Why does capitalism fail to implement sustainable climate policies despite the escalating ecological crisis?
For three decades, policymakers have promised to address the climate crisis. For three decades, global emissions of greenhouse gases have continued to climb, giving rise to the suspicion that the capitalist world system is incapable of reducing CO2 emissions globally. The facts speak for themselves, as greenhouse gas emissions have increased every year in the 21st century, with the exception of the crisis years of 2009 and 2020.1
And this trend does not seem to be changing. The International Energy Agency (IEA) recently published an emissions forecast according to which global CO2 emissions will rise this year and next, reaching a new historic high in 2023. A trend reversal is „not in sight,“ the IEA said.2 Despite all the apologetics in the mass media, capitalism has thus impressively demonstrated that it can only „lower“ global emissions at the price of a world economic crisis (This was, as already mentioned, only the case in 2009 and 2020).
It is, as if mankind is waiting for Godot. And this wait is in vain not only in the absurd theater, but also in the no less absurd, late capitalist reality. In the following, we will therefore explain, with recourse to Marxian value and crisis theory, why the hope for a capitalist solution to the climate crisis is futile.
Capital as a total social and global mode of reproduction destroys all attempts to establish a resource-saving economy. The innermost nature of capital inevitably produces an ecologically self-destructive economic system. Consequently, a sustainable way of life is impossible within the framework of the current mode of production. This introductory thesis will be substantiated and justified in the following.
Capital: irrational self purpose, rational method
Money, functioning as capital, has to be accumulated within a permanent investment cycle. Economic growth is only the economically visible expression of this process. The accumulation movement, however, is bound to a „material basis“ in commodity production. At least since the outbreak of the financial crisis in 2008, it has become clear that this process of capital accumulation is linked to commodity production and thus remains dependent on the exploitation of labor – and cannot, for example, be maintained permanently on the financial markets on the basis of pure speculative processes.
How does this process of accumulation of capital take place in concrete terms? A company invests its capital in wage labor, raw materials, machines, production sites in order to sell the goods produced there at a profit – wage labor being the source of surplus value. Ultimately, capital accumulates ever larger quanta of exploited, abstract labor in this boundless process of exploitation. After this, the increased capital is reinvested – in more raw materials, machines, etc., to start a new cycle of exploitation (those capitalists who do not do this and, for example, spent their surplus value, perish in the market competition). The capital that will prevail in the competition will be the one that can offer the most favorable price. This can be achieved by an increase of productivity and cost reduction of all kinds (acceleration of transport, externalization of all consequential costs, saving of labor, etc., relocation of the production site to low-wage countries).
The apparent rationality of capitalist commodity production thus serves an irrational end in itself – the boundless multiplication of the capital employed, the substance of which is wage labor as the only commodity that can yield surplus value. The concrete use value of a commodity is thus only relevant for capital as a necessary carrier of surplus value – whether it is food, smartphones or landmines. And this is, after all, only too reasonable for every market subject, for every capitalist – no one invests his capital in order to receive less or just as much afterwards. It must be „worthwhile“, yield a return.
On the level of society as a whole, this economically „reasonable“ logic unfolds its devastating destructive potential, since with successful capital accumulation also the expenditures for the production process – raw materials and energy – must be permanently increased. Consequently, capital is driven by a growth compulsion. Thus, even capitalist „business as usual“ resembles a process of burning more and more resources. Following its very own inner principle, capital must „burn“ ever larger quantities of energy and raw materials in order to maintain its accumulation movement – until it comes up against its „outer limit“, which consists in the finiteness of the planet’s resources. In a nutshell: The permanent growth compulsion of this economic system ultimately results from the nature of capital itself.
Capital as a world-burning machine
Capital thus strives for the highest possible „reproduction“; it is money that wants to become more money – and nothing else matters. This „hollow“, self-referential process is blind to all social or ecological consequences of its constantly increasing exploitation activity. Karl Marx famously introduced the concept of the „automatic subject“3 for this overall momentum of capital as a social relation. Automatic, i.e. self-referential, because, although it is produced by the market subjects striving for the greatest possible capital valorization,4 it confronts society – forming a dynamic of its own „behind the backs of the producers“, as Marx famously wrote5 – as an alien, tendentially unstable power, as a crisis-ridden „factual constraint“.
