Environmentalism and the cycle of commodities

Published online 6 November 2010

One of the main reasons our era is faced with intractable environmental problems is that we tend to look at the world with capitalist eyes, as an ensemble of commodities.  Specifically, our world is forced into a cycle of commodities, in which the ultimate end of things is determined not by regeneration but by commodification.  When something can no longer be a commodity, then, it is “externalized” — made into trash.  This diary will explore the cycle of commodities, and suggest an alternative way which doesn’t present such intractable environmental problems.

(crossposted at Docudharma)

The standard corporate perspective upon planet Earth is marked by the compulsion to sell commodities.  Everything upon Earth, then, is a potential commodity, to be sold to those who have money to buy.

So how is this a problem?

Let’s take a look, again, at that tight little graph I displayed on this diary (and numerous others).

Remember that current CO2 levels are off the charts, and they’re headed rapidly in the “further off the charts” direction.  In about 15 to 20 years, barring some great turnaround in fortunes, we will have catastrophic global warming.  This situation will persist for another, say, 100,000 years.  Can you wait?  The end result will be the breakdown of civilization, at least partially.  The phenomena described in Jill Richardson’s rec’d diary are just a very small start for what is to come.

It’s also good to remember that abrupt climate change is only the tip of the (melting) iceberg when it comes to human-caused ecological problems.  Deforestation, overfishing, species loss, desertification, and so on.

At any rate, whenever I bring up this state of affairs, the common response is that there is really no political will to do anything about abrupt climate change.  Of course, the problem with political will is that the “progressives,” the people who ought to know better, do not know how to produce it.  “Progressives” are handicapped by “progressive ideology,” which ensures that their resistance to the neoliberal monster eating the world is half-hearted.  Thus “progressives” vote for neoliberals: Dukakis, Clinton, Gore, Kerry, Obama.  Thus also we see these dawning realizations diaried daily here at DailyKos.com: “I feel so betrayed!!”  It’s been twenty years of betrayal now.  When do you get out of “I feel so betrayed!!” and into “we need to do our homework”?

At any rate, in a diary I wrote in July, I confronted the situation of political will and no climate change legislation.  My suggestion was that the push to do something about climate change needed to be seriously rethought.  We need to “develop the critical mass necessary to change world society.”

Here I will argue something even deeper.  To achieve this critical mass, we need to effect a sea-change in public opinion, resulting in a new orientation toward the world and toward life.  The model which needs to be rejected is called the cycle of commodities, and it details the forms in which capitalism fits the world, according to capitalist ideology.  In it:

The world is seen as a collection of natural resources.  Thus everything in the world is imagined as a “resource,” something to be used for extraction.  This way of looking at the world presumes an elemental separation from nature, in which the reality of the human species as a production of the natural world, dependent upon the natural world, and going back to the natural world in death, is collectively ignored.  But here we are taking about the cycle of commodities, in which the commodity stamp is endlessly reimposed upon the world, so that the world can be bought and sold for profit.  In the cycle of commodities, natural resources, then, become —

raw materials.  As Marx showed at the beginning of volume 1 of Capital, when we conceive of something as a raw material, be it cotton or iron or water or corn, it’s already a commodity.  In Capital, when Marx talked about labor being applied to raw materials to produce finished products, he was merely following the great masters of political economy: Adam Smith, David Ricardo.  So the next step in the cycle of commodities is the:

finished product.  Finished products are indeed the raison d’etre of the cycle of commodities, for the reason (of course) that they fetch the highest prices.  They’re the products you see in the stores.  Invariably, however, the lifetimes of finished products are limited ones, and finished products become —

trash.  The uniform response of capital to trash, pollution, or waste of any sort is to externalize it.  Waste products must be gotten out of the way so that businesses do not have to pay money or attention to them.

The result of the endless amplification of the cycle of commodities is that the world is more and more becoming a repository of trash.  Here’s the situation with plastic:

If you’re keeping score of all the trash, you might also want to add the incredible quantities of carbon dioxide the human race has put into the atmosphere by burning Earth’s endowment of fossil fuels.  It takes a LOT of carbon-burning (over at least a couple of centuries, mind you) to increase atmospheric carbon dioxide by 40%, but that’s what has happened.

Now, there is (of course) an attempt within the capitalist system to mitigate the commodity cycle, to make its end products less onerous, through recycling.  Recycling, however, will only restore raw materials — it won’t bring natural resources, much less nature, back into existence.  Recycled raw materials, moreover, often make poor commodities because the cost of recycling often outstrips the value of the reclaimed materials.  Take a look, for instance, at newspaper recycling in America — where is it really “worth it” to recycle newspaper?

