Ecology and the Pathology of Capitalism

Contrary to everything we have been taught, there is no actual United States of America. The U.S. is an occupied territory that could more accurately be described as the Corporate States of America. If the geopolitical states are united, the people are not. We are a nation divided by ideology and by social and economic class. The U.S. is not a democracy, and it never was. The systems of power do not allow the voice of working people to be heard or their collective will to be acted upon.

Despite the subterfuge of freedom and democracy, the rights of corporations have consistently superseded the sovereign rights of the individual and those of the community. Labor history and a litany of environmental catastrophes bear this out. For instance, everywhere one looks government agencies “ostensibly created to protect the public welfare” are allowing hydraulic fracturing of Marcellus shale, even when it poisons municipal drinking water and causes incalculable harm to the environment.

Our diverse forests are commodified, measured in board feet to be clear-cut and off-shored at prodigious bargain rates, like a liquidation sale. World class biodiversity is yielding to desertification and monoculture. Money changes hands. The few are getting rich at the expense of the many. The world and the people who live in it are treated like products to be exploited. We are told that nothing is sacred, save for the dollar and markets.

Nevertheless, it is an inescapable fact that no human being, including corporate CEOs and members of Congress, can live without potable water or breathable air. We are literally sacrificing the Earth’s life support systems and mortgaging the future, while attempting to satiate the greed of a few grotesquely wealthy individuals. Through lifelong indoctrination, Americans are persuaded that self-interested greed is in their best interest.

The rich and powerful have decreed that corporate profits “the Holy Grail of American capitalism” are more precious than life itself. The remorseless people in power are without conscience. History confirms that sociopaths do not hesitate to take what they want from their unsuspecting victims by any and all means.

But surely, even among Friedmanites, it must be allowed that some things cannot be commodified or bought and sold. For instance, clean air and potable water are the birthright of every living organism. These are necessities that belong to the commons; they cannot ethically be privately owned. In contrast to this assertion, two edicts of modern capitalism are private ownership and the commodification of workers and nature.

Capitalism, and the market fundamentalism that is associated with it, has stripped bare the Earth’s biodiversity and substituted a world of commodities in its stead. What we see and think we know is not real. It is the product of marketing and perception managers — a hologram.

There is growing conflict between capitalism and the planet’s ecology, its essential life support systems. A fierce struggle between capital and democracy is in progress. The booted foot of capitalism is pressing upon the throat of democracy. We inhabit a dying world and are inheriting dying freedoms. Corporate greed and over-population is the culprit. Conflict is everywhere.

Virtually all of the social upheaval, inequality, and environmental problems of today in some way ensue from capitalism, including overpopulation and armed aggression. Capitalism requires continuous economic expansion and a burgeoning market for consumers. This is simply not possible on a finite planet.

These tensions are manifested no more clearly than throughout the coal belt and mountains of West Virginia, where I make my home. Here, mountains are cleared of forests before being blown to smithereens in order to cheaply extract coal to enrich Massey Energy Corporation. The process, known as mountaintop removal, has poisoned streams, altered their courses, and changed the contours of the land and its hydrology. It has devastated both human and biological communities while filling the coffers of the timber and coal industries.

Conventional underground mining has claimed the lives of thousands of coal miners trying to scratch out a modest living from the Earth. At times, it has led to armed conflict between miners and the Pinkertons hired by the mining companies in places like Matewan and Blair Mountain.

In West Virginia, King Coal and the gas and oil industry run the state’s legislature. The government is effectively owned by corporate lobbyists. As a result, it is futile to make legal and moral appeals to government for redress of our grievances. If we limit ourselves to the tools that our oppressors provide us, the entire region will become a sacrifice zone. Working people and the poor make the sacrifices; billionaires and industry carry off the profit. We are left to deal with the aftermath.

The illusion of democracy “including voting in the absence of meaningful choice” is a poor substitute for direct action and anarchy. Democracy cannot flourish in the sterile soil that capitalism leaves in its wake. Either we have democracy or we have capitalism, or we create something entirely different. Radically opposing ideas cannot be reconciled.

Modern humans inhabit a human-engineered world of absurdities and contradictions. Regardless of the Supreme Court’s assertions, corporations are not people, and money is not speech. Every sentient human being knows this. However, the law says otherwise. We must deny the corporate state that victory by refusing to capitulate.

The struggle for community rights, egalitarianism, and social, economic, and environmental justice must occur outside of the system that creates inequality and fosters wanton destruction of the commons. Countless species of plants and animals that provide essential ecological services are being eliminated to create space for strip malls, gated communities, gambling casinos and golf courses. As a result, ecological and economic catastrophe loom. We are facing global famine in an anthropocentric over-heated world.

Globally, wealthy multinational corporations are gorging themselves on the biological and mineral wealth of the commons. What could be more absurd or unethical?