The strained and stressed wold climate, the visibly dwindling resources of this world form the ever narrower eye of the needle through which this irrational process of capital valorization must squeeze itself with ever greater friction. Both ecological crisis processes – the resource crisis as well as the climate crisis – are decisively promoted by this valorization process, which acts on a global level like a „subject“ automatically striving for maximum profit. The capitalist world economy, oriented on the self purpose of boundless capital utilization, on profit maximization, thus functions de facto as a world destruction machine, in which the real, concrete world is burned in order to perpetuate the blind growth of the abstraction of value until the social or ecological collapse of capital. Capitalism is thus, due to this necessity of permanent expansion, the logical opposite of a resource-saving economic mode, which would be necessary to ensure a survival of human civilization.
Consequently, capital has to „burn“ ever larger amounts of energy and raw materials following its very own driving law of endless accumulation. The resource demand of the global capitalist exploitation engine will continue to increase until it reaches its aforementioned „outer limit“. The permanent growth compulsion of the capitalist system hence results from the nature of capital itself. It is capital, that destroy the earth.
Productivity increase as a fire accelerator
This process of world-burning is decisively fueled by the ever higher productivity of the capitalist world economy. It seems absurd at first glance, but it is precisely the tremendous productivity increases of capitalist commodity production that contribute significantly to the escalation of the ecological crisis. Since labor forms the substance of capital, the permanent increases in productivity compel late capitalism to push the „efficient“ waste of resources and raw materials to the extreme. In the context of capital valorization, all ecological resources and raw materials are only relevant as carriers of value – i.e. abstract human labor. But the higher the increase in productivity, the less abstract labor is reified in a given quantum of commodity. If a car manufacturer increases productivity by ten percent through innovations, then he must also sell ten percent more cars in order to utilize the same mass of value at the same product price – or lay off every tenth worker.
In order to maintain the valorization process of capital, more goods must be produced and sold as productivity increases. Therefore, the greater the productivity of the global industrial machinery, the greater its hunger for resources, since the mass of value per unit produced tends to decrease. An attempt to introduce a resource-conserving mode of production in the capitalist world economy is thus impossible – it would be tantamount to capital destruction. The increase in productivity, which is actually indispensable for the realization of a resource-conserving mode of economy, acts in capitalism as a fire accelerator, since here a blind, functionalist rationality must serve the irrational self purpose of boundless capital utilization.6
The aforementioned tendency to ever more accelerated, efficient waste of resources results from this market- and competition driven compulsion to extreme, ‚irrationalâ€ rationalization within the capitalist system. This growing contradiction between productive forces and the capitalist mode of production also explains the increasing tendencies towards planned obsolescence in the design of goods. This is the intentional wear and tear that is foreseen in the design of a product at the earliest possible stage. The sooner a product breaks down after the warranty expires, the sooner the corresponding market demand arises, which is necessary for the realization of capital valorization.
Producing for the dump
Late capitalism thus literally produces for the garbage dump in order to create new demand for the faltering exploitation machine. This is especially true for the high-tech industry. Nowadays it is hardly possible for consumers to replace even the batteries of smartphones or notebooks made of aluminum – while approaches to modular design in the IT-industry have been abandoned.7 One close look at the latest glued-together notebooks, where even the exchange of RAM modules or SSDs is now no longer possible, is actually enough to realize this absurdity.
On fine, prime example of this capitalist tendency to efficiently waste resources is provided by the U.S. corn industry, which since the Green Revolution of the 1970s has been delighting U.S. consumers with High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS), a sugar concentrate that has supplanted ordinary sugar and is now found in a myriad of food products. Filmmaker Curt Ellis, whose documentary „King Corn“8 explored the history and consequences of the industrialization of the U.S. corn industry, described the introduction of HFCS in an interview: „In the seventies, there was this huge increase in corn yields, and now these gigantic corn mountains were popping up all over the Midwest. Because of that, anything seemed helpful to be able to use those amounts of corn.“ Meanwhile, HFCS – developed by the food industry and linked to increases in obesity, diabetes, heart and liver disease – is found in „thousands“ of foods. „Our diets have become much sweeter,“ Ellis said. „High fructose corn syrup is everywhere; it’s in your spaghetti sauce or in a loaf of bread – in products where it wasn’t a generation ago.“9
Productivity increases in capitalist agribusiness thus do not lead to the conservation of limited natural resources, but to efforts to create new fields of demand by hook or by crook in order to maintain the valorization process – and if it has to be the human body that is abused as a HFCS dump. That is why the hunger for resources of the global exploitation machinery continues to increase, that is why new „markets“ and disease-causing products are created, while hundreds of millions of marginalized people have to go hungry or starve because they are excluded from the exploitation of capital and cannot form a solvent demand.
