Capitalism and Environmental Collapse
By Luiz Marques
Hardcover, 6.14″ x 9.21″, 459 pp., $119.99.
Also available electronically in PDF and ePub formats for $89.00.
Springer International Publishing, Aug. 2020.
Capitalism and Environmental Collapse is an exhaustive summary of today’s plethora of existential ecological threats, followed by an equally comprehensive discussion of what author Luiz Marques deems to be the core fallacies at their root. Part one meticulously surveys the states of the world’s forests, water, soil and biodiversity; the extent of human-made waste, industrial intoxication and fossil fuel exploitation; and the increasingly clear signs of severe, abrupt climate change. Part two makes a detailed case for adopting “a new social contract founded on a natural contract,” one aimed at conferring substantive rights to the nonhuman world. Marques shows through innumerable concrete examples that the time for considering such a proposal is long overdue. Still, even the most belated journey is best undertaken with the aid of an assiduously researched and cogent reference such as Marques supplies here.
As its title suggests, the book argues, in part, that capitalism is inherently incapable of attaining sustainability. The basic tenets of this indictment are hardly new, acknowledges Marques. Numerous others have pointed out that, because the survival of capitalistic economies requires ceaseless expansion, the term “sustainable capitalism” is an oxymoron. Additionally, plenty have argued that the blame for our planet’s ever-accelerating progression toward biological impoverishment can be wholly laid at the proverbial feet of capitalism. And it’s well understood at this point that, quite apart from any attempts at reform on the part of human societies, the rules of the capitalist game are inexorably changing due to the increasingly heavy economic burden of its deleterious externalities. What Marques succeeds in doing is adding further ammunition to these and other well-founded charges against capitalism.
Part one abounds with examples of the runaway nature of our predicament. Not many years ago, recounts Marques, experts believed that events such as a global warming of 2°C above pre-industrial levels or beyond, the vanishing of several tropical forests and the Arctic Ocean’s first iceless September were likely to occur by the end of this century. By 2018 (the year in which this book’s previous, Portuguese edition was released), the middle of the century had come to seem more probable. Now the timeline has been compressed to the second quarter of this century—in other words, as soon as a few years from now. Thus, the author seems justified in stating that “[a]cceleration is maybe the most defining feature of our time.”
It’s difficult to pick a most disturbing case among the countless horrors of modern-day capitalism encapsulated by Marques. Still, some top contenders would have to be the water scarcity affecting two-thirds of humanity, the orders-of-magnitude increase in plastic pollution projected to occur by 2025, the more than 44% jump in new cancer cases seen worldwide between 2012 and 2018, the collapse in both terrestrial and aquatic biodiversity and the Amazon’s ongoing transformation from rainforest to open grassland. Consider also the facts that air pollution in many cities has grown severe enough that breathing is as harmful as smoking, that complete male infertility across the developed world could occur within the next half century due to industrial fertilizer and pesticide exposure, and that neurodevelopmental disabilities could become so much the norm that humans might lack the intelligence to undo the chemical pollution responsible for stunting their brains.
These and many other dire modern-day realities provide compelling support to one of the author’s chief arguments, which is that the age-old, seemingly commonsense equation “more surplus = more security” no longer holds true. It did for millennia, which is why it became so ingrained in our collective mindset. In the present era, however, the equation has been inverted, so that now more surplus equals less security, whether in the form of a disrupted climate system, a ravaged biosphere or a human race poisoning itself out of existence. The greater the surpluses, the greater the accompanying impacts on the planetary life support system. Marques deems the inability of most people to grasp this new equation to be “the main cognitive obstacle to widespread awareness of the environmental deadlock that threatens us.”
Marques explains how our society’s continued belief in the old equation leads to the writing off of grim ecological wake-up calls as mere collateral effects of an ultimately beneficent industrial system. Even those who appear to take such threats seriously tend to relegate them to the status of “problems” to be solved through ever-greater applications of the very surpluses that caused them, courtesy of technological innovation, efficiency gains and other improvements that have traditionally accompanied continuous growth economics. It’s common to imagine that various yet-to-be-invented geoengineering “solutions” hold the key to ensuring humanity’s future security. But Marques, ever the exemplar of precautionary thinking, counters this tenuous faith with the unassailable observation that “the only geoengineering that is known, effective, and safe is to try to drastically reduce anthropic interference on ecosystems.”
