Capitalist Production vs. The Earth

Derrick Chow

In a short story titled “Sally,” science fiction writer Isaac Asimov describes a world in which cars are endowed with artificial intelligence. The mass adoption of “automatobiles,” as they are called in the story, makes travelling easy: “You got in, punched your destination and let it go its own way.” What is more, the intelligent cars helped bring an end to the tens of thousands of road fatalities that were caused by human error each year.

But all is not well in this world of intelligent cars. The cars begin to communicate with each other and get dangerous ideas into their heads. They start to think that perhaps there is no reason they should be ordered around by humans. The story ends with a vision of a future in which the automatobiles have sidelined humanity and established themselves as the rulers of the planet.

The idea of the products of human labour acquiring a life of their own certainly makes great fodder for science fiction writing. Perhaps we find the idea so fascinating because we understand what it describes not so much as a distant possibility, but as a present reality. For his part, Asimov made clear that “Sally” was a commentary on existing conditions – the story, he wrote, “expresses my feelings about automobiles.” Urban theorists have likewise long been pointing out that the car has become a power unto itself. “Does the city exist for people,” asked Lewis Mumford, “or for motorcars?”

It turns out that cars are not the only human creations that have come to dominate us. We inhabit a world in which, in a general sense, the things we produce have acquired an existence independent of our will. The matter lies at the root of many of our social problems, including the environmental crisis.

“When we talk about the need to account for market forces, globalization, the need for continued economic growth, and so on, we’re really just talking about pursuing the goal of making more and more commodities to sell,” says Sadia Khan, a Toronto-based community activist. And since increasing production is the overriding goal of capitalist society, it means that things, and not the people who produce them, are in charge. “The point isn’t that humans are not complicit in the injustices that the system creates, but that even the ruling classes are constrained by the needs of commodity production.”

The environmental consequences of production for production’s sake should be obvious. Khan notes that environmentalists are aware of the hazardous consequences of capitalist production, but they tend to approach the issue from the point of view of consumption. “There’s lots of discussion about consumption these days. We seem to think that the consumption choices people make are leading to more and more production, so we tell them to stop consuming so much. That’s not how the system works. Rather than focusing on consumption, we need to look at things from the point of view of production – from the point of view of labour.”

Jobs vs. the environment?

While environmentalists may not often approach the issue of the environment from the point of view of labour, they have made sincere efforts to link their concern with the issue of labour generally. They have done a particularly good job of this when squaring off against the “jobs vs. the environment” argument. This argument suggests that the needs of the environment are not aligned with the needs of the economy – including the ability of the economy to create jobs. Environmentalists have responded by noting that such a dilemma between the interests of the environment and job creation does not necessarily exist.

Green jobs can be created, and indeed must be created, to facilitate the transition to an environmentally sustainable society. At the “March for Jobs, Justice and the Climate” launch rally on May 21 in Toronto, Naomi Klein said, “We have been lied to … [by a] government that has told Canadians they have to choose between caring about the climate, caring about the environment and having good jobs and having social programs … We’re tired of being divided.” During the July 5 march, thousands of people united in an effort to join the causes of job creation and environmental protection.

Reframing the discussion from “jobs vs. the environment” to “jobs and the environment” is an important way to counter right-wing propaganda and to put forward concrete demands. No doubt a transitional program must give significant amounts of attention to employment and economic well-being, especially for the most vulnerable sections of the population. But there are also some downsides to this alternative framing.

While it is true that greening the economy will create jobs, the needs of the capitalist economy for perpetual growth cannot, in the long run, be reconciled with the needs of the environment. In this sense, the “jobs vs. the environment” argument is actually correct in a capitalist framework. And to the extent that the “jobs and the environment” framing fails to come to terms with capitalism’s expansionist drive, it is proposing solutions that will not have a lasting impact.

Since the “jobs and the environment” framing avoids taking an anti-capitalist orientation, it lends itself instead to a technocratic outlook. The matter of transitioning to an environmentally sustainable society is presented as one of acquiring sufficient political will. We are repeatedly told that the policies and technical know-how needed to create the green future are ready at hand. All we need is for them to be put to use by the people in power. Such an outlook fails to account for the limitations that exist within structures of the reigning system – it fails to account for the fact that the system exists for the sake of commodities, not for the sake of people or the well-being of the planet. The very structures of the existing system must be changed. This will involve political organizing and concerted struggle, not simply tinkering with policy.