The illusion of the „Green New Deal
Since such murderous and ultimately self destructive absurdities of capitalist commodity production are hardly discussed or even addressed in the mainstream, the capitalist climate crisis is currently supposed to be overcome primarily by more capitalism. In view of the increasing global ecological crises, the ideology of a „green“ capitalism will play a central role in legitimizing the capitalist mode of production in the future. Germany can serve as a current prime example. The economic foundation of the rise of the „Greens“ to a German governing party is the implicit hope for a new accumulation regime: for the „Green New Deal“, a comprehensive program for the ecological transformation of capitalist society, in which „ecological“ and „regenerative“ industries are to experience their breakthrough and assume the role of leading sectors of the economy. This is intended to overcome the social and ecological double crisis of late capitalism, that began with the exhaustion of the postwar Fordist boom in the 1970s.10
The overall social enforcement of the automobile in the 50ties an 60ties, the Fordist „automobilization“ of the industrial societies, brought lastly such a comprehensive transformation of the entire capitalism, which also led to a tremendous economic upswing, which ended in the 70s of the 20th century. Passenger cars and other new types of products, which went hand in hand with labor-intensive, new types of production methods, opened up new markets for the exploitation of capital. As a result, the states received the tax revenues that were used to create the necessary transportation infrastructure, the construction of which could not be accomplished within the framework of market processes. The automobilization of capitalism was accompanied by a comprehensive infrastructural reconstruction of the capitalist economies: from the paving of whole regions with highways and the development of a network of dealerships, garages and gas stations to the creation of extensive parking deserts in our cities.
However, it is hard to imagine that the production of alternative energy sources can generate such high employment effects as were achieved in the course of the automobilization of capitalism in the fifties or sixties. Solar cells and wind turbines are not efficiently produced in the same way as cars were 40 years ago, when thousands of workers under the Taylor system performed mindless manual operations on endless assembly lines at precisely timed intervals to produce a vehicle after hundreds of steps – each performed by one worker. With today’s general level of automation in production, similar problems of „overproductivity“ tend to apply to the manufacture of alternative energy sources, as they did in many older industries.
The „faux frais“ of capital
There are other crisis factors that stand in the way of a „green capitalism“. Due to this general meltdown of the share of wage labor in the production process, the relationship between the fields of capital valorization and the necessary state expenditures for infrastructure, which would arise and be incurred in the course of the implementation of a „Green New Deal,“ has long shifted toward infrastructure. Karl Marx would describe infrastructure expenditures at the level of the national economy as „faux frais,“ as dead costs that are necessary for the valorization process of capital without being part of it – and consequently have to be skimmed off it, mostly in the form of taxes. Consequently, strategic infrastructure is only built up massively when the economy is in a long boom phase, when capital has opened up new markets, i.e. when a new accumulation regime has been established, as most recently in the case of the automobile in the phase of postwar prosperity.
Neoliberalism with its tendency towards privatization – and thus capitalist „cannibalization“ of infrastructure – is precisely the expression of a lack of a new accumulation regime in which mass wage labor would be exploited in commodity production. Capital sells off its infrastructural „silverware“, so to speak, in order to gain short-term profit opportunities – at the price of long-term destabilization. This disproportion between the lack of exploitation opportunities and astronomical infrastructure costs, resulting from the high global productivity level, also thwarts the breakthrough of the eco-industries to a new accumulation regime: The astronomical infrastructural costs of an „energy turnaround“ are matched by insufficient job creation.