With respect to the future availability of petroleum—the main fuel that has enabled the industrial era’s surpluses—Marques assumes an agnostic position. “To my knowledge,” he writes, “it is not possible to foresee the future of oil supply.” Marques goes on to weigh two potential scenarios: one in which oil grows scarce within the foreseeable future, and another in which it remains abundant for perhaps another 50 years. He rightly concludes that the second scenario would be far more damaging than the first, as it would cause a collapse of the global environment rather than merely that of the global economy. While his argument is well-reasoned overall, it doesn’t seem to take into account one factor that would tend to favor a near future of energy scarcity: the extreme financial woes that U.S. tight oil producers have incurred as a result of bringing online this staggeringly costly, hitherto unconventional source of oil.
The author allows that a sustained decrease in fossil fuel burning—whether by choice or from scarcity—could, in theory, permit us to avert an upheaval of the Earth’s climate. He points to a study suggesting that if CO2 emissions were to drop below current levels by 2030 and then continue decreasing, we could potentially limit the rise in global temperatures to less than 2° C, a target widely seen as necessary to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. However, he sensibly rules out a voluntary ratcheting down of fossil fuel consumption, given our society’s weak political resistance to corporations vested in fossil fuel production, as well as the growing power and influence exerted by these same corporations. Thus, he informs us that, barring an imminent decline in the geological availability of fossil fuels, numerous projections have us breaching the 2° C threshold as soon as 2035 to 2045.
He reports that if the current rate of increase in atmospheric CO2 concentrations is maintained, we’re headed for a global average temperature rise of 3° C to 4° C by the mid-2060s, an increase thought to be incompatible with civilization as we know it. In laying out the possible consequences of hitting such an alarming milestone, Marques presents a number of worst-case scenarios that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) doesn’t consider in its analyses. The IPCC’s blind spot, according to Marques, is that it doesn’t think in terms of systems. It fails to take full account of positive climate feedbacks and tipping points, since these are difficult to capture in models. These worst-case scenarios include, among other things, an exponential sea level rise and the possibility of a runaway greenhouse effect that would cause Earth to revert to a “hothouse” state last seen millions of years ago.
This review has so far covered two of the three “concentric illusions” that Marques sees as driving us toward socio-environmental collapse: the belief that capitalism can be sustainable and the assumption that more surplus equates to more security. The third concentric illusion noted by Marques is the anthropocentric delusion that “the biosphere is a means to an end and that the right to reduce it to an energy apparatus for human benefit is rooted in the singularity of our species or in a radical discontinuity between us and the web of life.” In his takedown of this idea, Marques cites a wealth of pointed examples showing how badly it has backfired on us as a result of our being an inextricable part of the natural world we’ve been so heedlessly subjugating.
Marques maintains that the only way for human societies to avoid socio-environmental collapse is for them to free themselves of their current rule by corporate interests. In order to do this, he argues, they must adopt radical new forms of democratic government and allow public policy and practice to be guided by scientific consensus. Addressing humanity’s ecological crisis is outside the capacity of the entity that currently governs human affairs—a merging of the national state and the corporation that Marques refers to as the “state-corporation”—since to this entity, all considerations other than maximizing profit are secondary.
Though a detailed policy proposal is beyond the scope of Marques’ book, the final chapter manages to cover a great deal of fruitful ground in its 15 pages, from the need to decentralize economic activity and strengthen shared global governance, to the failings of nationalism and absolute national sovereignty, to the notion of a natural contract. And there’s certainly no arguing with his parting observation that while a wholesale abandonment of global capitalism and an acceptance of ecological limits might seem like fantasy, human societies have no alternative if they are to survive beyond the next few decades.
Teaser photo credit: By Thomas J. O’Halloran, photographer – Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1382866