Interview with Jeff Sparrow

Capitalism’s crimes against nature

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To stop climate change, we must understand how capitalism generates destructive processes that put Earth at risk

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Jeff Sparrow, the author of Crimes Against Nature: Capitalism and Global Heating (Scribe, 2021) is a columnist for The Guardian Australia and a lecturer at the Centre for Advanced Journalism at the University of Melbourne. He was interviewed by Martin Empson, whose most recent book is Socialism or Extinction: The Meaning of Revolution in a Time of Ecological Crisis (Bookmarks, 2022).

I want to start with the central theme of your book — capitalism. It’s a subject that is increasingly part of discussion in the environmental movement. So could begin by talking about how you approach capitalism and the environment in the book?

I was someone who first encountered Marxist ideas at university in the late 1980s. At that point, the way it was presented implied Marxism had almost nothing to say about the environment or the natural world. You could be interested in Marxism or you could be interested in the environment, but the two things had nothing in common.

Later I went back and reread Karl Marx’s classics under the influence of a new generation of Marxist environmental thinkers such as John Bellamy Foster. It was only then that I understood the crushingly obvious point that Marxism is profoundly an engagement with the natural world. In some ways, that’s what materialism as a theory means. That really changed the way that I thought both about Marxism and, more importantly, environmentalism.

Increasingly people concerned about climate change — a huge and growing proportion of the population — recognize that climate change is a result of a systemic issue. But, to really understand how that systemic issue manifests itself, you have to have some kind of understanding of capitalism.

This is one of the arguments that I wanted to make in the book. You can’t really talk about climate change, and you certainly can’t develop a credible solution to climate change, without understanding the nature of capitalism. And how it is that capitalism generates these destructive processes that now put the planet as a whole at risk.

In your book you explore this partly by discussing how capitalism, as it develops, transforms social relations. Tell us about this.

One of the motivations for writing this book was to overcome the despair that prevents many people engaging with climate change. Even people who are profoundly political often find it very hard to read articles about climate change, because it’s just so grindingly awful. If you are a socialist, you are accustomed to dealing with awful things, but there’s something particularly horrible about a species disappearing or the slow-moving devastation of entire regions. If you are a political person, you have to overcome that despair because it is deeply disempowering.

So I wanted to tackle that problem. That meant coming to terms with some of the theoretical issues. Take the concept of “wilderness”, which is often something that people use to define the environment. There is a kind of common sense environmentalism that’s about defending the wilderness — defined as ecologically pristine — against the encroachment of human beings.

But I argue in the book that, if this is how you understand the environmental task, you’re setting yourself an impossible goal. And that’s because that is the whole point of the Anthropocene — a geological epoch defined by human activity. There is no longer any part of the planet that is entirely untouched by human beings. Once you start to think about that, you can extend the argument a lot further.

Look, for instance, at the English landscape. Elements that we think of as being wilderness are, in fact, the result of a long engagement by human beings. People alter the landscape as they alter the kinds of societies in which they live.

So that relationship between human beings and nature is not a simple opposition. But, in fact, it’s a kind of dialectical relationship with humans and nature fundamentally shaping each other.

This isn’t just a theoretical point — it has political implications. If we recognize humans have always altered the environment, it opens up the possibility of a new environmentalism, which isn’t simply trying to hold up the destruction of wilderness. It’s about potentially making the planet better, establishing a different kind of relationship with nature. That’s a much more hopeful way of looking at the planetary crisis. It opens up the possibility that environmentalism can achieve something good, rather than just make the place less bad.

How did capitalism transform our relationship with nature?

The development of capitalism changes people’s relationship with nature in a very fundamental way. As an Australian I am very conscious of living in a country founded as a colonial settler state. The European invasion had a wrenching effect on the indigenous people who had lived in Australia for 40,000 or 50,000 years prior to white settlement.

It is really important for people with a background like mine to realize that there was a culture that lived in a very different relationship with nature. They were not “noble savages” that lived lightly on the land. As new scholarship shows, indigenous people fundamentally altered the Australian continent. But they were able to live in a way that made the ecology richer and far more dynamic. That’s because it wasn’t determined by the profit-driven priorities of capitalism, but instead was shaped by tradition and culture.

