Capitalist Modernity: The crisis in the relationship between humanity and nature

Submitted by kasama_libsoc on February 13, 2020

With the rise of capitalist systems of both finance and thought, industrialisation, centralisation and the increased exploitation of people and nature have taken hold almost everywhere in the world. This has often taken place through the mechanisms of coercion, robbery, resettlement and armed force. Access to the resources necessary for life is almost completely subjugated to the dictates of capital accumulation and centralism. The dream of turning everything into a commodity has even colonised life itself: corporations now use genetic engineering to bring the entire food chain under their command.

Capitalism has warped the environment and produced huge monocultures. This centralisation and the associated alienation of people from nature led to resistance early on, because small farmers did not want to give up their land; also large mining operations colonised the living spaces of many people. So centralisation and capitalisation of the supply of vital goods and energy required a justification strategy. They argued that the worldwide spread of the market economy of centralism and modern state bureaucracies emancipated people from the constraints of nature and brought humanity progress and global prosperity. The brutal poverty facing large parts of the world's population, the inability of the capitalist system to provide people with the necessities for life, and the reckless pace of extraction of natural resources all give the lie to these claims.

Urban and Countryside

Industrialisation, and the associated transition from the feudal to the capitalist mode of production, led and continues to lead to a worldwide exodus of former peasants to the cities, which grew to huge metropolises. Where urbanisation didn't happen by itself, it was enforced. More than half of the world's population already lives in cities, or the slums that surround them. The environmental, economic and psychological consequences of this concentration of people are enormous. Capitalist modernity is tearing apart both city and the countryside. The country, the origin of modern human society, is being relegated to the position of supplier for the city. In the richer parts of the world, the capitalist cities and metropolises of the West, people try to compensate for this deep lack and alienation with farm holidays, bamboo forests as their desktop wallpaper, or with a few tomato plants on the balcony. But the turmoil remains.

The mentality in the cities, even more so than in the countryside, is marked by individualism, commodification, consumption, and competition. The habitat becomes the commodity; those who have no money are displaced. Everyone rushes, faces are tired in the elevators, eyes avoid contact. This mentality, which has turned cities into places of cold isolation, is at the heart of the logic of neo-liberal capitalism.

Finite Resources

The machine of capital is kept running by competition – the principle of "all against all” – and by the constant compulsion to accumulate, i.e. to make more capital out of capital. Nature does not appear in the calculations of this economic and political system, but its exploitation is so intense today that it can no longer be ignored. For millions of years, humans and their ancestors did not dare remove more from nature than it could replace. Today, with capitalist modernity, all that has changed. By hunting and fishing on a massive scale, whole species have been nearly - and in some cases - completely exterminated; the bison herds have disappeared from North America, as have various whale species from Asian coasts. Nature has been demoted to a convenience store, a supplier of raw materials.

As whole generations grow up in corrugated steel huts between garbage dumps, the pollution of air and water is becoming an ever greater problem. Islands of garbage hundreds of miles in diameter collect in the oceans, while drinking water is increasingly contaminated with toxic substances. The government agencies of the world have still not found a solution for the storage of nuclear waste – most likely because there is no solution. One might be tempted to think that the false promises of capitalist modernity would finally become plain, at least on this point, but today more nuclear power plants are being built in China and other emerging economies than ever before.

As if the smog-filled mega-cities, overfishing, contaminated drinking water and poisoned food-supply chains were not enough, the greatest catastrophe of all has now announced itself with ferocious force: climate change. It's one of the main effects of livestock cultivation, industry, and traffic. The Earth's climate is a delicately balanced system and has always been sensitive to changes; however, these changes have rarely led to major problems for the balance of nature, or the relationships between water, air, flora and fauna. Previous changes in the climate led to evolutionary adaptations in animals and plants to the changing living conditions in their ecosystem, thus contributing to greater diversity. But the sudden climate change caused by the capitalist mode of production reverses this trend, because flora and fauna cannot adapt quickly enough. More and more species die out, leading to global extinction to an extent that the Earth has not seen for sixty million years.

