Capitalism is Unsustainable – Why We Need a Socialist Approach to the Environmental Crisis


While our world has been experiencing record temperatures, big oil has been raking in record profits: in 2011, the big five oil giants netted $137 billion, (“Big 5 Oil Companies Going for the Gold,”, 7/31/2012). Meanwhile, every new study seems to show ways that the problem is worse than had been previously thought.

Arctic ice is melting at an alarming rate, threatening to unleash a “methane bomb” as disappearing permafrost releases the powerful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, (, 7/24/2013). Moreover, a recent study claims that a significant increase in heat waves is already inevitable, (“Hot Century Ahead,”, 8/17/2013).

These are further reminders that something has to change. One way or another, things cannot stay the way they are. This is the reality of climate change: In the first part of this century, either economies around the world will give up fossil fuels and make the transition to sustainable energy, or the warming globe will hit a “tipping point” that will alter the face of our world forever.

The first possibility – shifting to sustainable energy – means, among other things, that investors will have to write off an estimated $20 trillion of assets (40% of global GDP): the current value of known but untapped fossil fuel reserves already being traded on the market and held as “futures” assets by corporations (, 7/19/2011). In the U.S., shifting to sustainable energy will mean that the fossil fuel industry – hugely powerful, profitable, able to command tens of billions of dollars per year in taxpayer subsidies – will have to be removed from its position of power.

What force is capable of making this change? Clearly, we cannot outspend some of the most profitable corporations on the planet. And we cannot rely on the politicians of the two main parties, who are awash with corporate money. We need the power of a mass movement to challenge the power of big oil.

In the U.S. and elsewhere, the environmental movement has been growing. The biggest environmental demonstration in U.S. history – a Washington, D.C. protest of tens of thousands against the proposed Keystone XL pipeline – took place this past February. The movement’s ideas are also becoming stronger, with important environmental organizations like recognizing that disproportionate responsibility for climate change rests with the vested interests of the fossil fuel corporations. Developing a more systemic understanding of the problem is a big step forward from suggesting that isolated individuals should “vote with our dollars” and somehow consume our way out of this mess.

Whether it is the economic crisis or the ecological crisis, capitalism is a system that undermines its own foundations. Driving down the wages and living standards of the working class means increased profits for big business, but when a lot of us can’t pay our mortgages or our loans, an economic crisis results. Likewise, it is “good business” to treat the needs of the environment as an “externality” – a cost to be avoided and ignored, where possible. Yet the growing ecological crisis reminds us that, ultimately, “externalities” are merely convenient fictions for rapacious corporations. For capitalism, both workers and nature – the two sources of all wealth – are nothing more than a means to an end: profit.

Corporations work hard to keep wages and benefits down and profits high, and the economic crisis has meant that good jobs are ever more scarce. At the same time, there is much work to be done: The transition to sustainable energy – wind, water, and solar power – means rebuilding our entire energy infrastructure. In this situation, it is more important than ever for the environmental movement to popularize the call for a massive green jobs program.

Demanding a green jobs program at union wages and benefits, with guaranteed rehire and retraining for workers in polluting industries, is a key tool in building a mass environmental movement actually capable of challenging the most powerful corporations on Earth. Corporate politicians often present us with two bad choices. If we accepted what they say, we would have to believe that the only way to put food on our tables is by building the Keystone XL pipeline or supporting fracking.

The Obama administration’s “all of the above” energy policy leaves open the door for fossil fuel interests to pursue their agenda – and they have been aggressively doing so – but where are the initiatives for the kind of massive green energy alternative that we need? The private sector has proven incapable of taking on large infrastructural projects. Nationally coordinated policies under direction of the federal government were needed to develop the national railway and freeway systems, as well as the space program. What we need is a “stop global warming” energy policy, and this would entail a massive green public works program.

Never before in history have human societies experienced an ecological crisis on the scale of global warming – and global warming is only part of an ecological crisis that includes species and habitat destruction, air pollution, chemical contamination, and radiation poisoning, as in the case of the ongoing disaster at the Fukushima nuclear power plant.

To adequately address these problems and begin healing our planet requires cooperation on a global scale. Socialists have always argued that we need a democratically planned economy designed to meet the needs of humanity. The corporations see cash and aren’t concerned about what we want to happen to our world. The key decisions about what is produced and how it is produced are made based on what is perceived to be best for a handful of rich people. No one wants to pour chemicals into their own water or store nuclear waste under their own ground, which is why democratic planning, where we all have a say, will be good for the environment.

Building a harmonious relationship between society and nature cannot be separated from building a harmonious relationship between people. But capitalism is designed to enrich a tiny class of rich investors, while exploiting the majority of the people. From their point of view, it makes sense for corporations to treat the needs of workers and the environment as “externalities.” That’s why we say capitalism cannot solve the environmental crisis in the interests of the vast majority of people, and the planet. It is only the ordinary working people and the poor on a global level who have a common interest in doing that.

In an economy based on democratic planning, a socialist economy, the corporate approach will make no sense. Socialism acknowledges a key truth taught by ecology: Everything is interconnected. If we take this view, we must realize that there is nowhere to externalize to. It is still possible to avoid ecological catastrophe and build a sustainable future for all of us, but we will have to move beyond the dog-eat-dog nature of capitalism in order to do it.

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