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    by Joel Kovel

    Suppose a serial killer was stalking your neighborhood and murdering the children, one by one. Suppose, too, you had the means of identifying this inhuman murderer. Now suppose that you did nothing about it, but continued about your ordinary existence, conducting business as usual and pretending that everything was normal. Could anything be more irrational, more stupid, more wantonly destructive?

    But this is just what is happening, everyday, everywhere. The serial killing is the progressive, steady degradation of life that goes along with the normal workings of our system. There is nothing metaphorical about these murders--each year, according to the latest estimate of Daniel Faber of Northeastern University, some 250,000 people die in the United States alone of exposure to pollutants, preventable work-related accidents or unsafe products, not to mention the hundreds of thousands more who succumb to plagues like tobacco-related illness, or the numberless victims of the countless other pestilences of human origin. No the killings are all too real, as is the fact that every sign points to the increase, in scale and complexity, of the forces that give rise to them. A few gruesome statistics may suggest why. Two years ago the UN estimated that a staggering 820,000,000 people were un- or underemployed around the world. Just recently the figure was upped to a billion. That's right: 180,000,000, roughly the working population of the United States, thrown out of productive life in the past two years, as the "system" grinds on. As unemployment is an excellent correlate of disease--and despair and madness--and as this holocaust of worklessness occurs along with a steadily deteriorating global environment, it does not take the proverbial rocket scientist to foretell that the destruction of life, human as well as non-human, will go on and worsen in the years ahead.

    But the problem is that the experts--the politicians, and the academic authorities, and the pundits--see this, when they allow themselves to see anything at all, as dying and not as killing. They look at the complexity, and the indeterminacy, at the uncertain trajectory and immense imponderability, and they say, well, this is too bad, but nothing is perfect and some price has to be paid for progress. And--they might be imagined to go on--there is no killing here, because there is no identifiable killer. A killer is an agent, someone with intentions, goals, means, and drives. The notion of human origins is too vague, and that of the "system," too abstract, to bear the burden of so awful a charge. We are all in this together, say the experts, so let's try to make things work better by letting the scientists and business elites and the governments tinker with the problem, but otherwise not waste time and effort in fruitlessly looking for a figurative stalking killer, a criminal where there is no crime. As a popular bumper sticker would put it, shit happens. The collapse of nature is civilization's shit, not the actions of an agent of destruction.

    The flaw in this tidy argument is that those who advance it are themselves part of the system. And if the system is a killer, one would not expect its mouthpieces to go around flaunting the fact. But while it makes sense to doubt the experts, this in itself proves nothing. We are left with a debate--a great debate, indeed, given the stakes, the greatest debate now before the world.

    The question to be decided has four aspects:

    • is there is an overarching crisis now affecting humanity's relations with nature, a global ecological crisis, if you will, that subsumes all the particular environmental problems;
    • if so, is there a principle dynamic giving rise to this crisis, an efficient, systemic cause that integrates all of the separate and individual factors driving toward the destabilization of our ecology--in the terms of our parable, an actual serial killer;
    • if so, is there any reasonable chance that this systemic cause can overcome its killing ways through its internal action;
    • and if there is no such chance, is there anything that can be done to stop this killer?
    My position in this debate would be yes, yes, no and maybe. There is an identifiable global ecological crisis and an identifiable culprit responsible for it. The culprit cannot be expected to change its ways; and finally, an awareness of this fact could possibly spur people to rebuild a society free from the destructiveness of this killing system.

    The name of the system, of course, is capitalism. (So who else were you expecting?) Thanks to its stunning success at manufacturing consent (to use the phrase of Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky) to its rule, most people do not even think of capitalism as a structured, global system, and to the extent they think of it at all, regard capital through its own eyes, as the bearer of progress, material well-being, democracy, modernity and freedom itself.

    In order to prove the hypothesis that capital is not what it is made out to be but the destroyer described above, the following steps would need to be taken. First, one would have to show that an interconnected ecological crisis exists on a global scale, so that every particular insult to nature--every forest wasted, aquifer polluted, organochlorine foisted on the world, etc--would react on the whole and continually aggravate and expand the crisis. Second, one would have to trace these insults (or at least a representative set of them) to their effective cause, that is, to their source in concrete human actions. Third, to the extent that such actions could be ascribable to capitalist enterprises or their agents, say, in governments, the overall nature of the capital system needs to be appreciated as a global, transnational structure, with a controlling effect on governments, culture, etc, as well as the economy. Fourth, the possibilities for the recuperation of the ecologically destructive effects of the capital system need to be critically assessed. And finally, if it should turn out that capitalism necessarily destroys the nature that gives us life, the possibilities for radically transforming this system need to be explored (as against simply reforming it, a measure that would only perpetuate its essential features).

