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Is capitalism destroying our planet? (3)

*What is therefore new in Kovel’s book (The Enemy of Nature), in contrast to the many books devoted to the ecological crisis today, is the sustained manner in which he connects all the obvious signs of environmental degradation and ecosystemic breakdown with the social order or system referred to above. Thomas Berry (in The Great Work, 1999), for example, approaches the ecological crisis from a theological point of view, while Carter (in The Politics of the Environment: Ideas, Activism, Policy, 2001) adopts a political-theoretical perspective. Berry does sometimes make the connection with capitalism, but not in a sustained analytical way (as Kovel does) – remarking, for instance (1999: 110), that neither socialism nor capitalism, given their industrial exploitation of planetary resources, is acceptable to the ecologically minded. Although Carter (2001: 66-67) also addresses capitalism and its relation to the environment – especially in the context of socialist claims that capitalism’s destructive technologies and consumerist ethos are responsible for the ecological crisis – he does not pursue the matter in a sustained manner either. In contrast to these other writers, Kovel points out (2002: 6):

“. That the ‘reigning system’ in question is capitalism, the dynamism of which, capital, is a strange beast indeed, not at all accessible to common sense, and extending far beyond its usual economic implications.
. That the ‘growth’ in question is essentially capital expressing its innermost being.
. That this is incorrigible; thus to seriously limit capital’s expansion throws the system into deep crisis [and there are many such instances, such as September 11, 2001; B.O.]. For capital, it must always be ‘Grow or Die!’ It follows that capital cannot be reformed: it either rules and destroys us, or is destroyed, so that we may have a lease on life.”

Kovel (2002: 28-38) uses a case study of the notorious Bhopal industrial accident of 1984 in India as paradigmatic instance of the functioning of capital in ‘causal’ terms. This has the merit of concentrating such causality into a single, but complex event which serves to highlight the structural dynamics of the broader causality of capital in relation to eco-destruction on a global scale.

At Bhopal one encounters all the hallmarks of capital’s characteristic operation, the central one of which is the need to cut costs and increase profits. Hence Kovel’s reconstruction of the disaster, in which thousands of people perished when 46.3 tons of a pesticide called methyl isocyanate (MIC) escaped from a production facility owned by multinational Union Carbide Corporation (Kovel 2002: 30), is aimed at uncovering the intricate causal linkages that conditioned its occurrence, from the existence of the factory and the workers at the Bhopal facility to the corporation itself which caused the factory to be built there, all of which function at specific levels of causality – instrumental, efficient, and so on. (On 29 November 2004 it was widely reported that Dow Industrial, with which Union Carbide has merged since Bhopal, has denied any further responsibility for either the people still suffering from the after-effects of the “accident”, or the natural environment still being adversely affected by the continuing leaking of toxic materials from the remains of the factory, 20 years after the event.) Ultimately, however, he demonstrates (2002: 35-37) that all of these were causally constrained to operate as they did – and still do in the dominant global economic system – by the encompassing “force field” of capital. He elaborates (2002: 38):

“The ‘giant force field’ is a metaphor for capital, that ubiquitous, all-powerful and greatly misunderstood dynamo that drives our society. The established view sees capital as a rational force of investment, a way of using money to fruitfully bring together the various features of economic activity. For Karl Marx, capital was a ‘werewolf’ and a ‘vampire’, ravenously consuming labour and mutilating the labourer. Both notions are true, and the second one, applied to nature as well as labour, accounts for the ecological crisis in all essential features.”

Because of the tendency (2002: 38) of capital ” … to degrade the conditions of its own production” (through never-ending cost-cutting in the form of retrenchments of staff, for example) and its need to ” … expand without end in order to exist” (through its insistence on efficiency, innovation, new markets and the creation of consumer-dependence), the growing ecological crisis is, according to Kovel (2002: 39) “an iron necessity”, regardless of the piecemeal attempts within the system to control individual disasters.

At the heart of capital it is a self-perpetuating process of expansion, invading every nook and cranny of the human lifeworld, including nature insofar as humans enter into relation with it, for the sake of new markets and more accumulation of money, that is, more profit – without any regard for the fragility of ecosystems of which humans are, after all, a crucial part. This is demonstrated in exemplary fashion in the case of Bhopal, where neither the interest of people nor that of nature was given priority over the ever-present capitalist insistence on lowering costs for the sake of more profit.

The extent of the cynicism – or perhaps rather complete indifference – on the part of capital and the individuals shaped by it regarding the fate of people and nature is evident from the fact that, when Kovel’s book appeared (2002: 30), the Carbide factory-ruins still disfigured the city, and toxic materials were still released into the environment. Moreover, fifteen years after the accident people were still dying at a rate of 10-15 a month.

This indifference towards people as human beings has also been shown in South Africa, for example through Telkom’s insistence (in late 2004) that, despite record profits of more than R5 billion for the previous financial year, more than 5 000 workers needed to be laid off to improve the company’s performance. In South African private hospitals (such as the Netcare Group) it manifests itself in the refusal to admit patients unless a substantial deposit is paid, or medical aid membership and creditworthiness are proved. In the process the medical profession, traditionally underpinned by the Hippocratic Oath (which promises medical healing skills to all those who need them) is transformed (or perverted) into a capitalist business primarily interested in profit for its shareholders.

*Excerpt from: “Nature, capitalism, and the future of humankind”. South African Journal of Philosophy 24 (2), pp.121-135, 2005.


  • 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.