Capitalism – a system of growth and waste

This is an edited version of Ian Angus’ opening remarks at the Socialist Resistance and Green Left Climate and Capital event. Videos of the event, including Ian’s contribution can be found here.

Writing in the 1930s when Nazi barbarism was in the rise, the Marxist philosopher and literary critic Walter Benjamin said: “Marx says that revolutions are the locomotives of world history. But the situation may be quite different. Perhaps revolutions are not the train ride, but the human race grabbing for the emergency brake.”

That’s a powerful metaphor, one that brilliantly sums up the task facing us in the twenty-first century. Capitalism is driving at break-neck speed towards a precipice, towards an ecological catastrophe of unequalled proportions. The science is clear — business as usual is not an option. If nothing is done, then even the most optimistic best-case scenarios predict massive death and destruction.

There is no higher calling, no more important cause for you to devote your lives to, than taking control of the train and slamming on the brakes.

We know what the problem is. We know what needs to be done. So why do our rulers seem determined to leave our children and theirs a world of poisoned air and water, a world of floods and droughts and escalating climate disasters? Why have they repeatedly sabotaged even half-hearted measures to cut greenhouse gas emissions?

When they do consider or implement responses to the climate crisis, why do they always support solutions that do not work, that cannot possibly work?

Karl Marx had a wonderful phrase for the bosses and their agents — the big shareholders and executives and top managers and the politicians they own — a phrase that explains why they invariably act against the present and future interests of humanity. These people, he said, are “personifications of capital” — their social role is that of capital in human form.

They don’t act to stop climate change because the changes needed by the people of this world are directly contrary to the needs of capital.

Capital has no conscience. Capital has no children. Capital has only one imperative: it has to grow.

The only reason for using money to buy stock, launch a corporation, build a factory or drill an oil well is to get more money back than you invested. That doesn’t always happen, of course — some investments fail to produce profits, and, as we are seeing today, periodically the entire system goes into freefall, wiping out jobs and livelihoods and destroying capital. But that doesn’t contradict the fact that the potential for profit, to make capital grow, is a defining feature of capitalism. Without it, the system would rapidly collapse.

As Joel Kovel says, “Capitalism can no more survive limits on growth than a person can live without breathing.”

A system of growth and waste

Under capitalism, the only measure of success is how much is sold every day, every week, every year. It doesn’t matter that the sales include vast quantities of products that are directly harmful to both humans and nature, or that many commodities cannot be produced without spreading disease, destroying the forests that produce the oxygen we breathe, demolishing ecosystems, and treating our water, air and soil as sewers for the disposal of industrial waste.

It all contributes to profits, and thus to the growth of capital — and that’s what counts.

Pollution is not an accident, and it is not a “market failure.” It is the way the system works.

How large is the problem? In 1998 the World Resources Institute conducted a major international study of the resource inputs used by corporations in major industrial countries — water, raw materials, fuel, and so on. Then they determined what happened to those inputs. They found that “One half to three quarters of annual resource inputs to industrial economies are returned to the environment as wastes within a year.”

Similar numbers are reported by others. As you know, about a billion people live in hunger. And yet, as the head of the United Nations Environmental Program said recently, “Over half of the food produced today is either lost, wasted or discarded as a result of inefficiency in the human-managed food chain.”

“Inefficiency” in this case means that it is no profit to be made by preventing food waste — so waste continues. In addition to exacerbating world hunger, capitalism’s gross inefficiency poisons the land and water with food that is harvested but not used.

Capitalism’s destructive DNA

Capitalism combines an irresistible drive to grow, with an irresistible drive to create waste and pollution. If nothing stops it, capitalism will expand both those processes infinitely.

But the earth is not infinite. The atmosphere and oceans and the forests are very large, but ultimately they are finite, limited resources — and capitalism is now pressing against those limits. The 2006 WWF Living Planet Report concludes, “The Earth’s regenerative capacity can no longer keep up with demand — people are turning resources into waste faster than nature can turn waste back into resources.”

My only disagreement with that statement is that it places the blame on “people” as an abstract category. In fact the devastation is caused by the global capitalist system, and by the tiny class of exploiters that profits from capitalism’s continued growth. The great majority of people are victims, not perpetrators.

In particular, capitalist pollution has passed the physical limit of the ability of nature to absorb carbon dioxide and other gases while keeping the earth’s temperature steady. As a result, the world is warmer today than it has been for 100,000 years, and the temperature continues to rise.

