What Are the Causes of Ecological Problems?

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Source: The Anarchist Library
Rebublished with permission.

The dangers associated with environmental damage have become better known over the last few decades. In fact, awareness of the crisis we face has entered into the mainstream of politics. Those who assert that environmental problems are minor or non-existent have, thankfully, become marginalised (effectively, a few cranks and so-called “scientists” funded by corporations and right-wing think tanks). Both politicians and corporations have been keen to announce their “green” credentials. Which is ironic, as anarchists would argue that both the state and capitalism are key causes for the environmental problems we are facing.

In other words, anarchists argue that pollution and the other environmental problems we face are symptoms. The disease itself is deeply imbedded in the system we live under and need to be addressed alongside treating the more obvious results of that deeper cause. Otherwise, to try and eliminate the symptoms by themselves can be little more than a minor palliative and, fundamentally, pointless as they will simply keep reappearing until their root causes are eliminated.

For anarchists, the root causes for our ecological problems lie in social problems. Bookchin uses the terms “first nature” and “second nature” to express this idea. First nature is the environment while second nature is humanity. The latter can shape and influence the former, for the worse or for the better. How it does so depends on how it treats itself. A decent, sane and egalitarian society will treat the environment it inhabits in a decent, sane and respective way. A society marked by inequality, hierarchies and exploitation will treat its environment as its members treat each other. Thus “all our notions of dominating nature stem from the very real domination of human by human.” The“domination of human by human preceded the notion of dominating nature. Indeed, human domination of human gave rise to the very idea of dominating nature.” This means, obviously, that “it is not until we eliminate domination in all its forms ... that we will really create a rational, ecological society.” [Remaking Society, p. 44]

By degrading ourselves, we create the potential for degrading our environment. This means that anarchists “emphasise that ecological degradation is, in great part, a product of the degradation of human beings by hunger, material insecurity, class rule, hierarchical domination, patriarchy, ethnic discrimination, and competition.” [Bookchin, “The Future of the Ecology Movement,” pp. 1–20, Which Way for the Ecology Movement?, p. 17] This is unsurprising, for “nature, as every materialist knows, is not something merely external to humanity. We are a part of nature. Consequently, in dominating nature we not only dominate an ‘external world’ — we also dominate ourselves.” [John Clark, The Anarchist Moment, p. 114]

We cannot stress how important this analysis is. We cannot ignore “the deep-seated division in society that came into existence with hierarchies and classes.” To do so means placing “young people and old, women and men, poor and rich, exploited and exploiters, people of colour and whites all on a par that stands completely at odds with social reality. Everyone, in turn, despite the different burdens he or she is obliged to bear, is given the same responsibility for the ills of our planet. Be they starving Ethiopian children or corporate barons, all people are held to be equally culpable in producing present ecological problems.” These become de-socialised and so this perspective “side-step[s] the profoundly social roots of present-day ecological dislocations” and deflects innumerable people from engaging in a practice that could yield effective social change.” It “easily plays into the hands of a privileged stratum who are only too eager to blame all the human victims of an exploitative society for the social and ecological ills of our time.” [The Ecology of Freedom, p. 33]

Thus, for eco-anarchists, hierarchy is the fundamental root cause of our ecological problems. Hierarchy, notes Bookchin includes economic class “and even gives rise to class society historically” but it “goes beyond this limited meaning imputed to a largely economic form of stratification.” It refers to a system of “command and obedience in which elites enjoy varying degrees of control over their subordinates without necessarily exploiting them.” [Ecology of Freedom, p. 68] Anarchism, he stressed, “anchored ecological problems for the first time in hierarchy, not simply in economic classes.”[Remaking Society, p. 155]

Needless to say, the forms of hierarchy have changed and evolved over the years. The anarchist analysis of hierarchies goes “well beyond economic forms of exploitation into cultural forms of domination that exist in the family, between generations and sexes, among ethnic groups, in institutions of political, economic, and social management, and very significantly, in the way we experience reality as a whole, including nature and non-human life-forms.” [Op. Cit., p. 46] This means that anarchists recognise that ecological destruction has existed in most human societies and is not limited just to capitalism. It existed, to some degree, in all hierarchical pre-capitalist societies and, of course, in any hierarchical post-capitalist ones as well. However, as most of us live under capitalism today, anarchists concentrate our analysis to that system and seek to change it. Anarchists stress the need to end capitalism simply because of its inherently anti-ecological nature (“The history of ‘civilisation’ has been a steady process of estrangement from nature that has increasingly developed into outright antagonism.”). Our society faces “a breakdown not only of its values and institutions, but also of its natural environment. This problem is not unique to our times” but previous environmental destruction “pales before the massive destruction of the environment that has occurred since the days of the Industrial Revolution, and especially since the end of the Second World War. The damage inflicted on the environment by contemporary society encompasses the entire world ... The exploitation and pollution of the earth has damaged not only the integrity of the atmosphere, climate, water resources, soil, flora and fauna of specific regions, but also the basic natural cycles on which all living things depend.” [Bookchin, Ecology of Freedom, p. 411 and p. 83]

