Ecology : an inconvenient truth
Nobody knows by how many degrees average temperatures will go up (or have already gone up), nor whether carbon dioxide contributes more than methane to global warming. What we know for sure is that mankind plays a big part in the evolution of climate.
The most modern way of life promoted by capitalism, and still presently presented as the most desirable, i.e. a car for each adult, a house per family, with a swimming pool and an evergreen lawn, was never intended for everybody, and we all know that such wealth has always needed a lot of poverty in the vicinity (preferably not too close). The charms of Delft meant that beside the canals painted by Vermeer, proletarians toiled in factories that we now say disgraced the environment.
When people regret that ecology remains a minor concern of nearly all governments, they forget that politicians logically act as the managers of society as it exists. Capitalism has its own ecology: it does take care of its environment, but only according to what capitalism is.
The enterprise is at the core of the modern world. Unlike pre-capitalism when production is embedded in the rest of social life, and where there's no economy as such, each enterprise functions as a (theoretically) closed-in unit that takes as much and as cheaply as possible from what's exterior to it, and puts these elements to work in order to get the best possible profit: minimal input, maximum output. Once it has paid for what it uses (raw materials, machines and labour) and paid its taxes, an enterprise does not owe anybody anything, and is only remotely concerned with what goes on beyond its factory gate, its accounts book and tax returns. In traditional Black Africa, even today, everybody owes something (a bed for the night, a meal, a lift, some help) to a relative or a friend: giving still matters. On the contrary, it's part of the nature of capital (and one of the causes of its efficiency) that, unlike pre-capitalist societies or societies under "formal" capitalist rule, the economy exists apart from the rest of social life. Capital is only responsible for what it buys, produces and sells. Such "selfishness" does not result from bourgeois greed: it comes from the very nature of capitalism as an addition of separate units that meet on the market.
The only limit to this logic is historical and social. An 1850 mill owner would have been outraged at the suggestion that he should pay his workers when they were not working: "If they need money when they're jobless, ill or too old, let them save for it..." It took a century of worker pressure for the bourgeois to contribute to paid holiday, unemployment benefits, pension schemes and what is now called social security.
This also applies to "natural" elements that exist outside the enterprise. There's no intrinsic reason why a social system should care more about bees or the icecap than about the pains or health of the human beings under its rule. Mere logic and ethic have little relevance here.
Still, like any other social system, capitalism must ensure that what it rules can go on living and reproducing itself, and it achieves this according to its own nature. Capitalism escalates into an ever more intensive exploitation of natural resources, uses up million-year-old coal and oil in a couple of centuries, taps the water table without renewing it, impoverishes the soil and then improves it by fertilisers that further deplete it but later enriches it by more chemicals. Capitalism constantly remedies the imbalance it generates by roundabout means that cause new imbalances which are remedied by more technology.
However damaging that process is, it makes good economic logic as long as it keeps one jump ahead of itself all the time. As industrial civilisation expanded worldwide, it gradually made use of the whole of nature and of mankind. But it could only reproduce itself if it left on its outer rims vast natural and human resources which it depleted before moving on to other sources. As long as the system was limited to a fraction of the planet, it resulted in a mix of consumer bliss and human and natural disaster, but the contradiction could go on. If intensive farming creates a dust bowl, farmers change their methods or go and farm elsewhere. If a factory wrecks its surroundings, the locals are free to move. Nuclear power stations find poor countries where to dump toxic waste. 3800 casualties in Bhopal did not put an end to Indian chemical industries, nor to Union Carbide. The extinction of species and the drying of the Aral sea do not stop the Earth or capital from going round. In the long run, however, over-destruction can jam the reproduction of capital and of its society. The exacerbation of production and consumption in old industrial countries, and the accelerated growth of emerging ones like China and India, bring about less manageable environmental contradictions...
....even less so in a society now based on minimum labour and minimum time. Prioritising obsolescence and the fast turnover of money, techniques, ideas, things and beings, means prioritising today at the expense of tomorrow. If we're entering the immaterial age, the materiality of future resources and energy sources looks a much simpler problem to solve. Whoever thinks computers lead the world also thinks that this world, unlike the old days when factories devoured coal and steel, only needs a little electricity soon provided by the sun and the wind: a micro-turbine on my roof, a solar captor on my windowsill, and my laptop will never get switched off... Each society is a victim of its own myths. An economy which pictures itself based on knowledge, replaces reality by virtuality and substitutes the symbol manipulator for the worker, is incapable of facing its future. How could it act upon its own reproduction when it claims to be beyond cumbersome production ? Nobody can beat capitalism in the short-term increase of productivity, but preparing for the future (including its own) will never be its strong point.
