Species extinctions are on the rise and the fightback is on to save the planet from the fallout. Adrienne Wallace brilliantly articulates the need for socialism at the heart of green activism, to take on the true cause of climate change – capitalism.
21st century humans are uniquely placed to appreciate the remarkable occurrence of biodiversity on Earth. Technological advancements mean we now have camera access to the deepest parts of the ocean and to skim the top of rainforests in search of new and diverse species. New discoveries are frequent and fascinating. Ten years ago the gastric-brooding frog was discovered in Australia. This frog has the unique ability to breed it’s offspring, from egg to tadpole, in its gastric band. It releases a substance to keep the stomach in a non-functional state until it “births” the fully developed tadpoles. It is a fascinating example of the ingenuity of evolution.
The vast and varied life forms that scientists are constantly discovering shows the creative force within biological evolution and its remarkable power. In turn, the nature we experience shapes art and culture and the relationships we build with animals can help us overcome our sense of alienation. We use it as a means through which we feed, shelter and clothe ourselves. In other words, it has an explicit and implicit value to humans.
But while we are uniquely placed to take account of the role of nature in the 21st Century, we are also placed in a position to witness what is being termed the ‘Sixth Extinction’ or ‘Geocide Ecocide’. The new tech advances also give us a glaring insight view of the endless destruction that human activity under capitalism is reaping on our planet before our very eyes.
Naturally, green activism is on the rise in response. As doomsday reports are published daily, climate activists and socialists are engaging in increasing levels of climate activism. Naomi Klein’s book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs Climate Change has sparked a debate among a new generation of environmental activists about the solution to climate change and introduced many to left-wing explanations. During the peak of anti-capitalist movements the World Wildlife Fund once called for recognition of socioeconomic factors as an issue, and now that fight is on again.
Capitalists, on the other hand, are working hard to commodify the crisis – defining it as ‘Natural Capital’, and seeking to make profits and avoiding the root of the issue. The plan is that nation states and corporations can establish formal markets in ‘ecosystem services’. It has paved the way for the launch of forced conservation areas or ‘rewilding’ centres that push humans off the land, creating refugees in poorer parts of the world, but providing a hefty revenue stream for the companies in charge of the centres.
For example, it led to the disastrous Oostvaardersplassen nature reserve in Amsterdam, where populations of large herbivores were allowed rise unchecked, causing trees to die and wild bird populations to decline, and led to the slaughter of more than half the red deer, Konik horses and Heck cattle because they were starving. The animals were not the priority, the profits were.
In other words, capitalist solutions to capitalist problems.
We have entered a new geological epoch – a new geographical age whereby human activity is the dominant influence on climate and the environment – the Anthropocene. The idea that we have entered a new geo-era is radical and it is important to make the distinction that the active human engineering of ecology under capitalism is determined by ruling class aspirations for profit. It has paved the way for and justifies a whole host of atrocities and mass destruction, in the name of the profits for the few, not the many. The vast and vicious attack on biodiversity as a result is shocking in both scale and scope.
Extinction rates have sharply increased under capitalism, particularly since neo-liberalism developed. Between 1970 and 2010, the number of vertebrates dropped by 50%.
In some cases, we are losing dozens of species a day and ten years after the gastric-brooding frog was discovered in Australia, it became extinct. This onslaught has lead to many predicting that we are in the throes of a ‘Sixth Extinction’. We are witnessing a geological event unfolding in our life time – which is very quick! Yellow-Legged Frogs once thrived in Panama but have been wiped out almost overnight. Scientists argue that the extinction rates among amphibians are similar to the cretaceous period which wiped out the dinosaurs. The Yellow-Legged frogs of Panama now only appear in the plastic figurines sold as tourist souvenirs in a stark reminder of the impact of capitalism on biodiversity.
Lots of column inches have rightly been dedicated to the declining status of rhinos, giraffes, orangutans, tigers and other large land mammals that are either being hunted into extinction to salivate the tastes of an elite class or as a result of habitat destruction. Scientists warn that if we lose the animals that are now listed as critically endangered, it will certainly propel us into the Sixth Extinction which in turn could lead to the ‘Perfect Storm’, triggering a number of ecological events that will have a devastating impact on the environment. We have the lifetime of a generation to solve this.
Mainstream Environmental Response
Many mainstream commentators wrongly argue that the rise in species extinction is simply as a result of the rise in human population. There was an obvious increase in human population during the periods that coincide with the increase in species extinction but what these commentators fail to uncover was that this period also saw more land being pushed into urbanization and agriculture in order to produce for profit. It is as David Harvey, Professor of anthropology and geography at the City University of New York says, ‘All critical examinations of the human relation to nature are simultaneously critical examinations of society’.
More people does not directly lead to more species becoming extinct. Rather, it is how society responds to the needs of these people. Does it push all of humanities labour and the planet’s resources into creating corporate entities that choke on fossil fuels as they spew out a constant revolving door of commodities? While commodifying nature in the process? Or does it democratically decide to allocate our resources and raw materials towards meeting people’s real needs in a sustainable manner?
Mainstream environmentalists quite often mistake symptoms as causes. Many refer to the classification ‘HIPPO’ as a guide to explain climate change. ‘HIPPO’ stands for: Habitat Destruction, Invasive Species, Pollution, Population & Over-Harvesting. All of these affect climate change. But none operate in a vacuum. They are as a result of, and necessary for, capitalism to thrive.