This has its roots in the “grow-or-die” nature of capitalism. An ever-expanding capitalism must inevitably come into collision with a finite planet and its fragile ecology. Firms whose aim is to maximise their profits in order to grow will happily exploit whoever and whatever they can to do so. As capitalism is based on exploiting people, can we doubt that it will also exploit nature? It is unsurprising, therefore, that this system results in the exploitation of the real sources of wealth, namely nature and people. It is as much about robbing nature as it is about robbing the worker. To quote Murray Bookchin:

“Any attempt to solve the ecological crisis within a bourgeois framework must be dismissed as chimerical. Capitalism is inherently anti-ecological. Competition and accumulation constitute its very law of life, a law ... summarised in the phrase, ‘production for the sake of production.’ Anything, however hallowed or rare, ‘has its price’ and is fair game for the marketplace. In a society of this kind, nature is necessarily treated as a mere resource to be plundered and exploited. The destruction of the natural world, far being the result of mere hubristic blunders, follows inexorably from the very logic of capitalist production.” [Post-Scarcity Anarchism, pp. viii-ix]

So, in a large part, environmental problems derive from the fact that capitalism is a competitive economy, guided by the maxim “grow or die.” This is its very law of life for unless a firm expands, it will be driven out of business or taken over by a competitor. Hence the capitalist economy is based on a process of growth and production for their own sake. “No amount of moralising or pietising,” stresses Bookchin, “can alter the fact that rivalry at the most molecular base of society is a bourgeois law of life ... Accumulation to undermine, buy out, or otherwise absorb or outwit a competitor is a condition for existence in a capitalist economic order. This means “a capitalistic society based on competition and growth for its own sake must ultimately devour the natural world, just like an untreated cancer must ultimately devour its host. Personal intentions, be they good or bad, have little to do with this unrelenting process. An economy that is structured around the maxim, ‘Grow or Die,’ must necessarily pit itself against the natural world and leave ecological ruin in its wake as its works it way through the biosphere.” [Remaking Society, p. 93 and p. 15]

This means that good intentions and ideals have no bearing on the survival of a capitalist enterprise. There is a very simple way to be “moral” in the capitalist economy: namely, to commit economic suicide. This helps explain another key anti-ecological tendency within capitalism, namely the drive to externalise costs of production (i.e., pass them on to the community at large) in order to minimise private costs and so maximise profits and so growth. Capitalism has an in-built tendency to externalise costs in the form of pollution as it rewards the kind of short-term perspective that pollutes the planet in order to maximise the profits of the capitalist. This is also driven by the fact that capitalism’s need to expand also reduces decision making from the quantitative to the qualitative. In other words, whether something produces a short-term profit is the guiding maxim of decision making and the price mechanism itself suppresses the kind of information required to make ecologically informed decisions.

As Bookchin summarises, capitalism “has made social evolution hopelessly incompatible with ecological evolution.” [Ecology of Freedom, p. 14] It lacks a sustainable relation to nature not due to chance, ignorance or bad intentions but due to its very nature and workings.

Fortunately, capitalism has rarely been allowed to operate for long entirely on its own logic. When it does, counter-tendencies develop to stop society being destroyed by market forces and the need to accumulate money. Opposition forces always emerge, whether these are in the form of state intervention or in social movements aiming for reforms or more radical social change (the former tends to be the result of the latter, but not always). Both force capitalism to moderate its worst tendencies.

However, state intervention is, at best, a short-term. This is because the state is just as much a system of social domination, oppression and exploitation as capitalism. Which brings us to the next key institution which anarchists argue needs to be eliminated in order to create an ecological society: the state. If, as anarchists argue, the oppression of people is the fundamental reason for our ecological problems then it logically follows that the state cannot be used to either create and manage an ecological society. It is a hierarchical, centralised, top-down organisation based on the use of coercion to maintain elite rule. It is premised on the monopolisation of power in the hands of a few. In other words, it is the opposite of commonly agreed ecological principles such as freedom to develop, decentralisation and diversity.

As Bookchin put it, the “notion that human freedom can be achieved, much less perpetuated, through a state of any kind is monstrously oxymoronic — a contradiction in terms.” This is because “statist forms” are based on “centralisation, bureaucratisation, and the professionalisation of power in the hands of elite bodies.” This flows from its nature for one of its essential functions is to confine, restrict, and essentially suppress local democratic institutions and initiatives. It has been organised to reduce public participation and control, even scrutiny. [“The Ecological Crisis, Socialism, and the need to remake society,” pp. 1–10, Society and Nature, vol. 2, no. 3, p. 8 and p. 9] If the creation of an ecological society requires individual freedom and social participation (and it does) then the state by its very nature and function excludes both.

