Exploiting Earth’s Labor
Capitalists Embezzle Nature’s Wealth, by a Vegan Socialist
“Every single generation sees the world get a little bit worse, environmentally speaking anyway. And the vast multitudes of life and the amazing images and wonder and amazement that they would provide the travelers of the world have been increasingly lost. No one alive anymore remembers endless herds of buffalo. No one alive has ever seen cod schools so thick that ships can’t go through them or skies full of birds that block out the sun. These things are gone. They’re lost. And because they’ve been lost, each generation doesn’t know what they’re missing out on… These cultures and traditions that were so important, that were fostered over hundreds, or thousands of years of learned experience of what works and what doesn’t have been thrown away…” — Ashes Ashes, Sprawl Above All
There is a problem with the way we speak about humanity’s relationship to Earth. For one thing, we often discuss environmental degradation using the phrase “Climate Change.” Given the climate’s consequences, this makes sense, and yet the phrase neglects the ongoing devastation that the Climate Crisis has only recently been exacerbating. Anywhere from eight to fifty thousand species have been going extinct every year from our behavior, even before Climate Change began to take hold.
More importantly, however, we often speak as though humanity at large is the virus destroying the planet, but most humans alive today have done nothing to bring about environmental collapse. We might try to blame masses of individuals for using fossil fuels, but this ignores an analysis of power. Some behaviors have more impact (the US military’s), some behaviors force others into dependence on fossil fuels (corporate boards and executives’) and some behaviors respond violently when publics organize against them (armed oppression).
For hundreds of thousands of years, most of human history, we have lived regeneratively with the planet. Collapse is not the inevitable output of humanity. It is the inevitable output of a economic mode of production that prioritizes wealth-extraction above all else, including human life. If we forced other apes, or dolphins, or elephants, or ants into our economic system, we would see similar catastrophe. The virus is in an economy programmed to embezzle wealth from the labor of humans and the natural world alike. The virus is Capitalism.
This planet used to have biodiversity that we can hardly imagine. Whereas fish used to force ships against the wind, today, all fish populations crucial to human sustenance are projected to collapse by 2050. This, while Mitsubishi freezes its stock of 40% of the world’s Bluefin Tuna, one of the most endangered fishes in the world. To be clear, Mitsubishi is materially investing in the extinction of a species in order to sell its surpluses at a higher mark-up.
Migrating birds used to block the sun. In North America alone, nearly a third of the entire bird population has disappeared over the past 50 years (and more if we look further back). Today, we block the sun with smoke from burning the Amazon Rainforest to increase farming profits. Is this what we want of our global economy?
Perhaps you, like me, learned in elementary school of the acres of rain forest cut every minute. Perhaps you, like me, thought I am so glad that problem will be solved by the time I am an adult. Perhaps you, like me, still endure a journey of continual heartbreak, mourning the murdered fantasies we were taught to believe in. This is the journey of a Leftist.
Since Exxon Mobil learned about Climate Change in the late 1970s (and coal companies in the 60s), they began funding Climate Denial. Meanwhile, they use their actual, accurate climate science to guide drilling and investments based on what oil becomes easier to access as rising temperatures thaw planetary ice. Today, not only has Exxon Mobil (and the coal industry) faced zero justice for its globally murderous fraud, it continues to push to remove sanctions that prevent them from drilling in Siberia, even though drilling is impossible if we keep global temperature rise below 2° Celsius. To be clear: Exxon Mobil is materially investing in Climate Catastrophe to make oil cheaper to drill.
It is true that Mitsubishi, Exxon Mobil, and corporations at large are doing horrible things, and: This is not a problem we can solve by changing out rotten apples for good ones. The bottom line is that every single way out of civilizational collapse requires a massive and complete overhaul of the rotten barrel that has already collapsed the environment in the first place. The rotten barrel, again, is Capitalism itself.
The oft-cited IPCC report that gives us ten or twelve years to thwart Climate Catastrophe leaves out feedback loops of thawing permafrost and methane warming on the basis that the models offer contradictory results and thus cannot offer a prediction. We keep speaking about Climate Catastrophe as though it is something that is going to happen. We are already experiencing it.
