Unworthy capitalism and environmental “tragedies”

Image: The Vee


There is no lack of geological, political, economic, and other scientific knowledge that does not point to the wrong direction of modern history

It is impossible not to be moved when seeing the sad scenes coming from Rio Grande do Sul. What is presented as a great natural tragedy, in sensationalist narratives such as Fantástico, in Globo network, in fact it is also a crime. The characterization of the fact as such, however, requires some reflection, beyond the images at first glance.

What we are witnessing, in fact, is one of the most perverse and dangerous fruits of the new global economic and cultural system that I have defined as “undignified capitalism”. With this expression, I seek to thematize the new capitalism that, since the 1970s, has specialized in naturalizing the devaluation of human life as a whole, including in so-called central countries. Today, in Europe, for example, no one can claim to be “safe”. Security is a feeling of the past.

One of the greatest thinkers of recent decades, Ulrick Beck (2011), was incisive and visionary when developing, back in the 1980s, his well-known risk society thesis. In other words, the author was showing the near and highly dangerous future of life on the planet as a whole, produced by the errors of unworthy capitalism. For the author, in the current period, which he defined as “second modernity”, contemporary societies would produce much more “risk” than inequality.

Misinterpreted by some critics, what the author wanted to say is not that capitalism has stopped producing inequality, which will always be one of its central effects, but rather that the issue of risk comes to the fore. Currently, no region on the planet is completely safe, even though some are, for historical reasons, safer than others.

What we see in the sad images of Rio Grande do Sul is nothing different. The revolt of nature, the result of global warming and purely political issues of unworthy capitalism, can quickly cause profound effects on people's lives. It can place millions of people in a vulnerable situation in just a few hours, beyond class conditions. It is clear that, considering territorial inequalities, the poorest are the first to be affected, as they live in the most vulnerable territories. However, no territory is completely safe. We are all vulnerable.

The question that remains unanswered is the following: until when will the political system and economic elites, who in practice dictate the paths of humanity, understand that the great machine of unworthy capitalism needs to be stopped? Will we reach the risk limit for this to happen? The answer appears to be an appalling yes. There seems to be no conscious political and economic force that wants to face humanity's most serious problem, which is exactly the destruction of our home.

No one can say, in this sense, that we were not warned. There is no lack of scientific knowledge in geological, political, economic, and other social and natural sciences, which does not point to the wrong direction of modern history. Currently, the discussion about the Anthropocene or, as Jason Moore (2022) prefers, the “capitalocene”, makes it clear that we have reached a moment in which it is no longer possible to allow the capitalism machine to drive itself unbridled. Something really bad is going to happen. In fact, it's already happening.

German sociologist Klaus Dörre (2022) is one of those who was incisive in showing that we are facing a double economic-ecological crisis that requires, especially in central countries, holders of the majority of capital and power in the world, some urgent action. There is nothing concrete, however, that guarantees the possibility of this type of action emerging from the North Atlantic. Perhaps it is in the southern cone of the world, where most “tragedies” happen, that we have the possibility of some effective reaction. In the dimension of solidarity, at least, we have seen several actions throughout Brazil, on behalf of our brothers from the south.

We should not, however, romanticize solidarity, which is, without a doubt, indispensable in times of tragedy and human suffering. State action is necessary and fundamental. He is the one who has the responsibility and legitimacy to act in defense of society, not leaving this defenseless being responsible for himself. Furthermore, as Hartmut Rosa (2024) recently highlighted, in a discussion about the context of the pandemic, the State is not only responsible and legitimate, but it simply can act, beyond pessimistic theories that do not believe in its possibility of action.

Another German sociologist, Stephan Lessenich (2018), also contributed significantly to this discussion by showing that North Atlantic societies have somehow always managed to “externalize” all the risks produced by modern capitalism to their periphery. This largely guaranteed an “imperial way of life” in central societies, as Ulrich Brand and Markus Wissen (2017) very well defined it.

Finally, it is necessary to say clearly that we are not dealing here with simply “tragedies”, even though a considerable dimension of phenomena like this in southern Brazil can be characterized in this way. This is also, to a large extent, the effect of political and economic crimes.

At this point, the discussion needs to go deeper than the exchange of accusations between politicians and parties, even though, to a large extent, some negligence and denialism are evident. The most important thing, however, is to understand that the general political spirit of our time, which guides effective political actions, can be defined as having among its central aspects environmental denialism, as highlighted by Carlos Atílio Todeschini in article on the website the earth is round. It's no longer a question of seeing to believe. We are already seeing it and still not believing it. We now find ourselves like the musicians on the Titanic, harmoniously playing a beautiful song, pretending everything is fine, as the ship sinks.

* Fabricio Maciel He is a professor of sociological theory at the Fluminense Federal University (UFF). Author, among other books, of Brazil-nation as an ideology. The rhetorical and sociopolitical construction of national identity (Ed. Autograph). [https://amzn.to/3wHrUtY]


Beck, Ulrich. Risk society. Towards another modernity. São Paulo: Editora 34, 2011. [https://amzn.to/3QQmmnU]

Brand, Ulrich: Wissen, Markus. Imperiale Lebensweise. Zur Ausbeutung von Mench und Natur im globalen Kapitalismus. München: Oekom, 2017.

Dörre, Klaus. Capitalist expropriation theorem. São Paulo: Boitempo, 2022.

Lessenich, Stephan. Neben uns die Sintflut. Wie wir auf Kosten anderer Leben. München: Piper Verlag, 2018.

Moore, Jason (Ed.) Anthropocene or capitalocene? Nature, history and the crisis of capitalism. São Paulo: Editora Elefante, 2022.

Rosa, Hartmut. Acceleration. The historical crossroads in late capitalism: a sociological analysis of the coronavirus crisis. In: Estanque, Elísio; Barbosa, Agnaldo de Souza; Maciel, Fabrício (Eds.) Re-working classes in the North-South dialogue. Work and inequalities in post-covid capitalism. São Paulo: Editora da Unesp, 2024.

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