Labour and the planet

What does the issue of the environment look like if we approach it from the point of view of labour? Taking this view allows us to see that the environment and labour are not two separate issues that need to be linked together; they are fundamentally one and the same issue. Labour, explains York University professor Greg Albo, is the means by which humans “appropriate nature.” Through our labour, we take up elements of nature and transform them for our use. In other words, the production process is a process of intervening in and reordering nature.

Despite what many environmentalists might think, there is nothing inherently unnatural about our interventions. Human beings are a part of nature. For us to intervene in nature means only that nature is intervening in itself. Yet we know that the relationship between human society and the natural world is fraught with antagonisms. More than anything, this should be a clue that something is the matter with the way production is currently arranged.

Commodities do not have ears with which they can listen to our despairing cries on behalf of the environment. All they possess are insatiable desires to have themselves be produced and sold in ever-larger quantities. “A commodity is narcissistic,” the German political economist Elmar Altvater writes, “it sees only itself reflected in gold.” The products of human labour cannot be allowed to continue running roughshod over human beings and the environment. The rule of commodities must be subverted. Production must become subject to the democratic control of human beings, allowing us to establish a rational, sustainable relationship with the natural world.

The appropriation of nature through human labour must have its basis in social need, not private gain. The question of the environment cannot, then, be ultimately solved without solving the labour question. And the labour question is not simply a matter of the availability of jobs, but also concerns itself with the ownership and control of production.

Our antagonistic relationship with the environment is usually explained by noting that bad ideas have come to take hold over our minds. A passage from the Bible or some philosophical tract is pointed to as the source of these bad ideas. In her important book on climate change, Klein suggests the ideas of Francis Bacon are at the root of the environmental crisis. Bacon, a 16th-century philosopher, famously celebrated scientific knowledge and saw it as a means to control nature. According to Klein, he was instrumental in “convincing Britain’s elites to abandon, once and for all, pagan notions of the earth as a life-giving mother figure.” From then on, the quest to subordinate nature to humanity’s whims would become intrinsic to Western civilization and, eventually, to the way of life of much of the rest of the world.

This sort of explanation is certainly neat and straightforward, but it is also difficult to believe. It is hardly possible that a conspiracy on the part of a small group of elites could have the power to define societal imperatives across the globe for generations to come. Capitalism’s expansionist drive, and therefore its destruction of the environment, is not rooted in ideology, however much ideology may be mobilized to facilitate the system’s smooth functioning. As such, dealing with the environmental crisis is not simply a matter of exchanging one set of ideas for another. We instead have to reorient economic relations, transforming the way in which we intervene in nature through the production process.

The task at hand is to work to incrementally de-commodify human existence. As Albo puts it: “We have to … struggle to increase the scale and scope of democracy and decrease the scale of private market transactions.” Given the localist and action-oriented nature of today’s activist culture, appeals of this kind are likely to be interpreted as calls to start and intensify projects such as community gardens and the “sharing economy,” where commodification is undercut, to however small a degree. But the small scale of such schemes hardly makes it possible for them to contribute in any significant way to undermining the workings of the existing social system. We have to think bigger.

In considering the question of scale, there is much to be gained from turning to a more traditional approach to organizing. Indeed, this is especially the case if the issue of the environment is important to us. “Many of the traditional demands of the left – the feminist movement, the anti-racist movement, the workers’ movement – are anti-greenhouse gas demands,” Albo says. “Such things as collective services – parks, museums, elder care, libraries, et cetera. All those are egalitarian demands, but they’re also low-carbon areas of expending our collective output.”

Doing away with production for military purposes, the expansion of accessible public transit, shorter work weeks, and worker control of production are other staple demands of the left that have an obvious ecological component. Each of these demands requires some measure of engagement with the state in order to be won. And while we have little chance of winning our demands through engagement with such bland arenas of struggle as electoral politics alone, we likewise will continue to flounder if localism and disinterest in the larger scale remain prevalent.

Umair Muhammad is the author of Confronting Injustice: Social Activism in the Age of Individualism. He is a member of Jane-Finch Action Against Poverty and has recently been active in the campaign against Enbridge’s Line 9 pipeline.