So we have before us an example that really puts the light to the claims of the right wing. If people did that in the past, then there is no reason why we cannot do it in the future. What is stopping us are the capitalist relationships, the social relations introduced into Australia in 1788.

After the white invasion, the landscape of the continent changed almost beyond recognition within the space of several years — a very brief timescale. There was tremendous erosion with the fertile plains, disappearing under the feet of white settlers. This was not to do with technology or overpopulation. It has to do with capitalist relations that prevented the kind of land management that indigenous people had previously relied upon.

Indigenous people were very conscious of, and worked with, a whole series of natural cycles that were destroyed. It’s an important point when it comes to combating that sort of right wing slander about the way that people lived. But, as I said before, it’s also crucial because if it happened in the past, there’s no reason why it can’t happen in the future.

Now, I’m not suggesting Australia is going to return to a pre-industrial society. But if indigenous people were able to manage the land in a sustainable fashion for tens of thousands of years, you would think that modern science and technology should make that process easier, not harder. So why is it that we can’t maintain a sustainable relationship in the way that indigenous people did prior to white settlement? Well, the answer is capitalism.

Today, production is not driven by custom, traditional law or an understanding of what’s best for the environment, it is driven by the demands of profit. When those profit relations were introduced to Australia, they had a catastrophic effect on indigenous people and on the landscape as a whole. Of course, there’s a tendency for some people on the left to romanticize indigenous culture, in an unhelpful way. In the book, I instead emphasize some of the parallels with the process of capitalist development that happened in England, which lead to white settlement in Australia.

The development of capitalism in England meant a fundamentally different relationship with the land. It also produced mass unemployment and criminality, which led to the need to transport people to Australia. Working class people in England had their traditional relationship with their village or region completely smashed by enclosures — when common land was seized by landowners and capitalist farmers — and the imposition of wage labor — having to sell your labor for a wage to survive. This is something which most people were entirely unaccustomed to.

A similar process happens again with the introduction of capitalism in Australia. It is fascinating to read the accounts of how indigenous people in Australia experienced the imposition of wage labor. Again and again, you find the colonial masters complaining that indigenous people didn’t understand the concept of wages. And they would just work for a little bit, then they would leave. It draws attention to the fact that, prior to capitalism, indigenous people enjoyed a much higher standard of living than after capitalism. And that their relationship with nature was a tremendous source of meaning. They saw wage labor as tremendously empty and soulless. The idea that you would work as instructed by a single master just did not make any sense to them.

The complaints made by the colonial masters in Australia about indigenous people parallel the complaints made by early industrialists in England about the Scots, the Irish and the other rural communities. In both cases, the bosses say, “These people don’t understand. They don’t want to work. They’ll turn out for a while, then they’ll stop working.”

So rather than being a god-ordained condition, wage labor is something relatively new — and everywhere it was imposed, it was experienced as horrendous. The way that people understood themselves as human beings, and the way they understood nature as well, was changed.

You approach some of these subjects in your book quite differently to other writers. There is a fascinating chapter on the way that car culture came to dominate over sustainable public transport through the actions of the automobile industry, and a chapter on tobacco advertising that draws out an analogy with modern climate denialism. You use the story of Frankenstein to talk about capitalism “out of control” in its relations to nature and people. It is an interesting approach.

I opened with an essay about car culture. One of the arguments I’m trying to tackle is that the environmental crisis is the result of ordinary human beings being greedy and lazy and stupid. They’re so selfish that they are happy to destroy the planet for short‑term gain. Car culture, and particularly American car culture, is the quintessential example of this.

When we think about greedy humans destroying the planet, we think of Americans with big cars that they insist on driving everywhere. But if you look at the development of car culture in the US, you encounter a history riven by really intense struggles. I had no idea before I started researching stuff that there was a thriving tram system throughout the US in the 1890s, which was destroyed because it wasn’t profitable. The vehicles were, in many ways, more technologically advanced than internal combustion engines.

