% in 1900. 4 The Netherlands and subsequently England became the first nations to have urban populations of over 10%, drawn to the cities when manufacturing began replacing feudal production, landlords drove peasants off the land and trade intensified. Not coincidentally, these nations were the main beneficiaries of the plunder of the Americas – though undertaken by Spaniards and Portuguese in first instance, the ruling classes of those nations were heavily indebted to Italian and Southern German financiers, who then sucked up their ill-gained gold and reinvested it northward.

This is not to say that the population as such of the European nations benefited – even in 1750, the average incomes were roughly equal between Englishmen and Chinese or Dutchmen and Indians, although Africa and the Americas had already been devastated into lasting backwardness and depopulation. Yet it allowed the ruling and merchant classes of Europe to utterly exploit the conquered continents to build up the necessary stock of wealth that would allow the great transformations in technology known as the Industrial Revolution. Already, this required great ecological exploitation as well: intensive production of sugar destroyed the soil from Rio to Virginia. Antigua, Haiti and the Brazilian Northeast were almost entirely deforested. Very little food was grown, with almost all being imported from Europe, as the plantation labor was destroyed in the process anyway. This allowed a system of double profit for Europe, on both sides of the trade equation.5 But even the free farmers of New England so greatly depleted their soil with export-oriented monoculture that the hunger for Indian land could never be sated, leading to the systematic destruction and degradation of the remnants of the original populations in North America. All the gain from this exploitation went to Europe and invested there in manufacturing, infrastructure and technology, boosting production locally to unforeseen heights. This allowed the Industrial Revolution to take place where it did. As Marx put it: “all progress in capitalistic agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the labourer, but of robbing the soil; all progress in increasing the fertility of the soil for a given time, is a progress towards ruining the lasting sources of that fertility. The more a country starts its development on the foundation of modern industry, (…) the more rapid is this process of destruction. Capitalist production, therefore, develops technology, and the combining together of various processes into a social whole, only by sapping the original sources of all wealth-the soil and the labourer.”6

The great transformation set into work by this accumulation from plunder eventually led to the full-fledged development of capitalism. This is a system which differentiates itself from all hitherto seen systems in that it reproduces itself solely by maximizing accumulation on one pole, and subjecting everything and everyone to production for the market on another, including the labor power of humans. Although all systems of mankind necessarily require some form of organization of production so that the necessities of life can be provided, none of them had yet been organized such that accumulation for its own sake, by production for a generalized world market, became the way in which society reproduced itself. All men were now by a long historical process compelled one way or another to produce for those who had accumulated the stock, and to sell their labor power in a worldwide competitive market, and to see the owners of capital gain therefrom by taking the product of their labor. So on one end there was an ever-increasing number of people working ever more and taking ever more from nature and the Earth to outproduce one another, and on the other end there was an unimaginable piling up of goods for the market, from the sale of which the proceeds went to the owners of capital. These owners themselves were in their search for greater accumulation also necessarily in competition with one another, and always sought to outdo one another in finding new ways to make men produce from the Earth so that they might pile up the proceeds. This is the mode of production that came into its own when the steam engines and the railroads and the factory system enabled it to finally destroy all opposition and under penalty of extinction make all the earth’s peoples measure themselves by the yardstick of accumulation. Ever greater accumulation allowed ever greater technological advances, which in turn were applied to the purpose of even greater accumulation and extraction from nature.

The European powers continued and even today continue, moreover, to exploit foreign lands by using favorable terms of trade, direct exploitation of natural resources, military power and so forth to enforce this worldwide system of accumulation upon them, a system in which those same powers are by virtue of their murderous head start the main beneficiaries. There are now such vast differences in wealth because of capitalism that the virtually equal incomes of the major nations of the world in 1750 have been replaced by a ratio of 7:1 in favor of the West over the Third World, as it has come to be called, in 1980.7 75% of all production worldwide is consumed in the West, as are 70% of all worldwide commercial energy resources, when it has about 20% of the world population. As McClellan & Dorn state: “From the point of view of simple thermodynamics, people living in economically developed societies today have and use more energy per capita than any human group ever in history, and that usage has increased dramatically since the Industrial Revolution.”8 It may be obvious that this also entails the great exploitation of the Third World’s natural resources to permit ever greater accumulation on the part of the West, as all energy useful to humans must be the result of transformation from some other source.

Indeed, some nations who won out in the lottery of fossil fuels have to some degree gained, in particular the exporters of oil and natural gas. This however is a false gain, since not only are such resources nonrenewable on any scale useful to humans, but they actually have retrograde effects: virtually all modern machinery has become dependent on electricity, in turn dependent on oil, gas, and coal. The extraction of these resources has polluted their sources as well as the seas and the air, has utterly severed any connection between the carrying capacity of local and regional ecosystems and the production undertaken in those areas, and has made all of the industrialized world slaves to the black gold. Ever deeper we must excavate to find new ‘shots’ for our addiction, and ever more we demolish existing natural systems to accumulate. “Accumulate, accumulate: this is Moses and all the Prophets” Marx wrote, and the capitalists have been pious. Although we already vastly overproduce relative to the carrying capacity of the earth, with the overwhelming majority of such production going to First World people (who now require five planets for their sustenance), accumulation must continue at ever greater scale for capitalism to exist. Today, worldwide production is at five times the total size of its level merely 50 years ago. Moreover, the usage of these sources of energy have to such extent released the carbon that lifeforms ‘push down’ back into the atmosphere, that they are causing the unprecedented global warming and associated water level rise. Floods soon will threaten the 70% of the world population that live on coastal plains.

