In 1970, growing fears for the integrity of the planet gave rise to a new awareness and a new politics. On April 22, the first “Earth Day” was announced, since to become an annual event of re-dedication to the preservation and enhancement of the environment. The movement affected ordinary people and, remarkably, certain members of the elites, who, organized into a group called the Club of Rome, even dared to announce a theme never before entertained by persons of power. This appeared as the title of their 1972 manifesto, The Limits to Growth
Thirty years later, Earth Day 2000 featured a colloquy between Leonardo de Caprio and President Bill Clinton, with much fine talk about saving nature. The anniversary also provided a convenient vantage point for surveying the results of three decades of “limiting growth.” At the dawn of a new millennium, one could observe the following:
Capital’s responsibility for the ecological crisis can be shown empirically by tracking down ecosystemic breakdowns to the actions of corporations and/or governmental agencies under the influence of capital’s force field. Or it can be deduced from the combined tendencies to degrade conditions of production (the Second Contradiction), on the one hand, and, on the other, the cancerous imperative to expand. Though the Second Contradiction may be offset in individual circumstances by recycling, pollution control, the trading of credits and the like, the imperative to expand continually erodes the edges of ecologies along an ever-lengthening perimeter, overwhelming or displacing recuperative efforts, and accelerating a cascade of destabilization. On occasion, the force of capital expansion can be seen directly – as when President George W. Bush abruptly reversed his pledge to trim emissions of CO2 in March 2001, the day after the stock market went into free-fall and in the context of a gathering crisis of accumulation. More broadly, it operates through a host of intermediaries embedded within the gigantic machine for accumulation that is capitalist society.
We need to take a closer look at how this society works on the ground. Too much is at stake to close the argument with a demonstration of abstract laws. Capital is no automatic mechanism, and the laws it obeys, being mediated by consciousness, are no more than tendencies. When we say “capital does this” or that, we mean that certain human actions are carried out according to the logic of capital. It behooves us to learn, then, as much as we can about just what these actions are and how they can be changed.
Capital originates with the exploitation of labor, and takes shape as this is subjected to the peculiar forces of money. Its nucleus is the abstraction of human transformative power into labor-power for sale on the market. The nascent capitalist economy was fostered by the feudal state, then took over that state (often through revolution), centering it about capital accumulation. With this, the capitalist mode of production was installed as such – after which capital began to convert society into its image and created the conditions for the ecological crisis. The giant corporations we rightly identify as ecological destroyers are not the whole of capital, but only its prime economic instruments. Capital acts through the corporations, therefore, but also across society and within the human spirit.
The penetration of life-worlds
The capitalist world is a colossal apparatus of production, distribution, and sales, perfused with commodities. The average Wal-Mart stocks 100,000 separate items (with 600,000 available through its website) and as a drive through America bitterly confirms, Wal-Marts – some 2,500 as of early 2000, with 100 million shoppers a week – spring up everywhere along the roadsides like gigantic toadstools, destroying the integrity of towns and feeding on their decay.4
By 2006, this creature was spreading across the globe, and plans were announced for building some 300 Wal-Marts in
China. There is much more to this than the peddling of mere objects. As capital penetrates society, and as a condition for capital to penetrate society, the entire structure of life is altered.
Each creature inhabits a “life-world,” that portion of the universe which is dwelt-in, or experienced.5
The life-world is, so to speak, what an ecosystem looks like from the standpoint of individual beings within it. The use-values that represent the utility of commodities are inserted into life-worlds, the point of insertion being registered subjectively as a want or desire, and objectively as a set of needs. As capital penetrates life-worlds, it alters them in ways that foster its accumulation, chiefly by introducing a sense of dissatisfaction or lack – so that it can truly be said that happiness is forbidden under capitalism, being replaced by sensation and craving. In this way, children develop such a craving for caffeine-laced, sugar-loaded, or artificially sweetened soft drinks that it may be said that they positively need
them (in that their behavior disintegrates without such intake); or grown-ups develop a similar need for giant sports-utility vehicles, or find gas-driven leaf-blowers indispensable for the conduct of life; or are shaped to take life passively from the TV screen, or see the shopping malls and their endless parking lots as the “natural” setting of society.