Again and again technological innovations emerge that have a potential for actually making people’s lives better. Then they are seized by the wealthy and used in ways that make both ordinary people’s lives and the environmental situation worse.

Something else that really jumped out at me was how important arguments around nature were to the early working class. Today, if you are trying to make a case for the centrality of the working class to transforming society, you will be told that working class people hate nature. And that only middle class types care about trees or animals or beautiful landscapes or whatever.

The modern working class was formed out of processes such as the enclosures and a savage, violent dislocation from the land. So, one of the ways ordinary people discussed the new conditions of industrial capitalism was in terms of how their relationship with nature had changed. And how much they hated it. If you read the Chartists — a mass working class movement in 1830s and 40s Britain — you find them saying, “We used to live in a countryside where there were trees. And now we live in this capitalist hell-scape.”

I feel in some ways that dislocation from nature gets normalized in a later stage of capitalism. That’s because separation of the working class from the countryside becomes an established fact.

Today, though, we’re in a somewhat different situation. Climate change and other disasters affect the poorest and the most oppressed more than they do the wealthy. And so it’s increasingly a part of working class life to be affected by things like hurricanes and floods, or having to work outside in freak climatic conditions.

In the book, I discuss the Amazon factories. You read these horrific stories of people working in hot warehouses where there are ambulances out the front to pick people up when they collapse. This is something that climate change is making worse and worse, directly affecting working class people’s lives in a way that perhaps we might not have expected a couple of generations ago. So I think there’s an interesting kind of return of nature as a concern for working class people, almost forced upon them by the crisis.

Do you think that the Covid pandemic has helped this process?

Covid is not a direct result of climate change. But at the same time, it’s not something that can be separated from the broader ecological catastrophe, which climate change is a part of. Because land has been cleared and urban settlements are spreading, human beings are increasingly coming into contact with ecologies that have never had any experience of human beings.

This is leading to viruses spreading more often, and Covid is part of that process. So you can link Covid to the environmental crisis — and it is a very clear example of the way that the environmental crisis affects the working class and poor people far more than anyone else. So the relationship between the environmental catastrophe and class became clearer and clearer.

Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean that people grasp that relationship. But we have all seen statistics about the number of billionaires whose wealth has gone up to stratosphere levels during Covid. Whereas, if you’re someone who’s working for takeaway delivery company Door Dash or in the precarious sector, you were shafted during the pandemic. So we’re in a moment now where class is becoming more and more central to the environmental catastrophe. If you don’t understand that, then I think you’re incapable of responding.

Two of the book’s chapters take up issues of the environment and racism. One looks at how the early environmental movement in the US was shaped by right wing ideas that persist today. You say, for instance, that “for many African-Americans, the outdoors invokes bigotry, the Klan and racism violence”. The other chapter looks at the myths of overpopulation. Can you summarize these issues?

The environmental movement has a complex history but in the US, in particular, it was shaped by a right wing romanticism about the past. It often drew an explicit parallel between invasive weeds and feral animals and immigrants or people from “undesirable” races. Some of the first and most important environmental campaigns in the US were led by people who were eugenicists and extreme racists. Most environmentalists today are, of course, anti-racists, but some of the theoretical ideas from the bad old days still remain.

If you write or talk about the environmental crisis, invariably, someone will come up to you at the end and say, “Well, that’s all very well. But the real problem is that there are too many people.” It is an argument that makes intuitive sense at a really simplistic level. If we accept that the world is finite and only so many people can live in a finite space, then the idea that overpopulation is a problem seems like common sense.

Of course, the world doesn’t actually work like that. In the abstract, there is probably a definite number of people that you could cram onto the planet. In the here and now, and in the immediate future, questions of population have nothing to do with how societies are organized.

At the most obvious level, some of the poorest countries in the world have very few people in them. Whereas you can go to an incredibly wealthy city, like New York, where huge numbers of people are crammed into a small space. No one says, “Well, actually, what you need to do is get rid of all of these people and things would be better.” So “populationism” is a simple argument, but a wrong argument. And what’s more it is a right wing argument. I think that’s really important. In the early iterations of population arguments, books like Paul Ehrlich’s Population Bomb weren’t necessarily obviously from the right, but the right wing dynamics of it quickly began to develop.