Thus, on the one hand, capital forms the central cause of the climate crisis by means of its boundless compulsion of valorization („economic growth“). At the same time, the increasing internal contradictions of this ‚over-productiveâ€ economic system in the form of the ailing infrastructure act as an additional crisis amplifier, undermining the resilience of capitalist societies to external, climatic shocks. Over-indebted states, crumbling dikes, collapsing bridges, bursting water pipes along with collapsing power grids, and an over-accumulation crisis that has led to an absurd concentration of wealth with simultaneous mass impoverishment even in the centers of the world system, such as the U.S. – this is the desolate state of late capitalism in the face of the now fully onset climate crisis.
Periphery and centers in the climate crisis
Such ideas of a capitalist „Green New Deal“ are, by the way, almost only conceivable in Germany or other center countries like the USA, which are not yet in a dramatic financial situation due to their export surpluses (Germany) or control over the world reserve currency (US). In the southern European countries such as Greece, Italy, Spain or Portugal, which are burdened by debt and often teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, there is hardly any talk of a „Green Deal,“ although these countries would actually be predestined for such an energetic transformation because of the climatic conditions.
If the centers of the world system are already hardly in a position to rapidly reduce CO2 emissions, this is completely illusory in the periphery and the most ‚emerging economiesâ€, which account for the majority of the global increase in emissions. It is sheer ecological madness to push for the capitalist modernization of the emerging countries11 – and at the same time, it is out of the question for the public in the western centers of capitalism to dispute the emerging countries‘ right to try catch up economically. Within the capitalist logic, in which the climate discourse still largely proceeds, the only options – apart from the usual greenwashing – are to deny the emerging countries any right to modernization, or to ignore climate change in relation to the emerging countries by neatly separating the corresponding public discourses.
A sustainable development of the periphery of the world system, a global equalization of living conditions, would only be conceivable beyond capital – in a post-capitalist world system, where the conscious shaping of reproduction by the society itself would no longer have to obey the „markets“ running amok, but would focus on the global fight against the late effects of the capitalist climate crisis.
A Matter of survival: Alternatives to capitalism
This insanity of an economy based on growth compulsion could only be maintained over the period since industrialization thanks to the abundance of fossil energy sources. This is, historically speaking, a relatively short period. It was the enormous energy density, first of coal and then, from the middle of the 20th century on, of oil, that made this blind growth dynamic possible, which devastates all regions of the world and all areas of life.
The solar energy of millions of years was stored in the fossil energy sources, and the capital dynamics burned them irretrievably in a geological blink of an eye, in order to maintain an irrational, insane end in itself as long as possible: that money becomes more money. With the burning out of this fossil exploitation machine, the capitalist growth compulsion also loses the energetic basis for further expansion – an ecological, post-capitalist society, which would have to be oriented towards the greatest possible conservation of resources and the satisfaction of at least the elementary needs of all people, is only conceivable beyond this blind growth compulsion resulting from capital accumulation.
Moreover, the material and technical conditions for an ecological turnaround have long been in place. The enormous productivity potential, which only further accelerates environmental destruction within the framework of the capitalist mode of production, could contribute to the establishment of a sustainable economy beyond the capital relationship. Only when social reproduction is no longer subordinated to the end in itself of capital valorization, but directly serves the satisfaction of human needs, can an ecologically sustainable mode of economy be established.
The struggle against the impending ecological collapse is thus not about a reactionary anti-productivism, a return to pre-modern modes of production. Rather, the productive potentials and technical possibilities that capitalism has produced would have to be used in a tremendous transformational process to build a sustainable social formation. The advances in productivity that currently only accelerate the capitalist burning of global resources would then actually enable their conservation. What is ultimately at stake – in connection with the struggle against the climate crisis – is the liberation of the productive forces from the shackles of the capitalist mode of production.
The overcoming of the capital relationship, which is running amok in its agony, thus represents a question of survival for human civilization. Hence, the ecological movement would have to appeal not so much to people’s morals, but to their collective survival instincts. It would be more a matter of questioning the capitalist way of life and production and making its madness obvious, and not of focusing on moralizing appeals.
The author published the book „Capital as a Climate Killer. How an economic system is destroying our livelihoods.12
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6 Further reading: Claus Peter Ortlieb, A Contradiction between Matter and Form: On the Significance of the Production of Relative Surplus Value in the Dynamic of Terminal Crisis (2008). Link: https://mediationsjournal.org/articles/matter-and-form