"Sustainable" growth is not an unprecedented concern. Capitalism has always had to sustain itself, and among other things to renew its energy sources, its raw materials and its labour force. Just as wages can't be durably kept under what is necessary to reproduce labour power (otherwise workers starve and have to be replaced by new ones, which was only possible in colonial countries), industry can't go on for ever using non-renewable resources that are vital. We don't mean vital from an ethical, human or natural point of view, but in the interest of the reproductability of the whole system. There comes a time when the general well-being of the planet, its human and animal inhabitants as well as trees or the Gulf Stream, etc., cannot be put aside as an external factor: it's got to be included in the input necessary to produce profitable output.
The energy problem points to the inability of our time to question its way of life. Contemporary capitalism fails to harmonise what it produces with the profitable energy sources required by that production. Its development model can't be extended to the whole world: yet it is expanding. There's no such thing as a collective capitalist brain, but in the aftermath of 1945, its strongest zones gave
themselves the means to ensure a certain type of social relationship and a certain level of consumption. What was destructive but possible for one fiftieth of the human species won't work for the whole, or even for one fifth. Sixty years after the launching of the post-war boom, that system is structurally incapable of decelerating (that would contradict the logic of overaccumulation), and conjuncturally incapable of reforming itself (that would only be possible under the pressure of a dynamic capital-labour relation). A reversal of growth is incompatible with a capital so far unable to invent a new consumer society.
The rising cost of energy will weigh heavily on the present perpetuation of the system. Commodities will be more expensive to produce and to sell, because low cost depends on a "transport revolution" that more expensive petrol will jeopardize. Will the container ships full of made in Asia goods, the lorries that bring these goods to the supermarket, and the jet fleets with their tourist loads, still be profitable ? .
The individual motor car is perfectly adequate for a civilisation that glorifies the individual but, unlike in 1960, it is now more and more perceived as an indispensable burden (whereas the computer is an emblem of freedom: will it always be so ?). It's interesting that California, that monstrous concentrate of our world, is now suing the big local car makers for creating a "public nuisance". Our contemporaries don't like what they do, but they keep doing it. Since the petrol engine private car will remain, for at least a decade or two, the necessary means of transportation of about a billion people, with a wage freeze and forced saving to pay for one's pension, there will be less money to spend at Sainsbury's or Virgin's. Car budgets will be reduced to the indispensable: the individual/nuclear family vehicle will lose its symbolic and affective value, and become more of a necessity like heating. In an age of increased individualism, it's impossible for people to enjoy what they regard as the freedom to choose any film on pay TV and jump from one item to the next on the Internet, and then be content with public transport. We're not predicting the end of the motor car: we're pointing to a growing discrepancy between the contemporary way of life (and ideology) and capitalist profitability.
There's no technical problem capitalism cannot solve. Its limit is social. Its (enlarged, with accumulation) reproduction implies the reproduction of the human species and of life on Earth: as long as it exists, capitalism will reproduce them, in its own way, at the expense of millions of dead, maybe hundreds of millions, not because it's more evil than previous destructors, but because industry provides it with far more destructive powers. If life became impossible on the surface of the Earth, no doubt this civilisation would find ways for survivors to manage underground.
Capitalism only deals history and nature on its own terms, derived from its inner logic. It can change a lot (and it has), but its deep nature won't change. No human imperative or ecological emergency will be enough to compel it to give up its basics. Experts reckon that if it spent each year on ecology 1% of its total production, the world economy would avoid (otherwise inevitable) losses of between 5 and 20% of that production. A serious family man would not hesitate long. Capitalism is not a family. The bourgeois react as bourgeois. They quite normally see ecology both as a new economic sector and as opportunities for industrial innovation. Pollution control creates tradable pollution rights which are bought, sold and speculated upon like any other product typical of globalised finance. The expansion of car traffic helps agro-business develop bio-fuels that use more fertilisers and create more CO2 . If the greatest possible danger was threatening the world, capitalism, like any other system, but even more so because of its built-in inventiveness, would imagine all conceivable solutions, everything except its own suppression. Class societies in general and capitalism in particular never stop being what they are because they cause misery, war or catastrophes. A social system does not step aside because its continuation becomes self-destructive: it tries anything to keep going, to the very end and at all costs.