Hothouse Earth

The connection between greenhouse gases and the heating of the climate is well-known. These gases slow the escape of the sun's heat from the Earth, having the same effect as glass in a greenhouse. Greenhouse gases are not only produced by the combustion of coal, oil and gas in industry, vehicles, and heating systems, but also increasingly by livestock cultivation, whether in animal factories or on organic farms. Although the amount of methane gas released (in particular from cows, sheep and other ruminants) during digestion is less than the amount of carbon dioxide expelled from internal combustion engines, the impact of methane on the atmosphere is stronger than that of carbon dioxide.

Even if many people in the centres of capitalist modernity have lost the ability to notice changes in their local climate, the effects of climate change are felt directly by more and more people: glaciers are melting and natural catastrophes, including devastating storms, drought and forest fires, are more frequent. More and more regions in the southern hemisphere are drying up and deserts are spreading because of the lack of rain. It is clear that this is only the beginning. Already, so many greenhouse gases have been released into the atmosphere that even if no more were produced from tomorrow onwards, further heating would still be inevitable. By the end of this century, the world's atmosphere will have heated up by three to six degrees, with drastic effects on weather, flora and fauna.

The world as we know it will soon be unrecognisable. The heating of the climate is leading to changes in the air currents and thus to ever more extreme weather conditions. As deserts spread in some regions, in others, floods and rainfall increase. Even the ocean currents, which rely on both heat differences and a sensitive freshwater and saltwater system, are affected by the higher rate of warming and melting of frozen freshwater reserves at the poles. Due to the massive disruption of the water flows, coasts with a hitherto mild climate could experience periods of cold in the next few decades as have not existed there for millennia. At the same time, previously snowy mountain slopes turn grey, and green forests turn to steppes.

The warming climate melts the ice at the South and North Poles, and the level of the ocean increases. Coastal villages and cities worldwide are threatened by rising sea levels and more frequent hurricanes. The heating of the climate increases disproportionately, at first slowly and then faster and faster. The melting of the polar ice caps is another reason for this: they function like a large mirror, as the white of the ice and snow reflects much of the sun's rays – the more the ice caps melt, the less sunlight they reflect and the faster the Earth heats up. The thawing of permafrost soils is another cause of an exponential rate of heating. These soils, common in Siberia and Alaska, have been frozen for tens of thousands of years and store huge amounts of methane gas. As the permafrost thaws, this gas is released into the atmosphere.

Burning Forests

Another problem is the destruction of primeval forests, especially in South America and Asia. These forests store massive amounts of carbon dioxide. Through deforestation, this capacity for carbon dioxide storage is lost for decades. Additional carbon dioxide is released through slash-and burn agriculture. In most cases, monocultures are planted on the burnt areas. These practices destroy the ecological balance, erode the soil, and make farms highly susceptible to pests (which are spreading because of the rise in heat, and the infestation by pests of weakened trees in neighbouring areas). Following the logic of so-called efficient production, more and more chemical fertilisers and insecticides are used, which poison the soil and water. Frequently, the burned areas are also used for livestock cultivation or for the production of forage crops like soy and corn for livestock, which compounds the problem.

Because the mechanisms of evolution are not adapted to the pace of anthropogenic climate change, experts around the world are trying to find ways to artificially adapt nature. But the race with the climate cannot be won. Because they know this, governments and the media are happy to spread dystopian images of the catastrophe that is approaching us. In shock, unable to maneuver, humanity bobs towards the abyss. What is usually overlooked is that we do not need to wait for the big catastrophe on day X, it is already here. Instead of hoping that the states of the world will provide us with solutions, we must act; civil society must act. To wait even longer would be madness.

Above and Below

The destruction of our lives and livelihoods engenders a pessimistic view of humanity among many people. Humanity itself is declared an evil, which suggests that all human beings bear the same responsibility for the ecological catastrophe. Even the revelation of the catastrophe is turned into a lie, for it does not say who benefits from the exploitation of nature and who suffers. The contradiction of centres and periphery, of ruling and oppressed classes, is ignored.

