Whither Humanity? (The Environmental Crisis of Capitalism)

Whither Humanity? The Environmental Crisis of Capitalism

Preface to 1999 Article

The reason the ecosystem is dying is not because we still have a dryer in our basement. It is because corporations look at everything, from human beings to the natural environment, as exploitable commodities. It is because consumption is the engine of corporate profits. We have allowed the corporate state to sell the environmental crisis as a matter of personal choice when actually there is a need for profound social and economic reform. We are left powerless.— A Reality Check from the Brink of Extinction

In The Part Played by Labor in the Transition from Ape to Man, Friedrich Engels wrote:

 . . . Let us not, however, flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human victories over nature. For each such victory nature takes its revenge on us. Each victory, it is true, in the first place brings about the results we expected, but in the second and third places it has quite different, unforeseen effects which only too often cancel the first. …

In December 1999, when I first wrote my essay Whither Humanity? (The Environmental Crisis of Capitalism), there were some doubters, on the left, about the science of the article. However, the essay has held up quite well in the past eight years. Since that time , we now know that “Carbon dioxide rates have been accelerating — that the rate of increase in carbon dioxide emissions has more than doubled since the 1990s”!

Some of my critics on the left, who have claimed that Global Warming was a ‘natural phenomenon’, that increased solar activity was the cause of global warming, rather than predominately caused by Capitalist production. Studies of the sun’s activity, for the past two decades. have sent this concept to the dust bin of history.

According to Mike Lockwood, of the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Chilton, Oxfordshire:

In 1985, the Sun did a U-turn in every respect. It no longer went in the right direction to contribute to global warming. We think it’s almost completely conclusive proof that the Sun does not account for the recent increases in global warming.

An article in the February 2008 Journal of The Geological Society of America, GSA Today, Are we now living in the Anthropocene?, states that:

Sufficient evidence has emerged of stratigraphically significant change (both elapsed and imminent) for recognition of the Anthropocene — currently a vivid yet informal metaphor of global environmental change — as a new geological epoch to be considered for formalization by international discussion.

Since, the first “gulf War” in 1991, and the wars since 1999, the results of capitalist production and its wars for ever greater profits; the pollution of the world by capitalism has already had catastrophic effects — Global Warming is just one of these.

Worldwide, from the Katrina catastrophe in New Orleans, to the famines in Africa, destruction of rain forests, imperialism has been like the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, waging War, Famine, Pestilence and Death upon humanity.

One example of this is the unprovoked war against Iraq, by the United States, which has left environmental ruin upon that country and the rest of the world.

Wars have once again become nuclear wars. The use of depleted uranium, first in Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan, and now Syria, has now polluted the earth’s atmosphere with radiation, from the use of these horrific weapons.

In her article, The Queen’s Death Star, Lorent Moret wrote:

The use of Uranium weapons in Gulf War II has resulted in contamination of Europe. Evidence from the measurements of the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE), Aldermaston, Berkshire, UK,” reported the Sunday Times Online (February 19, 2006) in a shocking scientific study authored by British scientists Dr. Chris Busby and Saoirse Morgan. The highest levels of depleted uranium ever measured in the atmosphere in Britain, were transported on air currents from the Middle East and Central Asia; of special significance were those from the Tora Bora bombing in Afghanistan in 2001, and the “Shock & Awe” bombing during Gulf War II in Iraq in 2003.1  (The result of this increased radiation will be an increase in the cancer epidemic throughout the world.)

Even more catastrophic than war has been the rapid increase in Global pollution and Warming, these changes are taking place around the world at an alarming speed.