Greenhouse Gas Emissions are not unusual or exceptional. Pouring crap into the environment is a fundamental feature of capitalism, and it isn’t going to stop so long as capitalism survives.

Trading and offsets

That’s why “solutions” like carbon trading have failed so badly and will continue to fail: waste and pollution and ecological destruction are built into the system’s DNA.

No matter how carefully the scheme is developed, no matter how many loopholes are identified and plugged, and no matter how sincere the implementers and administrators may be, capitalism’s fundamental nature will always prevail.

We’ve seen that happen with Kyoto’s Clean Development Mechanism, under which polluters in rich countries can avoid cutting their own emissions if they invest in equivalent emission-reducing projects in the Third World. A Stanford University study shows that two-thirds or more of the CDM emission reduction credits have not produced any reductions in pollution.

CDM continues not because it is reducing emissions, but because there are profits to be made buying and selling credits. CDM is an attempt to trick the market into doing good in spite of itself, but capitalism’s drive for profits wins every time.


The founders of the revolutionary socialist movement, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, were deeply concerned about humanity’s relationship to nature. and What we would today call ecological ideas are deeply embedded in their writings. Unfortunately, for many reasons, during the 20th century most socialists forgot or ignored that tradition, supporting (and in some cases implementing) approaches to economic growth and development that were grossly harmful to the environment.

One exception has been Cuba, the only country that meets the WWF’s standards for sustainable development. Oswaldo Martinez, the president of the Economic Affairs Commission of Cuba’s National Assembly, recently addressed the need for a new view of what socialism is. He said:

“The socialism practiced by the countries of the Socialist Camp replicated the development model of capitalism, in the sense that socialism was conceived as a quantitative result of growth in productive forces. It thus established a purely quantitative competition with capitalism, and development consisted in achieving this without taking into account that the capitalist model of development is the structuring of a consumer society that is inconceivable for humanity as a whole.

“The planet would not survive. It is impossible to replicate the model of one car for each family, the model of the idyllic North American society, Hollywood etc. — absolutely impossible, and this cannot be the reality for the 250 million inhabitants of the United States, with a huge rearguard of poverty in the rest of the world.

“It is therefore necessary to come up with another model of development that is compatible with the environment and has a much more collective way of functioning.” (Socialist Voice, March 23 2009.

In my view, one good reason for using the word ‘ecosocialism’ is to signal a clear break with the practices that Martinez describes, practices were called socialist for seventy years. It is a way of saying that we aim not to create a society based on having more things, but on living better — not quantitative growth, but qualitative change.

Although he has never used the word, so far as I know, one of the strongest defenders of ecosocialist ideas in the world today is Evo Morales, the president of Bolivia, the first indigenous head of state in Latin America.

In a short essay published last November, Evo brilliantly defined the problem, named the villain, and posed the alternative.

“Competition and the thirst for profit without limits of the capitalist system are destroying the planet. Under Capitalism we are not human beings but consumers. Under Capitalism, Mother Earth does not exist, instead there are raw materials. Capitalism is the source of the asymmetries and imbalances in the world. It generates luxury, ostentation and waste for a few, while millions in the world die from hunger in the world.

“In the hands of capitalism everything becomes a commodity: the water, the soil, the human genome, the ancestral cultures, justice, ethics, death … and life itself. Everything, absolutely everything, can be bought and sold and under capitalism. And even “climate change” itself has become a business.

“‘Climate change’ has placed all humankind before a great choice: to continue in the ways of capitalism and death, or to start down the path of harmony with nature and respect for life.”

The Global Fight for Climate Justice includes statements by comrade Evo Morales. In them, he makes the case for ecosocialism, more concisely, more clearly, and vastly more eloquently than I can do today. I urge you to read it and to distribute it as widely as possible.

Slamming on the brakes

The only choice, the only way forward, is ecosocialism, which I suggest can be defined simply as a socialism that will give top priority to the restoration of ecosystems that capitalism has destroyed, to the reestablishment of agriculture and industry on ecologically sound principles, and to mending what Marx called the metabolic rift, the destructive divide that capitalism has created between humanity and nature.

To achieve this, ecological activists must join hands with workers, with indigenous activists, with anti-imperialist movements around the world, to make ecological transformation a central feature of the economic change that is so clearly needed.

Together we can build a better world for future generations.

It won’t be easy, and it won’t be quick, but together we can make it happen.

Share this:

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.