Indigenous environmental struggles against habitat destruction, blockades of nuclear waste shipments, and demonstrations against overfishing have made it impossible for rulers to deny the impact of capitalist economics on nature or to sweep it under the carpet. Often, the peoples living more or less in harmony with their natural environment have been exploited, enslaved and massacred in tandem with the destruction of the environment that had sustained them. The rise of the capitalist centres of Europe and North America was built not only on the control of resources, trade routes and markets, but also on the dead bodies of indigenous peoples. The mass murders and genocides of hundreds of millions of indigenous people on the American, Asian and African continents have always been part of the struggle by imperialist centres for hegemony – for complete power over people and nature. The colonial and neo-colonial wars were always wars against the natural society and nature itself. For many peoples of the world, the triumphant advance of capitalist modernity meant rape, burning forests, defoliation, and Agent Orange.

The Western missionaries' promises of salvation have not come to pass. For hundreds of millions of people the capitalist system has left only its garbage - the plastic bags littering the steppes of Africa have become a symbol of this. The poorer parts of the world's population, the global sub-proletariat, bear the brunt of climate change and environmental degradation. The societies of Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia, still reeling from wars, colonialism and neo-colonial exploitation, are those hit hardest by drought and other environmental disasters, even though they contribute a relatively small part of the greenhouse gases.

The more 'developed a nation, the more destructive. For example, US greenhouse gas emissions are 50 times higher than Pakistan's, yet Pakistan, not the U.S., ranks among the top ten states that are affected by climate change. It is also the people in the so-called developing countries who are most affected by the ever-worsening water shortages. Water is already being used as a weapon in military and social conflicts, and wars over water resources will intensify.

Over the next few decades, tens of millions of people (especially in the global South) will have to leave their homes because increased drought, rising temperatures, and more frequent extreme weather events will destroy the basis for their agriculture and lead to yet more hunger and poverty. The richer centres in the global North, where the decisions are made about world markets, investment, social and ecological destruction, are stalling. For now, walls have been hastily erected around "Fortress Europe” and the United States as a shield against those who want to escape destroyed livelihoods.

The Last Excuse

But the walls cannot keep everyone out, and the natural and climatic catastrophes are now beginning to hit the capitalist centres themselves, so their rulers are desperately looking for solutions. And they are doing this with the same positivist methods that led to climate change and environmental destruction in the first place. The solution to the crisis becomes a mere question of the correct calculations and techniques. The crisis is to be solved by capital, even as it has been created by capital.

If you're clever, you can make a lot of money with renewable energy, electric cars and free-range eggs. On the billboards, the good news of the ruling class is written: “Go Green!” Many who used to take to the streets to demand the end of the destruction of nature, have become diverted by the idea of green capitalism, which attempts to claim a contradictory allegiance to both capital accumulation and nature.

When they say that nature can only be protected if everything in it has a price – a value under capitalism - the apologists for green capitalism follow the logic of exploitation over the defence of ecology. They claim to be able to slow down the degradation of nature, simply by making it more expensive. But commodification only deepens the catastrophe. Protecting nature becomes a luxury for the rich, who can greenwash their guilty conscience through organic products and electric cars. The market economy, no matter how many times it is painted green, pays attention to nature only as long as it pays off. Behind this green facade the destructive and dirty production continues. There is no fundamental change in the compulsion to compete or the exploitation of human labour power.


Instead of tackling the cause of the destruction of nature - capitalism itself – the symptoms are treated instead. The connections between the market economy, exploitation, destruction of nature, war and migration show what the result is when centralist and hierarchical systems try to subjugate nature. A solution that ignores these relationships, a solution within the existing system, is not possible; our survival will not be possible if we continue to live in a society where everything is made into a commodity, based on the private ownership of the means of production and land, with all its destructive consequences. Only the direct and democratic control of the means of production and land (and ecological resources) by the people can create a socio-ecological alternative.

Instead of hoping that the states of the world will provide us with solutions, we must act - civil society must lead the way, together. To wait any longer would be madness.

The connections between the market economy, exploitation, destruction of nature, war and migration show what the result is when centralist and hierarchical systems try to subjugate nature. A solution that ignores these relationships, a solution within the existing system, is not possible.

— Internationalist Commune of Rojava

To find a way out of the dead end of the ecological catastrophe brought about by capitalist modernity requires effort and the courage to break new ground. The first steps have been taken, but the need for a social-ecological revolution means there is still much to do.

— Internationalist Commune of Rojava