At any rate, the political sea-change we need will have to be undergirded by a sea-change in human thought — a paradigm shift, if you will.  Environmentalism has, up until now, attempted to do without this paradigm shift — and gotten itself lost as a result.  Increasing efficiency is an alibi; the problem is not that it takes a lot of energy to do X amount of activity, but that there really are no limits on the amount of activity dreamed by the capitalists, and so to “save the Earth” you have to take the Earth, bit by bit, out of the cycle of commodities.  Hybrid vehicles, for instance, still consume gasoline, and add to the sum total of Earth’s fossil fueled vehicles (and thus their pollution) at any rate.  “Alternative energy” will, unless there is a sea-change, prove to be a mere supplement to fossil energy.  Regulation will at best only temporarily restrain the hungry machines which would destroy Earth for profit if only the resulting destruction would produce a beautiful quarterly corporate report.

The alternative paradigm will, of course, focus upon ecology, and the alternative cycle is of course the cycle of life.  We move from birth through life to death, and then into regenerative capacities — reproduction, decay, and so on.  We need an economy which promotes the proliferation of life.  For thousands of years, human beings managed the ecosystems in which they lived, albeit more or less haphazardly; today we need an economy which will refocus upon ecosystems management for the long run.

Our relations to the world will have to be reconceptualized, then, as a collective management of ecosystems.  We will need a radical perspective, looking for fundamental changes in belief and practice.  New values will include:

Biodiversity — this is the topic of a science called “conservation biology,” and it relates to the ability of human beings to manage ecosystems while allowing for large animal and plant habitats.  Biodiversity needs to be important now because ecosystems simplification can have unfortunate consequences.  Education, then, is the route to biodiversity — we need educational institutions which will enable future generations to celebrate biodiversity, and the animal and plant habitats which make it possible.

Throughput — this is the ability of human beings to reintegrate raw materials rather than merely externalizing them as “waste.”  Throughput will become more and more important as a principle as the side effects of the capitalist system’s wastes dominate planet Earth.  Everything we use for purposes of daily living will have to have throughput considerations installed, so that trash and pollution are put to a final end.

Use-value as opposed to exchange-value — Joel Kovel makes a lot of this distinction in The Enemy of Nature, favoring production directly for use as opposed to production for an anonymous “free market.”  This will become more important as “exchange” founders as an organizing principle for society.  To be clear, what is being proposed by Kovel and others is the substitution of democratic planning for planning by a political oligarchy which uses marketplaces as a means of extraction, which is what we have now.  We can promote use-values by creating networks of production for direct use — Food Not Bombs is the one in which I’m involved.

***** Conclusion: denial is more realistic *****

I am sure that this diary will be dismissed by much of the crowd here at Orange as “unrealistic.”  I doubt that it will get many readers.

The question I want to raise, though, is one of our interest in a real solution to abrupt climate change.  The “establishment” response to the phenomenon is one of 1) against denial and 2) restoring faith in the existing system.  But the existing system doesn’t deserve our faith — thus such faith needs to be spelled out so that it can be repudiated, and a new way of looking at things (this time not necessarily so faithful) can be eventually adopted.

On balance, the Republican deniers have a better way.  You might as well be a denier, disbelieving in global warming until the famine, the drought, or other weather phenomenon finally wipes you out.  If you’re not really going to do anything proactive, you might as well believe in fairies and unicorns, or the second coming of “Jeeeezus” or whatever.  The fact that you have sacrificed your children to this reality is nothing, because they’re going up in the Rapture too.

Torturing yourself with the idea of global warming, while limiting your purview to ineffective measures, is the surest route to unhappiness.  I honestly don’t see how the environmentalists who commonly post here at DKos do it.  Carbon taxes will be unpopular, because “realism” in this era demands that only the poor and so-called “middle classes” be taxed.  Cap-and-trade is a scam, as I’ve pointed out in at least a couple of diaries — and then there’s the piece in Harper’s of last February.  In the end, nobody is going to want to embrace this path — it will be twisted around by DC insiders until it becomes a plan for saving neoliberal elites while tossing the world overboard.  Your children will not forgive you for adopting this path.

I suppose there is an intermediate path, which understands that with the current state of affairs we’re doomed, but which seeks to celebrate life while we’ve still got something left to celebrate.  This is perhaps more rational than either of the above two approaches, but you can see where it ultimately leads.  (Of course, if you choose this path, don’t have children; oh well, too late.)  There is really no point in believing that we’re doomed; those who choose this path will ultimately choose to forget about global warming, having given up on real solutions.  There is no point in paying sustained attention to phenomena which you can do nothing about, unless it’s pretty stuff like stars in astronomy, or Justin Bieber or America Ferrera or whatever.

So if you’re going to think about global warming at all, you might as well think big, and adopt a radical position.  What I’ve suggested, above, eviscerates the capitalist view of the world, and suggests an alternative, proactive approach in place of what is essentially nothing.

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