From Reykjavik to Rio, from Woolies to Whittards, the fall out from the economic downturn reverberates like a Mexican wave around virtually every inhabited corner of the globe. But this crisis, just as surely as it began, will eventually peter out – but not before wreaking misery and destitution upon millions. Alongside this latest recession is the environmental crisis, with far more irretrievable consequences, and a severity we are now only just waking up to.
Over 100 years ago Karl Marx foretold, how the inbuilt tendency of industrial capitalism to expand would give rise to not only continual cycles of boom and slump, but also the phenomenon we now call “globalisation”. More contemporary analysts, such as Murray Bookchin and the social ecology movement of the late 1960s and 70s, later warned of the profound ecological crisis that we now face.
The globalisation of the market economy in the last 30 or so years has been closely paralleled by the unprecedented rise of mega-corporations like Exxon-Mobil, ICI and Coca Cola that have successfully extended their influence around the world. Like all capitalist businesses, they are motivated by 2 key imperatives – the need to make profit and the need to increase market share and expand.
Furthermore, this drive to expand can only be fed by using up ever more resources to produce ever more commodities to generate ever more profits. Where there is economic growth, there is also mass consumption. But our capacity to consume, like the capacity of the natural world to fuel the commodity market, is to any rational mind, finite.
The crisis of overproduction that leads to recession occurs when the market becomes oversaturated with unsellable commodities. In this sense, the current downturn is no different from those of the past. The most robust businesses, the transnational corporations, are nevertheless sufficiently well resourced to weather the storm as others inevitably go under. Once unproductive capacity has been (painfully) wiped out, the economy will eventually pick up, and the market monopolising transnationals will emerge even stronger than before.
The same cannot be said, however, for the natural world.
In the last 30 years, one third of the planet’s natural resources have been used up. To quote the New Economics Foundation:
For everyone on earth to live at the current rate of consumption, we would need more than double the bio capacity actually available – the equivalent of 2.1 planet Earths – to sustain us. If everyone consumed at the U.S. rate, we would need nearly five.
Also of growing concern is the ominous spectre of global warming, caused by overreliance on fossil fuels by capitalist industry and transport. The long term effects of global warming, predicted by the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change to take effect by 2050, are likely to result in:
- displacement of populations from island, coastline and river delta areas
- more frequent and more severe weather related natural disasters
- desertification, famine and increasing food shortages
These factors will, in turn, contribute to more widespread human suffering (especially in poorer parts of the world), greater social instability and higher levels of enforced migration. Ongoing resource wars and increasingly repressive population control measures also seem likely.
capitalism in action
Yet global warming and the general degradation and depletion of the world’s ecosystems – the scale of which has only been touched upon here – is no random occurrence or aberration. It is capitalism in action. The overriding need for economic growth flies completely in the face of responsible and sustainable use of natural resources. Profit margins deter oil corporations from investing heavily in renewable energy sources.
The 1997 Kyoto Protocol committed governments to reducing the output of greenhouse gases. But last year, before the climate convention in Bali, U.N. figures reveal-ed an 11% increase in emissions worldwide. Ahead of the No-vember climate summit in Copen-hagen, there’s little to suggest that this trend has been reversed, or that a proposed new treaty will succeed where others have clearly failed.
What the politicians and corporations (whose interests the politicians support) will never admit to us, is glaringly simple. Capitalism, whether of the free market or state run variety, will always trigger ecological and economic crises because, in the final analysis, the overriding priorities of economic growth and profit accumulation come first.
Like the moribund dinosaurs of the old left, our morally and ideologically bankrupt leaders scrabble around for false solutions in the wake of their failing system. It is neither alarmist nor inaccurate to suggest that we are living on borrowed time. For us, the immediacy of the need to dismantle the corporate and state hegemony and shape a new libertarian (eco)socialist order, quite simply, cannot be understated.
An Overseas Development Institute report indicates that the global economic crisis could cost up to 90 million lives, increase in the number of those going hungry to nearly a billion.