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Ecology versus capitalism

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By Yury Erofeev

· 9 min read

In a world dominated by capitalism, the inherent tensions between ecological sustainability and profit-driven motives come to the fore. As the laws of ecology clash with the imperatives of capitalism, understanding these interactions is crucial for our planet's future.

Four laws of ecology and four anti-ecological laws of capitalism

Berry Commoner named the four unwritten laws of ecology:

  1. Everything is connected to everything.
  2. Everything must move.
  3. Nature knows best.
  4. Nothing comes from nothing.

The first of these unwritten laws - "everything is connected to everything" - indicates the complexity and interconnectedness of ecosystems. This complexity and connectedness "is not like that in individual organisms, whose diverse organs have evolved and been selected for survival and reproduction." Nature is much more complex and varied, and much more flexible than the metaphor for the evolution of the individual organism suggests. An ecosystem can lose species and undergo major transformation without being destroyed. But the connectedness of nature also means that the ecological system can experience sudden tremendous catastrophes in a situation of extreme pressure. “The system,” writes Commoner, “is stabilized by dynamic properties; these same properties, under strong pressure, can lead to a dramatic collapse. Moreover, "the ecological system is an amplifier, so even a minor disturbance in one place can have significant long-term effects in another place."

The second law of ecology - "everything must move" - repeats the basic law of thermodynamics: there is no waste in nature, the amount of matter and energy is conserved, and the waste of one ecological process is processed by another process. For example, a fallen tree or a log in an old forest becomes a source of life for many species and is a necessary link in the ecosystem. Another example: is animals emit carbon dioxide into the air and organic waste into the soil, and this feeds the plants that the same animals will eat.

"Nature knows best," the third unwritten rule of ecology, Commoner writes, "states that any significant anthropogenic change in a natural system can become a problem for that system." During four billion years of evolution, living organisms have developed a large set of substances and reactions that form a living biosphere. The modern petrochemical industry has, in a short period, produced thousands of new substances that did not previously exist in nature. Composed according to the same carbon schemes as natural constituents, these new substances are readily included in biochemical processes. But it does so in ways often destructive to life, leading to mutations, cancer, and various manifestations of death and disease. "The absence of a substance in nature," writes Commoner, "often means that the substance is not compatible with the chemistry of life."

“Nothing comes from nothing”, the fourth informal rule, expresses the fact that the exploitation of nature always leads to environmental losses. From a purely ecological point of view, people consume more than they produce. The second law of thermodynamics shows that in the process of using energy, people "waste" (but do not destroy) energy - in the sense, that they turn it into something no longer suitable for work. In the case of a car, for example, the high-level chemical energy found in gasoline is usable, while the low-level heat energy in automotive waste is not. During any transformation of energy, some part of it is degraded in this way. Therefore, the environmental costs of production are quite significant.

Four laws of capitalism

Against the background of these four unwritten laws, the dominant model of the development of capitalism arises clearly from anti-ecological ones. Many of the characteristics of capitalism can be reduced to the following anti-environmental tendencies of the system:

  1. The only permanent connection between things is money.
  2. It does not matter where this or that thing goes if it does not return to the circulation of capital.
  3. The self-regulatory market knows best.
  4. Natural wealth is a gift from the owner of the land.

The first of these anti-ecological tendencies - "the only constant connection between things is money" - expresses the fact that under capitalism all social ties between people and all relations of people with nature are reduced to monetary relations. This separation of natural processes and their extreme simplification is a specific trend of capitalist development. As Donald Worster explains. Despite numerous variations depending on time and space, during the period of modern history, the capitalist agro-ecosystem shows a clear trend - a movement towards a radical simplification of the natural ecological order: a reduction in the number of species in a certain area, a simplification of their relationships. In modern language, we call this new type of ecosystem a monoculture, that is, a part of nature rebuilt to grow only one species for which there is a great demand somewhere in the market.

This tendency of “commercial capitalism” to simplify, as the Indian physicist and environmentalist Vandana Shiva notes, “is based on the specialized production of goods. The typicality of production requires the one-sided use of natural resources. For example, while it is possible to use rivers ecologically and sustainably for human needs, the gigantic projects for the use of river valleys in connection with the construction of modern dams “act against the logic of the river, not according to this logic. These projects are based on simplifications (typicality, separability, monofunctionality) that consider water use not from the point of view of natural processes, but from the point of view of income and profit growth.” All this indicates that money has become the only link between people and nature. With the development of the capitalist division of nature, its elements are reduced to a common denominator - exchange value. In this sense, it makes no difference whether to produce coffee, fur, fuel, or parrot feathers, as long as the market exists.