A glimpse back at the rich tapestry of human history prior to capitalism’s relatively recent development tells the story of Maori Tribes and Amazonians who all had a collective and responsible approach to ensure sustainable use of their environment. One example of such was the common practice of banning fishing during spawning season to prevent deterioration of species levels.
Pre-capitalist societies depended on a functional dialectical interrelationship with nature to ensure their existence. Of course, there is little doubt that our ancestors would have pushed certain species to the brink and beyond. The global expansion of Homosapians coincided with extinction of mega-fauna like the Woolly Mammoth and Saber Tooth Tiger, but in many cases the ecological role of these animals was subsequently taken up by humans. Ultimately the human impact would have carried similar benefits as threats, and resulted in an ecological dynamic that enhanced bio-diversity through constant low-level intervention of rotational subsistence agriculture and habitual control for hunting. It kept eco-niches open that would have closed down if left desolate. Low level conservation is beneficial and human settlements created diverse mosaic of habitats.
Capitalism and the Environment
Capitalism, however, will not allow for low level conservation, nor seasonal fishing, or the necessary precautions or preservation methods necessary for sustainability. It isn’t interested in sustainability because it cannot be. Inherent to capitalism is the drive to grow and produce and profit under the pressure of competition. It doesn’t leave space for sustainable precautions because that represents a loss in profits.
Large corporations have an unyielding drive for profits, not simply because the humans running them are greedy (though they almost certainly are), but because the who system of capitalism demands greater and greater returns. If Shell, for example, weren’t squeezing every drop of oil from the ground, burning people out of their homes in Nigeria and destroying communities in the West of Ireland, then Exxon or BP would. If Shell were to take seriously it’s false claims to care about the environment, they would spend profits on sustainability and taking on renewable energy processes. Meanwhile, another corporation would step in and take up their slice of the market share, using their profits to develop technologies and develop marketing strategies. They can now undercut Shell who loses out. This simple example illustrates how corporations under capitalism will always destroy ecosystems, will always dump toxic waste, overfish, pollute the atmosphere etc. Because in order to stay in business, they have no choice but to ruthlessly compete, or fail to exist.
Joseph Choonara was right when he said that, ‘the most striking difference between capitalism and earlier societies is that people worked mainly to produce good for their own consumption, but [with] capitalism…the goods are produced not to meet needs but to sell.’ Biodiversity and ecosystems that lie outside of the commodity production for profit simply fail to be registered as having any meaningful value.
To cement this ideology in practice, there is great cooperation between the political ruling class and the capitalists. Corporations can control research agenda, influence policy and push new technologies through. Cargill is an American privately held global corporation and a big player in the agricultural industry, which has an over-reliance on fossil fuels. Cargill has also seemingly developed a conscience and is devoted to ‘working to improve the sustainability of the palm oil industry’. The reality however is that, with all the economic and political power being such a large corporation provides, they are in a position to push through another market solution that ensures no disruption to profits but one that is equally as destructive
Reform Vs Revolution
As socialists, we don’t approach this crisis in isolation from human society or something that carries greater importance over other societal crises. They are all weaved from the same cloth and will take a uniformed approach to tackle. 20,000 people in developing countries die from pesticides every year. 175 million in India and 130 million in China rely on grains that are produced by over-pumping of water which is not an infinite resource.
Heart Disease, birth defects, stunted lung development has been observed in children who play outside where large amounts of manure is spread. There will be an increase in climate change refugees at a time when Europe and Trump wrap barbed wires around the borders.
Reform under capitalism is very limited and depends on ‘market signals’ – if it becomes profitable enough to make these changes. The question we must ask ourselves is whether we want the planet and our existence to hinge on someone else’s ability to make profits?
Capitalism’s solutions largely revolve around consumer choice and technological solutions. Elon Musk, the man who extravagantly tied a car to a rocket and sent it into space but will not pay the workers in his factories a living wage will not save us from environmental disaster via carbon reducing technologies – namely because they don’t exist. Electric cars will not save us either, they will still need to be mass produced via the factories and run off the electricity that relies on fossil fuels.
Even where environmental regulation is strongest, largely in temperate climates, there is still a decline of 36% in the biodiversity in total. Many advocate for more people to uptake Vegan diets to offset emissions from meat farming but the solution is not just individual dietary changes – rather a radical transformation of the food system is needed. Dietary changes also offers no alternative to the communities who rely on farming, particularly in South Asia or Sub-Sahara Africa. However, if agriculture were rooted in the collective ownership of land, then we would be capable of producing enough food to feed the world in a sustainable manner.
Modern agriculture is destructive because it is designed on the basis of a food system driven by profit and dominated by supermarkets and multinationals. It is the need for profit margins that creates waste, encourages damaging practices and sees food allocated unevenly.
Seasonal production is possible. Sustainable production is possible. Species preservation is possible. But none of it is possible under the confines of capitalism.
While we are fighting for a better society which can overcome other byproducts of capitalism like oppression and extreme inequality, we must link up these struggles with the fight against climate destruction. Not simply because they have the same maker, and because our struggles will be much more numerable in activists if we fight for these things together, but crucially because of the threat that climate change and species extinction pose to our lives and livelihoods. Without the fight to end climate change, there will be no chance of a different and better kind of society to speak of.