Confronting the environmental crisis

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By LUIS FELIPE MIGUEL*

Corporations can play the “sustainability” theater, but confronting climate collapse is necessarily confronting the empire of capital

The Gauchos are still waiting for the water to recede to return to their homes, counting the dead and assessing the extent of the devastation. That doesn't mean climate collapse deniers remain silent. They cling to the fact that floods also occurred in the past (the one in 1941, in Porto Alegre, is always mentioned) to frame the tragedy as a “fatality”. They continue their crusade against the scientific method, using isolated cases to challenge regularities and trends, just as they did during the new coronavirus pandemic.

Yes, there are many records of floods, extreme temperatures or unseasonably hot or cold weather in the past. The point is that these phenomena are becoming more – much more – constant and intense. The data is eloquent and decades of research point to human action as the cause. The scientific consensus is established, despite all the efforts of the “merchants of doubt” (researchers funded by large corporations, who produce biased studies on topics such as smoking, opioids, ultra-processed foods or global warming).

Talking about “human action”, however, is very vague. It seems to distribute the blame among all of us. However, the responsibilities are very diverse. The environmental cost of a citizen of a rich country, with its higher consumption standard, is often equivalent to that of a resident of a poor country. And, within each society, evidently the richest have the greatest impact, with their expensive automobiles, private jets, speedboats and yachts, profusion of Gadgets in constant replacement etc. A report from last year estimates that the richest 10% in the United States, that is, around 0,4% of the world's inhabitants, are responsible for 40% of the entire planet's pollution.

At the same time, the consequences are also distributed unequally – and the first victims are always the poorest. Rich countries “export” much of their pollution, transferring either industrial plants or waste. And, in each country, the rich have access to goods and services that minimize the consequences of environmental collapse, from air conditioning equipment to properties in less vulnerable areas.

In short: we are all in the same boat, as they say. But there is a lot of difference between being in first or third class. And when it sinks, which is its likely fate, only a few will have access to the lifeboats.

The greedy businessmen are to blame, the politicians who live at their service blocking environmental protection measures are to blame, the media is to blame for calibrating the news with the concern of not offending big advertisers too much. We need to indicate the responsibility of each of them. But also the fact that his actions – like, to some extent, those of all of us – follow the dynamics of a system: capitalism.

The logic of capitalist accumulation, with its incessant demand for value generation, makes all of nature “an object of humanity”, as Karl Marx said. Environmental preservation is absolutely contradictory to this logic. As Japanese philosopher Kohei Saito put it, capitalism radically reorganizes humanity’s relationship with nature “from the perspective of the maximum possible extraction of abstract labor.” As it is about generating value, not meeting needs, there is no limit to the extraction of raw materials and their processing. And each of us, inhabitants of the capitalist world, are taught from an early age to seek compensation for the alienation of our lives in incessant consumption.

Corporations can make a show of “sustainability”, but confronting climate collapse is necessarily confronting the empire of capital. At the same time, its logic also contaminated the countries of “real socialism”. When, after the Second World War, Soviet leaders set the goal of surpassing the Western standard of living, they accepted a capitalist metric. The same can be said about China today.

Karl Marx was obviously not an environmentalist before la lettre. It is futile to look to him for miraculous prescience about the ecological challenges we face today. But criticism of capitalism, its predatory nature, the violence it engenders, the mechanisms of which were largely uncovered by Marx and the thinkers who followed in his footsteps, all of this is essential to any consequent confrontation with the environmental crisis.

* Luis Felipe Miguel He is a professor at the Institute of Political Science at UnB. Author, among other books, of Democracy in the capitalist periphery: impasses in Brazil (authentic). [https://amzn.to/45NRwS2]

Originally posted on the author's social media.


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