    The first of these measures has already been reasonably well taken: there is very definitely a global ecological crisis, into which all local crises feed, and which affects each and every event in the world. The second step, to trace the individual ecodestructive events to their source, has also been substantially done, although it is scarcely appreciated because of the tremendous public relations effort, or "greenwashing," carried out to deny and mystify the role played by capitalism. Nonetheless, the verdict is in: wherever one follows the track of an ecologically destructive process, it tends to end at the doorstep of a corporation or some other part of the capital system. As for the interconnected, global--and eternally expanding--nature of the capital system, this, too, is proven beyond any reasonable doubt--though once more, hardly anyone in high places admits anything of the kind.

    The fourth charge, that of assaying capital's efforts at recuperating from its nature-destroying ways, is much more difficult to carry out, if only because we are dealing here with reading the future. A lot of people, again in high places, are convinced that this can be done through a combination of measures that would not in themselves cripple the system: monetizing "externalities" like air and water to bring them under the discipline of the market (as by carbon taxes or pollution credits); making "information-rich" commodities like software with a relatively small ecodestructive effect; and/or investing in antipollution devices, recyclables, renewable energy, and the like.

    This sounds all right in principle. But it does not address the real question, which is whether measures of this sort can practicably be carried out given the essential features of capitalism: its relentless drive toward growth at any cost; its tendencies to produce waste and to degrade the natural conditions of its growth; its mobility that breaks loose from all efforts at binding it down, the ruthless competition it engenders, forcing the competitors to jettison ecological concerns in the struggle to survive in the market; the ways it introduces the desire to consume wherever it alights, while destabilizing ecologically rational communities; its increasing and undemocratic control over government, which tends to nullify efforts to assert the general interest; and even the kinds of aggrandized and arrogant personalities it tends to induce in those who climb to the top.

    Consider the current behavior of the World Trade Organization, de facto dictator of the neoliberal economic order. As it meets in Singapore even as these words are written, the WTO, according to Oxfam's Kevin Watkins, who writes in the Guardian, is seeing to it that: GM can continue to avoid environmental regulations against the dumping of heavy metals and toxic chemicals in its Mexican maquiladoras; that the European Union cannot ban Monsanto's bovine somatotropin from its dairy producing markets; that the EU cannot label paper products imported from the US according to whether they are produced with some ecological sanity; that, indeed, all eco-labelling schemes, such as whether food is organically produced, be banned (this suit being from the supposedly more sensible Canadian government); that fur-bearing animals caught in cruel leg-traps no longer be banned from Europe; that a US ban on shrimps caught without measures to protect sea turtles be overturned (this suit brought by Thailand and Singapore); finally, in a threatened suit by Indonesia, Malaysia and Brazil, that imports of unsustainably logged timber no longer be restricted. Note how the US is sometimes involved as a complainant, sometimes as a defendant, in these shenanigans. For all particularities get washed out in this world order. Under the global regime of capital, nation-states are simply to be brushed aside when they represent the popular will, and heeded when they express the will of accumulation.

    These are the real tendencies of the system, and they militate against the emergence of any genuinely ecological attitude. In other words, hypothetically, capitalism might be able to reverse its ecologically destructive ways. But the actual capital system on the ground, the ruling power of the world, shows no significant effort in this direction, and, given its most basic features, can never do so.

    And this brings us to the all-important last question: can anything be done about this? Anything fundamental, that is, a real challenge to the regime of capital itself. Can we stop this runaway train instead of just throwing feathers in its path or begging the engineer to slow down a little?

    Merely to pose this question in today's climate is to invite worried concern for one's sanity. And maybe it is a little crazy to think so. But it's not as if the alternative were so sane. In fact, which is the greater insanity: to think in terms of fundamental change in a system that, however powerful, is still only a human arrangement, of and for a historical time . . . or, on the other hand, to acquiesce in something which guarantees only the expanding destruction of nature and immiseration of most of humanity?

    Viewed this way, a lot is seen to turn on just how aware people can be made of the real nature of the system. Since capitalism, like any social order, rests upon consent as well as coercion, it legitimacy stands to be undermined to the extent that its truly destructive nature is exposed. The more people realize that their social order is in fact a serial killer, the more creative force for basic change can be mobilized.

    If we can't map the future for all time, there is one thing we can do in the present: ruthlessly criticize the existing order, afraid neither of our own conclusions nor of conflict with the powers that be. I didn't write that: Karl Marx did, more than 150 years ago, and it's as true now as it was then. Northeast Research Associates Pie in the Sky Farm 93 Dwinell Road United States doing some building for the people, they Marshfield, Vermont