The Nature of the Beast

imagesLast Sunday, I discussed the enemy. Shall we call it capitalism? In his short book Extinction: A Radical History, Ashley Dawson certainly does. “Our economic system is destroying the planetary life support system upon which we depend.”

Is this a controversial idea? I don’t think so, but I suppose it will be met with resistance in some quarters. Certainly everywhere people went as they diffused across the planet, the large animals disappeared–except interestingly enough in the place we started–long before the capitalist system emerged. Some might point an accusing finger at agriculture and the complex, hierarchal societies that developed from the need to store and record grain surpluses and manage rising populations. Talk about terraforming! Yet where today is Mesopotamia (Humbaba may have had his revenge over Gilgamesh after all)? The breadbasket of Rome? Rapa Nui? The only place “we” didn’t destroy the megafauna was back in the cradle of Africa, but we’re catching up there now.

Yet capitalism seems a particularly virulent engine of planetary destruction, predicated on continuous consumption and constant growth, which as Edward Abbey pointed out was an impetus shared by cancer cells. Likewise, everything must be commodified: resources, certainly; but also genomes; personal and familial relationships; such givens of the commons as water. Recently yet another bottled water company has admitted it’s nothing but tap water in the plastic containers that will outlive all of us by generations upon generations.

Inevitably, the “tendency of capital accumulation to destroy its own conditions of reproduction” has resulted in our present condition: the sixth great extinction event on planet Earth.

I am always struck by the old echoes in the word consumption, which used to be a disease. Isn’t it still? The root of the word means a burning up from within; consumption the disease, better known now as tuberculosis, was seen as a consuming fire that wasted away the body. (Humans are such survivors that consumption, until it was beaten, temporarily, by antibiotics, was adopted as sort of fashionable pose, tragic yet worthy of operas.)

Now, one of the problems with fire is that it makes smoke. Pollution has long been capital’s smoke, from the toxins poured into the air, water, earth, and quelle surprise, human and all the other life forms, to the chemistry of fossil fuels itself. Human beings have never seen so much carbon in the atmosphere as there is right now.

(Next Sunday: the once and future world.)

3 Responses to “The Nature of the Beast”

  1. 1 Murray Fisher September 4, 2016 at 10:52 am


    Murray Fisher New York Harbor Foundation


  2. 2 michela caudill September 5, 2016 at 1:14 pm

    The only problem with your argument is that it does not work. Capitalism may destroy, but so to do other political systems. Until societies accept that they must come together to protect the earth, no system will protect it. Look at the wreck of the environment in the former Soviet Union and weep.

    As for Africa, well that is a tragedy of unmitigated proportions, Some of it is from external factors, but much of it stems from internal issues, such as war, and overpopulation. Overpopulation leads to overgrazing, and that leads to worsening conditions of the soil, which in turn is magnified by lack of rain. Add to the mix, the inability of African Nations to maintain a balance between nature and the growth of cities, and the result is destruction.

    China is another problem. It is in many ways a text book case of a nation run amok. The destruction of its environment in the process of industrialization is almost mind blowing.

    There are no simple solutions to what humans are doing to their Earth. Perhaps the only hope lies in those few who are willing to take a stake in trying to save bits and pieces of it. For example, the American Prairie Reserve in Montana.

    Political systems of any sort are all equally guilty in the process of destroying the earth. Writers and philosophers add their voices as they have for centuries to this process and still the destruction continues.

  3. 3 mthew September 7, 2016 at 3:36 pm

    I would argue that every part of the world is complicit with the system. The Chinese party dictatorship is another version of state capitalism, a command and control model pioneered by the old USSR. That both now are authoritarian and kleptocratic makes them fit perfectly into the neoliberal spectrum.

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