Quotes About Copenhagen Climate Summit 2009:

The governments which moved so swiftly to save the banks they have bickered and filibustered while the biosphere burns.” — George Monbiot

If the climate were one of the biggest capitalist banks, the rich governments would have saved it.— Venezuelan President’s Speech on Climate Change at the Copenhagen Climate Summit

. . .   the mine is dark … But when I walk through the Tan — something — shaft, in the dark, I can touch with my hands the leaves on the trees, and underneath … where the corn is green … There is a wind in the shaft, not carbon monoxide they talk about, it smell like the sea, only like as if the sea had fresh flowers lying about … and that is my holiday. — Emlyn Williams’ The Corn is Green (In the current darkness of this Liaise Fair Capitalist Orwellian Society, I can walk through the darkness and see where the corn is green” — I can still imagine in the words of, John Lennon, ‘Imagine all the people Living life in peace’ and in harmony with nature. And I am not a dreamer! — Roland  Sheppard)


I think if we don’t overthrow capitalism, we don’t have a chance of saving the world ecologically. I think it is possible to have an ecological society under socialism. I don’t think it’s  possible under capitalism.Judi Barri 1

Since the development of capitalism, the natural resources of the planet have been consumed on a larger and larger scale by the profit system. A result of this process has been a rapid change in the earth’s ecological balance that could eventually lead to the extinction of humanity.

Whole forests have been destroyed; whole oceans are undergoing life-threatening changes, as the air we breathe is becoming more and more contaminated by the expansion of capitalist production.

From the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and the burning of fossil fuels, the earth’s ecosystem has been greatly altered. The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by U.S. imperialism at the end of World War II demonstrated the technological development and the capacity of capitalism to destroy humanity. This potential of nuclear pollution and destruction has been a glaring reality from that time to the present.

The less apparent product of World War II was that the technologies developed for wartime purposes had changed chemistry and physics forever. These products were tested for their effectiveness during war-not for the safety of humanity.

Under the banner of “Better Living Through Chemistry,” life and production changed. The “miracle fiber” asbestos was used everywhere and everything was dusted with DDT. Twenty years after their introduction, the death toll from cancer caused by these two substances began to come in.

The development and production of synthetic organic chemicals, used in everyday life, has increased over 100 fold since World War II in the United States. The increase has been geometric, doubling every seven to eight years. In the United States, by the late 1980s, production had reached over 200 billion pounds per year. Many of these new compounds and medicines have been to the benefit of humanity.

Unfortunately, only approximately 3 percent of these chemicals have been tested for their toxicity and potential long-range harm.

Rachel Carson’s Warnings

Rachel Carson was the first scientist to come forward and explain the potential dangers of the new pesticides, fertilizers, and other toxic pollutants. Her first book, The Silent Spring, is credited with the beginning of the environmental movement. This book explained that cancer and other diseases have become part of the world’s food chain and even present in the air we breathe and the water we drink.

Predicting the coming catastrophe if the mode of production does not change, Rachel Carson wrote in The Sea Around Us:

It is a curious situation that the sea, from which life first arose, should now be threatened by the activities of one form of that life. But the sea, though changed in a sinister way, will continue to exist; the threat is rather to life itself. . .

Despite Carson’s warnings and the beginnings of the environmental movement over 35 years ago, the destruction of the environment by capitalism and the capitalist mode of production has only escalated.

An example of this escalation is global warming. The melting of glaciers throughout the world is one demonstration of this phenomenon. The Quelccaya ice cap in South America, home to some of the world’s largest glaciers, is rapidly melting. From 1930 to 1990, it had been shrinking at the rate of three meters a year. Since 1990, it has been shrinking at the rate of approximately 30 meters a year.


Upsala glacier in Andes Mountains of Argentina in 1928 (above) and 2004 (below)The glacier is retreating about 60m per year:


Greenland’s huge ice cap, second only to Antarctica, is also showing signs of change, although measurements are preliminary. Outflow glaciers like this one on the central east coast, as measured by NASA airborne radar and laser, appear to be thinning and flowing more rapidly. The National Climate Data Center (NOAA) reports that 2002 saw the greatest measured surface melt of Greenland ice in 24 years of satellite records.  Two deep ice cores from there provide a detailed Northern Hemisphere climate record extending beyond the last ice age.

The Graph Below Demonstrates the decline in Greenland ice from 1996 (smallest image), to 1998 (the next largest image), and to 2007 ( the largest image).


The Antarctica ice shelves have been in retreat for 50 years, shrinking approximately a total of 7000 square kilometers in that time span. In the past year, from October 1998-March 1999, the Antarctica ice caps have retreated approximately 3000 square kilometers.

