Against The Wall

On the Common Cause of The Ecological and Economic Crisis

Claus Peter Ortlieb

While the public discussion in the capitalist centers interprets the economic crisis, despite its persistence, as a merely temporary phenomenon, it certainly perceives the ecological crisis as a fundamental problem with the modern way of life. The contradiction between economic growth imperatives on the one hand and the finite nature of material resources and the capacity of the natural environment to absorb civilization’s waste on the other is all too obvious.

The foreground of the discussion for some years has been the climate catastrophe, even if these discussions have become somewhat quieter because of other priorities during attempts to cope with the economic crisis. The two-degree target, which would have just avoided the very worst consequences of the warming of the atmosphere, is now widely regarded as no longer achievable. Apart from the slump in the recession year of 2009, global CO2 emissions continue to rise unabated, and climate change is beginning to reinforce itself, for example by releasing more greenhouse gases through the thawing of permafrost soils or by reducing the return of sunlight through the melting of glaciers.

Yet climate change is only one of the battlegrounds on which the “war of capital against the planet” is taking place, according to U.S. sociologists John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark and Richard York in their book The Ecological Rift. With ocean acidification, increasing water scarcity, soil erosion, rapid decline in biodiversity, and chemical pollution, there are other interrelated and environmentally destructive developments, each of which has the medium-term potential to make large parts of the earth uninhabitable.

Data collected about climate change have made it clear where the perpetrators of the barely avertable catastrophe, which will primarily affect poorer countries, are located: In 2010, CO2 emissions per capita were 4.4 tons worldwide, 17.3 in the USA, 9.3 in Germany, 7.0 in OECD Europe, 5.4 in China, 1.4 in India and 0.9 in Africa (source: IEA). China has caught up strongly here in recent years; in 2004, its per capita emissions were still below the global average. Obviously, this is due to its continued high economic growth rates, while the OECD countries are struggling with the recession and their CO2 emissions are therefore declining slightly.

It is not only from these figures that we can see that the crossing of natural barriers is strongly correlated with the development of capitalist wealth. There are a few exceptions, but as a general rule it can be said that the more developed and wealthy a state is, the higher the contribution of its citizens to global environmental destruction. Yet the effects of this destruction rarely affect those who caused it in the first place. Once again, the developed countries are waging the “war on the planet,” but the poorer countries are the first to suffer the consequences. This is certainly one reason why measures are implemented to deal with the symptoms, while their causes remain undealt with.

The deeper reason, however, lies in the importance that economic growth seems to have for the well-being of every modern society. Crises are always growth crises. For countries like Portugal, for example, to get out of their misery, the general consensus would be that decades of GDP growth of three percent a year would be required, and no one knows where it is supposed to come from; China, according to the ideas of its leadership, needs annual growth of at least seven percent and is launching one economic stimulus program after another to achieve this; and even every G8 or G20 summit, despite all other differences, agrees that everything must be done to boost global economic growth.

Obviously, we are dealing with a dilemma: A modern society must grow, even in competition with others, otherwise it risks breaking apart like the states of “real existing socialism” at the end of the 1980s or those of the “Arab Spring” in this decade – the democratic or Islamist ideologies that supposedly brought about the overthrow were mere folklore here as well as there. But with the kind of growth we are talking about here, environmental degradation grows along with it in the same way. In the end, the only alternative is between social decay and the overexploitation of society’s natural foundations.

The Capitalist Mode of Production as A Blind Spot in The Environmental Discussion

So the question arises whether there is a way out of this dilemma. The problem is that in the bourgeois public sphere, the capitalist mode of production and its categories – labor, commodity and money, wage and profit, market and state – are sacrosanct. It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the overcoming of this historically specific social formation. But if capitalism is considered to be as natural and self-evident as the air we breathe, which it will soon cut off, it is impossible to find an adequate answer to the question of how to get out of this dilemma. The entire discussion of the environmental crisis therefore necessarily comes to nothing and seems strangely unreal, because all sides are working with fictions and at best producing bogus solutions, which all those involved somehow know.

This is most obvious – apart from the simple denial of the problem – in the case of the economic hardliners, who view such an economically unproductive resource as a rainforest with the same indifference with which they view the future, which lies beyond the current cycles of valorization. As far as the more distant times are concerned, they like to operate with so-called discount rates, with which future costs are made to disappear. In 2006, the former chief economist of the World Bank, Nicholas Stern, calculated the costs of climate change in dollars in the report named after him, which is how the climate debate gained momentum in the first place; after all, money was now at stake. According to the Stern Report, the costs of unchecked climate change will amount to between 5 and 20 percent of global GDP by the end of the century, while the necessary countermeasures would only require investments of 1 percent of global GDP within the next twenty years, to be financed by a carbon tax, for example. The question with such calculations is always how future and present costs are compared. The Stern Review operates at a discount rate of 1.4 percent per year, which means that a cost of $1,000 90 years from now would cost $285 today. In contrast, mainstream economists, most notably William Nordhaus, professor of economics at Yale, argued that this discounting was much too low because the world would be much richer in the future than it is today due to economic growth. Nordhaus then presented a calculation with discounting of about 6 percent annually, in which $1,000 to be paid in 90 years is equivalent to $5 today, making future costs largely negligible. The environmental crisis is thus discounted away; it no longer exists.

