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Capitalism is killing the natural world

THE UN’s warning that a million animal species face extinction unless governments take urgent action will prompt weasel words from politicians the world over.

That we are living through a mass extinction on the scale of that which wiped out the dinosaurs should be terrifying. That the massacre of species is the direct result of human activity should spur us to act.

But that phrase – “human activity” – is potentially misleading when we should be looking at the economic system which is bleeding our planet dry.

Ever since humans have evolved we have had an immense and largely negative impact on biodiversity. Most palaeontologists now attribute the sudden disappearance of megafauna species from mammoths to woolly rhinoceroses to the impact of stone age hunting. Only in Africa, where we evolved, did the megafauna survive largely unscathed until the modern era – everywhere else we were an invasive species with the devastating impact on other animals that is associated with the term.

Nonetheless, the advent of industrial capitalism and imperialism massively accelerated the slaughter of the natural world. European settlers drove the American bison almost to extinction as part of their strategy to exterminate Native Americans. European colonists shot their way through the exotic fauna of five continents and the cats and rats they brought with them unleashed a wave of destruction on smaller animals and birds. The latter were also harvested in unconscionable numbers so their feathers could adorn the hats of the rich. The advent of industrialised whaling had almost emptied the oceans of their largest residents by the time public opinion forced most countries to call a halt to the killing.

But public opinion did force a change. Some countries still kill whales and there are still moneyed thugs who get their kicks from shooting rare animals, but killing animals for sport or use is no longer a significant threat to biodiversity. Pioneers who raised the alarm at the damage being done to our world permanently changed behaviour on a massive scale. 

Now the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services has documented the devastating damage being done to the natural world by climate change and industrialised agriculture, the goal must be to force similar changes. But a trend in the environmentalist movement that focuses on individual consumption is likely to prove counterproductive, especially at a time when families face choices between heating and eating, teachers report children coming to school so hungry they cannot concentrate and foodbanks are handing out record numbers of parcels. 

What’s needed is political change. Governments already expend enormous sums on agriculture, but as activists at Berlin’s annual Green Week point out, subsidies directed in programmes like the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy actively reward the worst practices, sponsoring massive overproduction by huge landowners who then dump the surplus on developing world countries, putting smaller and more sustainable farmers out of business. What Labour’s shadow international trade secretary Barry Gardiner has called “unequal power relations in global value chains” allow Western corporations to dictate prices and terms to developing world producers, hobbling poorer countries’ efforts to protect their own environments, while corporate might has willing servants in US and Brazilian administrations prepared to literally clear the path for deforestation and fossil fuel extraction.

Following sustained public campaigning the EU has belatedly acted against neonicotinoid pesticides, but the power of corporate lobbying is still keeping dangerous insecticides like glyphosate in use despite mounting evidence it is carcinogenic, signs it may be linked to rising gluten intolerance and the crisis affecting populations of bees on whose pollination almost all crop growth relies. 

Like climate change itself, ecocide is at heart about market failure. Four decades of neoliberalism removing economic questions from the purview of democratic decision-making have to end so that planned development can replace the exploitation of natural resources for profit. Only socialism can deliver an environmentally sustainable future for our species and millions of others.


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