These quick increases in glacier decline are foreboding. Recent studies of ice cores in the Arctic and the Antarctic demonstrate that global warming may not be a gradual phenomenon.

The ice core studies demonstrate that during the last global warming, the earth’s climate warmed gradually and then abruptly increased by The approximately ice core studies demonstrate, that during the last global warming rose rose twenty degrees fahrenheit to end the ice age 12,500 years ago The ancient carbon dioxide levels that provoked these abrupt changes, while significant, were far lower than the rising concentrations in today’s atmosphere.

Until these discoveries, global warming had been described as a gradual event (4 degrees Fahrenheit over the past 60 years) that will reach dangerous levels around the year 2050 or 2100. This new evidence demonstrates that the present gradual warming could develop into an abrupt change.

An increase of this magnitude (20 degrees Fahrenheit) would flood most cities and industrial centers in the world as the ice caps melt into the sea raising the sea level. According to the U.S. Geological Survey3, if all of the ice caps melted, it is estimated that sea level could rise more than 80 meters or 262 feet. The potential catastrophic results of global warming and the threat to humanity’s future should become an immediate concern.

Table 1. Estimated potential maximum sea-level rise from the total melting of present-day glaciers. Wither11

Along with global warming, the increasing pollution of the oceans, the fresh water, the land, and the air throughout the world has put into question the future of our species and other species.

Fidel Castro expressed the urgency of these problems in his speech to the Earth Summit in Rio De Janeiro in 1992. He opened with these words:

An important biological species is in danger of disappearing due to the fast and progressive destruction of its natural living conditions: mankind. We have now become aware of this problem when it is almost too late to stop it.

It is necessary to point out that consumer societies are fundamentally responsible for the brutal destruction of the environment. They arose from the old colonial powers and from imperialist policies which in turn engendered the backwardness and poverty, which today afflicts the vast majority of mankind.

With only 20 percent of the world’s population, these societies consume two-thirds of the metals and three-fourths of the energy produced in the world. They have poisoned the seas and rivers, polluted the air, weakened and punctured the ozone layer, saturated the atmosphere with gases which are changing weather conditions with a catastrophic effect we are already beginning to experience.

The forests are disappearing. The deserts are expanding.  Every year thousands of millions of tons of fertile soil end up in the sea. Numerous species are becoming extinct. Population pressures and poverty trigger frenzied efforts to survive even when it is at the expense of the environment. It is not possible to blame the Third World countries for this. Yesterday, they were colonies; today, they are nations exploited and pillaged by an unjust international economic order. The solution cannot be to prevent the development of those who need it most. The reality is that anything that nowadays contributes to underdevelopment and poverty constitutes a flagrant violation of ecology. Tens of millions of men, women, and children die every year in the Third World as a result of this, more than in each of the two world wars.

Unequal terms of trade, protectionism, and the foreign debt assault the ecology and promote the destruction of the environment. If we want to save mankind from this self-destruction, we have to better distribute the wealth and technologies available in the world. Less luxury and less waste by a few countries is needed so there is less poverty and less hunger on a large part of the Earth. We do not need any more transferring to the Third World of lifestyles and consumption habits that ruin the environment. Let human life become more rational. Let us implement a just international economic order. Let us use all the science necessary for pollution-free, sustained development. Let us pay the ecological debt, and not the foreign debt. Let hunger disappear, and not mankind.

Now that the alleged threat of communism has disappeared and there are no longer any more excuses for cold wars, arms races, and military spending, what is blocking the immediate use of these resources to promote the development of the Third World and fight the threat of the ecological destruction of the planet? Let selfishness end. Let hegemonies end. Let insensitivity, irresponsibility, and deceit end. Tomorrow it will be too late to do what we should have done a long time ago.

In this context, the fight for the spotted owl, the snail darter, and other endangered species, while important in their own right, are indicative of a far greater concern-the survival of humanity.