A somewhat less brute approach is taken by companies and governments that have to take into account the concerns of their customers or voters. Here, the strategy of “greenwashing” has proven successful, i.e. the mere simulation of environmental and climate protection. In the case of companies, it is clear that the only thing that matters is their green (and social) image, which must be polished up so that their products can be consumed without a guilty conscience. What happens behind the beautiful façade, on the other hand, hardly matters as long as it does not come to light. Governments must first and foremost fulfill their task of ensuring the smoothest possible valorization of capital. This is what they were elected for, and their ability to act depends on this through tax revenue. Environmental protection, the importance of which must of course be emphasized, has to reach for this ceiling, which at best may be dyed green. In Germany, this can be observed particularly well when it comes to the interests of the automotive industry, which is central to the German business model: Of course, it is agreed at international conferences to reduce CO2 emissions from road traffic as well, but as soon as someone wants to get serious about this, like the EU Commission in 2007, which demanded levies for CO2 emissions from sedans of more than 130 grams per kilometer from 2012 onwards, a German environment minister (Sigmar Gabriel in this case) can only see this as a “competitive war against German car manufacturers.” And the 2009 scrappage scheme, a stimulus program for the benefit of the auto industry and an environmental mess of the first order, operated under the green label of an “environmental premium.”

Political parties not in government and extra-parliamentary groups, on the other hand, can afford to set priorities in a more balanced way and propagate the compatibility of economy and ecology, which they themselves believe in as long as they do not have to implement it. What then emerges are concepts of a “Green New Deal” or even an “ecological Kondratieff,” i.e., a new long wave of capitalist accumulation based on “green technology” that is supposed to replace the current “finance-driven capitalism.” In this context, the beneficial effect on new jobs and economic development is emphasized, whereby all of a sudden ecology is not an obstacle for the economy, but on the contrary a direct path to new profits. In the German discussion, of course, this refers to jobs and profits of the German market leaders, and in fact a transfer to the whole world would not be possible at all: As long as green energy is more expensive than fossil energy, it will not be able to assert itself in capitalist competition. And vice versa: It can only become cheaper – if at all – by largely rationalizing away the labor (and thus also the profits) from its production. This will then suffice for new jobs at best in Germany or – more likely – China.

The goal of “sustained economic growth” expressed in these concepts, which was advocated at the 2012 UN Summit on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro, for example, is a contradiction in terms, despite all the elasticity of the concept of sustainability, as long as economic growth means what it does in the current sense. And what else could it mean? Anyone who talks like this is merely obfuscating the environmental and climate problems and trying to convince himself that the incompatible can be reconciled.

From the assessment that a decoupling of economic growth and increasing environmental destruction will not be possible, the representatives of a “post-growth society” finally draw the obvious conclusion to completely abandon the concept of growth. In view of the close connection between the capitalist mode of production and an obsession with growth, one would actually expect an abolitionist program in the relevant anthologies on post-growth. In fact, however, the former German President Horst Köhler is allowed to make the demand for a “social and ecological market economy” without contradiction, as if there were such a thing as a non-capitalist market economy. Hope is placed in entrepreneurs who no longer chase profit but are committed to the sustainability of their production. Money as a medium of socialization is not questioned at all, only the handling of it is supposed to be more serious, i.e. more economical, than in recent years. And of course, the followers of Silvio Gesell, who consider interest to be the cause of all evil and want to get to the bottom of “rapacious capital” (see the text “Elendsselbstverwaltung” by Peter Bierl in KONKRET 4/2013), also cavort in this environment. Despite some clever analyses of the deep-rooted connection between the concept of growth and modernity, in the end it does not seem to be enough for more than an abbreviated critique of capitalism, and that can sometimes be worse than no critique at all.

What is it That is Growing So Compulsively?

If you want to get away from the compulsion to grow, you must first understand what it is. To hold excessive consumption responsible for this compulsion misses the real constraints, because contrary to what the economics textbooks would have us believe, consumption is not the purpose of capitalist production. If that were so, there would be no need for advertising. As is well known, the Protestant ethic of asceticism and renunciation, which is now being propagated again by some post-growth ideologists, was at the beginning of capitalism: Earning money, not in order to squander it, but in order to make more and more money out of it, has since then been the insane end in itself of all economic activity. Capitalism is thus doomed to grow: If it can sell them, it produces goods without end; if it cannot, it falls into crisis. In this process, consumption is a mere means, because the goods have to be sold for the purpose of making money.

