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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.


  1. HD HD 13 September 2011

    This just turns conventional economic reasoning completely on its head. “Capital” and “capitalism” in this case has become so broadly defined achieving almost mystical proportions as it keeps on gaining more properties, that it can really be the cause and blame for everything Kovel sees wrong with the world. This does not strike me as complex reasoning, but intellectually muddled and rather more like crude politicking.

    But, then again that is no problem for the new new new left and I have already been put in my place for my “modernist” and “scientific” delusions. So, instead let me say that it is a beautifully written piece and really touches my heart strings in all the right places – it makes me want to read Karl Polanyi again. Down with capital and the capitalists!

  2. JOEL JOEL 13 September 2011

    A finite question yet with a seemingly infinite answer? Is breathing consumption? Are the diffusions, pollutions and excess’s of our Human being resonant with the other equally valid species & life forms that occupy this limited space called planet earth? Perhaps Capitalism is our greatest viral code infecting the body & temporarily its realm until death pervades. Life aesthetically speaking is just as comfortable with the moon as with a flowering sphere and when big brained primates wrestle over meat the moon is perhaps a more fitting amphitheatre.

  3. Hope Havemore Hope Havemore 13 September 2011

    In addition to the environmental impact of policies and perpscetives that over-emphasise profit there is the psychological impact, which in my view is even worse. This is the ‘inside’ story that equates to the outer story described above. What are the long term implications of placing a glass ceiling over humankind’s aspiration, by making wealth and status the highest metrics of human acheivement. There have been very few attempts to move beyond this and very little support given to endeavours to understand and promote it. The best that philiosophy has done has been to break down what we thought was objective truth. How do we now reach for towering and unselfish humanity that can lead institutions into a world not driven by profit alone. It seems misguided to not be investing in this.

  4. Garg Unzola Garg Unzola 13 September 2011

    Again, ignoring prior knowledge of economics and focusing only on The Text:

    Bhopal was a majority government controlled entity in 1984, as it was during most of its existence, and was not involved in capital in capitalism as currency definition ala Marx. In effect, the Indian government hired labour, this labour produced value in the labour of value of theory sense in exchange for real commodities in the Marxist sense. No capital required, therefore not capitalist by Marx’s definition.

    Telkom and Eskom are in similar boats. Both are in existence today particularly because government shields them from the profits and losses, their main concerns are not making money, but exchanging labour for commodities in the Marxist sense and creating the impression that government takes good care of its people through service delivery. These are not industries driven by exchange, or by currency, yet their environmental impact is undeniable.

    It is impossible not to have environmental impact. It follows that whichever ism we prefer, if we value the ecological route, we need to pick an ism that makes the most out of the least amount of raw materials. This implies efficiency. Evidently, the systems that propped up Eskom, Bhopal and Telkom are not it.

    But are they capitalist? Certainly not by Marx’s definition as sourced in part 2.

  5. Peter Win Peter Win 13 September 2011

    There’s no doubt that capitalistic activity is what makes the world go round. However, in a situation where there are no controls, certain people become mega-rich at the expense of others. It should be law that no corporation may have a disparity between highest paid and lowest paid workers of more than a factor of eg 10 for a small company, 50 for a large one. And those who own the corporations and pay less tax than the average worker, as Warren Buffet himself recognised (he pays on average 16% tax !), need to be targeted too.

  6. peter peter 14 September 2011

    We can argue the point as much as we like and philosophise as much as we like about it, but the truth, for those who are interested in the truth, is that we are inherently, by nature, of the opinion that we are the centre of the Universe and that we control everything. That of course, is totally misguided and we are too arrogant to face the fact that we have no respect for anything or anyone except our own personal greed, which ultimately will lead to our demise. We worry more about the stock market than we do about our planet or the fact that we shortly will have little food or water. If that is not being selfish and ignorant, then I do not know what is?
    We need to remember always that our “best and brightest leaders” have actually not been all the “best and brightest” at all. The question is why did they really destroy all we should hold dear? The answer is easy. Greed and total disregard for everything except their own desires. Nature will sort all that out, make no mistake about it! If we keep doing everything wrong, how can we ever get anything right?

  7. Paul Whelan Paul Whelan 14 September 2011

    After a while this discussion begins to take on an air of unreality. Something crucial to it appears to be missing, or perhaps is very much present but unspoken. What is it?

    Whether the planet is being ‘destroyed’ is a question that plainly can only be settled from evidence. The volume of available evidence is greater than any individual could possibly weigh and decide from alone. We are driven to accepting the claims of others who are also necessarily cherry picking. Bhopal, like Chernobyl, is ‘evidence’ if you say it is; others will dismiss both as no more than instances.

    That the planet may or may not be being destroyed will not disturb our belief on the subject and the same applies when we move to Bert’s central concern: is ‘capitalism’ the instrument of destruction?

    As with many questions no answer can be given. The question is disputed because it is a question of faith.

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