It is becoming clear that the struggle for the environment is a fight for human rights and the survival of the species–a struggle for environmental justice. We need to defend, in the words of Thomas Jefferson, humanity’s “Unalienable Rights to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

We should demand that:

  • All products must be tested for toxicity before being produced for the market. The present practice of experimenting on human beings and waiting for the human body counts before determining that substances are toxic must be stopped!

  • The production of toxic substances must be stopped and the least toxic alternatives must be used until all toxins can be eliminated from use!

  • Gravity, wind, and solar power must be developed to replace fossil fuels and nucleal power as sources of energy. The top priority throughout the world must be the elimination of pollution and the development of science to maintain the earth as a healthy biosphere for humanity;

  • The squandering of trillions of dollars on military spending must stop and these trillions of dollars must be used to repair the environment! (In 1991, even after the end of the Cold War, military spending was almost 1 trillion dollars.); and

  • There must be a 100 percent tax on the profits of companies that pollute!

The environmental movement has raised many of these demands. In the past 30 years, many laws have been written incorporating some of these concepts. Yet despite these laws, environmental destruction has been allowed to proceed because these regulations have always been compromised by the incorporation of the concept of economic feasibility.

Economic feasibility’ means that the profitability of an economic enterprise cannot be subordinated to environmental needs. Therefore, environmental and safety laws, under capitalism, have always been a compromise between science and business.

In fact, environmental destruction, pestilence, and death are factored into production the same as casualties of war are factored into military battles.

The most glaring example is the occupational environment, where workplaces have become killing fields”. (See my essay The War at the Point of Production: The ‘Killing Fields’ of the United States.)

According to Lisa Cullen, on page 2 in her book, A Job To Die For:

Every day, 165 Americans die from occupational diseases and 18 more die from a work related injury. On the same day, more than 36,400 non-fatal injuries and 3,200 illnesses will occur in America’s workplaces.” Every year 60,225 Americans die from occupational diseases while 6,570 more die from work-related injuries. In that same year, more than 13,286,000 non-fatal injuries and 1,168,000 illnesses occur in America’s workplaces. Again: “Each year, this unknown workplace epidemic extends into nearby communities to claim the lives of 218 innocent bystanders and injure another 68,000.

In fact, some estimates are higher!

Blue-collar workers and agricultural workers all have higher rates of cancer and other diseases because they receive higher doses of the toxic chemicals at the workplace than the rest of the population. Eventually, these toxins spread to the entire working class as they become part of the environment.

Scientific technology exists to prevent the high rate of occupational diseases, but the profit motive and capitalist competition prevent the implementation of preventive action and proper safety precautions.

Science and technology are not an obstacle to maintaining a safe environment. The barrier to a safe environment is capitalism and its paramount principle of production and science for profit. Most environmental studies demonstrate that environmental destruction has become globally intertwined within our society and that the globalization of capitalism has quickened the destruction of the planet. Under the conditions of global capitalist competition, it is not economically feasible to invest the capital necessary to reverse this destruction.

In the present world, the rights of the capitalists to make a profit are in direct conflict with our basic rights. In this sense, the capitalist system has become a threat to humanity.

Jefferson’s words, from the Declaration of Independence, that human rights are unalienable, mean that these rights can never be superseded. At all points of conflict the rights of humanity to survive must supersede the right of the few to make a profit. The right to a safe environment is an unalienable human right!

Since environmental illness and destruction are a global concern, it requires all of humanity to act collectively, in our overall interests for our survival as a species, to correct the problem and to remove the obstacle of capitalism. It requires a society where humanity has social, economic, and political control over the entire environment. Such a society, a socialist society, is needed to ensure that all decisions affecting the environment are under the democratic control of humankind so that the production of goods will be done for the needs and survival of humanity instead of the production and the destruction of humanity and other species for profit.

With common ownership of the means of production, and common control and protection of all property and wealth, science and society will be in harmony with the ecosystem and humanity’s future.

With these goals we can begin to build a more effective environmental movement. As we continue to organize against capitalism and its destructive course, we can and will transform the world.

In the words of Margaret Mead, the famous anthropologist: Never doubt that a “small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”


People & Planet Before Profits! whither