The state’s centralised nature is such that it cannot handle the complexities and diversity of life. “No administrative system is capable of representing” a community or, for that matter, an eco-system argues James C. Scott “except through a heroic and greatly schematised process of abstraction and simplification. It is not simply a question of capacity ... It is also a question of purpose. State agents have no interest — nor should they — in describing an entire social reality ... Their abstractions and simplifications are disciplined by a small number of objectives.” This means that the state is unable to effectively handle the needs of ecological systems, including human ones. Scott analyses various large-scale state schemes aiming at social improvement and indicates their utter failure. This failure was rooted in the nature of centralised systems. He urges us “to consider the kind of human subject for whom all these benefits were being provided. This subject was singularly abstract.” The state was planning “for generic subjects who needed so many square feet of housing space, acres of farmland, litres of clean water, and units of transportation and so much food, fresh air, and recreational space. Standardised citizens were uniform in their needs and even interchangeable. What is striking, of course, is that such subjects ... have, for purposes of the planning exercise, no gender; no tastes; no history; no values; no opinions or original ideas, no traditions, and no distinctive personalities to contribute to the enterprise ... The lack of context and particularity is not an oversight; it is the necessary first premise of any large-scale planning exercise. To the degree that the subjects can be treated as standardised units, the power of resolution in the planning exercise is enhanced ... The same logic applies to the transformation of the natural world.” [Seeing like a State, pp. 22–3 and p. 346]

A central power reduces the participation and diversity required to create an ecological society and tailor humanity’s interaction with the environment in a way which respects local conditions and eco-systems. In fact, it helps creates ecological problems by centralising power at the top of society, limiting and repressing the freedom of individuals communities and peoples as well as standardising and so degrading complex societies and eco-systems. As such, the state is just as anti-ecological as capitalism is as it shares many of the same features. As Scott stresses, capitalism “is just as much an agency of homogenisation, uniformity, grids, and heroic simplification as the state is, with the difference being that, for capitalists, simplification must pay. A market necessarily reduces quality to quantity via the price mechanism and promotes standardisation; in markets, money talks, not people ... the conclusions that can be drawn from the failures of modern projects of social engineering are as applicable to market-driven standardisation as they are to bureaucratic homogeneity.” [Op. Cit., p. 8]

In the short term, the state may be able to restrict some of the worse excesses of capitalism (this can be seen from the desire of capitalists to fund parties which promise to deregulate an economy, regardless of the social and environmental impact of so doing). However, the interactions between these two anti-ecological institutions are unlikely to produce long term environmental solutions. This is because while state intervention can result in beneficial constraints on the anti-ecological and anti-social dynamics of capitalism, it is always limited by the nature of the state itself. The state is an instrument of class rule and, consequently, extremely unlikely to impose changes that may harm or destroy the system itself. This means that any reform movement will have to fight hard for even the most basic and common-sense changes while constantly having to stop capitalists ignoring or undermining any reforms actually passed which threaten their profits and the accumulation of capital as a whole. This means that counterforces are always set into motion by ruling class and even sensible reforms (such as anti-pollution laws) will be overturned in the name of “deregulation” and profits.

Unsurprisingly, eco-anarchists, like all anarchists, reject appeals to state power as this “invariably legitimates and strengthens the State, with the result that it disempowers the people.” They note that ecology movements “that enter into parliamentary activities not only legitimate State power at the expense of popular power,” they also are “obligated to function within the State” and “must ‘play the game,’ which means that they must shape their priorities according to predetermined rules over which they have no control.” This results in “an ongoing process of degeneration, a steady devolution of ideals, practices, and party structures” in order to achieve “very little” in “arrest[ing] environmental decay.”[Remaking Society, p. 161, p. 162 and p. 163] The fate of numerous green parties across the world supports that analysis.

That is why anarchists stress the importance of creating social movements based on direct action and solidarity as the means of enacting reforms under a hierarchical society. Only when we take a keen interest and act to create and enforce reforms will they stand any chance of being applied successfully. If such social pressure does not exist, then any reform will remain a dead-letter and ignored by those seeking to maximise their profits at the expense of both people and planet. This involves creating alternative forms of organisation like federations of community assemblies and industrial unions. Given the nature of both a capitalist economy and the state, this makes perfect sense.

In summary, the root cause of our ecological problems likes in hierarchy within humanity, particularly in the form of the state and capitalism. Capitalism is a “grow-or-die” system which cannot help destroy the environment while the state is a centralised system which destroys the freedom and participation required to interact with eco-systems. Based on this analysis, anarchists reject the notion that all we need do is get the state to regulate the economy as the state is part of the problem as well as being an instrument of minority rule. Instead, we aim to create an ecological society and end capitalism, the state and other forms of hierarchy. This is done by encouraging social movements which fight for improvements in the short term by means direct action, solidarity and the creation of popular libertarian organisations.


Freedom – Equality – Solidarity


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