Marx captured the expansive nature and logic of capitalism as a system in what he called “the general formula of capital,” or M-C-M′. In a simple commodity economy, money exists merely as an intermediary to facilitate exchange between distinct commodities associated with definite use values, or C-M-C. The exchange begins with one use value and ends with another, with the consumption of the final commodity constituting the end of the process. Capitalism, however, takes the form of M-C-M′, with money (M) being exchanged for labor and material means of production with which to produce a new commodity (C), to be exchanged for more money (M′), which realizes the original value plus added value, i.e., surplus value or profit (M + Δ m). Here the process does not logically end with the receipt of M′. Rather the profit is reinvested so that it leads in the next phase to M-C-M′′, and then to M-C-M′′′, in an unending sequence only interrupted by periodic economic crises. Capital in this conception is nothing but self-expanding value, and is indistinguishable from the drive to accumulate on an ever-increasing scale: “Accumulate, accumulate! That is Moses and the prophets!”
This ceaseless drive for the amassing of greater and greater wealth, requiring more and more consumption of energy and resources, and generating more waste, constitutes “the absolute general law of environmental degradation under capitalism.” Today the scale of the human economy has become so large that its everyday activities, such as carbon dioxide emissions and freshwater use, now threaten the fundamental biogeochemical processes of the planet.
Ecological analysis points quite irrefutably to the fact that we are up against the earth’s limits. Not only is continued exponential economic growth no longer possible for any length of time, but also it is necessary to reduce the ecological footprint of the world economy. And since there is no such thing as an absolute decoupling of the economy from ecological consumption this means the size of the world economy must also not increase; instead, it must decrease in size. On top of this and reinforcing this dilemma, the world economy must wean itself entirely from fossil fuels as an energy source—before the one trillion metric ton (and hopefully before the 750 billionth metric ton) of carbon is emitted into the atmosphere. Yet without the subsidy of fossil fuels a continuation of world-capitalist-industrial economy in its present form will prove impossible.
[I]f everything that we observe in the world around us honors limits to growth as a means to sustain itself, why is the underlying foundation for our current paradigm of progress ever-increasing growth? The idea that unlimited economic growth will bring continuous progress has no scientific foundation. In fact science tells us just the opposite—unchecked growth generates its own negative feedback.
from The Myth of Progress: Toward a Sustainable Future, by Tom Wessels, quoted in Scholars and Rogues (via shiracoffee)
Biofuels are the means by which governments in the rich world avoid hard choices. Rather than raise fuel economy standards as far as technology allows, rather than promoting a shift from driving to public transport, walking and cycling, rather than insisting on better town planning to reduce the need to travel, they have chosen to exchange our wild overconsumption of petroleum for the wild overconsumption of fuel made from crops. No one has to drive less or make a better car: everything remains the same except the source of fuel. The result is a competition between the world’s richest and poorest consumers, a contest between overconsumption and survival.
There was never any doubt about which side would win.
Marx saw the two fundamental poles of economic, and social and political, life as labour and nature. He didn’t see these two things as static; he used the metaphor of a metabolism to describe the way our labour shapes the world and we in turn are shaped by the world we have made. So the two poles of labour and nature don’t stay fixed. But what Marx doesn’t allow for is the fact that nature’s resources are finite. He knows that there is no such thing as nature unshaped by our assumptions, but he doesn’t share our contemporary awareness that nature can run out. This is the kind of thing which is sometimes called ironic, but is closer to tragedy, and at its heart is the fact that the productive, expansionist, resource-consuming power of capitalism is so great that it is not sustainable at a planetary level. The whole world wants to have a First World bourgeois lifestyle, and the whole world can see what that looks like by glancing at a television set, but the world can’t have it, because we will burn through its resources before we get there. Capitalism’s greatest crisis is upon us, and it is predicated on the unavoidable fact that nature is finite.
Unsustainable: Capitalism is a system based on an assumption of continuing, unlimited growth - on a finite planet. There are only two ways out of this problem. We can hold out hope that we might hop to a new planet soon, or we can embrace technological fundamentalism and believe that evermore complex technologies will allow us to transcend those physical limits here. Both those positions are equally delusional. Delusions may bring temporary comfort, but they don’t solve problems; in fact, they tend to cause more problems and in this world, those problems keep piling up.
Critics now compare capitalism to cancer. The inhuman and antidemocratic features of capitalism mean that, like a cancer, the death system will eventually destroy the living host. Both the human communities and nonhuman living world that play host to capitalism eventually will be destroyed by capitalism. Capitalism is not, of course, the only unsustainable system that humans have devised, but it is the most obviously unsustainable system and it’s the one in which we are stuck. It’s the one that we are told is inevitable and natural, like the air we breathe. But the air that we are breathing is choking the most vulnerable in the world, choking us, choking the planet.
Human beings and the natural world are on a collision course. Human activities inflict harsh and often irreversible damage on the environment and on critical resources. If not checked, many of our current practices put at serious risk the future that we wish for human society and the plant and animal kingdoms and may so alter the living world that it will be unable to sustain life in the manner that we know. Fundamental changes are urgent if we are to avoid the collision our present course will bring about.
“World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity” issued by 1,700 of the planet’s leading scientists.
At some point, we’ll discover that you can’t exist for long beyond the boundaries of the natural world, that (as with every other species) if you overload the carrying capacity of your habitat, you crash. Warming temperatures, chaotic weather patterns, extreme storms, monster wildfires, epic droughts, Biblical floods, an avalanche of species extinction… that collapse is upon us now. In the human realm, it translates into hunger and violence, mass migrations and civil strife, failed states and resource wars.
Like so much else these days, the crash, as it happens, will not be suffered in equal measure by all of us. The one percenters will be atop the hill, while the 99% will be in the flood lands below swimming for their lives, clinging to debris, or drowning. The Great Recession has previewed just how that will work.
An unsustainable economy is inherently unfair, and worse is to come. After all, the car is heading for the cliff’s edge, the grandkids are in the backseat, and all we’re arguing about is who can best put the pedal to the metal.
As cities around the world struggle to address water shortages, Dhaka, Bangladesh, is poised to become one of most populous cities in the world that requires new buildings to collect rainwater on their roofs. Rainwater harvesting is an old idea, but laws requiring the practice in urban areas are only starting to become mainstream. Bangalore, India already requires privately owned buildings to collect rainwater, and in western states in the U.S. are beginning to relax rules that make it illegal.[?] In Dhaka, the city is planning on modifying its building code by the end of this year to make the change.
Why it’s a good idea. Growing cities are straining water resources and droughts can shut off water across a city, yet rainwater in urban areas can be a burden, rather than a boon. Floods of storm water run-off can overwhelm sewer systems, change the flow patterns of surface water, and impact animals and plants in the surrounding area. Meanwhile, Dhaka’s population—more than 15 million people—requires 2.4 billion liters of water a day, but the city can only produce 2.1 billion liters. Stored rainwater can provide an alternative to polluted rivers and dwindling groundwater supplies for drinking.