With populationism, on the most basic level, the question always becomes who are the surplus people who need to go? Of course, it’s never the populationist campaigners themselves. No one ever says, “There are too many people in the world. Therefore, my family and I are going off to the euthanasia booths”. They always blame someone else.

When it’s not directed against people in the Global South, it’s directed against the teeming masses back home. Then in terms of a specific program, it is always attached to coercive notions about imposing sterilization and mandating limits on the number of children people can have. And in countries where this program has been implemented, it’s always had horrific results.

Now, the predictions that have been made by overpopulation theorists are massively disproven. For instance, the rate of population growth is slowing so much that many countries are now talking about the need to increase population.

But it keeps coming back as a zombie argument because it’s one that thrives on despair. It is an argument that says people are the problem, just by existing. Well, that’s not an argument that’s going to appeal as much at a moment where the movement is surging forward, where people are changing the world and opening up new possibilities. It is an argument that becomes much more attractive when people feel despairing about the ability to mobilize the masses. If you do not feel you can mobilize the masses, it is a lot easier to say the masses are a problem.

And it’s connected to arguments about consumerism as well, which goes deep into the DNA of the early environmentalist movement. There’s this notion that the problem is people consuming too much — they’re greedy, they’re lazy. They want their big screen TVs or whatever. It’s a hop, skip and a jump from that to say, people themselves are the problem — not just because of what they do but because they exist.

Infamously, the fascist perpetrator of the Christchurch massacre in New Zealand made this argument explicitly, writing in his manifesto about the need to exterminate immigrants. Likewise, some of the people that Donald Trump drew on in his anti‑immigrant campaign in 2016, had longstanding links to the early environmental movement. They had moved not just to the right, but to the far right, from a populationist perspective.

I should stress the modern environmental movement has done a pretty good job of challenging populationist arguments and driving racists out of the movement. That’s why we’ve only seen the modern far right taking up environmental themes as slogans in a very tentative kind of way. Most of the far right are still climate deniers, but there are various straws in the wind where you can see how this will be a promising aspect for the far right.

Take Australia, which has some of the most atrocious immigration policies anywhere in the world. What are going to be some of the predicted manifestations of climate change in the next few years? A mass exodus of climate refugees from countries all over the world that have been inundated by rising sea levels and catastrophic temperature changes.

What is going to happen when those people arrive in countries like Australia? There will be a renewed push for border security. The problem is that, in some ways, that can seem like a more common sense response to many people because the detention centres and the island gulags are already in place. All the infrastructure of a far right response to climate change already here. You end up with a world of walls, heavily policed city states and the rhetoric becomes environmental rhetoric. “Our country is overloaded. We can’t take any more people. There’s a climate catastrophe. That’s why these people have got to be herded into camps.” I don’t think that that’s a science fiction scenario. I think that, unless we’re able to build a movement, that’s quite a plausible future scenario.

One of the inspiring things about the mobilization around COP26 in Britain was the extent to which the movement took up the question of climate refugees.

Yes! Likewise, we’ve just been through the Black Lives Matter movement. According to some estimates, it was the largest ever protest mobilization in human history — an extraordinary fact given most people’s sense of where we are at politically. The fact that something like that can happen is testament to how unstable the situation is, how quickly things can change.

And, as I try to argue in the book, the environmental crisis is increasingly manifesting itself as part of working class life. So it’s inevitably becoming entwined with working class struggles that might not necessarily seem like climate struggles.

I write about attempts to unionize in Amazon warehouses in the US where the conditions are Dickensian. The implementation of monitoring technology creates factories in some ways worse than 19th century sweatshops when it comes to monitoring what workers do every second of the day. But the people attempting to organize in those places necessarily have to confront Covid and necessarily have to confront the experience of intensified heat. And both of those are connected to the environmental crisis.

You can see a potential where organization around basic rights to unionize increasingly provide scope to raise environmental demands. It is not inevitable, of course, and depends on the political arguments that people make. But I think you can see how this might unfold in a way that would have seemed impossible 20 years ago. Then there seemed to be such a sort of wall between working class struggles and environmental struggles.