The feedback loop of Capitalism works just like the feedback loops that warm the planet. As the wealthy continue to accumulate more power, they invest that power in eroding the safeguards against its abuse. This drives inequality of all kinds, including climate apartheid:
“Climate change “threatens to undo the last 50 years” of development, global health and poverty reduction, a United Nations expert said on Tuesday, citing the risk of a new era of “climate apartheid” where the rich buy their way out of rising heat and hunger.” — UN News
An imbalance in economic power will always produce an imbalance in political power. And Capitalism always produces an imbalance in economic power. Money is not speech, but thunderous roar, drowning out those already screaming against climate catastrophe. What we call “money-in-politics” is Capitalism.
We have been using this extractive system for so long that many of us more easily imagine the end of the world than the end of Capitalism. All systems invest in their own perpetuation. Capitalism invests in the destruction of our own imaginations, and accordingly destroys the knowledge of hundreds of thousands of years of our own cultures.
“We’ve lost so much. Those endless flocks of passenger pigeons, buffalo as far as you can see. Ancient sea men used to be terrified that they would run aground on the huge masses of sea turtles that spread out in the ocean ahead of them, so dense that they felt they could walk from one to the other, instead of sailing through them. Ships in the past were pushed back by schools of cod so large that even with the winds at their back, the force of the fish pushed their ships backwards. The world was filled with so much life, overflowing, teeming, and we’ve lost so much of. In the past, we talked about this gentle, slow erasing of what has been lost. Each new generation is born into a world that’s just filled with less life. But we fail to realize how much has been lost, because each generation just knows the world as it stands, they see it decline as they go forward, they pass the information on to the ones that come. But the realization that we can no longer stand on these places and look at a world exploding with the life of the natural is something that never strikes us.” — Ashes Ashes, Apocalypse Now
Under Capitalism, the economic benefits of a cattle farm in Brazil might be more obvious than that of the Amazon, but how much wealth is lost when we torch an irreplaceable ecosystem? Or the continent of Australia? What is that to a church on fire?
Marx investigated our Capitalist mode of production and how bosses steal the wealth created by their employees’ labor. He also critiqued primary (or “primitive”) accumulation, referring to the theft of land from tribal nations. Land once held communally becomes something new: private property. Marx acknowledged land as a means of production, or something wealth could be extracted from. To my knowledge (and I would love to be proven wrong), he did not articulate what made land so valuable in the first place: the non-human labor of other animals, plants/fungi, and ecosystems.
Dirt has little value. Soil, though, has much more. The difference between the two is the energy expended (or the work) by microorganisms. Before you ask: I am not saying microorganisms suffer when we extract from their labor the same way humans do. I am saying that all wealth comes from labor, and it is planetary labor that creates oxygen to inhale, freshwater to hydrate, and plants and fungi to nourish and shelter. We often forget this, but every single thing on Earth is something made of Earth. And when we steal/privatize land, we are enclosing access to that labor from others.
It is not enough (though very necessary!) for us wealthy folk to stop investing in fossil fuel companies. We must give up our wealth and privilege, in order to access the real power of community. We must invest our wealth and privilege in planetary labor, including that of the most oppressed humans: Black and indigenous folk. We are lucky to have this opportunity: It is a hell of a lot better to be one-half, one-tenth, or one-hundredth as wealthy in a world still alive, and in community, than b/millionaires in one on fire, isolated from each other and ourselves.
I call on fellow folk with wealth to join me in returning stolen wealth as reparations, especially to Black and indigenous folk. They have been working against Capitalist oppression for centuries, and investing in planetary labor for far longer. These reparations will sow benefits infinitely more valuable than monetary profit. It is not just what we wealthy folk will reap that encourage me to make this appeal, but how the oppressed may finally enjoy the fruits of their labors.
To indigenous readers, I thank you for the legacy of work you have done to help me and all of us out of White Supremacy, mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. I am working to pay it back and forward.