Modern production's linear approach

“It doesn’t matter where this or that thing goes if it does not return to the circulation of capital” - reflects the fact that economic production in modern capitalist conditions is not a cyclic system (like nature), but lines, moving from sources of resources to landfills waste. Landfills are already prevalent these days. The "no deposit, no return" analogy noted by environmental economist Nicolas Georgescu-Regen "fits the businessman's view of life." Pollution due to production is considered something "external", which is not attributable to the costs of the firm. In pre-capitalist societies, most agricultural waste was recycled by the laws of ecology. In a developed capitalist society, on the contrary, it is extremely difficult to recycle waste due to the degree of separation of nature. For example, cattle are taken from pastures and raised on a farm, and their waste products, instead of fertilizing the soil, turn into a serious pollution factor. Another example – is plastic, which gradually replaces wood, steel, and other materials, and naturally does not decompose. In the modern economy, writes Commoner, “goods are linearly converted into waste: crops into wastewater; uranium - for radioactive residues; oil and chlorine - for dioxin; fossil fuels to carbon dioxide... There is always waste at the end of the chain, and this destroys the cyclical processes that support the biosphere.”

The ecological principle “nature knows best” does not work, but rather the anti-ecological principle “self-regulating market knows best” increasingly controls all life under capitalism. For example, food is no longer perceived primarily as a source of nutrition, but as a means of making a profit, so the nutritional value of products is sacrificed in volume. Intensive application of nitrate fertilizers unbalances the composition of minerals in soils, which in turn affects the composition of minerals in vegetables. Transport and storage become more important than food quality. To sell agricultural products more effectively, pesticides are often used solely to preserve the visual appeal of products. As a result, the quality of products decreases, and birds and other species die.

"Natural wealth is a gift to the owner of the land," the fourth anti-environmental trend of capitalism, expresses the fact that environmental losses associated with the use of natural resources and energy are rarely factored into economic equations. Classical liberal economists, Marx argued, regarded nature as the "free" asset of capital. In one of the generally accepted economic models, there is no adequate assessment of the contribution of nature. “Capitalism,” writes economist William Kapp, “should be considered an economy of unpaid costs. "Unpaid" because a significant share of the real costs of production remains unaccounted for in the calculations; but these costs are borne by third parties or by society as a whole. For example, air pollution from a factory is not considered an internal cost of production. Rather, it is considered an external loss that nature and society must cover.

Unable to assess the real value of natural resources, capitalism attracts raw materials and energy to the maximum, because the wider this flow from extraction to delivery of the final product to the consumer, the more opportunities to make a profit. By selectively focusing on minimizing labor, the system encourages the adoption of energy-intensive and capital-intensive high technologies. All this leads to the accelerated depletion of non-renewable natural resources and the release of an increasing amount of waste into the environment. For example, since World War II, plastic has been replacing leather in the manufacture of bags and shoes. To produce the same amount of products now requires only about a quarter of the labor required to produce from leather, but ten times more capital and thirty times more energy. Thus, replacing leather with plastic in the production of these goods reduced the need for labor, but increased the cost of capital and energy, and also led to more environmental pollution.

The power of profit

The described contradictions between ecology and the economy can be summarized as follows: the relationship of use for profit has become the only link between people and between people and nature. This means that although we can envisage more stable technologies that would solve many environmental problems, the development and use of these technologies are hindered by the mode of production - capitalism and capitalists. Large corporations make the final decisions about the technologies we use and evaluate options only through the lens of profitability.

Henry Ford very simply explained why Detroit manufacturers prefer to produce big cars that devour gasoline "Small cars make small profits." John S. DeLorean, a former General Motors manager, put it more clearly: refused this step, because "you can earn more on big machines".

Growth is at the heart of the overall anti-environmental approach to production. The dynamics of exponential growth is a specific property of capitalism - a system in which money is exchanged for goods, then exchanged again for even more money, and so on ad infinitum. This means that capitalism cannot exist without a constant increase in the scale of production: any cessation of this process will lead to an economic crisis. However, at the end of the twentieth century, there is every reason to believe that the environment can no longer support the rapid economic growth that the system requires to sustain itself.

Future Thought Leaders is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of rising Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Yury Erofeev is a Business Analyst at SQUAKE, utilizing a solid foundation in Physics, Mathematics, and Sustainable Development to drive meaningful industry changes through data-driven decision-making.

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