Themes of Reflection

System of Extinction

Trapped within the institutional framework of commodity exchange, all reformist attempts to mitigate or adapt to ongoing planetary changes such as global warming, ocean acidification, deforestation, freshwater depletion, and species extinction, are doomed to fail. If biogeochemical indicators could scream, they would. For if it is the commodification of everything that is the real problem of our time – empirical support for this claim has been accumulating over the last two hundred years – market-based mitigation and market-based adaptation are extremely dangerous games to play. It is rather simple: a crisis cannot be solved by the same motive, rules, and social system that caused the crisis. In other words, sustainability strategies and measures are deceptive, counterproductive, and threaten our survival, unless they address the root cause of the planetary crisis: the capitalist system.

No matter how many times a lie is repeated or how it is structurally reproduced, it is still untrue. One of the most dangerous lies that is peddled is that capitalism is compatible with sustainable human development. Terms such as “ecological modernization” and “green capitalism” are abound, but the failure of the system is an historical fact. Or, to put it another way, what is it that makes capitalism the preferred social system, considering its lack of substantive equality and ecological sustainability? The long history of capitalist crimes against humanity and the Earth is well-documented and includes, but is not limited to, the use of slave and slave-like labor; extraction and burning of coal and other fossil fuels; soil erosion, deforestation, and habitat destruction associated with large-scale monocultural agriculture; systematic coercion and surveillance of workers; and the extensive, both fragmenting and monopolizing, automobilization of society. And it does not stop there.

Today, we know that capital accumulation has nothing to do with social and ecological responsibility. Today, we can rightly claim that all efforts to eternalize the present are efforts to preserve the established order whatever the consequences. The long history of propaganda and censorship is revealing: it tells us that those who control the means of production detest alternative conceptions of society, indeed, always fight radical social changes. Authentic experiences of capitalist crimes are not allowed to become new historical openings, and must either be suppressed or reframed, making everything from supermarkets to the petroleum industry seem like naturally occurring things, devoid of any traces of exploitation, expropriation, or waste production. Regardless of whether the truth is distorted, attacked, or met with deadly silence or indifference, our conclusion remains the same: these efforts to control our social reality are contradictory, always possible to prevent and counter. What we can learn from history is that, whatever their origin or justification, social changes are neither inevitable nor inescapable.

The constantly evolving reification of ever more disruptive capitalist relations is normalizing the expropriative and exploitative, but this process alone does not prevent us from challenging the combined efforts to defend the dominant social system. The highly institutionalized legitimation of market-solutions only makes it more urgent to reveal how commodity relations are replacing genuine human relations, more necessary to understand the logic that makes the irrational seem rational. Advertising and other forms of corporate propaganda have become common practice, while state policies have become openly corporatist. However, what really matters is not hidden from us: society is deeply unequal, racist, and sexist; the ecological rifts between humanity and the rest of nature are widening.

Viewed against the background of rapidly changing conditions for life on Earth, it is not an overstatement to say that we are heading in the wrong direction. On the contrary, there is reason to fear that the mid-twentieth century push into the Anthropocene – a new geological epoch defined by human impact and characterized by the crossing of planetary boundaries – will have far-reaching and dire consequences. Hence it is crucial to acknowledge that the loss of planetary integrity also is the loss of human integrity, the inevitable disintegration of the complex relations that keep us alive. The ongoing destruction of nature, by all accounts, a robbery of our common future, must therefore come to an immediate end. The fact that the established order is militantly defended by a denialist, ultra-rich, and powerful elite, does not make it more desirable – should not deter us from joining a planetary revolution. The future is in the making, and no one, not even the children and grandchildren of capitalists, can thrive without clean water and well-functioning ecosystems. It is high time to learn from history and high time to realize what we depend upon for our existence. The truth is that we can break the capitalist spiral of mass extinction.