The brainchild of Adam Smith, capitalism, which replaced feudalism during the French Revolution, is founded upon demonstrably false premises, many of which were unknown in Smith’s time. Nevertheless, classically trained economists assert that capitalism is a primal force of nature rather than the defective human construct that it is. Modern capitalism has produced pathological symptoms and endorsed an ethos that is antithetical to life and to liberty. It is killing the world and foreclosing evolutionary possibilities.

Indeed, ethical considerations aside, and speaking purely from a biological perspective, one may emphatically state that modern capitalism is an aggressive cancer that is devouring its host. But most of us are in denial. People like me are asked not to utter the “C” word in public spaces. It might offend the well-intentioned believers. Whenever this occurs I am reminded of Thoreau, who uttered, “Any truth is better than make believe.” . One has an ethical obligation to state what one knows succinctly and clearly.

It is not in dispute that the ideology of constant expansion on a finite planet is contradicted by inviolable ecological dictums — among them, carrying capacity, ecological overshoot, and die-off. But classical economists act as if these laws do not apply, or they are mysteriously overridden by the irrational exuberance of capitalism.

In reality, every political economy is underlain by ecology and by living, evolving, biological systems. Ecology is the only economy that really matters.

By possessing even a modest degree of ecological literacy, one can make some revealing predictions with mathematical certainty. For example, the continuation of capitalism as the primary political economy can have one of two possible outcomes: the virtual destruction of the biosphere, meaning the death of the host organism, or the abolition of the capitalist system.

What would a post-capitalism world look like and how might it work?

Global capitalism, with its dependence on the availability of cheap fossil fuels and petrochemicals for food production, must give way to small-scale local economies and organic agriculture. Food must be locally grown and, as far as possible, other necessities locally produced. The age of cheap fossil fuels is ending. Industrialized man must bravely confront his addictions and embrace sobriety or he will self-destruct.

It is said that nature bats last. Humans do best when they emulate natural systems that have evolved over eons of time.

A moneyless economy based upon need must supplant the current profit-driven system of exploitation. Accordingly, goods and services may then be exchanged without the conduit of markets. These exchanges would be of equal value and thus inherently fair.

The classic business models will be replaced by worker-owned and worker-operated cooperatives. In this arrangement, workers – not a board of directors – make all of the business decisions. They share the risks and benefits and distribute the surpluses of production, while significantly reducing the work day and the work week. A portion of the surpluses of production is allocated to the betterment of the community and to the protection of the commons.

New economic models must be predicated upon ecological principles or they will fail. Existing alternatives to capitalism, such as Spain’s Mondragon Worker Cooperative, must be critically analyzed and evaluated as a model that could, with modifications, be implemented elsewhere.

There is no better teacher than evolution and natural selection. History confirms that the most revolutionary ideas are occasionally the oldest. For instance, anthropological studies indicate that early Homo sapiens evolved by implementing egalitarian principles into their tribal clans. People and the cultures they create must either evolve or perish.

The egalitarian societies of the future will look radically different from the capitalism of today. Political campaigns and elections will recede into history and quickly forgotten. Evolved societies do not need leaders or elected officials.

Every member of an egalitarian community is a leader. Power flows in a circular form rather than a linear, top-down hierarchy. It is derived directly from the people. There will be no social or economic stratification. No one shall have privileges or rights that are denied to others. Every member of the community must be equally empowered and equally valued. All people will have equal access to opportunity. Health care and higher education, like pure water and clean air, will be regarded as a right of birth and provided without cost.

Direct action will replace voting in political elections. Rather than consent to be governed, sovereign people can create the world they want to live in. In communities where people are empowered and where they have an equal stake, they will want to participate. Everyone brings something to the table. Everyone contributes and all of society benefits.

Communities will become as interconnected and interdependent as ecological systems. But each will remain autonomous within the larger matrix of nature. States and nations as we know them may eventually recede into history and disappear.

Rather than the callous competition and exploitation nurtured by capitalism, communities can be organized around the principle of cooperation and social need. As in healthy ecosystems, the welfare of the individual is dependent upon the well-being of the community — and vice versa. No one will be left behind. All of us shall rise together.

All living organisms share a common origin and a common destiny. Ecology and economy must merge into an integrated natural system suited to long-term survival in a world already ravaged by industrialized man. Ecological and social healing must be part of the process of building sustainable communities.

The transition from capitalism to cooperation will be neither smooth nor easy. There will be many false starts. At first, there will be fierce resistance to revolutionary change. People cling to the familiar and the comfortable, to what they know, even when the dominant paradigm and popular culture does them harm.

The first tentative steps of a journey are often the most difficult. There are no clear blueprints to follow. There will be trepidation and uncertainty. But we must commit to beginning. The alternative is oblivion. But if we embark on the voyage the survival of the species, and a new age of enlightenment will be possible.

Charles Sullivan is a Master Naturalist, community activist, and free-lance writer residing in the Ridge and Valley Province of geopolitical West Virginia. . Read other articles by Charles.