From humanitarian and ecological viewpoints, many aspects of the capitalist economic system are irrational; although they are certainly rational from the more limited standpoint of the individual business or capitalist seeking to make profits.… With regard to the environment there are scores of examples of irrational behavior by capitalist businesses that have the ultimate goal of making profits. Many practices and side effects of the way the system functions degrade the ecosystem and its processes on which we depend and may also directly harm humans. For example, it is not rational to introduce chemicals into the environment, including into products we use daily, that are either toxic or cause illnesses of various types. Yet there are over 80,000 chemicals used in the United States; few of them are tested for their effects on people or other species, and many commonly used ones are suspected to be carcinogens or have other detrimental effects.
Two weeks ago I returned from my fiftieth class reunion at Oberlin College in Ohio. The brief discussions I had there with environmental faculty and students left me feeling a bit dazed. So many good and intelligent people, so concerned, and doing what they think and hope will help heal the environment—this college has one of the best environmental education programs in the country. However, I was left disappointed and profoundly discouraged by the lack of discussion—or even interest in having a real continuing discussion and debate—regarding the root causes of our environmental disasters. Not just climate change, but also pollution of the air, water, soil, and living organisms, the loss of biodiversity both aboveground and in the soil, the extinction of species, and the overuse and misuse of both renewable and nonrenewable natural resources.
More than six years after the beginning of the Great Recession in the United States, and nearly five years since it was officially declared over in this country, the core economies of the capitalist world system remain crisis-ridden. The jobs lost in the downturn in the United States have not yet been fully recovered and the economy remains sluggish. In Europe the crisis has hardly abated at all and a number of the peripheral European Union countries are in what can only be called a depression—especially Greece, Spain, and Portugal. The last member of the triad of advanced capitalist centers, Japan, has gone through what have been called two “lost decades” of slow growth and deflation and is attempting once again to jump-start the economy through a combination of devaluation of the yen and deficit spending.
Modern capitalism, sociologist Max Weber famously observed early in the twentieth century, is based on “the rational capitalistic organization of (formally) free labor.” But the “rationality” of the system in this sphere, as Weber was to acknowledge elsewhere, was so restrictive as to be in reality “irrational.” Despite its formal freedom, labor under capitalism was substantively unfree.… This was in accordance with the argument advanced in Karl Marx’s Capital. Since the vast majority of individuals in the capitalist system are divorced from the means of production they have no other way to survive but to sell their labor power to those who own these means, that is, the capitalist class.… The result is a strong tendency to the polarization of income and wealth in society. The more the social productivity of labor grows the more it serves to promote the wealth and power of private capital, while at the same time increasing the relative poverty and economic dependency of the workers.
Land grabs—whether initiated by multinational corporations and private investment firms emanating from the capitalist core, sovereign wealth funds in the Middle East, or state entities such as China and India—are now in the news constantly. For example, in July 2013 the Colombian ambassador to the United States resigned over his participation in a legally questionable effort to help the U.S. corporation Cargill use shell companies to amass 130,000 acres of land. This land was supposed to be used for agricultural production, but there is also land being grabbed for other purposes—such as mining or to construct roads, buildings, and dams. In human terms, land grabs mean real people and families are dispossessed. When people lose access to their land, they also lose their means to obtain food, their communities, and their cultures.
Given [the] background of high unemployment, lower-wage jobs, and smaller portions of the pie going to workers, it should come as no surprise that, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly 50 million people in the United States live in poverty (with income in 2011 below $23,021 for a family of four) while another 50 million live between the poverty level and twice the poverty level—one paycheck away from economic disaster. Thus, the poor (those in poverty or near poverty), most of whom belong to the working poor, account for approximately 100 million people, fully one-third of the entire U.S. population.… Wage repression and high unemployment are the dominant realities of our time. A vast redistribution of income—Robin Hood in reverse—is occurring that is boosting the share of income to capital, even in a stagnating economy. Is it any wonder, then, that for years on end polls have shown a majority of the population agreeing with the statement that the United States is on the wrong track and not headed in the right direction?
Within the current system, there are steps that can and should be taken to lessen the environmental problems associated with the limits of growth: the depletion of resource taps and the overflowing of waste sinks, both of which threaten the future of humanity.… [H]owever, …attempts to trace these problems, and particularly the problem of depletion natural resources, to population growth are generally misdirected. The economic causes of depletion are the issues that must be vigorously addressed (though population growth remains a secondary factor). The starting point for any meaningful attempt actually to solve these problems must begin with the mode of production and its unending quest for ever-higher amounts of capital accumulation regardless of social and environmental costs—with the negative results that a portion of society becomes fabulously rich while others remain poor and the environment is degraded at a planetary level.
When I consider the concept of harmony in the context of humans, their societies, and the environment I have a particular understanding of the concept. It refers to all people living together peacefully without exploitation of one person by another, each able to reach his or her full human potential, in a society in which everyone has their basic material and nonmaterial needs satisfied, feels secure, safe, happy, and fulfilled as human beings. In addition, the concept also implies harmony between people, the environment, and the other species we share the planet with.… [But] there is an overriding issue when considering harmony as I have briefly described it. Harmony in the world—among its people and between humans and the rest of the ecosystems—is not possible in the context of capitalism. Capitalism…has shown that it fosters interpersonal relations and metabolic interactions with the earth that are detrimental to achieving a harmonious existence.
I am a regular reader of Monthly Review. I read with interest the recent articles on ecology and Marxism…. It is true that Marx and Engels conceived that capitalism engenders a “metabolic rift” in nature and society. But both of them emphasized that the industrial growth that socialism would produce is beyond imagination under capitalism…. In the middle of the nineteenth century, it was impossible for Marx and Engels to envisage the ecological catastrophe that a constantly expanding industrial society can ensue.
Food is one of the most basic of human needs. Routine access to a balanced diet is essential for both growth and development of the young, as well as for general health throughout one’s life. Although food is mostly plentiful, malnutrition is still common. The contradiction between plentiful global food supplies and widespread malnutrition and hunger arises primarily from food being considered a commodity, just like any other.