For a more precise understanding, a distinction must be made here between surplus value production, material output and resource consumption. To produce more and more surplus value is the very purpose that drives the process of production. The exploitation of labor creates surplus value, and the concrete activity is not important for the abstract wealth produced by labor, but only the labor time in which “muscle, nerve, brain, etc. are expended” (Marx). However, abstract wealth requires a material bearer, and for the realization of surplus value the goods must first be produced, but then also sold, which presupposes a corresponding solvent demand.

The increase of productivity in the course of the history of the capitalist mode of production has dramatically changed the quantitative relationship between the abstract wealth measured in labor time on the one hand and the material effort required for its production. The increase in productivity itself has its origin in the hunt for extra profits, which beckon to those who can produce more cheaply than their competitors. This development leads to labor being increasingly removed from the production process and replaced by machines. With less and less labor, more and more material wealth can be produced. However, since this is not the actual meaning and purpose of production, working time is not reduced, as would be sensible and possible in material terms, but the reverse calculation is made: For the production of the same abstract wealth measured in working time, an ever higher material output and – since labor is replaced by machines – an even more strongly growing consumption of resources is required. There are countervailing trends, such as in increasing energy efficiency, i.e., when the energy input per final product decreases. However, the ratio of material input per unit of working time is clear: It is constantly growing in the sectors producing surplus value, visible, for example, in the material and monetary input per industrial workplace.

In this “moving contradiction” (Marx), which consists in the fact that capital increasingly removes labor from the production process, on whose exploitation its wealth is based, which it must chase, lies the common cause of economic and ecological crisis. The material bearers of abstract wealth, which is forced to grow without measure, are finite, so that expansion must necessarily come up against two barriers: those of limited solvent demand (economic crisis) and those of natural resource exhaustion (ecological crisis).

At the same time, the treatment of the symptoms of the crisis, which is at best still possible within capitalism, comes into contradiction with itself: Every attempt to even mitigate the economic crisis by economic stimulus programs leads to increased environmental destruction. Conversely, to reduce this, the world economy would have to be prescribed a deep permanent depression, with all the social and material consequences this would have for the occupants of the capitalist mode of production. In fact, the only small bend in the growth curve of global CO2 emissions was in the recession year of 2009.

What would be necessary is social planning according to concrete considerations of the production and distribution of material wealth alone. But in capitalism, the dominance of abstract wealth and the compulsion to its permanent increase stand in the way, as Robert Kurz states in the epilogue of his “Black Book Capitalism” in a more general context:

“The problems that must be solved are actually poignantly simple. Firstly, the real and abundantly available resources of natural substances, equipment and not least of human ability must be utilized in such a way that every person is guaranteed a good pleasurable life, which is free of hunger and poverty. There is no need to mention that this would long have been easily possible if the organizational form of society did not systematically deny this fundamental demand. Secondly, there must be an end to the catastrophic misallocation of resources (insofar as these are even capitalistically mobilized) into senseless pyramid projects and destructive production. Needless to say, this equally obvious and dangerous “misallocation” is likewise brought about by none other than the prevalent social order. And thirdly, it is after all of elementary interest that the vast increase in additional time available to society as a result of the productive forces of micro-electronics should be converted into an equal amount of leisure

All this is akin to an insane fairy tale, in which the absurd seems normal and the natural entirely unintelligible: that which is there for all to see and need not actually be mentioned is completely repressed in social consciousness, as though a spell had been cast over it. Despite the blatantly obvious fact that even a reasonably sensible use of common resources has become entirely irreconcilable with the capitalist form, discussions only ever focus on “ideas” and approaches that take for granted precisely this form.”

This does not deny the usefulness of many an individual measure to preserve the environment. However, the often and gladly invoked “peace with nature” will only be available beyond capitalism.

Foster, John Bellamy, Brett Clark, and Richard York. 2010. The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth. New York: Monthly Review.

Seidl, I., and A. Zahrnt, eds. 2010. Postwachstumsgesellschaft: Konzepte für die Zukunft, Marburg: Metropolis.

Welzer, H.,  and K. Wiegand, eds. 2013. Wege aus der Wachstumsgesellschaft, Frankfurt a. M: S. Fischer.

Kurz, Robert. 2009. Schwarzbuch Kapitalismus. Ein Abgesang auf die Marktwirtschaft, Eichborn, Frankfurt a. M, as PDF at

Originally published in KONKRET in 11/13

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