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… capital produces wealth without end, but also poverty, insecurity, and waste, as part of its disintegration of ecosystems. As there is no single commodity (really, a vast system of commodities) more implicated in this than the automobile, we might round out this section with some thoughts about “automobilia”6
and its related syndromes, including the newly discovered disease of Road Rage. Automobilia is a prime example of how rationality at the level of the part becomes irrationality at the level of the whole. Individually, cars are far better than a generation ago: they are safer, more reliable, more fuel efficient, longer lasting, and more comfortable. In the interior of a reasonably advanced car one encounters “all the comforts of home”: luxurious adjustable seats, cell phone, splendid sound system, carefully controlled air – the whole package, as the salesman says. The interior of a car projects an image of a technological utopia, which is convenient, since so many people spend so much time inside them. Step outside the car, though, say on a busy road to fill up with gasoline, and the externalization of a disorder that more than compensates for the internalized order becomes clear. A horrendous cacophony assaults body and soul. Unlike a waterfall, even a train that organizes the human landscape, the cars just roar on; there is no pattern, no particularized, differentiated tale to be told. There is no integral ecology to it; it is just endless,
consuming traffic – eons of stored sunlight converted into inertial momentum so that individuals can go their own way in capitalist liberty. And it is repeated in thousands and thousands of places, every day and night – carbon dioxide going into the air for global warming; other substances entering the chains that lead to photochemical smog or destruction of the ozone layer; fine particulate matter (think of the hundreds of millions of tires grinding down against concrete) entering lungs to help create a planetary epidemic of asthma, along with other heart and lung diseases; the above-mentioned noise adding another dimension of pollution; landscapes torn up and paved over, historically breaking down the boundary between city and country while blighting both with strip malls, thickets of garish signs (for how else can people in constant motion see where to shop?), and great swooping freeways on which we hurtle like so many corpuscles in the circulation of capital – the ensemble disintegrating, as has nothing else, the fabric of human ecology.
The ruinousness of automobilia is bound up with its absolutely crucial role in the global economy – combined, to be sure, with the ensemble of densely associated industries like oil, rubber, cement, construction, repairs, etc.; and equally, from its embeddedness in the entire landscape of lived life, indeed, the very construction of the self. Deep changes in needs accompany the growth of automobilia. If one is trapped within a stifling existence, then driving away from it, even if this is just to go round and round in traffic-clogged circles (contributing, of course, to the clogging), is experienced as a release. This is one reason it is easy for the automobilious giants to spin forth their greenwashed ads that show people blithely moving, no other car in sight, across the very landscapes they are actually wrecking, or to depict ecological advances in the production of cars that are, however rational in the particular instance, simply overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of cars produced.
Looming overcapacity hangs over the automobile industries, as it does for capitalist production in general, with the ability to make some 80 million cars a year, and but 55 million or so able to be sold. Those unrealized 25 million vehicles are a giant splinter in the soul of capitalism, and the goad to endless promotion of automobilious values. From 1970 to 2000, the population of the United States grew by some 30 percent – while the number of licensed drivers grew more than 60 percent, the number of registered vehicles nearly doubled and the total vehicle-miles driven more than doubled.7
Notably, the miles of road added during this period has gone up but 6 percent. This figure is product of a set of hopeless choices: either perish in nightmarish traffic, or further destroy lived space with gargantuan roads (and eventually perish under even more traffic, which fills newly created highways like gas in a vacuum). Even the relatively low figure of 6 percent translates into major changes in certain strategic locations. One is continually astounded, for example, by the numbers of lanes added to Los Angeles freeways (at some points, eight in either direction by my recent estimate, with additional ones now being added above the roadway).8
As the logic of automobilia unfolds, new levels of disintegration appear, and even people deeply acculturated into the ways of motorcars crack under the strain of contemporary vehicular life. Road rage, a new “mental illness,” is one outcome, resulting directly or indirectly in some 28,000 traffic deaths a year caused by “aggressive behavior like tailgating, weaving through busy lanes, honking or screaming at other drivers, exchanges of insults and even gunfire.” This figure, though provided by chief federal highway safety official, Ricardo Martinez, may be speculative; another survey, however, describes 1,500 homicides a year whose instigation is directly traffic-related. According to Leon James, a psychologist from Hawaii, “Driving and habitual road rage have become virtually inseparable. This is the age of rage mentality.” James cites as contributing factors, a “tightly wound ‘controlled’ personality type” for whom driving provides a release from “normal, frustration filled existences” and gives rise to “fantasies of omnipotence.” Observe that the personality type in question is itself
an adaptation to the capitalist marketplace, while the second factor, the omnipotent release from frustration provided by driving, is a basic component of the use-value of automobiles, hammered home by car chases in movies, and the romanticization of auto advertisements. Road rage may be a mental illness, but one completely within the universe of capitalism’s automobilia.9
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Capitalism bestrides the world because of its fantastic ability to produce wealth – and to induce the wealth-producing side of human nature. The result is the most powerful form of human organization ever devised, and also the most destructive. Capital’s advocates claim that its destructivity can be contained and that capital, as it matures, will peacefully overcome the rapacity shown in its phases of primitive accumulation, the way Sweden advanced from its Viking past. Give us a little more time, they argue, and globalization will truly become the tide that raises all boats and not just the yachts of the wealthy, while the general increase in wealth will enable the earth which is harbor for these boats to be made snug and bright.
An opposite conclusion is argued here. I hold instead that with the production of capitalist wealth, and, as an integral part of it, poverty, eternal strife, insecurity, ecodestruction, and, finally, nihilism are also produced. These concomitants may be externalized and ...