How should socialists engage in the environmental movement?

I think that the socialist movement is learning a lot from the environmental movements. But at the same time I think we also have to be prepared to strongly make the argument that this is a systemic crisis. And say the only way that we are going to solve it is to develop a new relationship between humanity and nature, a fundamentally different mode of production. And that has always been a key socialist demand. Obviously that sounds like quite a maximalist program. But the stakes are so high now that, in a funny kind of way, if you’re not putting a maximalist program, you don’t seem serious. Nobody believes the climate crisis can be solved by putting your recycling out.

One of the things that makes your book so important is the way you put the working class at the heart of the argument. In particular, the last chapter, which talks about William Morris and the idea of a society based on democratic planning of the economy. We can learn from the environmental movement, but we, as the revolutionary left, have something to offer – a vision of an alternative society. Can you conclude with your thoughts on this?

To be honest it is the sort of issue that in the past, we might have danced around, and not spelled out very clearly because it sounds too radical, too utopian. It is not a question that can be dodged anymore. We have to actually talk about the different way that the world might be organized. As Bellamy Foster argues, William Morris’ News From Nowhere is a classic of socialist utopianism, but it’s also very clearly and very self-consciously, an environmental utopia.

For Morris, the two things are fundamentally intertwined. His Marxism is in some ways quite idiosyncratic, but he really goes to the core of the problem where he says that, what we need to do is we need to talk about the way that human beings relate to nature. And the way that they relate to nature is through labor. And so how we labor — and, in particular the selling of “labor power”, our ability to work — has profound consequences on our ability to shape the world around us. He presents a vision of a socialist future in which human beings are living and working in a different way — and central to that is the question of planning.

So I talked earlier about how in Australia the way that the land was managed by a whole series of customs and laws and traditions. The vision that Morris puts forward is a management of the land in a more conscious sense —  a process where the working population democratically and collectively decides what they want to make, what they want to use, what they want to produce and that’s what they do. As soon as you think about that as a possibility, the climate problem becomes much less thorny. We know what to do to end climate change. We know all the things that have to happen.

We know that we have to shut down coal mines. We know that we have to move away from fossil fuels. We know that we have all these technologies that, in theory, enable us to do all sorts of wonderful things. The problem is that capitalism prevents us from doing so. So if we are able to decide what to do democratically and collectively, the possibilities that open up are just endless.

I quote in the book an extraordinary International Monetary Fund (IMF) paper where economists talk about whales, which sequester large amounts of carbon in their bodies. When whales die, they bring that carbon in the bottom of the ocean and so play a significant role in preventing carbon emissions. So how do the IMF decide to protect them? They say that in order to protect whales we have to decide what a whale is worth so they can be governed by a market which will then work its magic and protect the whales. It sounds absurd, but of course this is the argument that so many mainstream policymakers use when they’re talking about climate.

As I say in the book, if you and I confronted a whale that was in trouble, we wouldn’t set up a market. We would push it back in the water. Once you remove that necessity to create markets to govern everything that humans do, the future opens up. The problem doesn’t seem nearly as hopeless. We have a long way to go to create a workers’ democracy and a planned economy. But I do think that the movement as a whole has to start talking about this.

Reposted, with permission, from Socialist Worker Long Reads, March 24, 2022

1 Comment

  • It does need to be clearly stated that capitalism’s crises in production do not dictate the ecological crisis. On the contrary, it is when capitalism is booming that you see wider ecological destruction. For example, China is *doing well* (unlike the West), yet is the biggest GHG emitter. You get ecological crises in any unintelligent non-planned economy. Nb., I’m not splitting hairs here, it’s just to show the future society operates with a high degree of reason (taking into account the ramifications of what it is doing, in relation to the level of scientific knowledge). A globe of 7.5bn people cannot re-adopt ‘primitive communism’, but needs something better. Intelligence, intelligence, intelligence, ok? And the vehicle for that implementation is workers’ planning (because they know better than anarchic competitive capitalists).