The same principle also holds in agriculture. Industrialized agricultural technology has allowed immensely more intensive agriculture to be undertaken on the land in Western areas, as well as in those other parts of the world with farmers wealthy enough to afford the massive capital investments. In most Western nations, only a few percent of the population now work on the land, but they can easily feed their population and maintain surpluses. Yet at the same time, the vast majority of the world’s rural population suffer hunger and poverty, work by manual labor, and their crops are exported for a pittance. While the world produces easily sufficient food to feed all the human population, peasants in the underdeveloped countries are forced to destroy the last remaining wild habitats and species in their nations to survive before they finally collapse of hunger or preventable disease. This poverty is pushing the now massively swollen populations of the Third World, stuck between high birth rates and lowered death rates, into the cities.9 For the first time in world history, a majority of mankind now lives in cities, but this movement is not as before one of people seeking social mobility and better living conditions. No, it is one of simple survival as such: deforestation and pollution have eroded the soils, monoculture for export has made their productivity plummet, while the prices of primary commodities remain ever low as Third World farmers and peasants cannot compete with mechanized agriculture in the West, sustained by state subsidy. One out of six billion people suffer hunger daily, but capitalism accumulates ever more food in the West, where obesity is rampant and the main causes of death are diseases of overconsumption such as heart disease and cancer.

With capitalism demanding ever greater extraction for accumulation without end, it is obvious that not just inequality is deadly, but so is its inherent energy crisis. No sane person would, when asked to devise a system for humans to live on Earth, propose this: one that requires all people to compete so that they may be allowed to work for the benefit of the few, whose task it is to compete for owning and extracting the world’s resources without any limit whatever. As the age of coal has passed into the age of oil and gas, the strongly diminished woods of the Western world were to some degree spared – although many forests today are still highly vulnerable to destruction to expand agricultural land for cash crops, as mentioned above (such as palm oil in Indonesia, production of which has destroyed virtually all the rainforest of Borneo, a monument to human dysfunctionality that is awesome to behold). Instead of burning the world’s forests, we now extract oil and gas for electricity, which has dominated our world ever since Westinghouse commercialized it in 1893. A shift from wood to coal to oil and gas was necessary because of the ever increasing demands for energy on the part of capital: first all wood was finished, then the coal ran out, and now in Canada one of the very last great stretches of unspoiled nature is being dug up to extract the last bit of oil from the tar sands. The first switch took place around 1700, the second around 1900 – the pace of consumption increasing systematically. The transformation this has permitted is easily illustrated in energy terms. In the Late Middle Ages, all of Europe consumed about 40 billion Joules per year; England alone in 1880 consumed about 100 billion Joules; North America today consumes about 250 billion. In the last fifty years, the fivefold increase in production has also meant a fivefold increase in energy consumption, virtually all to the benefit of the wealthy few.10 As renowned environmental historian Edmund Burke describes it: “The environmental and energetic balance is not reassuring. Certainly the rest of the planet cannot increase its energy levels to match the levels of Europe, North America, Australasia, and Japan; nor can these levels be sustained indefinitely. Indeed, viewed against the background of all of human history, present levels of energy consumption appear deeply aberrant.”11

The system of accumulation for the sake of accumulation and the commodification of all that is on our planet must cease, if we are to live, and if all of nature we are familiar with is to remain in existence. This affects not only the great majority of the world population whose labor allows this accumulation without it being to their benefit whatever, but also the wealthy few, who live on the same galactic vessel and are equally bound to its physical laws. It is a physical impossibility for our human relations to continue much longer on the path we have set out on, and it is a moral, social, and environmental disaster to allow it to run its course. In subsequent instalments, we shall see in greater detail where this disastrous course comes from, what the struggle against capital has done to alter it, and what we must learn for the future.

1. Niles Eldredge, “The Sixth Extinction”.>
2. See e.g. James Lovelock, The Revenge of Gaia (London 2006), p. 189.->
3. John Bellamy Foster, The Vulnerable Planet (New York, NY 1999), p. 16.->
4. Foster, p. 14.->
5. Ibid., p. 45.->
6. Karl Marx, Capital Vol. I (London 1867), Ch. 15.->
7. Foster, p. 20.->
8. McClellan & Dorn, Science and Technology in World History: An Introduction, 2nd Ed. (Baltimore, MD 2006), p. 347.->
9. Foster, p. 16.->
10. Burke & Pomeranz (eds.), The Environment and World History (Berkeley, CA 2009), p. 46.->
11. Ibid., p. 49.->


Interesting article. However, I think you made a typo or something with your figure of 70 million people living in 1500. That seems way too low, and all of the other sources I’ve encountered estimate the world population to be about 400-500 million at that time.

You are quite right – it should read ‘Europe’ for the figure of 70 million. I will correct this.

Source: J.B. Foster, “The Vulnerable Planet” (New York, NY 1999), p. 14.

Leave a Comment

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