It is now universally recognized within science that humanity is confronting the prospect—if we do not soon change course—of a planetary ecological collapse. Not only is the global ecological crisis becoming more and more severe, with the time in which to address it fast running out, but the dominant environmental strategies are also forms of denial, demonstrably doomed to fail, judging by their own limited objectives. This tragic failure, I will argue, can be attributed to the refusal of the powers that be to address the roots of the ecological problem in capitalist production and the resulting necessity of ecological and social revolution.
The original intent of The Vulnerable Planet,when it was first published fifteen years ago, was to provide a brief historical materialist analysis of the development of the global ecological crisis, beginning with the early civilizations and leading up to the monopoly capitalist society of the late twentieth century. Looking back now at the book as it was originally written—and at the second edition published five years later, incorporating a few minor changes plus an afterword—I see no major point on which the analysis has proven to be substantially wrong or where it needs significant revision. Nevertheless, the last decade and a half has witnessed an acceleration of history with respect to the human relation to the environment, adding force to the concerns that the book expressed.
Today orthodox economics is reputedly being harnessed to an entirely new end: saving the planet from the ecological destruction wrought by capitalist expansion. It promises to accomplish this through the further expansion of capitalism itself, cleared of its excesses and excrescences. A growing army of self-styled “sustainable developers” argues that there is no contradiction between the unlimited accumulation of capital—the credo of economic liberalism from Adam Smith to the present—and the preservation of the earth. The system can continue to expand by creating a new “sustainable capitalism,” bringing the efficiency of the market to bear on nature and its reproduction. In reality, these visions amount to little more than a renewed strategy for profiting on planetary destruction.
This month marks the eightieth anniversary of the 1929 Stock Market Crash that precipitated the Great Depression of the 1930s. Ironically, this comes at the very moment that the capitalist system is celebrating having narrowly escaped falling into a similar abyss. The financial crash and the decline in output a year ago, following the collapse of Lehman Brothers, was as steep as at the beginning of the Great Depression. “For a while,” Paul Krugman wrote in the New York Times in August, “key economic indicators — world trade, world industrial production, even stock prices—were falling as fast or faster than they did in 1929-30. But in the 1930s the trend lines kept heading down. This time, the plunge appears to be ending after just one terrible year.” Big government, through the federal bailout and stimulus, as well as the shock-absorber effects of the continued payouts of unemployment and Social Security benefits, Medicare, etc., slowed the descent and helped the economy to level off, albeit at a point well below previous output.
As a rule, crime and social protest rise in periods of economic crisis in capitalist society. During times of economic and social instability, the well-to-do become increasingly fearful of the general population, more disposed to adopt harsh measures to safeguard their positions at the apex of the social pyramid. The slowdown in the economic growth rate of U.S. capitalism beginning in the late 1960s and early 1970s—converging with the emergence of radical social protest around the same period—was accompanied by a rapid rise in public safety spending as a share of civilian government expenditures. So significant was this shift that we can speak of a crowding out of welfare state spending (health, education, social services) by penal state spending (law enforcement, courts, and prisons) in the United States during the last third of a century.
In a recent essay, “Economics Needs a Scientific Revolution,” in one of the leading scientific journals, Nature, physicist Jean-Philippe Bouchaud, a researcher for an investment management company, asked rhetorically, “What is the flagship achievement of economics?” Bouchaud’s answer: “Only its recurrent inability to predict and avert crises.” Although his discussion is focused on the current worldwide financial crisis, his comment applies equally well to mainstream economic approaches to the environment—where, for example, ancient forests are seen as non-performing assets to be liquidated, and clean air and water are luxury goods for the affluent to purchase at their discretion. The field of economics in the United States has long been dominated by thinkers who unquestioningly accept the capitalist status quo and, accordingly, value the natural world only in terms of how much short-term profit can be generated by its exploitation. As a result, the inability of received economics to cope with or even perceive the global ecological crisis is alarming in its scope and implications.
On the eightieth anniversary of the 1929 Stock Market Crash that led to the Great Depression, the United States is once again caught in a Great Financial Crisis and deep downturn of an order of magnitude comparable to the 1930s. At the center of this crisis is plunging consumer spending, caused by the destruction of household finance as a result of decades of wage stagnation and the piling up of debt. Consumer spending in today’s economy, dominated by giant firms, is significantly dependent on the sales effort, i.e., marketing as a whole, with advertising as its most conspicuous form. But the sales effort is also ebbing in the crisis, contributing to the general decline. So integral is the sales effort to the regime of monopoly capital that one cannot be understood without the other.
In referring in my title here to “A Failed System” I do not of course mean that capitalism as a system is in any sense at an end. Rather I mean by “failed system” a global economic and social order that increasingly exhibits a fatal contradiction between reality and reason—to the point, in our time, where it threatens not only human welfare but also the continuation of most sentient forms of life on the planet. Three critical contradictions make up the contemporary world crisis emanating from capitalist development: (1) the current Great Financial Crisis and stagnation/depression; (2) the growing threat of planetary ecological collapse; and (3) the emergence of global imperial instability associated with shifting world hegemony and the struggle for resources. Such structural weaknesses of the system, as Joseph Schumpeter might have said, are the product of capitalism’s past successes, but they raise catastrophic problems and failures in the present nonetheless. How we choose to act today in response to this failed system is therefore the most critical question that humanity has ever faced.
With U.S. capitalism mired in an economic crisis of a severity that increasingly brings to mind the Great Depression of the 1930s, it should come as no surprise that there are widespread calls for “a new New Deal.” Already the new Obama administration has been pointing to a vast economic stimulus program of up to $850 billion over two years aimed at lifting the nation out of the deep economic slump.
“The first rule of central banking,” economist James K. Galbraith wrote recently, is that “when the ship starts to sink, central bankers must bail like hell.” In response to a financial crisis of a magnitude not seen since the Great Depression, the Federal Reserve and other central banks, backed by their treasury departments, have been “bailing like hell” for more than a year. Beginning in July 2007 when the collapse of two Bear Stearns hedge funds that had speculated heavily in mortgage-backed securities signaled the onset of a major credit crunch, the Federal Reserve Board and the U.S. Treasury Department have pulled out all the stops as finance has imploded. They have flooded the financial sector with hundreds of billions of dollars and have promised to pour in trillions more if necessary—operating on a scale and with an array of tools that is unprecedented.