Capitalism and the Enviroment

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Monthly Review (October 2004)
Capitalism and the Environment
by Paul M. Sweezy
[pic]It is obvious that humankind has arrived at a crucial turning point in its long history. Nuclear war could terminate the whole human enterprise. But even if this catastrophic ending can be avoided, it is by no means certain that the essential conditions for the survival and development of civilized society as we know it today will continue to exist. We live in and from a material environment consisting of land, water, and air which, historically, has always been considered to be and treated as infinitely durable and usable. This does not mean indestructible. History records many instances of the destruction (i.e., rendering unusable for human purposes) of parts of the environment by either natural processes or human agency.* As far as the natural processes are concerned, they have been operating since long before there was human life and will presumably continue to operate long after, and there is no reason to assume any unusual change in the foreseeable future. When it comes to destruction by human agency, however, things are different. Small-scale destruction of parts of the environment have occurred throughout history, and on occasion the scale has grown to quite impressive proportions (e.g., through desertification). But even the largest of these destructive processes have remained small compared to the size of the environment as a whole. Tribes or even more complex societies have been wiped out or forced to move to new locations, but these were always local, not global, disasters. And throughout the ages—in fact, right up to the time of people now alive—it was always taken for granted that this would continue to be the case. The reason was a belief, perhaps rarely thought through or articulated, that the means possessed by human beings were too puny to be a threat to the sheer magnitude and recuperative powers inherent in the environment. All this began to change with the explosion of the first A-bomb in August 1944. At first the new bomb was perceived as essentially an improvement on already existing weapons, but an interrelated chain of events gradually led to a radical alteration of people’s consciousness. The Soviets got the bomb much sooner than had been expected, thus shattering the notion that the new force could somehow be monopolized and controlled. Then came the H-bomb with its vastly greater destructive potential; and this in turn was followed by the escalating arms race between the superpowers which, despite much talk and a few largely symbolic treaties, continues to this day. It is now commonplace that each superpower has the capability to wipe out its rival several times over, and ongoing research into the consequences of all-out nuclear war has demonstrated beyond a reasonable doubt that the catastrophe could not be confined to the belligerents but would inexorably spread, in such ghastly forms as radioactive poisoning and nuclear winter, to the entire globe. Thus in the incredibly short time of less than half a century, humankind has gone from blissful confidence in the security of its habitat to the certainty that its own survival, as well as the capacity of its natural environment to sustain life as we have known it, could be cut short in an instantaneous paroxysm of nuclear violence. The full implications of this unprecedented change in human consciousness will obviously not become clear for a long time to come. But it is already evident that sensitivity to threats to the human habitat has spread rapidly from its origins in the overwhelming destructive power of nuclear weapons to encompass a variety of ecological processes and trends, most of which have been known and even studied for a century or more, but which have been increasingly seen in a new light since the beginning of the nuclear age.* Once you know for certain that human agency can render the planet unfit for human habitation, you can hardly help asking...
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