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Is capitalism destroying our planet?

Before answering this question, it is necessary to give some attention to the widely agreed upon evidence that it has been happening for some time, and, moreover, has accelerated. It is hard to know where to start and where to end when it comes to listing relevant “evidence” in this regard, even if there is disagreement about the “causes” of such “evidence”. In The Enemy of Nature (2002), Joel Kovel lists what must surely count as being among the most important (because most alarming and “un-ignorable”) instances of this, including the melting of the polar ice caps and of the snows on Mount Kilimanjaro — widely regarded as effects of global warming.

In a September 2004 edition of National Geographic, with the subtitle “Global warning — Bulletins from a warmer world”, too, ample evidence is provided that there is reason to be very concerned about the melting of ice in the polar regions and of Kilimanjaro’s snows, as well as about the drastic effects that the increasingly warmer global climate is having on various species of animals, from Adélie penguins to caribou and coral, not to mention the threat it poses to millions of people living in low-lying areas such as parts of Bangladesh, where even a modest rise of the ocean level could be disastrous. Needless to say, when a mainstream journal such as National Geographic devotes the larger part of an edition to the ecological crisis, alarm bells should be ringing loudly.

Even in ostensibly innocuous publications such as Our Changing Climate — Reports to the Nation on our Changing Planet (Hartmann, Vogel & Farrow 1997), one detects certain levels of concern in light of this evidence, such as discussions of the question: “Can we change the climate?” and of “The Greenhouse Effect”. Here it is pointed out that, because of the burning of fossil carbon fuels and the manufacture of cement, carbon dioxide (an accumulation of which leads to a warming of the global climate) has been increasing in the earth’s atmosphere, and is likely to continue rising in quantity. Moreover, carbon dioxide molecules, although relatively small in number, can have a significant effect on the climate, and contributes to the “greenhouse effect” of trapping heat inside the atmosphere. The writers of this report therefore conclude that humanity can and does contribute to climate change, and that, given the complexity of the climate system, combined with present uncertainty, the future could bring either “pleasant or unpleasant” surprises.

As far as the latter are concerned, Carl Sagan (in Billions and Billions; 1997) offers a striking way to think of these “surprises”, by employing the historical-mythical figures of Croesus and Cassandra as paradigms of “the two extremes of policy response to predictions of deadly peril [in the contemporary case ecological catastrophes] — Croesus himself representing one pole of credulous, uncritical acceptance…; Cassandra representing the pole of stolid, immobile rejection of the possibility of danger. The job of the policymaker is to steer a prudent course between these two … ” Needless to say, Sagan recognises plenty of evidence of both these extremes today.

Other, fairly mainstream publications, sometimes adopt a tone of greater urgency. In a modest little “Introduction to globalisation” (2003) Manfred Steger, for example, remarks that “in the last few decades, the scale, speed, and depth of earth’s environmental decline have been unprecedented”. He lists the “Major manifestations and consequences of global environmental degradation”, namely: population growth, loss of biodiversity, hazardous waste, industrial accidents, warfare, genetically modified organisms, global warming and climate change, food insecurity, diseases and trans-boundary pollution. Ultimately Steger conceives of environmental degradation as being part and parcel of the cultural dimension of globalisation as a multi-faceted phenomenon, in so far as it is inseparable from certain cultural values. One’s attitude towards, and relationship with the natural environment is shaped, if not determined by the culture — for example a consumerist culture — in terms of which one’s subjectivity is constituted.

Interestingly, among the religions mentioned by Steger (2003: 86) as constituents of different cultures, Judeo-Christianity appears to be the least conducive to an ecology-friendly attitude. While other religions such as Taoism, Buddhism and animist religions recognise the interdependence of all earthly beings (and therefore promote the idea of an equilibrium between human needs and ecological requirements), Judeo-Christianity’s dualistic worldview places humans in the anthropocentric position of “masters and possessors” (Descartes) over nature, relegating the latter to mere “resource” — or what Heidegger calls a “standing-reserve” — for human use and consumption.

The theologian Berry (1996 — points out that the historical break with an older, more nature-friendly tradition in Christianity (St Thomas, St Francis) occurred in the 14th century around the time of the European Great Plague, when the world — and with it, nature — was experienced as wicked, and escape from it through intense spirituality was advocated in various quarters. “This deep aversion to the natural world”, he says (1996: 3) “has profoundly conditioned the entire western tradition ever since”. For Kovel (2002: 8-9; 89-146), the “ancient lesion” in humanity’s relationship with nature has culminated in capitalism as “domination of nature”. It is striking that Steger, too — although he does not develop this theme — implicates consumerism as far as globalisation’s effect on the natural environment is concerned. Consumerism, in turn, implicates capitalism.

This is an excerpt from the paper: Nature, capitalism, and the future of humankind. South African Journal of Philosophy 24 (2), pp.121-135, 2005.


  • Bert Olivier

    As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.